Sunday, June 10, 2007

For The Birds!

If the picture to the left seems dull as dishwater, that’s precisely the point. This is a story about a little blue booklet so drab if it were a debutante its dance card would be revoked. I bought it last week, sold it this week, and will still be talking about it when I get to bookseller’s heaven where, thanks to said little blue booklet, there’s a luxurious white cloud waiting with my name on it.

It all began last week when I spotted the homely little thing at my favorite book sale of the year. I looked at it, put it back, picked it up, set it down again. Finally, on my second pass through the tables I bought it on the half chance that with the new interest in “going green” someone might actually want to learn how to turn a golf course into a bird sanctuary. The booklet was published by the Audubon Society in the thirties and was called Golf Clubs As Bird Sanctuaries. It was liberally illustrated with black and white photos, mostly of birds nesting in trees scattered around golf courses, or “golf clubs” as they were called then. Now that I think about it, I’m pretty sure the oddly worded title caught my fancy as much as anything. I distinctly remember a hazy mental image of baby bird beaks gaping hungrily out of the top of a leather bag full of golf clubs. There may have been some of those funky knitted cozies on top of the clubs too, but I can't swear to that.

Anyway, the booklet surfaced in a box late Thursday afternoon so I duly listed it online. Pricing was a bit of a problem, as, oddly, there were no comparables. But I looked it over pretty well and could see nothing other than its apparent, and probably temporary, scarcity to recommend it. So I listed it at a pie-in-the-sky $25 and went cheerfully off to watch the Cleveland Cavaliers lose to the Spurs in game one of the finals. By the time the slaughter was over the little blue booklet had sold on ABE to a guy in England. I tried deleting it from my other venues, but it hadn’t indexed yet, so I went to bed. By morning it had sold again on Biblio, this time to an American. As I was sending regrets to Buyer Two it occurred to me that with so much interest so fast I’d probably under-priced it. “Should have asked fifty,” I muttered, hitting the Send button.

Immediately Buyer Two fired back a note. If I hadn’t already shipped it, he would like to offer me $300 for it. I cleaned my reading glasses to make sure I’d read that right, and thought about Eric’s teeth and the $800 dental bill (after insurance) that had arrived the previous day. I admit it. For a nanosecond I wavered, but in the end declined so I could live with myself in relative peace. I did, however, ask him why anyone would pay so much for such an ugly (ha-ha) duckling.
Right away he shot me a second email explaining that the great golfer Bobby Jones was on the Board when they published it. Since I wouldn’t know a putter from a pickaxe, the name meant nothing to me, but I checked the booklet and, sure enough, there was a Robert Jones listed among the Board members. Quickly, I googled Bobby Jones and learned that he’d won the first Grand Slam in 1930.

“I’ll give you $400,” Buyer Two concluded.


Again, I thought of Eric’s teeth and the $800 dental bill and wavered a second time. But in the end I stuck fast to the original no. No, I couldn’t live with myself if I did it. No, it wouldn’t be right. No it goes against my vision of who I am and what I’m about. No, I couldn’t possibly. No, no, no …

Now here it is twenty-four hours later and I am filled with regret. No, not for the string of emphatic nos. The money would have been great, but the karma wouldn’t, so that one was a no-brainer. What I regret is the failure of it all. If there’s one thing I can’t stand it’s failure and this time the self-appointed Queen of Research failed big. Of course it’s not like Bobby Jones had signed the thing and I’d missed the signature. And Robert Jones is a very common name, so even if Bobby and I had been buddies in a former life why would I recognize his name when it was printed formally on a brochure about birds? I tried out all the rationalizations I could think of, but in the end I felt pretty stupid. And still do.

It didn’t help that while I was writing this, Buyer THREE called on the phone from London to rub salt in my wounds. I am not making this up either. I swear on a stack of Golf Clubs As Bird Sanctuaries that he really did call right in the middle of the explanation about Bobby Jones. He’d seen the listing on ChooseBooks yesterday and printed it out, but when he went back to order it it was gone. So he figured he’d “ring up” and see if I still had it.

Regretfully, I don’t. I shipped it to Lancashire this morning. All I can say is, that lofty perch in bookseller heaven better be a Sterns & Foster. I deserve the Cadillac of clouds for this one.

Saturday, February 24, 2007

Small Marvels

Sunday Morning Joe suggested last week that I ought to write a post based on a particularly gratifying conversation we conducted in the wee hours of a Sunday morning past. I think it was back in January sometime -- maybe even Super Bowl Weekend, though why I would ever remember Super Bowl Weekend as football challenged as I am, I have no idea. I also have no idea how it it was that we got to talking about small pleasures in the first place, but it sure was a small pleasure doing it.

