It is 2019. The bookseller was no longer young.
That had been long ago.
And he was now alone. Priscilla had passed away. That had been long ago.
He had been desolate for several years after that. But he threw himself into his work, his books. They were his lifeline. They were still. The books set bounds around his life.
He slept. He woke. He ate. He drank. Sometimes he drank too much, but there was no one around to pay attention or care about that.
When they first started, he and Priscilla had taken the bookseller’s VOP*. Then, after a good many years of struggle, they were no longer poor booksellers. They were not wealthy. They were comfortable. They would joke: “If each book we have could be turned into ten dollars, we would be so rich!”
* Vow of Poverty
That was so long ago. They were in the bookstore’s second location at the time. The stock was about 55,000 books then. $550,000 was an astronomical sum in those days.
About ten years after that, they moved the store again. That was where it is today. Perhaps a couple hundred thousand good—and no so good—books fill every shelf. Some are always on the floor waiting to be shelved.
It was early spring late morning. A young woman entered the store. He had seen her before. She was a customer from time to time. Not very often. He recalled she said was from the big city some 40 miles away.
“I want to learn the book trade. Will you teach me?” she said as she stepped confidently to the sales counter.
No one else was in the store at the time.
‘That’s abrupt!’ he thought.
“What’s so funny?” she said, her lips set in a firm line.
“You’re too young to be a used bookseller.” He started to smile but saw the serious look on her face and then he remembered, ‘That’s what I was told many years ago. It turned out ok. Look at all the books I have. I am “book rich.”‘
She said nothing but stood firmly across the sales counter from him.
“Why do you want to be a bookseller?” he asked her seriously.
“I’ve been to many bookstores around the city. I like this one the best. It is a long trip out here, but I think I would like my store to be like this one.”
“You will have to take the VOP if you do this,” he said.
“VOP?” She looked confused and her composure faltered a bit.
“The booksellers’ Vow of Poverty,” he replied. “Most of us make very little money.”
“That’s ok. I have some saved. I’ve been in computer engineering for a long time. I want to do something I enjoy now.”
“Hmmmm. It is a good life. Something different every day. The product is fun. Endless actually. And the customers are fun. Mostly. Even the cranks are harmless. Mostly,” he said.
He thought he perhaps heard her foot stamp.
‘Impatient,’ he thought. ‘That’s not a good sign.’
“I…ummm, we aren’t really hiring,” he said. “Sally and I really are able to handle things here.”
“What about summer help?” she asked. “And there are books all over the floor in many aisles every time I visit. And…I will work for peanuts.”
“Hmmm…I don’t think Sally would like to hear that,” he was thinking out loud. He was looking over her head at the rows of bookcases opposite the sales counter. His eyes misted a bit. He was thinking of Priscilla and the beginnings of the bookstore all those years before and the excitement and passion they both had when they began.
“I do not mean it is a mess in here or anything. It is just that I think I could help. And you could teach me how this all works.”
She put both her hands on the far edge of the counter. He looked down at them. They were small and graceful. Her grip was making her knuckles white.
“And when I know enough, you can take some time off,” she added.
“Time off?” he asked. “From what? I like doing this. I like being here.”
“You never take time off?”
“Sure. Sometimes. Sally covers for me. If I’m gone very long, her daughter pitches in and covers for her when she needs it.”
“See!? You can take some extra help.” She could tell he was weakening. He had taken a step back. “I know how to use a broom too.”
She was now leaning over the counter a bit and looking at the floor behind it.
He looked down. He had dragged out an old crate of books customers had asked to be held. The crate was just one of 5 pushed under the counter for “Holds.” He had found only about half the customers ever came back for the books they had promised to return for and purchase. Periodically he would drag out a crate and look at the slips of paper with the customers’ names and phone numbers and the dates when they had put the book on hold. He would call them twice. He would note the date he called on the slip. If the customer had actually answered and said something, he would note that. He would call again a couple weeks after that. Then he would just give up. Sometimes the books dawdled at the bottom of a crate for several more months. Eventually, when he was bored and there was nothing better to do, he would drag a crate out and go through the holds. He would look at the bottom of the crate where the oldest books on hold were. If he was feeling ruthless and the slip was very old, he would crumple the slip up and toss it into the wastebasket. He would set the book on the counter to be restocked. He looked down. He had missed the wastebasket several times. Also, when he had slid the crate out, some “dust mice” had come along with it. The gray fluffy balls were gathered about his feet on the linoleum floor.
‘I wonder where they come from,’ he thought. ‘Why does the dust ball up like that?’
“Broom?” he replied. “Oh, this? I just… Ha! Ok. Ok. I can give you 10 hours a week. It gets busy in here on Saturdays sometimes.”
