Wednesday, September 29, 2010

The Book Gods Smiled

I’m late posting today for amazingly wonderful reasons. I have been to not one, but TWO, book sales since we last talked and not only had a fairly good time, but brought home astonishing treasures. Eric was due back last night, but surprised me in the late afternoon when he opened the porch door and hollered up the stairs, “I’m hooooome! Wanna go to a book sale?”

The sale in question is one I used to love a lot, but didn’t really mind missing due to its decline. I almost said no because it was already three- thirty and the sale was due to start at five, and it takes an hour to get there, and I looked like what my Irish grandfather always called “the devil kicked with a club.” But I didn’t. Say no, that is. I hopped to it, changed clothes, slapped on a little make-up and flew out the door. I even managed to put on my skinny jeans and lipstick while talking on the phone to a vintage magazine dealer from Canada.

The sale of course was crazy – a totally insane number of people and there we were back in the nosebleed section where we knew no one, numbers 40 and 41, with a half hour to go. By the time the doors opened the line behind us had snaked around the corner and down another hall.

“This is a bonus,” I kept telling myself. “Anything you find is serendipity.” But I felt pretty much like calling it a loss and looking for the nearest Starbucks.

Once inside the sale, I immediately headed to the collectible corner where the antiquarian and higher priced books reside. The scanner people took off for the stacks like a stampede, so to my great surprise, only my friend and fellow book dealer, Paul, stood in front of the shelves. Others joined in, but by then I had already snapped up a four volume set, The History of Nursing (Nutting/Dock, G.P. Putnam's Sons 1913).If it stopped right there the sale would have been fine for me. Actually, it looked like it MIGHT stop there, but on my second pass I spotted a box of books that had migrated almost to the check-out table. I pulled it back to where it belonged, glanced down, and had to restrain myself from whirling, twirling and throwing confetti. There it was – the book I’d lost at Lillian’s auction in 2006 to a dealer from Michigan who’d run it up to retail for some odd reason. The Mary Frances Sewing Book in mint condition with all its pattern pieces of tissue and its sewing club card – this adorable children’s book from 1913 was MINE at last! Handel resurrected from the dead momentarily to conduct the Hallelujah Chorus.

I have a theory that if the book gods smile on you once, it will be awhile before they do it again. It’s sort of true, but today they at least winked at me. At five a.m. this morning we were up, at six a.m. we were out the door, and at seven a.m. we were fourth and fifth in line for a nine o-clock sale. The crowd again was enormous and wound like an old-fashioned telephone cord not only TO but THROUGH the parking lot. Time passed quickly though, as we talked to our favorite longtime dealers and one very cute young couple we like who are sort of new sellers. They do wield the odious scanner, but we don’t hold it against them.

This sale yielded a medium-sized box of “good enough” books, but also a few treasures, including a leather bound book on surveying from 1860. Yes -- really! This is not standard book sale fare, but there it was, bound in calf so buttery soft you could curl up and take a nap with it. Next I found a scarce book of Ohio legends (I forgot to take a picture of it), and then a plastic bag filled with WWII pacifist ephemera! Again, not book sale fare, but clearly waiting for me to home in on it like a pigeon.

The coming weeks will bring additional sales, as fall is prime book sale season. At this moment I almost look forward to them, but of course there IS my theory to consider. The book gods do not smile every time and two times in a row – well, a smile and a wink – is pushing it. But, on the other hand, we HAVE suffered an unprecedented summer of acquisition discontent, so maybe we’ll get a pass. And, just maybe, I’ll enjoy book sales again.

Tuesday, September 28, 2010

Magic, Calendars, and High Jinks

Amazing what a mental health day can do! I am back in the game today, clearly restored by a day of no electronics, no work, and only the most peaceful of pursuits. I walked, read my Emily Dickinson biography, made a glorious pot of homemade chicken noodle soup and sifted through two huge tubs of paper in search of the colors of autumn. Collage is not created in a day, so though I have nothing tangible to show yet, I do have a juicy pile of scraps from which to work – something measurable after all. I’m glad the need for restoration came yesterday though, as I woke this morning to drumming rain and a darkness that only now at eight has faded enough to reveal the morning ducks.

Tomorrow we go to a large book sale that used to be good, but mostly is not anymore, as is the case with all of them. I dread going. The crowd is immense and the stress so high-velocity, high-octane it's a wonder there aren't reported incidents of spontaneous combustion. Eric will be back to help which is good on a personal level, but maybe not needed on a professional one, as there may not be enough books to carry. How strange that something once loved has taken a kaleidescopic turn in which the colors and patterns are more dizzying than delightful.

But enough of that. Two weeks ago I went to a great estate sale I've been dying to tell you about, but stuff kept interrupting. In a small, nondescript ranch house (I get a lot of good stuff from small, nondescript ranch houses now that I think about it) I found the most amazing ephemera – items truly beautiful and in mint condition. Everything sported price tags capable of inducing fainting, but I knew it was treasure and so spent an astounding sum on things I could carry out the door with one hand. The item I bought first was the Blackstone magic program above from 1926. If I could have taken home only one thing it would have been that. There’s something at once both tawdry and innocent about early magic -- for me it's a siren call that can NOT be ignored. It also doesn't turn up under every silk hat, so the trick is to grabbit when you get it.

The rest of the things I bought are pin-up girls from the 40’s and early 50’s – not photographs, but paintings, including one by the most coveted artist of the genre --Varga. Sorting through the piles of pin-ups I kept hearing Neil Sedaka singing Calendar Girl! I knew Esquire and Varga, but was amazed to find and buy a couple by Springmaid – yes, the very same Springmaid that fills our linen closets with sheets and towels. These appear to be scarcer than the others, so I’m glad I took the (expensive) leap of faith.

By the time I finished draining my bank account and went back to the books my friend and fellow dealer Linda had already scraped the good ones off the top of a rather sorry stash, though I did immediately find an excellent WWII book. This one is so unobtrusive, especially shelved spine-out, that you could regard the shelf with Zen-like concentration and never see it. The only reason it jumped out at me is because I had it before, thanks to my Elmer – the original, one and only TRUE Elmer.

