Thursday, July 27, 2006

To The Library -- With Love and Lament

You would think that a bookseller flailing eyebrow deep in a sea of books would never darken the door of the public library except to attend book sales, but such is not the case. Or at least, not the case with this bookseller. I have harbored a deep and abiding love for libraries ever since I made my maiden voyage to the Goodyear branch of the Akron Public Library one cold, rainy Friday evening in October, 1957. (And no, I am not using poetic license to add details. I was six years old and I remember.) Probably the main reason this memory lives in technicolor is the fact that my aunt and my mother, neither of whom are, or were, readers, instigated this foray into the world of culture. Growing up in south Akron, reading material at our house consisted of the daily Akron Beacon Journal, Reader’s Digest and Popular Mechanics, all of which were read only by my father. So to be escorted into the serene, oak-tabled splendor of the Goodyear branch library was an event of epic proportions.

What I remember most is the hush -- rather reminiscent of the old lady, the comb and the brush, and the bowlful of mush in Goodnight Moon. In those days you whispered in the library, even in the children’s section. The other thing I vividly remember is that my friend, Isabelle, who was with us, picked out a book called B Is for Betsy by Carolyn Haywood. One look at brown-braided Betsy earnestly gazing back at me from the red buckram cover and I was sure I would die if I didn’t read that book. Izzy promised I could have it later when she was done, but even a promise from my very bestest friend in the whole wide world was faint consolation. As it turned out though, later came much sooner than I’d imagined, as she never read it at all. That week the future was pretty well determined -- Izzy became an abstainer and I became a junkie.

But something else even more memorable occurred that night we first went to the library. On the way home, in the backseat of my aunt’s turquoise and white 1956 Crown Victoria, I latched onto Betsy for a quick read by neon light as we whizzed past stores and restaurants home to Kenyon Steet (and another sorrows). Betsy’s world was as alien to my experience as a visit from the Pope, but it didn’t matter. A timeless something living inside Betsy also lived inside me. Deep in the marrow of my bones I knew this to be true, just as I knew that books unleashed a power greater even than Superman’s. I also realized that night that Betsy did not magically turn up on paper by accident. Somebody had to invent her. Somebody had to write it all down. And that somebody was Carolyn Haywood, who was an author – a writer of stories who got paid to do the most magical, miraculous job in the entire universe!

“When I grow up I’m going to be an author,” I announced from the backseat.

“I don’t think so,“ replied one of the occupants of the front seat. “Writing books is not a real job. You would starve to death.”

“I don’t care,” I said. “I’m going to do it anyway."

And I did. For awhile. Sort of. Except that I quit a couple years ago and am now a very happy bookseller. I wonder though. Is it possible that even the happiest of booksellers still yearns, maybe just a little bit, to write something that would make a child feel the way I did on that cold, rainy night in 1957?

Maybe. Well, if I'm being totally honest -- yes, I do sort of yearn. I just wish I didn't. Writing books can break your heart.

Friday, July 21, 2006

Buying Books With the Big Boys

Haven’t written for awhile, I know, but life’s been busy. I did scratch out a piece about an auction I went to, thinking it was rather breezy and fun until I realized it wasn’t even true. Oh, everything happened exactly as I described it -- it just wasn’t emotionally true. Reluctantly, I hit the delete button and never tried again for the simple reason that I had no idea why the whole thing kept dogging me in the first place. But then last Saturday night at my niece’s wedding my daughter’s boyfriend made a casual comment that triggered an audible click in my brain. What happened at the auction had very little to do with what I thought it did and everything to do with ME.

So here’s the story as true as I can tell it. The Sunday before last, Eric and I went to an auction located about fifty miles west of where the sidewalk ends. It was a beautiful day for sitting outside watching the contents of someone’s home being carted away piece by piece. If I let myself get too worked up about the passage of time I’d never go to an auction again, so if you don’t mind, I’ll move past that part . The thing that had me so excited was the promise of fifty – count ‘em, fifty -- boxes of old books. Of course, a promise like that can never be taken too seriously, as “old” in auction-speak is very often a synonym for smelly, dirty, and/or broken. Sure enough, this auction was no exception, though I did catch a few winks here and there from a stray swan penned up with the ugly ducklings. Still, my heart wasn’t exactly fluttering. That is, until I found THE BOX.

It looked like all the others, down-at-the-heels, raggedy brown cardboard. But inside lay the treasure of the Sierra Madre in the form of pristine, Easton Press editions of Roger Tory Peterson’s field guides, leather bound with gilded page edges and satin ribbon markers as clean and soft as sticks of new butter. Strains of the Hallelujah Chorus wafted through the air as I staggered to my feet swearing I would not go home without them.

Fast forward to the auction. The boxes of books sat lined up on the grass like the remnants of a rag-tag army. The auctioneer decides it’s going to be choice out. That is, everything from here to there will be up for bid at the same time, winner take however many he/she wants at the winning price per box. Fair enough – except I can’t see where from here-to-there IS. First I run to the left end of the line and, being small, try to sneak into any available holes in the crowd. No luck. So I run to the right and try there. No good either. Finally, I duck under an elbow and almost get decapitated. Try, as I might, I simply cannot get to the books! All I can do is calculate the proximity of my box to the location of the auctioneer. I do, and figure I can sit this round out. The bidding goes on until all the boxes are gone. When the next batch comes up I’m ready and this time succeed in squeezing between two men, both with the girth of ancient sequoias. Quickly, I scan the boxes. No Roger Tory Petersons.