“I was thinking full time,” she said. “Just weekdays. So you can teach me.”
“I don’t…well, I suppose you could look books up online and catalog the better ones. I could teach you that. That’s an endless task, and I really don’t enjoy it. If you do enough and it offsets your pay, it just might work.”
“I can type very fast. You need help here. I can tell.”
“Ok. Ok. You’re hired.” He chuckled a bit.
‘Hardheaded she is,’ he thought. ‘Just like Priscilla was when she nearly demanded a job. Just like I was when I took the leap of faith to start this business.’
“Here’s an application. I need you to fill it out for the accountant so she can do your taxes and stuff. It’s just too complicated nowadays for me to do it.”
“Do you have a pen?” she asked. “I will fill it out here. Now.”
On the counter in front of him, she began writing—filling in the blanks on the front of the 8 and a half by 11 white piece of paper.
He bent down to pull a couple more books from the crates. He paused long enough to pick up a few dust mice and then the crumpled hold slips from the floor to put them in the wastebasket.
“Ummm…that’s my job,” she said.
A few minutes later she asked: “This part where it says ‘Salary desired’—what should I write?”
“Minimum wage,” he replied. “It’ll be 15 in a few months.”
“Is that all?!”
“Ummm…do you have any book experience?”
“Just as a customer.”
“Then that’s it, I’m afraid. If it works out and you generate some revenue, I’ll pay you more.”
She mumbled something he couldn’t understand.
“Pardon me?” he asked.
“Peanuts,” she grumbled.
He smiled and picked up a little stack of books that were no longer on hold. He walked around the counter and set them on the floor in front of the nearest bookcase.
“Is that where they belong?” She had turned and watched his progress.
“Uh, Sally does most of the…”
“Hard work?” she finished his thought—kind of.
“Sometimes she doesn’t approve of where I put some books,” he replied a bit defensively.
She had turned and was filling out the second side of the first page of the application. He picked up a box of books he had a bought earlier and carried it around the counter to begin pricing.
He still used a pencil on most of them. Especially the hardcovers. Paperbacks he would use a sticker gun on; slapping the little DayGlo red price tags on the back in the bottom right-hand corner.
“A test?” she asked.
The second page of the application began with a test to see if the applicant could alphabetize words and do some basic math.
“Do you really want me to show you I know my ABCs?” she entreated.
“Nah. Don’t bother with that. I’ve actually had some PhDs apply that are unable to properly alphabetize things. We just want to know if people can do the basics.”
“And ‘What books have I read lately?'” she asked. “What do you mean by lately? I read a book every few days if I am into the lighter stuff.”
“No. Don’t bother. I’m can tell you know books ok. I mean as a customer,” he replied.
“How soon can I start?” she was reading aloud from the application.
“Yes. Maybe next week or the…?” he said.
“I am ready to start learning today. Now.”
He laughed out loud. “You want keys to the store? Wanna close up tonight?”
“I am not ready for THAT. Not today anyway. But I could begin by sweeping and picking up back there.”
He looked down at the floor behind the sales counter. Seven dust mice had materialized. And there were five books sprawled on the floor. They hadn’t been there when he’d exited the counter area with the books he’d taken off hold. Had she dropped them? No. He would have heard them hit the floor.
‘Odd…’ he thought. ‘The books haven’t been doing that recently. Not for a long time.’
“Ok. Here’s a piece a paper. Write your start time on it. And then write when you leave.”
He wrote her name across the top of the page.
“Althea. That’s an interesting name. Lovelace wrote a poem to her. From prison. And Milton…”
“Yes. It is Althea. No nickname,” she said.
“I think it means…”
“It’s also a…”
“Yes. Rose of Sharon. Blooms in the…”
“And she was a character in…”
“Grapes of Wrath. Rosasharn Joad. And Milton used my name in Lycidas.”
“Well it is my name,” she stammered.
“It’s 11:19,” he said.
“Let us say I started at 11.”
“But that was…”
“19 minutes ago. That is when I started to fill out the silly bit of paper. Let us not split hairs.”
She wrote “11” below her name and scrawled a signature after it.
“You should write the day and month before your name. Just to be sure everything is in order.”
She scribbled a “3” followed by a slash and then a “17.”
“March seventeenth. Is it already past halfway in March?”
“You do not keep track?”
“Not of the dates so much as the days of the week. It’s Thursday. Correct?”
“Yes. What time is my break?” she asked.
“I…ummm. You just start…”
“I am kidding! Where is your broom? I will start behind the counter.”
And so began Althea’s first day at the bookstore. The bookseller was at first confused, but as he stepped aside so she could get behind the counter he became bemused.