The sale, however, was great fun largely because of Linda who was in a quandary over whether or not to snag a series of sexy mysteries from the 60’s. They fetch bewitching prices, but as she pointed out, your name has to be on the listing. We were the only two book people back there, but Jewelry Guy and Mid-Century Furniture Guy got in on the hilarity after she started laughing at us dithering around trying decide whether or not she should do it.

“Tess, we need somebody here shooting a video of this for You-Tube," she says. 'It would get a million hits.”

“Yep,“ I agree. “The grannies discover porn!” From there it went straight downhill. She did wind up with the books, though whether she musters the courage to list them is still a craps shoot, but I'll find out tomorrow. Either way she will be forever known at the estate sales as Cherry Delight. Jewelry Guy and Mid-Century Furniture Guy will see to it!

This exchange would never take place at a library book sale, not only because they would very likely never have such fare, but because of the tinderbox intensity of these events. So when spontaneous fun occurs ANYWHERE a book dealer is wise to gather her bon mots while she may. The winter can be long and dreary.

Monday, September 27, 2010

Where the Spirit Moves You

I should be listing books as we speak. I had a good day yesterday with several orders from Advanced Books Exchange, one of which was for multiple titles. Normally, that would be enough to rev me into high gear, but today it appears not to be so. I woke up at 4:30, a fragment of a strange dream caught in consciousness and a feeling of quiet contemplation already come over me like an old familiar sweater. I got up at seven – late for me – made coffee and stared out the kitchen window through the wet gloom to the lake covered in ducks, the white domestics huddled together near the far edge, the mallards swimming with their usual insouciance. How mercurial moods are, rising from seemingly nowhere and sometimes, as now, so seemingly off-kilter with reality.

It’s not the weather that brings on this melancholy. I like the dark days of autumn and winter, the chill in the air, the coziness of electric light in the middle of the day. Today is just simply “one of those days” when the spirit seems to insist upon stepping out of the fray. Will I give in to that, or will I push through and begin listing with deliberate resolve? I don’t know yet – it could go either way, or both ways, as the day progresses. When my children were in school I used to occasionally allow them what I called “a mental health day”, but neither one availed themselves of the privilege. Perhaps knowing that the option was there diminished the need to choose it. I allow myself the same privilege, but find that I, too, rarely take advantage of it. Perhaps I should though – perhaps we all should -- if we have the luxury. Perhaps mental health days are one of the perks of self-employment.

My husband tells me often that I work too much, stress too much, worry too much. Too much, too much – the words are his antiphonal response to both my laments and my silence. But I am not good at gauging quantity, so “too much” is meaningless to me. Where is the point of enough and how do I know when I’ve sped past it in my desire to what – succeed, accomplish, prove my industry, learn it all, do it all, WHAT? With him traveling again I work much longer hours – some days ALL hours -- but my work happily engages me. So how then could it be too much? IS it too much? Some would say so. Eric would say so. Could it be that something inside me says so too?

Yesterday being Sunday I walked five miles with my friend Nancy. We do this most every week, sometimes in the neighborhood, sometimes crossing through the park to an adjacent, larger neighborhood, and sometimes on the trails that wind around the large lake in the metro park at Hinckley. This walk is church to me –Sunday time, sacred time. But for some reason -- which I realize suddenly in this moment of writing -- I need to pull my old beat-up walking shoes out of the closet again and go out in the gloom today too.

“You really could break down and buy some new shoes,” Eric says to me as I write this.

He’s not here, but I hear him as clearly as if he were standing in the doorway. He very much dislikes my adherence to things past their prime. I’m not like that with most things, just some, like these old beat-up shoes. I had a pair of my own before and wore them through so Nancy gave me hers some years ago. They’re my walking shoes and my book sale shoes. I could polish them – I might even do it today – but I love them in their natural state just as much as I would with their make-up on. These shoes have walked more miles than I can count. These shoes have borne serious witness.

Well then. It would appear that today IS a mental health day, wouldn't it? So then. I will walk. I will read. And then I will play with the beautiful collage papers in the tubs stashed too long in the basement closet. It’s time, I think, to make something tangible, something that can be held in my hands -- something that can be quantified.

Saturday, September 25, 2010

The Belle of the Books -- Belle da Costa Greene

Have you ever longed for a book you’ve read, but don’t own? This doesn’t happen to me often, but last week An Illuminated Life; Belle da Costa Greene’s Journey From Prejudice to Privilege by Heidi Ardizzone (W.W. Norton, 2007) began whispering to me after I added something to my Facebook profile and saw that I had listed it as a favorite. I’d checked it out of the library almost as soon they’d acquired it (it wasn’t a hot title in Medina), so it’s been three years since I read it. An online search showed several copies available as well as a 1997 Biblio Magazine in which Belle had been featured. Of course nothing would do but to buy both the book AND the magazine. The magazine arrived this morning and I am fairly aswoon.

If you are a bibliophile and have not made the acquaintance of J.P. Morgan’s librarian and buyer of rare books for over forty years (from her early 20’s through her late 60’s), you owe it to yourself to at least know who she was. Belle, with her high school education and highly developed autodidatic proclivities, commanded serious attention in the world of rare books, both in America and in Europe. Not only was she beautiful -- dark,exotic, cultured -- but she moved through the world of rare books and auctions like an elegant panther ready to leap gracefully over whoever got between her and the book she coveted. And Belle coveted big-time -- especially 15th century illuminated manuscripts which took a mighty bite out of the Morgan fortune, but helped build a library of rare distinction.

In the 1960’s some of the medieval Books of Hours were reprinted by the Morgan, as were others in the 90’s from the J. Paul Getty Library, all exquisitely designed with slipcases. I bought several last year, but have nothing left of them, not even the photo of my favorite, The Hours of Simon De Varie published by the Getty. This book is so sensuously delicious – it feels like satin – you want to clutch it to your heart like your first born child. So you can just imagine what it must have been like to experience the original.

