If you missed it, read Part 7 here.
It was March 2019. A young woman had pretty much talked her way into a job at the used bookstore the day before. She was to report for her second day at 10 AM. The bookseller was in his office totaling the previous day’s sales and preparing a deposit as he did almost every morning. He heard the bell above the front door ring. That meant someone was entering the store.
“Boss? I am here!”
It was Althea’s voice.
“You’re late,” he called out through the office door.
‘That’s not a good sign,’ he thought. ‘Her second day and she is…19 minutes late.’ He had glanced up at the old round-faced clock on the wall above his desk. 10:19.
She appeared at the threshold to his office. She was backlit by the store lights. Her shadow stretched toward him.
“I was here 11 minutes early. I was tidying up your parking lot. There was debris everywhere. You told me yesterday first impressions are important. My first impression this morning was that your property was litter strewn.” Her voice was a bit petulant, perhaps a reaction to his false accusation.
“Ummm…next time come in and sign in first,” he said. “Go ahead and sign in at ten and we will start the day.”
“I was 11 minutes early.”
“Well, you can leave eleven minutes early at day’s end if you want.”
He rose from his desk and carried the cash drawer toward the door.
“Here, you can count today’s drawer. We start every day with one hundred dollars even. Take out everything over that, and we’ll deposit that,” he said handing her the drawer.
She took it and headed toward the counter. He went outside onto the front porch to get some air…and to get away from her. He knew the questions would start flying very soon. He needed to prepare his mind for the day’s onslaught. Her first day had been exhausting for him. She wanted to know everything about old books all at once. He looked out into the parking lot. Who pays attention to parking lots? But, indeed, it appeared brighter. The lines delineating the parking spaces almost seemed freshly painted. The pavement was broom clean. He looked to one side of the porch, and there were a half dozen big cardboard boxes overflowing with litter and branches. One of the old metal trashcans was filled to overflowing with last fall’s dead leaves. His head pivoted from the parking lot to the containers in confusion and a bit of disbelief.
The door opened behind him. He heard the bell.
“You are short,” Althea said.
“Your drawer. It had only $83.53 in it. You are short. There is nothing to deposit.”
“Ha! We…I must’ve spent more cash than I brought in yesterday. That happens some days.”
“I will reconcile the payouts with the receipts. How will you will you make up the difference?”
He reached into his back pocket and withdrew his wallet. He pulled a twenty out and handed it to her.
“Would you like a receipt for this?” she asked.
“For your records. And so you can be reimbursed someday when you sell more than you spend.”
“Well, ok. Whatever…”
“You do not keep track of these things?”
“Yes. Yes—but sometimes tracking the minutiae costs more than its worth and, besides, Sally…”
“Does all the difficult work.”
His eyes narrowed at the boxwood hedge wrapping around the front porch. Did it appear neatly trimmed? He squinted. Was the shrubbery shaped like old style rounded leather book spines with raised bands?
“I don’t remember the bushes looking like that?” he said quietly.
“What will you teach me today?”
“Ummm, right. I thought we’d begin by showing you how to look up comps on line. I…I can’t get over the front…”
“If you kept up with things, they would not get into such dire straits. Is ‘comps’ a real word?”
She opened the door for him. As he was entering he turned and resurveyed the front of his property. He shook his head and muttered:
“I don’t understand.”
“So this is the fast and dirty way of evaluating books. You go online and see what other booksellers are trying to get for books similar to the one you have in your hand.”
He had brought a stack of books from his office to evaluate. They were some of the better books—the illustrated books—that the old woman Charlotte had brought in the day before.
They stood side by side at the sales counter with the laptop in front of them.
“Here we go. Let’s see what other sellers are doing with this book. It doesn’t work for all books, and there are plenty of tricks to using this method. This is also where amateur sellers and booksellers can make huge mistakes. There are plenty of selling sites on the internet. What we want to use for the fastest and most accurate results are sites that provide the most searchable, accurate and comprehensible data. My current favorite is viaLibri. Here’s the search page:
“What we want to do is enter the data most relevant to the book we have in hand. Let’s start with this A Midsummer’s Night Dream illustrated by Rackham. The illustrations are wonderful, both dreamy fantastic and a little twisted all at once. Leaf through it and see if any defects jump out at you. Now check the title and copyright page. Do you see anything to indicate it is or isn’t a first edition?”
He heard a soft low-pitched moan emanate from deep within Althea.
“…want…” Althea barely spoke the word.
“Pardon me?” he asked.
But he had heard what she said and understood what she meant. Wondrous books often had that effect on him as well.
It was the first time he’d her stumble verbally. Prior to that she spoke in complete sentences with no contractions. She often seemed to have whole paragraphs preplanned before her mouth opened. Her near perfect grammar he had found annoying and charming all at once.
“Are you ok? Cat got your tongue? Need some water?”
“Cats? Cats! Why are there no cats in this bookstore? Every bookstore should have a cat or three.”
“Cats? Cats? What brings that up? Let’s continue with this book.”
“What? Are you asking ‘what’?”
“This book is strikingly beautiful. I have never beheld such things. Not in books, anyway.”