‘Priscilla…’ he thought. He turned and headed to the nearest aisle.
“Call me if you need anything.”
“What will I do if a customer comes in?”
“Help them?” he chuckled. “I’ll hear the bell if the door opens.”
He went to the literature section and began shelving some books off the floor. Soon he sensed someone coming up the aisle behind him. It was Althea, and she was sweeping her way toward him. He stepped away when it appeared she was going to sweep right through him.
“Excuse me,” she said as she swept the spot where he had just been standing. She bent and swept some debris into the dustpan she was holding. “What makes a book valuable?”
“Ummm…that’s a good question.”
“Uh…supply and demand.”
“Like economics?” she asked.
She stood still and looked at him inquiringly.
“Like this. Shaw.”
He held a book out to her. It was a tall thin cloth thing. To her it looked very old.
“Nobody reads him much anymore,” he continued.
“Why do think?”
“Because he’s tedious. He drones on and on. He’s kind of preachy.”
“He was a socialist, was he not?”
“He was a nut. He liked Stalin and Hitler and Lenin. One of the guys in the Algonquin Round Table joked that when the revolution came over here, his kind would be the first to get a bullet in the back of the head.”
Althea giggled at that. The bookseller was confused. Her laugh sounded like the bell that hung above the front door, but he could tell it came from her only a few feet away. He looked, and her eyes flashed turquoise blue for just a second.
‘Priscilla?’ he thought.
“Pygmalion,” he said.
“No. I am Althea.”
“No. This book. One of the plays in it is Pygmalion. Actually, that is one of his better…less tedious plays. It is full of witty banter and word play. It was made into a musical.”
“And a film,” Althea added.
“Yes. Audrey Hepburn played her. Rex Harrison played Henry…”
“Huggins?” she asked.
“No…” He laughed. “I meant…”
“I AM kidding,” she said. “You will just have to get used to it.”
‘Maybe I can,’ he thought to himself.
They chatted before the “S’s” in the literature aisle for about 29 minutes. He was talking and talking. That was something unusual for him. He was not a “chatter.” But she kept drawing things out of him. It was as if she was a data vampire. She pulled fact after anecdote after fact from him.
Then the bell above the front door rang. He looked at her to be sure it wasn’t her laugh. No. He could tell the sound came from about 47 feet up front.
“You may continue sweeping,” he said light heartedly and turned to head up to the front.
“It is finished,” she replied. “I want to see how you handle this buy.”
He looked at her hands and indeed the dustpan was filled to overflowing. It held dozens of dust mice and bits of paper and the other bits of debris and detritus endemic to old bookstores.
“Ok. Follow me. I’ll show you how it’s done.” He paused and looked back at her as she was following. “Wait, what makes you think it’s a buy?”
“Ummm…just a hunch.”
When they got to the front counter, there was a little old woman. Full brown kraft paper bags set on the floor flanked her right and left legs. They were the kind you can get in grocery stores if you ask. They each had 2 paper handles which stood straight up.
“The sign says you buy books.”
“I do. I buy many books. Let’s see what you’ve brought.”
He bent and began pulling books from the bag by the woman’s left leg. They had been stacked flat. He pulled a little stack of them out and set them on the counter. When he bent to retrieve more, the bag was still full nearly to the top.
‘That’s odd,’ he thought.
He bent again and put both hands in the bag. He reached in further and wedged his fingers between the books about 6 inches down. He lifted the stack and straightened and set them next to the others on the counter. He bent again. The sack was not completely full but the top book was only a few inches from the top of the bag.
“Odd,” he spoke.
“What is odd?” Althea asked.
“Yes,” the old woman added. “What is odd about my books?”
“You’ve gotten a lot of books in this bag,” he said.
“There are more in the other one.”
“I will empty that one,” Althea said. She stepped to the other side of the woman and began retrieving books rapidly from that sack.
The bookseller bent and pulled more books from the sack. It was now nearly half empty. He set them on the counter and noted there were nearly 3 feet of books in his 3 stacks. Althea’s had 5 little stacks started on the counter a couple feet away. They were all rather short stacks.
“Odd,” he repeated. “I don’t know how you got so many books in these bags.”
“Oh, there are more.”
“What? Out in your car?” he asked.
“Car? I haven’t a car.”
The bell above the door rang. Or so he thought. When he looked over at it only a few feet away, it was still shut. He looked across the woman’s head, for she was very, very short. Althea met his gaze and was beaming. Her eyes flashed green just for an instant before she turned her head toward the stacks on the counter in front of her.