But this post is not about books so much as it is about Belle herself. I have not mentioned the fact that she was part African American because it shouldn’t matter, but of course it does. To use the euphemism, Belle “passed,” in part because of her light skin, but also because she adopted the middle name da Costa and insinuated a Portuguese background. I find this last part especially amusing because I am half Irish and half Portuguese and couldn’t pass for Portuguese if I put a bag over my head! But Belle could and did. Of course suspicions arose from time to time, but she retained a dignified detachment and kept her eye on the prize – the successful procurement of the world’s most beautiful books

In her spare time Belle also focused on a string of lovers, the most important of whom was the noted art scholar, Bernard Berenson, her relationship with whom forms the set-piece of the Biblio magazine article. The article (and the book)relate how Berenson was so bewitched by the Belle of Morgan Library that he once burst into tears when she canceled an assignation and withdrew into a depression so deep his wife offered to comfort him through it! But Belle’s great passion was the books. To make so memorable a mark in the rare book world of her day (she came to work for J.P. Morgan in 1905 and retired in the 1940's) is astounding. Rare books were the province of men and yet this woman with no college degree who “passed” as white managed to rise like cream to the top. The single-minded determination of it, the pleasure derived from it, thrills me to goose-bumps.

As you know already if you read my post about selling a first edition Breakfast at Tiffany’s, I’m not a book collector in the true sense of the word, but all of this has left me badly coveting Studies in Art and Literature for Belle da Costa Greene, a tribute book published by Princeton University Press in 1954 with a very limited print run. The cheapest copy I could find was $68, but I won’t buy it because the seller did not find it worthy of a description.If he doesn’t appreciate Belle, or at least the book itself, then he’s not the dealer for me. So that leaves me to choose between a beautiful copy lacking its jacket for $75, or a fine copy with a not very good, but at least present, jacket for $125. A true collector’s copy would command considerably more depending upon one’s "picky"-ness. I think though that I could love the $75 copy very much.

So if you’re reading this, Eric, pay attention please! There are only 91 shopping days left until Christmas. And Belle and I have bonded.

Friday, September 24, 2010

Bibliomancy and The Lucky Dip

So last night I’m in the grocery store perusing granola bars when I overhear two women talking about the Lucky Dip. The one who brought it up had a faintly British accent which is probably what prompted some deeply buried synapse in my brain to fire. From what I gathered, her Lucky Dip had something to do with a children's game – mine, of course, had something to do with books. Nonetheless, the voice triggered a memory of a long forgotten British book that referred in passing to the Lucky Dip as the ancient practice of using a book for divination. I haven’t a clue whether the book was fiction or nonfiction, but I appear to have stored the term Lucky Dip deep in the recesses of some cerebral vault.

Most likely it’s because The Lucky Dip used to be a slumber party game when I was in high school.Of course we didn’t have a name for it back then, but we’d ask a question about some pressing issue - will Sam ask me to the prom? – then grab a book -- any book -- close our eyes, open the book at random, and jab an index finger on a sentence. Whatever we landed on supposedly contained the answer. Of course whatever we landed on was usually vastly unrelated to either Sam, OR the prom, much less Sam and the prom together (“The average temperature in Madagascar is 18.3 Celsius...”), so the trick of course was to explore the “hidden meaning”. In case you hadn’t figured it out by now, I really knew how to party in those days.

I hadn’t thought about this in years -- make that decades -- so I figured it might be fun to give it a try for old time’s sake. We’ll get to that a little later on, but first I thought I’d share what I could find out about the practice. According to Wikipedia, it actually has a serious name -- bibliomancy – which is defined as, “the use of sacred books, especially specific words and verses, for ‘magical medicine’, removing negative entities, or for divination.” Another word for it is stichnomancy,“divinization by reading lines of verse in books taken at random.” Either way, it dates back to the ancient Greeks and its practitioners have spanned the spiritual spectrum, including adherents of many of the major religions, all seeking answers to life’s conundrums in sacred texts. It might be pointed out that the major religions aren’t real keen on it.

Anyway, I’ll spare you the rest of the history and segue neatly into literature with a charming story about the famous literary lovers Robert Browning and Elizabeth Barrett (Browning). It seems that prior to their marriage, Robert was in a quandary about the future of his romantic relationship with Elizabeth. So he did what any lovelorn poet would – grabbed a random book and decided to seek some otherworldly advice. But alack and alas! The book in his hand was an Italian grammar. How would THAT predict the future of his amorous intentions? It was the 19th century after all and slumber parties hadn’t been invented yet, so naturally he didn’t know about the hidden meaning thing. But that didn’t stop Robert. He gamely closed his eyes, opened the book, and dropped his finger on a random sentence. It read, “ If we love in the other world as we do in this, I shall love thee to eternity.” The man had actually landed on a translation exercise! If you don’t believe it, go to Volume I, page 470 of The Letters of Robert Browning and Elizabeth Barrett Browning and look it up.

So with that in mind, I am now ready to share my own recent experience with The Lucky Dip. For lack of anything truly pressing to ask, I decided to go generic. I would simply open the book and be led to the exact thing I needed to know on September 23rd, 2010 at 9:04 p.m.. The closest book at hand was on the floor next to me at the top of the stack of new acquisitions to be listed in the morning, so I picked up The Correspondence of James Fenimore Cooper, closed my eyes, opened the book, and chose a passage.

“Your natural utterance is quick like my own. Quick utterance is never dignified and you should correct this.”

Whoa! This was pretty uncanny given the fact that when I get excited I sound like the end of those commercials that have five pages of legalese and four seconds to cram it all in. For years, just in case the books didn’t work out, my secret career move has been to read those ads on the radio. And now from beyond the veil, Cooper – well, I assume it was Cooper since we share the same problem and he did refer to me familiarly as “you” – just zapped my back-up plan.

Unless, of course, there’s some hidden meaning. I wonder if I’m too old for a slumber party.