‘Not in books?’ he thought. ‘As opposed to …what?’
“Ok. So it is a first edition,” he said.
“How do you know?”
“I just know. We’ll get to that another time. It is the UK version.”
“United Kingdom. The British edition. By Heinemann.” He continued: “So we can check off the 1st edition button on this search form. Too bad it is not signed.”
“That would be wonderful,” she said dreamily—as if part of her was somewhere else.
“Stay with me, Althea. We put the publisher ‘Heinemann’ in where it says, ‘Imprint.’ We will put ‘Rackham’ in under keyword. That should exclude other copies of A Midsummer’s Night Dream. We will put ‘1908’ in the year minimum and maximum boxes in hopes of excluding later printings or reprints. And now we click ‘Search’ and see what other booksellers have this same book and what they are saying about and asking for it in dollars.”
The results popped up, and he scrolled down.
“Let’s get an idea of how many there are that match our book first. Hmmm…59 matches. Let’s sort pricing low to high. I see some of the results we are getting are signed or are the vellum editions. And there are some much later reprints showing up because they include ‘1908’ in their description. We want to exclude the listings that are much better than our copy as well as those that are not nearly as nice. We just want to see copies comparable to the book we have in front of us.”
“So that’s what you mean by ‘comps.’ Why do you not use the real word?”
“It’s a shortcut. Bookseller lingo or jargon or argot.”
“Do you use many shortcuts in this bookstore?
He clicked on the “Search” button a second time to get the distilled results. “Ahhh, that’s better. They start at about $150. But these first ones all have huge condition problems. So we exclude those. Our copy is near perfect.”
“Perfect…” she barely spoke.
“So, I’d say we could ask about 500 for this and be in the ballpark. There’s no reason to low ball a copy this nice.”
“Wait. Not so fast, please.”
“Let’s move onto he next one.”
She let out another soft low moan as he lifted the Rackham and set it aside.
He did four more books with her before he said:
“Let’s see how bad your first tries are,” He chuckled.
She turned and locked his gaze. Her dark brown eyes appeared to flash turquoise for a split second. The effect was quite disconcerting.
“I am NOT amused.”
“Ok, Vicky. I’m just teasing. You’ll have to get used to it.”
“Queen Victoria. She once said: ‘We are not amused’ when someone in her entourage told a rather spicy story.”
“Ahhhh. That is a quip is it not? Ha ha.”
He slid a stack of 5 books toward her and said: “Do your best. I think it’ll work better for me to react to your results than to continue showing you my flawless comping.”
“Comping. That is another shortcut you use in your business dealing, correct?”
“Come up with another way to describe it. Preferably in 53 words or less.”
He gave her a little stack of 3×5 cards.
“Write what you find about near matches to these five books. Exclude matches that are in dreadful condition. Exclude matches that are signed or in different bindings. Treat with suspicion amateurish descriptions or terminology. It often means the bookseller doesn’t know what they are doing.”
Over the next couple week’s, her results got better and better.
“These kind of results are what I was talking about. ‘Very fusty in a very tatty dust jacket’?!” He laughed out loud. “Would you order that?”
“No. I would not. You taught me on my first day ‘no one reads Shaw anymore.'”
“Well, a nice first of The Intelligent Woman’s Guide to Socialism and Capitalism in a pretty dust jacket is still kind of cool.”
“Do you feel ‘pretty’ and ‘cool’ are accurate bibliographic terms?”
“Does ‘near fine’ sound better?” he groused. “I don’t want to offend your bibliosensibilities.”
“Is bibliosensibilities a…”
“Never mind! And this first edition of Winnie-the-Pooh you searched,”
“What does ‘handsome’ and ‘attractive’ convey to you?”
“That they are good looking copies?”
“Why not ‘Hot’?” He laughed. “We can come up with a new grading system. Start at Acceptable. Then Fair. Good. Attractive. Handsome. Very Good. Fine and so on. But it’s always nice to come across a Pooh.”
He began teaching her cataloging. When he felt she was ready, he told her to catalog all of Charlotte’s illustrated books so they could be offered to Greg.
“He’s an old friend and won’t care if your descriptions are a bit sloppy,” he chuckled.
‘Was that the sound of her foot stamping on the other side of the counter?’ he wondered.
A couple hours later, she peeked her head in the office door.
“I have finished the task. Would you like me to send it out to Mr. Greg?”
The bookseller was seated at his desk. The room was dimly lit. He held the ring between his thumb and forefinger. He was rolling it back and forth.
“That was fast! You didn’t use any bookseller shortcuts did you?” He asked. “I should come give it a quick look. We can put a disclaimer on it telling him it is your first effort and if he finds anything awry, we’d like to know for educational reasons.”
“What is that in your hand? It seems to glow does it not?”
“Just an old ring I found in the bookshop many years ago.”
He rose and pinned it back to the bulletin board above his desk.
Out at the counter, he gave a cursory review to her list. He typed away above the heading:
“Greg, remember Althea? You met her on your last visit. This is her first effort at cataloging. Please feel free to critique it. Don’t be cruel or snarky though. She doesn’t have much of a sense of humor about comments on her work.”