He bent again, and this time stretched his hands into the bag until he felt the bottom and the hard linoleum floor beneath that. The 11×11 inch tiles were alternatively black and white throughout the store. It made for a checkerboard pattern. Sometimes when small children came in, they hopped from one tile to another. Either jumping from black to black or white to white. He slid his fingers under the bottommost books and lifted the stack out.
“There,” he said. “That’s it.”
“Not quite,” said the old woman.
And, indeed, when tilted his head and peered into the bag, there was one more book laying in the very bottom of the sack.
“That IS odd!” he exclaimed and bent to retrieve that final book.
“I have already emptied this sack,” Althea said.
“Good for you,” he replied a bit petulantly.
He set the final book from his sack atop the fifth pile in front of him. Three piles were eleven inches tall. Two piles were 7 inches tall.
“There are about 47 inches of books here,” he said. “I don’t see how you got them all in this bag.”
“Do you buy them by the inch or the foot?” the old woman asked.
He heard the bell ring. This time he quickly glanced at the young woman. He caught her just as a smile was firming into a studious look. He looked at Althea’s stacks upon the counter. There were now 7 stacks. Five were 7 inches each. Two were 11 inches.
“Why, there are nearly 57 inches of books there.” he stammered. “Not quite 5 feet.”
“I have never heard of a bookstore that buys books by the foot,” the old woman said.
“Is that how it is done?” Althea asked.
“No. No. It’s just I don’t know how all these books got in the bags. There are nearly 8 and half feet of books here. About one hundred and…”
“I do not wish to sell this one after all,” the old woman said. She took the top book off the stack nearest her. It was the final one he had pulled from her bag.
“One hundred and three inches.”
“How much do you pay per foot?” the old woman asked.
“Yes. How much do we pay per foot?” Althea asked.
“We…I don’t buy books by the foot,” he stammered. He felt completely out numbered. “Nor do I sell them by the foot!” he laughed. “Let’s see what you have.”
Typically, he would divide books people brought into stacks. One pile would be books he wanted for the store. The other would be books he didn’t believe he could sell or that he knew he had too many copies of already.
“Why…these are lovely,” he said. “Rackham, Dulac, Heath Robinson…”
“What about this one?” Althea asked. She held an old green octavo with a cream-colored paper label on it. He could read its title.
“Saint Joan,” he said “Shaw. No one reads Shaw any more.”
“So you told me in the literature aisle.”
“I’m pretty sure I, uh, we, uh have a copy or two of it. We were just back there.”
“Yes,” she said. “There were two copies. Both were in better shape than this one.”
“Well, put that one aside.”
He began sorting the stacks in front of him.
“Why, these are all wonderful,” he told the woman. “There’s not one I wouldn’t want in the shop. Do you know what you…”
“No!” the old woman snapped. “You tell me what you will pay!”
He assessed the piles in front of him. And then the piles in front of Althea. The spines were all square. The gold letters spelling out the title, author and illustrator on each were bright and shiny.
He picked up one after another up and flipped to the title page.
“Not a first,” he mumbled. “First, first, not…”
“What are you saying?” Althea asked.
“Yes. What are you mumbling about?” the old woman asked.
“I’m just checking to see if they are first editions or not.”
“Does that matter?” the old woman asked.
“How do you tell?” Althea followed before he could answer.
“Yes. It can. I can tell you tomorrow.”
“I want to sell them today.”
“Yes. I will buy them from you now,” he said to the old woman. “And, no, I’ll start teaching you that tomorrow,” He said as he turned toward Althea.
“Well…?” said the woman.
He had been buying books for so many years. He often felt he knew before the books came out of whatever contained them how much they would be worth. But these confused him.
“They are so beautiful,” Althea said. “They must be worth a lot!”
“Ummm…we don’t…I don’t…”
He started touching each spine and putting a number to it in his mind. The stacks from his bag added up to 211 dollars. Then he added the ones Althea had unpacked. 267.
“These I can offer four hundred and seventy…”
“What about this one?” the old woman had picked up the Shaw he had set aside. “I want to sell all of them.”
“Ok. Ok. A dollar on Saint Joan. That makes $479.”
“Is that cash or trade?”
“How did you come up with that?” Althea asked.
“I’ve been doing this a long time,” he said. “Ummm…either. I can offer you more in trade than cash.”
“Cash will do me no good. Write me a chit or whatever you do to keep track of these things.”
“Ok. How about 727 in trade toward anything in the shop. Ok?”
“Certainly,” the old woman said.
He circled round the counter and Althea followed.
“I work here,” she chimed.
“I would never have dreamed it,” the old woman groused. “I cannot stay. Give me my receipt or what have you and I will be on my way.”
He reached under the counter and retrieved a receipt book.
“What is that?” Althea asked.