Wednesday, September 22, 2010

All My Elmers; Mentoring and the Bookseller

A comment provided by a reader named Saturday Evening Post on the blog I did about Elmer’s quirky book was not only enlightening, but also a catalyst for thought. He (I think he's a he) pointed out that in the world of ham radio an Elmer is the person who helps you learn both the laws and lingo of the hobby and get set up to transmit and receive messages. He also said he bet I had had a lot of Elmers along the way teaching me the book trade. At first glance I would have said no, that I pretty much winged it, but that would only be partially true. The more I think about it the more Elmers I recall and two of them were even dead when they taught me some of the most important things I know.

The day I sat down to list my first book on Advanced Book Exchange in April, 1997 (I still remember it too– A Checklist of American Coverlet Makers) I brought with me three things -- my love of books fostered by a lifelong reading habit, the communication skills I learned during my newspaper and magazine days, and the marketing tools acquired as PR director for a nursing home/assisted living complex. I thought that should be enough and in those salad days of the early internet it was. Back then buying books online was a novelty. There were only 2000 sellers on ABE, amazon was buying direct from the seller, and even commoner books commanded a decent price. So it wasn’t exactly rocket science, though you did need to know how to write good descriptions, spot a first edition, and understand book terminology. Even so, it was a piece of Emily Dickinson's infamous Black Cake compared to what is required today.

My first Elmer was the late Doug Gunn who owned a bookstore near Wooster, Ohio. By the time I met Doug around 2000 I had already realized that I wanted to move to the next level of bookselling. I was devouring anything I could find on antiquarian books and going to the antiquarian book shows, but I was also suddenly feeling even smaller and less significant than before -- which of course is because I WAS smaller and less significant than before. I stood in awe (still do) of the veterans, the sellers whose knowledge is so vast it would make your head spin a la The Exorcist. Even then there was something of a pecking order amongst sellers so a general wariness of internet wannabes hung in the air like smog. The old-time dealers were polite enough, but certainly weren't ushering us newcomers into the inner circle. The first person to treat me as though I might possibly know a few things and had the capability and drive to learn a lot more was Doug Gunn. Doug didn’t teach me about points of issue or any other bookselling technicality, but he gave me something even better – belief in myself -- and for that I am forever grateful.

I briefly mentioned my next Elmer in another post, but will do it again here because when it comes to ephemera I was lucky enough to learn it at the feet of the master. This one is Lee Kirk from Eugene, Oregon. I can’t remember how we hooked up via the internet, but I will never forget the way she not only taught me the hidden wonders of paper, but challenged me to MOVE it. I had collected a ton of the stuff by the time I “met” her – even then I gravitated to it like a frat boy to a beer keg -- but as much as I loved it, I was afraid to list it for the simple reason that I knew enough to know that I didn’t know anything! So Lee helped me sort it all out and then began to issue challenges.

The one I remember best was this -- take what you think is your least attractive item, research it, and sell it. With trepidation I chose a professional-looking black and white photograph of a coin dealer interacting with a customer at a numismatic show. His name was on the back and there was a sign indicating that the show was being held at the Sheraton Hotel sponsored by a leading numismatic association. As it turned out, the sign ended up providing an exact date -- 1957. But sell it? I figured I had a better chance of selling the cardboard box the GOOD numismatic stuff had come in. So when the eventual buyer called to order it I was so shocked I actually blurted, “Are you SERIOUS?!” Clearly, I still had a loooooong way to go!

My final two Elmers – the dead ones – were Elmer of the 35,000 books written about recently and a lady named Lillian who lived all her eighty-some years in a mansion in Akron and left behind a marvelous collection of books spanning two generations, hers and her parents'. Elmer taught me aviation, gems and minerals, WWII, the art of book repair, and the previously unknown world of strange-quirky-odd-very-weird books! Lillian, on the other hand, bumped me up the food chain with such outstanding books as Stanford White’s architectural drawings (which I have never listed), but more than that, she taught me about the magical connection between seller and previous owner. From the pages of Lillian’s books fell photographs, cards, hand written notes, programs, ticket stubs, newspaper clippings and ruminations. Lillian's life bloomed before me petal by petal and slowly through some mysterious alchemy of the soul she became “mine”. As such, I cared for her books, and all those which came after them from various estates, with a deeper respect, a kind of spiritual momentum which has never left me.

Lillian’s family had made its fortune in pottery, primarily for the chemical industry, so the little blue vase in the photo above is a special momento. A few years after I bought many of her books at auction I bought the vase at an estate sale. It wasn't perfect -- a few tiny flea-bite nicks mar the shiny surface, but I don't care because Lillian herself made it, painted it, fired it and signed it on the bottom. The vase holds flowers just as well as if it were perfect anyway. And it holds remembrance even better.

Monday, September 20, 2010

What Lies Beneath -- Researching Ephemera

All weekend I thought about how I had left you dangling on the edge of the cliff, but Eric got home from Indiana, we went to a great estate sale both Saturday and Sunday and had a million errands to run. The first second I’ve had to get back here is now, so I hope you’ll find this post worth the wait. The item shown above is the one which inspired my last post on value added. It’s a 1926 program from the prestigious Lawrenceville School in Lawrenceville, New Jersey, a prep school still in operation today. I’ve sold several vintage Lawrence items over the years including a catalog, several sports programs like this one, and a glossy newspaper, but all were sold on their own merit. This one is made special because of one student and a lot of bookseller research.

Had I not made the colossal mistake I wrote about earlier with another golf related item I might have let it slip right by me. But I looked carefully at every page and was struck immediately by one photo, that of a young Asian boy who was captain of the golf team. What caught my interest is the fact that I had never seen a non-Caucasian student in any previous piece of Lawrenceville ephemera from the period and he was the sole person in this one. The caption reads Captain Konoye, but with no first name. So I went to Google, typed in the last name and the school and -- wow!— found scattered in various articles the pieces of an unforgettable story.

Every time I look at the picture of this handsome, carefree young man, so promising a golfer that he was later Varsity Captain of the golf team at Princeton too, I shudder to think of what befell him. His name was Fumitaka Konoye and he was the eldest son of Prince Konoye of Japan who in the early 1940’s served as Prime Minister. Konoye Sr. is known for having failed to reach a peace agreement with Cordell Hull and President Roosevelt that would have kept the United States out of WWII. I’m not going to get into all the politics, but suffice it to say that the sins of the father were visited upon the son.