Some things we agreed on right up front -- reading, the changing of the seasons, homemade soup (though he goes for split pea and I go for anything that's NOT split pea), the first sip of morning coffee ( small disconnect here too, as he for some strange, unknown reason likes Taster's Choice crystals and I prefer Folger's dark gourmet. fresh brewed )-- but other things were our own unique delights. Take bubble baths, for instance. Is there anything so gratifying as a good book ands a scorching hot bath scented with mango? Ohmygod, I could stay in there until I turned into a prune, or the hot water ran out, which ever came last. Then there's black licorice. I know most people like the fake red stuff, but when it comes to licorice I'm such a purist I could be on the Food Channel expouding on its piquant qualities. Yes, I could be the Rachel Ray of licorice! One of the best Christmas presents I ever got was back in the 70's when Eric and I had only been married a couple years. He gave me this huge box filled with 23 paperback novels by my then-favorite author and about ten bags of black licorice in various forms. I couldn't have asked for another thing-- which is not to say that the occasional bottle of Oscar de la Renta, which said husband presented me with this past Valentine's Day (he calls it Oscar's Daily Rent), isn't likewise appreciated.

Anyway, the point is that ever since that conversation with Sunday Morning Joe I seem to keep adding small delights to my mental list. Fresh sheets on the bed, Tyler's little voice on the phone saying "Hi Gran," popcorn and movies, the view out the kitchen window, Sunday walks with Nancy, Saturday morning talks with Jessica, making a great find at a book sale, a clean house (best if I wasn't the cleaner), a new issue of the New Yorker in the mail, the company of cats, a looooooooong email from Lisa, the writer's group sitting around my dining room table, daffodils, lilacs, Motown, dancing, Irish music, my kids, lipstick, skinny jeans, being skinny enough to wear skinny jeans, Pino Grigio, champagne, sharing ebay stories with my niece Liza, Christmas trees, white twinkle lights, fireworks, Ode to Joy, small town parades, porches, grocery shopping, penny candy, pajamas, altered books, bookstores, walking on the beach, a sky full of stars, fireflies, the sound of croaking frogs at night, good neighbors like Linda next door, talking in line at book sales, PT Cruisers, getting up early, the Gilmore Girls, ephemera, the morning paper, Sunday Morning Joe ...

I could go on and on, but one thing's for sure. No matter how much there is to complain about -- and God knows I complain more than I ought to --the world is filled with marvels. And the best part is they're right there all the time and lots of them cost little to nothing. The secret is to recognize a marvel when you see one and don't wait until things get better to appreciate it. I think I've always known this, but it's taken me fifty-five years on the planet to make a point of fnding them every single day. I highly recommend it.

Sunday, February 18, 2007

The Zen of Bookselling

When I began as a bookseller ten years ago this April it never occurred to me that bookselling was a free lunch. Go to a library sale, load up, and – presto! chango! – money cascading into your account. The crazy part is that the money did sort of cascade in those early halcyon days of internet selling. But even so, I knew that if I wanted to turn my lifelong love affair with books into a successful, dignified, and meaningful business I needed to knuckle down and learn a few things. So, autodidact that I am, I opted for baptism by total immersion. I read countless books about books, experimented with packaging materials, learned how to keep careful records, transferred the customer service skills I had attained in my former job as PR director for a nursing home complex into my new endeavor, and polished my writing skills to offer detailed descriptions of my wares. To do any less seemed to me to trivialize a time honored profession -- witht he operative word being profession.

All that was great and has served me well, but there was a missing component which, strangely enough, I just “got” very recently. The cosmic joke is that it was taught to me by the very people to whom I had developed a natural antipathy – the new breed of booksellers who, along with their corporate counterparts, have discovered that used, out-of-print, and rare books are Big Business. For years now I have ranted over their rudeness at sales as they shoved past me -- and into me -- to grab as many fetching little moneymakers as they could, rolled my eyes when they made such inane statements as, “You don’t gotta know nothin’ to sell books,” and seethed at the eternal beeping of the scanning devices which allow them to check the going rate for books on the Big River (a.ka. via ISBN number.

“There sure was a lot of communing with the great god amazon today,” I’d tell my husband after a sale. We’d laugh, but inside I was becoming less and less amused.