“It’s a receipt book. It’s how I keep track of people with store credit.”
“Well?” the old woman said—a bit of growl in her tone.
The bookseller opened the book. Each page had 5 identical white forms stacked atop one another. Each white form was perforated. Beneath it was a matching yellow page with five identical forms. The yellow page was not perforated. It was meant to stay in the book while the white slips could easily be removed. He flipped backwards from the end of the book until he came to just yellow pages. Each yellow page had all 5 forms filled out with someone’s name and a dollar amount next to it. He flipped forward until a page appeared that had 3 white slips remaining.
“So, I write the customer’s name here. And the date here.”
“And how much money you owe there!” Althea pressed her forefinger to the top white form.
“Yes. And the yellow paper beneath it will record what I write on the white form above it. Kinda like carbon paper.”
“Carbon what?” Althea asked confused.
“Wellllll?!” the old woman insisted.
“Ok. May I have your name?”
“Just Charlotte will do.”
“Ok, $727 and no cents.”
“No sense.” the old woman echoed.
“Pardon? Ummm and today’s date.”
“3 17,” Althea said helpfully.
He carefully tore out the little white form and, indeed, everything he had written on top had been duplicated beneath on the yellow page.
“I also need you to sign the payout book—here. Please write your phone number after that.”
“Yes. Why?” Althea added.
“For our records?”
“That seems to be needless duplication.”
“Ummm…I’ll explain later.”
“I will not shop today. But I will return,” the woman said as she picked up the little white slip and stuffed it into a cloth bag which hung from the crook of her elbow. “Someday.”
He bent to pick up her bags. The one Althea had was empty. His bag was heavy. It weighed about 11 pounds. He looked down and into it. There was a stack of books nearly a foot high in the bottom.
“There was just one book in here. The one you wanted to…”
The woman took the bags from him and stepped toward the door.
“I don’t see how you carried all these books in these bags. There were about 47 pounds in each.”
“Yes?” the old woman seemed to inquire.
“And why didn’t the handles tear or the paper split?”
“Do not use all your pay to buy books here, Althea,” Charlotte commanded.
“You may want to look more closely at the book you did not want,” the woman added in the bookseller’s general direction.
She pushed on the door and stepped out.
Two chimes sounded. The bell above the door and the nearly identical sound of the young woman’s laugh.
“Wait…how did she know…”
“…my name?” Althea finished.
They looked at one another—confused.
The bookseller started to lift the stacks of books. He turned and began to set them on the pricing table behind him.
“Look at this!” Althea interrupted his process.
She held out the Shaw, the Saint Joan, to him. She had opened the front cover. He looked at it and then reached over and took it from her. There was an old ink inscription on the front free end paper.
“This was the book you did not wish to purchase.”
The bookseller leaned toward the open book.
It read: “Charlotte—whose own martyrdom with me is written upon so many of these pages. Bernard. 17/3/24”
“Wait!” the bookseller said as he hurriedly rounded the counter. “Wait!!!” he nearly shouted as he pushed open the door. “WAIT!!!” he called outside.
The parking lot was empty but for two cars. His and he assumed Althea’s.
He hurried from the right front corner of the building to the left front corner. He looked down both sides. There was no one to be seen.
Althea had followed him out to the broad wrap-around porch.
“What is it?” she asked.
“I think this is in Shaw’s hand. It’s inscribed to Charlotte. Nearly a hundred years ago.”
“That was the old woman’s name was it not?”
“She was Charlotte?” Althea asked.
“I don’t see how. Couldn’t be. Could it? A hundred years ago? Whoever Charlotte was.”
“Was or is. That was great fun. Is every day like this?”
He headed back for the door with the old Shaw in his hand. Althea stepped ahead and pulled the door open.
“After you, Boss.”
“Do you prefer ‘Overlord’?”
“I am kidding!”
“What do we do next? Where are all your customers?”
“Some days are slow like this in the store. Then I either work on the shelving, or I go online.” He nodded toward the laptop a little further on down the counter. “The whole world is our customer because of that thing.”
“Our customer? How does that work?”
“We’ll get to that.”
“Weren’t you going to sweep up the store?” he asked.
“It is done.”
“I am quite fast at many things. When I set my mind to it.”
“Well, lets just see how far you’ve gotten. It is just after 1. You were offered the position at…”
“11:19,” She finished the thought for him.
“We chatted for a while as we stood in literature. The ‘Ss’ I believe.”
“Yes. I do recall that conversation.”
“You had a full dustpan in your hand already. When did you do all that? There are 19 aisles in here. Each is broken through 3 times with passages. It takes me a while just walk up and down the aisles.”