Young Fumitaka, whose American friends called him Butch, proved to be a social success in the U.S. The kid played golf, boxed, rode horses and spoke English like a native, even tossing the current slang as easily as if it were a Frisbee. He laughed a lot, plastered the walls of his dorm at Princeton with Esquire cartoons, and didn’t spend much time hitting the books. As one of his professors said in the Daily Princetonian, “he was less than an earnest student, but a likeable boy.” Little did Butch know that his pleasures, though many, would all come early and be swiftly passing. Butch returned to Japan before graduation from Princeton where, despite his youth, he landed a job as dean of a college. Not long after though war called and he enlisted in the Japanese Army and found himself stationed in Manchuria.

Pearl Harbor. WWII. Chaos. Mass destruction. And then finally,liberation and peace for most of the world. But not for the Konoyes, a family regarded by the Japanese as being of divine descent. 1945 brought the trials of those suspected of war crimes and prominent on the list was Prince Konoye, young Butch’s father, who knew that he would most certainly be convicted and executed by hanging. So at 5 a.m. on December 6, 1945, the morning he was to surrender, Prince Konoye swallowed potassium cyanide. At 6:30 a.m, his wife discovered him and a half hour later he died. A farewell “party” was later held, but the Prince’s eldest son did not attend. “Butch” Fumitaka Konoye, the happy-go-lucky boy from Lawrenceville and Princeton, the boy who only wanted to play golf and have a good time, had previously been captured by Soviet troops when the Red Army swept through Manchuria and was being held as a prisoner of war. Ultimately, due to the prominence of his father, a tribunal found him guilty of supporting capitalism and sentenced him to 25 years hard labor in a Siberian prison camp.

According to William F. Ninno, author of Behind the Curtain of Silence; Japanese in Soviet Custody (Greenwood Press, 1988) one out of five prisoners died in Soviet camps. One of the final ones to succumb was the boy in the argyle golf socks. Ironically, he did so on October 20,1956, two months before his scheduled repatriation to Japan and ONE DAY after Moscow and Japan restored diplomatic relations. Today Princeton awards a scholarship in his name to Japanese students.

I told you it was a heartbreaker.

Friday, September 17, 2010

The Value of Value-Added

I read somewhere that the most effective time to add a blog post is 11 a.m., so it looks like I missed the boat by a mile today. But as much as I love writing this I do have that pesky problem of trying to keep afloat as a bookseller. However, while listing this afternoon I ran across something interesting enough to drive me over here to tell you about it because it’s part of a much bigger factor to consider when it comes to bookselling – value added.

I know , I know -- it sounds like one of those corporate catch-phrases – and it is. But I didn’t pay to send my younger daughter to the University of Toledo for four years for nothing. SHE got the marketing degree, but I’m trying to make it work for me too, which lately has me wading knee-deep in electronic waters – very scary -- but that’s another story we’ll get to later. Value added simply means either finding something about your copy of a book that sets it apart from the competition, or adding something to it to MAKE it stand out. For years I have done this without realizing it had a name, and you may well be instinctively doing the same if you’re a seller, but it doesn’t hurt any of us to be reminded of its effectiveness.

The first time I recall doing it was several years ago when I bought an antiquarian children's book at an antiques mall sold by a dealer who not only had done no research on the book, but hadn’t even LOOKED inside it. I know this because in front of the back endpapers I found Michael Jordan’s signature on a handwritten note on NBA stationery. Of course selling the signature with such a ridiculously dissimilar title, even at a higher price, would just be repeating crazy. I could legitimately have listed the signed note by itself as ephemera, but it might, or might not, have been easily found by a prospective buyer, as this was before my tenure on ebay. So I mulled it over a for few days and then remembered that I had a beautiful glossy hard cover coffee table book about the NBA which featured great photos of Jordan. Due to its low selling price and high shipping cost I had planned on giving it to Eric for store stock, but instead I inserted the fabulous note inside the humdrum book and – voila! – value added. The book itself didn’t magically gain value. What it did was serve as a conduit for the note to get noticed and, ultimately,sold.

This past summer we overheard a young bookseller standing behind us in line yakking away about how these “stupid” sellers waste so much time writing big long descriptions and “looking up prices”. He could, he informed his listeners,list fifteen times as many titles as they do because all his hard covers cost the same. I refrained from uttering a peep, but my insides were doing the hula from suppressed giggles. I wonder what he would think about RESEARCH. Probably not much. But research is another way to provide value added. Take for example a book I sold this morning -- History of the Twenty-Ninth Division "Blue & Gray" 1917-1919. I noticed it had a very nice, older bookplate with the original owner’s name on it, so I I played around with the name a bit and discovered in a listing of hometown heroes from Connecticut that its owner was a WWI veteran. On the half chance that he might actually be mentioned in the book, I gave it a look and guess what? He not only was, but had gotten there by merit.

Clarence L. Dunsing is featured in the text on page 191 for Distinguished Service for "extraordinary heroism” in action near Molleville, France, October 18, 1918. During a heavy bombardment Corporal Dunsing, who was on duty as a non-commissioned officer, went along the front line of his company and administered first aid treatment to several seriously wounded men. How cool is that? The buyer evidently thought so because my copy was listed at a higher price than its competitors.

Which brings me to the fact that I still haven’t told you about the item that brought me here in the first place! If I do it right now though I’ll either not do justice to it, or this will wind up being be the longest post in blogosphere history, as it’s quite a story. So I’m going to leave it at that right now and take up the continuing saga of valued added next time. I promise there’s something in it for booksellers, history buffs, golfers, and anyone who can’t resist a human interest story. It may even break your heart -- it did mine.

Thursday, September 16, 2010

Elmer's Quirky Book

I promised an oddity from Elmer so here goes. But before I get started I want you to know that I’ve coined a new word for books and paper that defy classification and are so wonderfully quirky, they may be of value only to the quirkiest of the quirky. Henceforth all such items, regardless of derivation, shall be called Elmerisms. If the word resonates for you, by all means take it. If enough people do, Elmer will be immortal.