For a second I’m confused. But then a guy three guys down from me hefts a box onto his shoulder and I catch a fleeting navy-blue-and-gilt glimpse of MY books being carried away for the paltry sum of $35. If I were less circumspect I’d have wailed like a professional keener at an Irish wake. As it was, I inwardly blamed everybody from the the auctioneer, to the phalanx of unmoving men, to George W. Bush. Right then and there the auction ended for me. Never mind that a few minutes later I was the only one smart enough to bid on, and win, a box of trash for a dollar, knowing full well it housed a deluxe book of Lennon Sisters paper dolls in magnificent condition -- the auction was OVER.

Countless times in the days that followed I bemoaned those books. Conjured them up in my mind until they darn near materalized. My beautiful books. Gone. All because of the way they ran the auction. All because of the unyielding men who never let me in. All because …

“Whenever anything comes up where Catie needs to assert herself, she always wants me to do it,” Joe says to me at the wedding. “Hard as it to believe, she can be timid that way.”


A terrible truth had just been revealed over the roast beef and string beans almondine. It was not the auctioneer’s fault that I didn’t get the books. It wasn’t the men’s fault either. It wasn't even George W. Bush’s fault. It was mine. I tell myself I’m confident, know how the play the game with the best of ‘em, but it’s not always true. The fact of the matter is, sometimes I’m just too ladylike for my own good.

Friday, July 07, 2006

Ephemera -- Excavating For Treasure

To me a great evening at home is a box of ephemera the size of Rhode Island and a glass of chilled pinot grigio. There’s magic in life’s flotsam and jetsam – letters, postcards, instruction manuals for 1940’s pressure cookers, receipts for the sale of cows, holy cards from great-grandma’s funeral in 1918 -- and I am totally caught in its thrall. Ephemera is my guilty pleasure, a sneak peek into the dresser drawers, cupboards, basements and attics of strangers, a chance to time-travel back to eras defined, at least in part, by what their people saved, bought, and had to say about their lives and times.

Of course not all this stuff has great monetary value, or even any monetary value at all, but some of it does and it’s these gems which make me feel like an archeologist digging deep to find an untouched sarcophagus. The good news is I am happy to wait for a big find, as I enjoy even the smallest shard unearthed along the way. What I don’t sell I keep for collage, as I am also an amateur dabbler in the art of the altered book.

Ephemera, if you have the patience and passion for it, is also the great teacher. I have learned more from motley scraps of the past than I ever have from school, or even books. An old cardboard key advertising the Redpath Chautauqua led me down a fascinating path to the bygone era of tent chautauquas and the culture, fun and excitement they brought to small towns across America. The Redpath Lyceum Bureau took luminaries such as Warren B. Harding and Susan B. Anthony to the masses – up close and personal.

Another time a booklet of recipes from an old TB sanitarium led me to learn what it meant to have tuberculosis in the early part of the 20th century – its treatments, its fears and the endless days of lying bundled up on cold porches far away from home. I could go on and on with examples, but the point here is that if ephemera is to matter than the buyer/seller must be willing to do some serious research. For me the research is great fun, but it’s also the marketing tool that helps each piece find its perfect home. Both of the above examples were quickly snatched from the marketplace, the former by a European buyer and the latter by a woman who had just visited the site of the old sanitarium in Indiana and was haunted by its history.

The word ephemera comes, of course, from ephemeral, that which is not meant to last. The fact that so much of it defies the odds of marriages, moves, divorces and deaths is, to me, one of life’s small miracles. But the fact that the very best of it achieves a level of importance in the 21st century is no miracle at all. It’s a direct result of the hard work of excavators who not only see diamonds in the rough, but are willing to get their hands dirty -- both figuratively and literally.

Saturday, July 01, 2006


Today was a book sale day which means the orders had to be wrapped, shower taken, bagel eaten, and make-up applied by 7:30 a.m., so we could grab the book bags and head for Hudson. It's a small sale which used to be a good one, but isn't anymore for more reasons than I want to bother enumerating. Despite it's failing attractions, we go anyway because booksellers on the whole are a hopeful lot. Even the morose ones (and there are some) harbor a secret flicker of hope that just maybe a treasure will emerge from the chaff.

Today we got there third in line, which is okay by me at this small sale, as the goodies aren't exactly standing up and whistling Dixie. The first fifteen minutes or so of the hour-long wait for the sale to open are the best because it's usually just Paul, Linda and us. Paul and Linda are two of my favorite sellers because a.) I like them and b.) they' re "old school" like we are -- no electronic devices to scan ISBN numbers and no aggressive behavior. They rely on their wits, experience, and love of the books and the business the same way we do. Soon enough the "weekend warriors," or "penny sellers," or whatever you want to call them, show up and then it's a countdown to bedlam.


Thirty-plus pulsating bodies jammed into a space the size of a master bathroom. Great sport.

Anyway, Paul, Linda and I were talking about book sales in general when Paul brought up a peculiar phenomonon that I truly, even after all these years, thought was my own private place in hell. Every once in awhile you get into a sale, hit your favorite category early -- and FREEZE. The rows of books beckon, your eyes scan them ever more frantically, but the titles blur around the edges and bleed into one giant block of nameless nothing. Meanwhile all around you hands are flying like flags at a NASCAR race, books are thumping into bags and boxes -- and there you stand as inert as the Lincoln Monument.

"There ought to be a name for it," Paul said.

I agree. I even tried to think of one, I truly did, but no luck. The best I could come up with was "bookfuzz" which describes the first part of the sensation pretty well, but doesn't even begin to grasp the panic that ensues before you can talk yourself out of the trees. For the mental health of booksellers everywhere I'm going to keep thinking on it though. As they say in psychology -- before you can tame it, you gotta name it!