“I am efficient, unlike…” She emphasized.
So he walked to the first aisle and then across and past the second. There was not a scrap of paper or a dust mouse to be seen. He continued. Every aisle in the store was like that.
After the 7th aisle the bookseller noticed something else that was disconcerting.
There were no books on the floor. Not in any aisle.
“There are always books in the aisles,” he mumbled to himself.
“There are ALWAYS books waiting to be stocked in the aisles…”
“So I saw,” she said. “They were an eyesore. I stocked them all, well, all but a about 11. I was not sure where you would really want them. They are up on the counter so you can teach me where they go and how they should be placed.”
Far off in the back corner of the store they heard the splat of a heavy hardback hitting the floor.
“Or jumped…” he mumbled under his breath.
They continued walking from aisle to aisle. Everything was picked up. Everything!
The whole day had been so odd. The bookseller opened his mouth to ask a question but then closed it before a word could be uttered. They crossed the whole store. When they got to the far wall, he opened his mouth again.
“Yes?” she replied.
There had not been a book or a spot of debris on the floor anywhere in the store.
At the wall, they turned and headed back toward the front door.
“I guess we could price some of the books that woman, Charlotte, brought in,” he said.
“I would like to learn that,” Althea replied. “You offered quite a bit for those books.”
“We…I didn’t pay a thing. She took a credit slip. A big percentage of people who get those never return to redeem all or part of what is due to them.”
“So, you owe a lot of people money?”
“It’s not like that really. I owe them books.”
They got to the counter, and it was neat as a pin. Only the stacks of the old woman’s books seemed out of place where they stood on the pricing table. And the little stack Althea had brought up because she was unsure where to place them.
“Well, let’s begin. A lot of these books, although quite beautiful, I know I can price for store stock.”
“I’ve been doing this a long time. I’ve seen so many books. I tend to remember books I’ve seen often. Those I can just price by experience—usually for store stock. Also, many of Charlotte’s books were later printings. Those tend to sell for a lot less as readers are willing to buy them but collectors are not.”
“How can you tell the difference?”
“Sometimes it’s easy.” They were now back behind the counter. The bookseller began picking the books up one after the other and setting them in two general piles after he had flipped the book open and looked at the front and back of the title page. Althea observed this impatiently.
“I want to learn what you are doing,” she said.
“I’m checking to see which are first editions and which are later printings or reprints.”
“How can you tell? How can you do it so fast?”
“I’m going to lend you this little guidebook. It’s called A Pocket Guide to the Identification of First Editions. Most booksellers just call it McBride’s—after the author’s name. It’s been around a long, long time. When I first began, I would always have one in my pocket. Eventually, I got most of it memorized. You can study by looking up your own books at home and determine which are first editions and which are not.”
“You are giving me homework? On my first day?”
“I thought you might enjoy it. The sooner you get some of the basics understood, the sooner you can move on to more advanced things.”
“You mean I do not have to sweep up and get the books off the floor every day?”
“I still don’t understand how you got all that done. It seemed you weren’t bugging…you weren’t away from the counter but a few times all day. You were like a shadow clinging on to me.”
“Did I annoy you?”
“No. Not at all. I’m just not used to having anyone around.”
It was now mid-afternoon. The bookseller was getting fatigued with Althea’s dogged attention. The constant questions were distracting. Kind of exhausting.
He decided to teach her how to pencil price the illustrated books that were going out in general stock.
He had separated those into piles: $15.00, $25.00, $35.00, $45.00. A few he was going to be aggressive on—$75.
“Use this soft dull pencil. LIGHTLY write the price in. Do NOT press into the paper. Go to the first white loose endpaper. Do NOT write a price on a printed or colored paper page. Put the month and year date beneath the dollar amount. It is…”
“Yes. March 2019.”
He then priced a few himself to show her what he meant. He watched over her shoulder as she began writing in the prices.
“GENTLY. We want anyone to be able to eradicate the penciling and not abrade the paper!”
“I get it.”
She had about 47 or 53 books to price and shelve in the New Arrival bookcases across from the counter.
‘That’ll keep her busy for a while,’ he thought. ‘And quiet…it’ll be odd to see books priced in someone else’s hand. It’s only been Sally and my writing for so many years.’
He circled around the counter and stepped outside onto the broad wooden porch with the picket railing lining the front and sides.
He leaned back against the wall next to the door and took a deep breath. His head was spinning a bit. His routine of so many years had been turned topsy-turvy. He just wanted to go in and play with books and not talk with anyone. Just like most days.
He heard a loud bump and a scrape of metal against pavement. He looked up and saw a familiar vehicle. It was a long bulky 1991 Buick station wagon. It was cream-colored and its flanks were covered with faux wood paneling. Its rear end hung low. He knew why. It was full of books.