Meanwhile as the hobby sellers reproduced like one-celled microorganisms the corporate entities became greedier and ever more paternalistic in their dealings with sellers. Little by little the original joy I had found in bookselling began slipping away. It’s not that I didn’t love my work. Nothing could take away the deep satisfaction of the books themselves, the exhilarating interaction with the customers, even the pleasure of such mundane tasks as cleaning and wrapping. But my attitude was nonetheless becoming as sour as an old pickle.
So how did I finally “get it”? And what is it that I finally got? The answer to the first question is I don’t know. There were no thunderbolts, no one big defining moment. It just happened and as quietly as if on Carl Sandburg’s “little cat feet.” I may not know the how, but I sure know the what and that is simply this – my anger at the sellers and the corporations stemmed from a primal fear that they would snatch away this thing that meant so much to me. The truth is, of course, that you can’t run a business, or a life, based on fear. I’m not big on religion, but I’m all over faith -- faith in a limitless Universe and a benign Creator with a sense of humor and a heart the size of Her creation. I had just failed to understand that faith and intention are as much a part of bookselling as knowledge. What the penny sellers and the scanners do has nothing to do with me. My intention is what it always has been -- to run a dignified, meaningful business, to serve my customers well and to enjoy doing it. And it's working! Watching other sellers scurrying around like ants tossing books helter-skelter into boxes has made me realize exactly what I DON'T want and, most importantly, exactly what I do.

So then. Railing at external forces is a monumental waste of energy, not to mention damaging to the soul. Far better to simply live in the Light, walk my own path, and follow the river -- just not the one with the dot com extension.

Friday, January 05, 2007

Dinner With My Mother

It’s six-thirty in the morning and I am alone in my office staring at my mother’s photo in her online obituary. She’s all dolled up in a pretty dress with perfectly coiffed hair, nice glasses and jewelry. Her smile is wide, sweet even, but I feel no sense of recognition. Who is this old lady masquerading as my mother? And what did they do with the real one?

My mother left us six years ago when my father had to be admitted to a nursing home. I begged her not to, but she went anyway because living with her sister was preferable to taking her chances with her daughters. Her fear that we might put her in a nursing home trumped any desire to see us again. The loss of us – my sister and me, my two daughters, and the great grandchild she never knew – was a price I guess she was willing to pay. I’ve often wondered whether it was worth it and truly hope it was because, frankly, it would have given me sticker shock

I knew when she left I’d never see her again and that’s just about the way it worked out. My aunt is an all or nothing, black or white, love them or hate them sort of woman. With her there are no gradations and certainly no mercy. She took our mother away, slammed the door behind her, and left us with our father until he died three years later. In my mother’s family the tradition is to fight like hell with your relatives until they die and then canonize them the day after. I refuse to carry it on. The bold, flat, honest-to-God truth is my mother was a holy terror when we were children, controlling and hard to get along with when we were adults, and absolutely delightful just before she left, thanks to a strange, unnamed psychosis.

During that period she screamed at imaginary people out the side door. Saw Clark Gable in the trees beyond the living room picture window. Giggled like a school girl to think he was making eyes at her. Cowered at the sight of imaginary bugs crawling out of the ceiling. And clawed at her arms to scratch their imaginary bites. But for the first time in her life she seemed to actually like me. I’d bring her dinner at night – scalloped potatoes and ham, chicken and noodles, mac and cheese, comfort foods that made her clap her hands with delight.

“Here she comes!” she’d crow as I came through the side door laden down with casseroles and salads. “We’ll have fun now!”

Once when I was sitting with her while she ate, she laid down her fork, looked at me intently, and said, “You’re so pretty.” I think the thought had never occurred to her before.

When I’d help her to bed she’d apologize for being so much trouble. And sometimes she’d show me her little stuffed dog and tell me what he’d had to say to her that day. My mother was charmed with me and I with her. Of course I knew it was some chemical imbalance in the brain, some hardwiring run amok. But I like to think that maybe by falling down the rabbit hole of mental illness she had a tea party with the little girl she must have been once upon a time

I’ll never know though because she left soon after and almost immediately I became embroiled in a legal battle with my aunt to make sure my father’s rights were protected. When I prevailed she had my mother sign a paper which legally separated her from her husband of 51 years. I never saw either woman again until three years later when they came to my father’s funeral. By then the psychosis was gone, or the right combination of drugs had finally been achieved. Either way, any charm I’d developed in her eyes seemed to have leeched away. She talked pleasantly enough to my sister and me, but clearly wasn’t too interested in either of us. And so, that was that.

Now its three years later and we found out that she died on Monday, New Year’s Day. The obituary doesn’t say where, or of what ailment. It does say she had two daughers, but it doesn’t list our names. And it never mentions that she was grandmother to my two daughters and great-grandmother to our beloved Tyler. Though my mother would never have won the Grandmother of the Year Award, in her way she liked my children and would never have excluded them. She could be mean, but she was not calculating. She didn’t plan to hurt people, she just did it. Not so her sister. But it doesn't really matter anymore, as we won’t be going to the funeral. I will close the screen on the offending obituary and remember my mother in my own way. Maybe I’ll make her some macaroni and cheese.