So then, today’s Elmerism is a homemade travel guide which at first glance would lead you to believe it was created by a child for completion of the ubiquitous assignment How I Spent My Summer Vacation. But a more careful look shows that it was written and compiled by John Skelton, who at the time of creation was custodian of the Avebury Museum and Ancient Monument in Wiltshire,England. By custodian I believe he may have meant curator, as Mr. Skelton’s interest and knowledge of the subject seems to transcend the broom closet and its accoutrements. On the back of the book he carefully recorded the hours of the site’s operation, but neglected to put a date anywhere, so I had to do a little internet sleuthing. I had hoped that by typing in Skelton’s name on google I would get a match, but all I found were John Skelton the English poet and a few John Skeltons on Facebook. There was nothing to do but to read Mr. Skelton’s work.

So I settled in with it last night,and sure enough, a clue emerged – two clues actually. The first was a reference to Alexander Keiller to whom Skelton accredited the museum which bears his name and its collection of artifacts from the Windmill Hill habitation site. Keiller, whose family made a fortune in the marmalade business, bought the site in the 1930’s and began serious restoration and unearthing of buried stones. Skelton noted that Keiller died in 1955, so of course the homemade travel guide came into being after that. On then to the second clue.

There is still two-thirds of Avebury Stone Circle to excavate and many more will be the finds of great importance that will tell a further story of what went on inside the Great Prehistoric Temple of Avebury. One day it will all be restored to its former grandeur and People will come in their thousands to see it from far and wide. It is the most important prehistoric site in Britain,” Mr. Skelton wrote near the end of his book.

A google search on recent excavations easily provided a plausible time frame for the book. After the 30’s no more digging was done on the site until 1969 when a new school was built close by. After that it wasn’t until 1982 that an excavation commenced to produce carbon dating material and environmental data. The third, and so far last exploration, was undertaken in April 2003 when a 100 ton stone, the largest in the UK, was discovered seven feet underground. Later that same year the National Trust found 15 buried megaliths and identified their size, in what direction they lay, and where in the stone circle they belong. So that means that somewhere between 1955 and 1969 Mr. Skelton took pen to paper. Skelton’s work was a gift presented to a Karl and Mrs. Cerny who may have been planning to visit England, perhaps from the United States. Whether they made the trip, or not, they must have sufficiently valued their guide enough to squirrel it away, which is really a lovely thing in our throw-away world.

But does the book have monetary value? I find it hard to believe that it does. Nothing in the manuscript is new and undocumented and, while wonderful, similar photographs exist in abundance. The book’s value lies in the passion of one man who loved his work, in the wonder of a site he deemed greater than Stonehenge, and in the appreciation of a second man who bought it at a garage sale somewhere in the greater Cleveland area because it spoke to him. And now it speaks to me too, so I guess it’s my turn to take up the mantel of custodian and save an Elmerism from the recycling center.

Wednesday, September 15, 2010

Elmer's Last Gift

Yesterday afternoon a sudden flash of memory sent me flying down the stairs to the basement closet (climate-controlled) where I had stashed several boxes of books. It’s been a long time since I’d looked at them and I hadn’t a clue what they were, or even why they were there. But seemingly out of nowhere I realized that I had been stacking rolls of bubble wrap on top of them for at least a couple years. I just got a bubble wrap shipment in late last week and had put it in the closet on the boxes, so the sight of them must have somehow tickled my subconscious. Anyway, I unloaded the wrap, dragged them out, and took a sentimental journey by myself on the floor in front of the clothes dryer.

The minute I opened the first box I knew they’d come from Elmer.Of all the book buys we have ever made, or will make in the future, no one will ever top Elmer for sheer quantity – 35,000 books. Three years ago Elmer died and his niece called to see if we were interested in buying “lots of books.” As I’ve mentioned before, lots is a word that can mean anything, but even my wildest imagination couldn’t have conjured up a double storage unit crammed, piled, heaped, and mounded with boxes of books to the ceiling, plus a similarly full garage back at the house. It took an excess of twenty trips in our store cube van to retrieve them all and even with that Eric had to drive like the Little Old Lady From Pasadena, as we were over capacity every time.

Elmer was nothing if not an eclectic collector, but he did favor a few categories, the most prominent being Asian art, rocks and minerals, and aviation -- especially aviation. For at least a year I was Queen of the Air on ebay and barely chalked up a single female customer during my reign. But though Elmer was big on quantity, the quality of his stash zoomed all over the map. A single box could contain 20 soft cover aviation series titles published by Aero or Schiffer,a stack of dubious movie related titles he’d bought at Half-Price Books -- and buried at the bottom a rare book on Arabian archery. Every evening that spring and summer Eric and I went on a treasure hunt that led us through bleak deserts, over breathtaking mountains, and under unfathomable seas. There were nights when I could have wept from frustration and fatigue and nights when I whispered fervent thank yous to Elmer across time and space.

When we bought the books we had no idea who Elmer was, only that he was the seller’s elderly uncle. But one sweltering hot evening in the garage I opened a book and an envelope fluttered to the ground. It was addressed to Elmer . Instantly my mind flashed a picture of a small old man sitting on a park bench in front of the library on a snowy Saturday morning with his girlfriend waiting for the book sale to begin. His arm encompassed her shoulders as they huddled close to share the Cleveland Plain Dealer.

“You’re not going to believe this,” I said to Eric. “But these books are Elmer’s. Our Elmer’s.”

It’s not that we had ever talked to him at great length – Elmer wasn’t a big talker – but he was ours nonetheless as all the old regulars at sales are. How strange that we had custody of his books without even realizing it. After that the timbre of our relationship with the books changed. I still got tired and frustrated sometimes, but in a much more benevolent way.

“Elmer, WHAT were you thinking?” I’d say out loud. Or “Good job, Elmer! Way to go! YAY Elmer!”

And now Elmer is back with one final gift. There are only a couple books here that have signifcant monetary value, but there are also some oddities that are anybody’s guess. I laughed right out loud when I saw them because oddities are the thing that most binds me to Elmer. He loved them. I love them. Stay tuned and next time I’ll share one I just found.