The car pulled up to the building next to the handicap space. Instead of pulling straight into one parking spot, the car stopped parallel to the building. It straddled 3 parking spots. After the key was switched off, the car rattled a bit before it coughed twice and switched off.
A burly figured exited the driver’s door and beamed up at him.
“Hale fellow and well met!” the man called up to him on the porch.
“Greg! I didn’t know you were in town. Are you buying or selling? And why the hell did you park that way?”
“I just stopped in to look around. I bought a wonderful group of Roosevelt family books and papers. It wasn’t ten miles from here! I thought I could kill some time before heading back north. What are you doing out here? It’s freezing. Dontcha have a coat?”
“Oh! How, ummm, very nice for you. Good going,” the bookseller said trying to conceal his disappointment at missing a nearby collection to an out-of-state bookseller.
“Heck, I sold the guy most of this stuff over the years. It’s kinda sad when we are buying back collections we built for others, isn’t it?” Greg said stepping up onto the porch. The wooden floorboards creaked a bit under his tread. “I parked like that so I could pull out forward. I’ve been having trouble getting the old boat into reverse lately.”
“Yes. I don’t enjoy getting boxes with my old prices in the books. It is almost always bad news,” the bookseller said pulling open the front door for his colleague. “Sometimes I know exactly who they’ve come from. Sometimes I can even put a name with them. Just yesterday a woman brought a dozen boxes. As soon as I saw the 5th or 6th book, I said: ‘Mr Hugglestone.’ She replied: ‘Yes. That was my dad.'”
They were standing and chatting with their elbows on the counter when Althea appeared.
“What’s next, Boss?”
Greg let out a hearty guffaw.
“Althea, this is Greg. One of the best booksellers around. Althea just started today. She thinks she wants to be a bookseller.”
“It is all just…so…cool!” Althea bubbled.
“Yes. Cool might be a term for it,” Greg replied. “Have you gotten anything interesting in lately?” He continued turning toward the counter.
“I just put out some beautiful illustrated books out on the New Arrival shelves. I priced them myself!”
“On your first day? I’ll have to go check them out,” he said heading out into the store
“What is next?” she repeated.
“Don’t you need a break or something?”
“Already took one. Do you have any more pricing I can do? That was fun!”
“Let’s see what I can put together.”
“What are you going to do with the book inscribed to Charlotte?”
“Oh, that. Let’s put it up on the top shelf here so Greg doesn’t see it. I want to think about it for a while. If it is out, he’ll be able to sniff it out. He’s got a bit of ‘divvy’ in him.”
“From ‘Diviner’, I guess. He’s the kind of bookseller who seems to have a sense where treasures lay. He’d sniff this out in a second if I left it here.”
“But you were not even going to buy it.”
“I guess maybe my divvying powers were not working this morning,” he grumbled. “Maybe your inter…exuberance muted them.”
He picked up the Saint Joan and set it on the top of the sorting shelf behind the counter with its fore edge turned out.
As he was turning, he heard heavy footsteps approaching the counter. It was Greg. He had a stack of the illustrated books cradled in his hands. The stack rose from his belt to his chin.
“Take some of these, will you?”
In seconds there were about 23 cloth quartos stacked on the counter. Greg turned and went back to the shelves.
He returned twice more with about the same amount of books.
“These are beautiful! So bright and fresh! When did you get them?”
“We just bought them this morning!” Althea blurted. “A little old woman brought in two bags of them. He let me price these. You should see the ones he has put in the office to research!”
“You have more?”
“I’ll have to quote you those.”
“They don’t look like they’ve ever been opened. There’s a millionaire up my way who just built a cabin—well, more like a cabin-themed mansion—on a lake just over in New Hampshire. His wife was asking after all these illustrators. They’re building a wall of cases 12 feet high in a Great Room overlooking the water. Oak.”
Althea was separating the books on the counter into price piles so they could be tallied faster.
“Can you do any better than 20% on these? I’m buying a…”
“59. 59 books,” Althea chimed in.
“I’m buying 59 books you just got today.”
Booksellers usually offer fellow booksellers a trade discount—as a courtesy. In the old days, it had been a grudging 10%. Now 20% off retailer was the norm.
“Got a few boxes?”
“With 30% off these come to 1361 dollars.” Althea had done the math in seconds.
“Are you sure?” the bookseller asked.
“You know books. I know numbers. Check if you doubt me.”
Greg said he was out of checks and would mail one when he got back home.
‘He never has a check with him,’ the bookseller thought. ‘But he always pays—eventually—or gets me something extra sweet in trade.’