“Ok. We’ll send it off and see what happens.”
“WAIT!” It was the first time he’d heard Althea raise her voice. “Wait. Please. I would like to purchase the Midsummer’s Night Dream myself. I cannot pay for it all at once. But perhaps over the next few pay checks…” Her tone was nearly pleading.
“Awwww… I understand. It is a beauty. It can be your first good book. I’ll let you have it half off. Pay when you can. Take it with you today.”
He scrolled across and highlighted the Rackham listing then hit “cut.” The listing disappeared from Greg’s email. He went to a fresh page and clicked “Paste.” The listing appeared. He printed it out and handed it to Althea.
“It is often useful to save a book’s description. You can slip this into your Rackham.”
Then he turned back to the laptop and pushed “Send” and Althea’s first catalog flew away through cyberspace with a “whoosh.”
“Ok. Put these on the cataloged shelf, and we will see if any of your work pays off.”
The day continued. He assigned her tasks on the other side of the store from where he was working. A couple customers came in. Althea was able to total their books and collect their money. An elderly man came in with a bag of books. The bookseller told Althea to go through them and come up with an offer.
She came into his office in a few minutes and said:
“There is nothing I see that is special. Just some university press hardcovers on early American history in near fine condition. I think we should offer 17.”
“Well, if you think that’s what ‘we’ should offer the go ahead.”
“Oh and the gentleman said he has 3119 more books at home he would like us to purchase.”
“That’s a pretty specific number. I’ll come out and talk to him.”
The man stood on the other side of the counter. He was going through pockets of his old worn Burberry raincoat a bit frantically. “I was sure I had it when I came in,” he mumbled.
“What? Have you lost something?”
“Don’t worry. It’s not dangerous. It will find its way back eventually.”
The man looked up, and the bookseller saw there were small black hourglass shapes in his blue irises.
“Well, if we find what’s missing, we can call you. What have you lost?”
“I’d best not say. It doesn’t like being ‘found.’ Actually, it won’t be found unless it wants to be.”
“Um…ok… You were asking about a house call?”
“Yes, I have 3119 books 47 miles north of here. I’d like to get them all a good home before I leave.”
After a brief discussion, the bookseller agreed to visit the old man’s home in 11 days.
When the man left, Althea said:
“I would very much like to go on a house call and learn from you.”
“Who would watch the shop?”
“Did you know that man? He said he was ‘pleased to see Althea working here.'”
“No. And I never told him my name.”
It was 23 minutes til closing time. Althea rushed into the office.
“Boss! They have sold! Mr Greg emailed. He is buying all the books! That is if you will extend the 30% off to him again.”
“Well! Very good. Let’s go look and see what he has to say.”
Greg’s email read: “I’ll take all 53 of these if you let me have 30% off. I don’t see a single thing wrong with the cataloging as long as the books match the words. In fact, her descriptions are far clearer than your usual quotes.”
He heard the front door open and looked up.
No, it was Althea laughing that he heard. Her tone was almost exultant. Like an “aha!”
He was taken aback when her eyes seemed to flash emerald green before she said: “Is this cataloging business always this easy?”
“Yes. I sell out most lists I send out. Old books are VERY easy money. That’s why I buy a new Bentley every year,” he said snidely.
“I have not seen you driving such a…”
The bookseller continued reading. Greg had added at the bottom: “I thought I remembered a Rackham Midsummer’s Night Dream. Is it gone? It’s not on the list.”
The bookseller typed: “Yep. I owed someone a favor. It would have been 900,” he exaggerated.
“Too rich for my blood,” Greg emailed back.
He turned and slipped the book off the shelf. He slid it into a bag and handed it to her.
“A bonus. Good job.” He smiled at her shocked face.
“That book sure makes you stammer.” He continued: “Sometimes I know a particular book belongs with a particular person. It’s a kind of sixth sense I have. Besides, you’ve done so much extra work around here. It’s baffling sometimes.” He pondered a moment and added, “Do you paint? I was thinking of changing the building to barn red with black trim.”
“I do indeed paint. Many things. But not buildings!” she groused in reply. “I do hope you will let me accompany you on that house call. I have a feeling there will be same magical books there,” she paused and then added: “In faerie folklore, those with hourglass eyes are often Treasure Guardians.”
“I’ve never heard of hourglass eyes before. How do you think he knew your name?”
“It has been many years since I have seen such eyes. Seems like eons…” her voice drifted off. Her focus returned, and she said: “That ring you were rolling between your fingers—is it something special?”
“Umm…just an old ring that was left in the old bookstore.”
“You looked so very sad when I came in.”
“I’ve seen some wonderful things since I first found it. But now it just hurts to hold it. I can only think of dread now.”
She spoke softly, almost tenderly: “If you would ever like to talk about it…”
“I never want to talk about that!”
Her voice returned to its nearly pedantic tone: “I should clock out. The day is ending.”
She left, and the bell above the door chimed. A little mutedly, he thought. He looked up at the clock. She’s left 11 minutes early as had become her wont.
Round and Round Part 9 will be Althea’s first house call.