Meanwhile,thanks again Elmer. It's been a trip.

Monday, September 13, 2010

Sittin' On the Dock of "The Bay"

This last week has been both long and busy which seems like a contradiction since busy days tend to fly by and long ones plod. But Eric is in Indiana for a trade show and I am holding down the fort here which means my life shifts back and forth from frenetic to ordinary with the few inevitable stops at BORING. I never much liked that stop called Boring – there’s nobody interesting to talk to and you can’t even get a decent glass of wine.

The good news is that every night at five-thirty the phone rings and there on the other end of the line is the voice that even after all these years still makes me believe that God’s in Her heaven and all’s right with the world. Mostly we share minor events back and forth, report the day’s sales in both Ohio and Indiana, and laugh at the latest antics of the little guys in Michigan. But Saturday was a red letter day because THE MAN BOUGHT SOME BOOKS! The surprising part of it is I had previously made an offer for these books by mail some weeks ago, but the owner felt he could get more for them elsewhere and declined it. As it turns out, he couldn’t, so he brought them to the show in hopes that the offer still held. I can’t remember how many volumes there were – I think maybe a dozen for which I offered $200 – so I was very pleased. Only a couple really gave me palpitations, particularly one on powder horns which I’ve had before, but in this late summer of our book acquisition discontent I’m practically tap dancing on the ceiling with joy to have them.

Of course the bad part is that once the books get here at the end of the week (this is a looooooong show and will be almost immediately followed by another Terrible, Horrible, Very Bad Long Show (a gold star for anyone who knows where that was borrowed from) it will take me exactly one day to list them. ONE DAY! And then I’ll be back scraping things up off the closet floor again hoping to find a gem instead of a dust bunny. However, I do have a singular line of defense -- I’ve once again returned to my old hobby of ferreting out online bargains. It’s fun to shop in your pjs and fuzzy socks fortified by a bowl of mint chocolate chip ice cream and a mug of mint tea so hot it would burn the varnish off the floor. Not only is the world your book sale, but you’re never crowded, never have to endure the great unwashed (I mean that LITERALLY!) and never have to nail your selections to the floor to keep them safe. AND you don’t have to wait in line for three hours, and nobody rushes you, elbows you, snatches books from your hand, or, as at one memorable sale, shoves you into a box of books and causes your lower back to go into spasm.

On the flip side, online inventory building is a very, very time-consuming process unless you have Bookthink’s handy software to speed it up, which I don’t, but am considering springing for. I’m not sure how it works exactly, but I suspect you fill in the parameters of what you want and it crawls all over ebay, alerting you if it makes a match. (Is this right, Kristian? If not – here’s your chance to SELL this thing!) As it stands now, I’m just sitting on the dock of “the bay” hoping to snag a bargain. I had a good one on the hook this afternoon, but it was an auction and I forgot about it until the book sold at a price so ridiculously low the seller is probably drowning his sorrows as we speak. I did remember an auction last week though and got a drop-dead gorgeous set of children’s books from 1910 – twelve beauties, like new in their original wooden carton with the title stenciled on the box and the original postage stamps adhered to the back! Even weighing in at 26 pounds, I got a great deal on an unusual item which will be perfect for shows in the spring if I don’t break down and list them before then.

As for ebay, I already know what you’re thinking. I’m supposed to be mad at ebay, which I am, but here’s the thing. Refusing to pay their ever-burgeoning seller fees for declining sales and drawing the line at jumping through flaming hoops like a trick monkey is one thing. But profiting from them is another. Business, after all, is business. And I'm sure they'd be the first to agree.

Saturday, September 11, 2010

The Book Seller As Collector

I didn’t used to be much of a collector, but over the years a creeping underground virus seemed to have taken me over. Eric was afflicted with it from the first day we opened the business, forever searching through my stacks of books, falling in love with this one or that one, and wanting to keep it. I, on the other hand, wanted to move them ALL out the door like soldiers marching in lockstep formation. I loved them greatly – no question about that – but business was business.

To understand these diverse attitudes you have only to look at our diverse backgrounds. Eric’s father made his living as an antiques dealer who always creamed the very best items he acquired off the top of his inventory – the Flow Blue soup tureen, the cherry corner cupboard with glass doors, the Ohio long rifle signed by a rare maker -- and let the lesser things pay for his habit. In this way he built several very fine collections with little outlay and much cunning. I, on the other hand, was an inner city kid whose parents collected nothing more than bills and grief which turned out to be collections enough. I loved books passionately and completely, but it was for their content and comfort, not for their monetary value.

But then I discovered antiquarian books and paper. At first I was merely charmed by their fetching bindings, their raised bands, and paisley endpapers, but gradually a quiet sea change began(well, as quiet as anything I’m involved in ever is). The metamorphosis pretty much remained underground though until 2004 when I sold Kipling’s From Sea To Sea, Letters Of Travel, a two volume set in its rare original slipcase. If I had a dime for every academic I'd scanned that slipcase for I could probably retire and take up gardening, so when the set sold my reaction stunned even me. For several seconds I stared in disbelief at the order from Advanced Book Exchange and then wailed like a hired keener at an Irish wake. After that I picked up the phone, called Eric at the store, and burst into tears. Rarely do my overflowing emotions surprise him (he’s logged 40 years of them, after all), but I think that one could be filed under the classification Shock and Awe.

“I know. I get it,” he said comfortingly once the amazement dissipated. “But let this be a lesson. Don’t list this stuff if you don’t want to sell it.”

Never again would I do this, I agreed. Never. And I didn’t. Until the next time.

Sadly, there have been lots of next times. In fact, one took place this week, which is what got me to thinking about all of this. On Wednesday I sold Capote’s iconic Breakfast at Tiffany’s in first edition. I got it maybe a month ago at an estate sale, hidden in a bookcase by the office window of a nondescript ranch house in Akron. Lovely condition, crisp paper on the jacket, no price clip, no names or writing – beautiful. And now sold.