Each of them carried a box out to the old Buick.
The bookseller had let him see the other illustrated books. He had promised to quote all of them to him once he had a price on them.
“I can flip all of them I’m sure if you’re reasonable on the price. These people—money is no object—if the quality is there. You said these all came in today?”
“Yes! A funny little old lady carried them in two paper bags!” Althea spoke excitedly.
“I’ll explain it to you next time I see you,” the bookseller said. “Or I’ll try to.”
“Did she have anything else?” Greg asked.
The bookseller looked daggers at Althea. She bit her lower lip.
The Buick made a grinding noise when it was started. A puff of gray black smoke came out of the exhaust.
“Let me know if that woman brings any more of these in,” Greg called out through the open window. “I can use a lot more. These people estimate they’ll have 97 feet of shelving to fill.”
“See? He sells books by the foot. You should consider it!”
“Ok. I’ll put it on the to-do list.”
When the old car got to the entrance, the rear end scraped on the pavement as the land cruiser slid out into the road.
“We nearly tripled our money! And we still have the best stuff to evaluate!” She was nearly bouncing with excitement. “Is it always like this? Seems so easy.”
The bookseller exhaled heavily.
“No. Today has been extraordinary. And we haven’t actually made anything yet.”
“Nor have you spent a dime. When is payday?”
The next couple hours were spent emptying boxes. The bookseller kept putting out stacks for Althea to price. If he kept her busy enough, she couldn’t ask questions. At least not constantly.
Too many questions had been asked this day already. And too many questions raised. Not all of them by this whirlwind that had swept in the front door before sweeping the floor. The whole store just seemed a little brighter…as if there was more air in it.
“Why, it’s almost 6 o’clock! Closing time. I’m ready for a drink,” the bookseller said his face brightening at the clock face up on the wall behind the counter.
“What do you drink?”
“I only drink dry white wine. I like New Zealand Sauvignon Blanc best, I think. Maybe we can get a drink sometime, and I can pick your brain.”
“I’m kinda picked clean today.”
“I have some studying to do tonight. I want to find out about some of these illustrators we bought today. Some are beautiful. I flipped through A Midsummer’s Night Dream. I nearly fell into the images. Do I get a discount? I am a bookseller now.”
“Yes, of course. The employee discount. And yes, that was a golden era of book illustration.”
“Did you know three of those Rockwell Kents were signed? His signature is so tiny!”
“Really? The old…Charlotte was in such a hurry. And I was confused with all the…confusion.”
“You can make it up when she returns. Or you can call her. You asked her to write her number when she signed the receipt book.”
Althea opened the pay out book and turned to that page.
“She only wrote ‘Charlotte’ and 4 numbers. ‘7853.’ No telephones have only 4 numbers.”
“Not for a long time.”
“Maybe she forgot to put them all down?”
“She didn’t seem the forgetful type. Don’t forget to sign out so you’ll get paid correctly.”
Althea stepped to the door and pushed. The bell chimed, and she said “Ta!” simultaneously.
The bookseller looked down at the time sheet on the counter in front of him. She had written “5:59 Lol” as her departure time. He chuckled and pinned it up on the corkboard so he wouldn’t misplace it.
He turned and retrieved the Shaw from the top of the case behind him and carried it into his office. He lifted a bottle of rye from the little liquor cabinet that had purportedly come from the White House. He read the label: “A Midwinter Nights Dram.”
It was bottled in limited quantities only once a year and was therefore quite hard to get. He only reached for that on special occasions. He sat down at his desk and poured an inch into a tumbler and swirled the amber liquid about a bit. He took a sip, and the hot smooth spice tingled upon his lips, then flowed over his tongue and finally warmed its way down to his stomach.
He exhaled, and a lot of weights were lifted from his body.
“Have I breathed much today?” he spoke to himself.
He looked up at the bulletin board above his desk. The ring hung there in the same place it has hung for many years. Below it hung the old vellum letter of provenance in a clear plastic bag. The gold seemed to brighten at his gaze. As if paying some attention to it brought it to life. He had not slipped it on in many years. The last time had not gone well. He saw things he did not want to see. Things he should not have seen. Things that had become true much to his discomfiture.
He took another sip and sighed.
At first, he thought: ‘I don’t know if I can take many days like today.’
He took another sip and smiled to himself.
‘Actually it was fun. A blast!’
He flipped open the Saint Joan and read the inscription.
‘I wonder what would happen if I slipped on the ring?’
‘No. I don’t want to go away just now. I want to stay right here.’
He thought of the three characters who has disrupted his day. He laughed out loud.
The books lining the walls of his office seemed surprised.
He had not laughed in that room for many years.