For two days I mourned its loss and and then I got over it. It occurred to me one night while I was reading in bed that my sea change was not exactly as pure and mystical as I made it out to be. The truth is, I am not a real collector and I never will be. My sadness over the loss of Breakfast at Tiffany’s is not about edition, points, or any other collector foible. It’s about the hard work it took to acquire it and its tangible evidence of the knowledge I’ve gained over the years. As plebian as the truth may be, I would love that book just as much in a book club edition as I do in a first.

So from here on in I won't even pretend to collect, but rather leave the collecting to Eric who happily fills the bookcase he built in our living room to house the treasures. I add next to nothing to it anyway, other than exceptional volumes from stock that provide a fleeting beauty, though the sight of all these books glowing like the jewels of the Nile fills me with a deep, sustaining pleasure. I will continue of course to mourn and grieve, wail and moan at their passing, but no longer with any illusions. When the day comes that we have an estate sale of our own the dealers and collectors (if there even are any by then) will descend on the living room like a flock of vul... uh, pigeons. Meanwhile, my books – a motley amalgamation of Lost Generation, May Sarton, and books about books -- will sit like wallflowers on the shelves in the family room. Safe.

Thursday, September 09, 2010

Customers Calling! -- The Phone and Online Selling

Sometimes we believe things which may or may not be true. I have always believed that good books sell and I still do, which is why I am so anxious to GET some more! I did, however, acquire a nice one Wednesday, listed it yesterday, and sold it within a few hours. Yes, HOURS, which gives credence to my core belief about the saleability of good books even in a bad economy. The buyer was a lovely lady who collects pre-1880 books about housekeeping and etiquette, so mine, published in 1879, just barely squeaked in under the wire. What's interesting is that this book hasn't as yet been scanned by the purveyors of print-on-demand, a fact worthy of classification as the eighth wonder of the world! But let’s not tell them, okay?

Part of what made this such a great sale was the fact that the buyer phoned rather than ordering online. I know a lot of dealers don’t enjoy communicating with buyers by phone, but I love it and always have. I have four who call fairly regularly – a collector of Masonic titles and memorabilia from Philadelphia, a Civil War buff from Kentucky, a female Civil War buff from West Virginia, and a local with a passion for Russian royalty and expensive jewelry. It’s FUN to develop relationships with customers, listen to their stories and interests, share a laugh or two, and wish each other well -- shines up the day brighter than the gilt edges of an Easton Press title. And besides, this particular customer’s call, coupled with the quick sale mentioned above and our ensuing conversation on etiquette, provided me with a made-to-order blog post!

Talking with customers by phone does much more than add a little zip to a quiet, bookish existence though. By personalizing the transaction you open the door to the creation of repeat customers and provide yourself with a golden opportunity to jot down wants and interests so you can offer the caller first dibs on something you acquire later. You can even (charmingly of course) suggest compatible titles from your stock which can lead to multiple sales on the spot. AND it isn’t only you who wins – the buyers do too because they know you’re a “real person” and all they have to do to reach you is pick up the phone. In a world where bookselling has degenerated into the mere listing of ISBN numbers on an impersonal screen, a listed phone number subtly imparts security and credibility and separates you from the run-of-the-mill seller, especially if you are selling on your own website and are not huddled with the pack under a Big Name umbrella. This may be unfair, but I tend to bypass sellers I can’t phone, and as a result, have our number blazing across the top of our website. You’d think I was selling used cars.

Of course many customers are so used to the anonymous nature of online shopping anymore they wouldn’t call you if your number flashed brighter that a Blue Light Special at K-Mart. This wasn’t the case back in the "good old days”. (Oh listen to THAT, will you? I sound like I ought to be dusted with Pledge.) But, truly, when we first opened our business people called all the time to give us their credit card numbers. These days paypal rules and many sites have turned independent dealers into drop-shippers, but, even so, I still take enough cards to make it worth keeping the account open. So if it’s all the same to you I’ll just leave it at that and not spoil a beautiful day with a rant on bookseller autonomy.

In the end, if you really, really, REALLY would rather be hung by your toes on a clothesline than talk to the customers, forget all of the above. Customers have a sixth sense about this stuff and will sniff out the truth faster than a drug dog. I remember once calling a seller with a listed phone number to place an order and was greeted with, “WHY are you calling me? Can't you see that you can order online!” followed by the mighty crash of the receiver braining the console. Not only did she lose my vote for Miss Congeniality, but even worse, I remember it every single time I see one of her listings. And get this -- it was ten years ago.

Tuesday, September 07, 2010

Book Acqusition Reframed

The holiday weekend is over and peace reigns again at
Garrison House Books. My oldest daughter, her husband, and the two little guys were here for the weekend, joined by my sister and her husband Sunday night, so we’ve been rockin’ and rollin’ over here! It turns out that Baby’s stage of development makes my enormous glass- topped coffee table a lethal weapon, so I had to bubble wrap the top of it – which, as it turns out, was easier to do than to undo! I wish I had taken a picture of it – it was quite the work of art.

Despite the high hilarity though, orders were severely lacking until late last night when a bunch arrived simultaneously from three sources. Most were for books so old I couldn’t believe I had ever owned such titles, but all proved to have been hiding, so at least there were none of those blaring (I know they don't make noise, but I HEAR noise when I see them) red cancellation dots that cause me to crash and burn on impact, thank God. I did sell two nice titles in the three figure range -- The Nazarene Gospel Restored by Graves and Prodo and The American Bayonet 1776-1964. , both on Advanced Book Exchange.

Overall my equilibrium has much improved, though worry still nibbles around the edges like a pack of silverfish. This is primarily due to the fact that I had an email last night from one of my favorite local sellers who has been in business far longer than my 13 years and he, too, bemoans the sorry state of book acquisition in northeastern Ohio. Add to this a conversation with two local dealers of non-book collectibles who second the emotion and the pack of silverfish could easily grow into a freaking army if I let it. One guy sells jewelry, the other decorative items from the Art Deco period through the sixties, and both say they are working harder than ever to procure less inventory. It seems counter-intuitive that during a bad economy this should be the case, but there you have it. Exacerbating the problem for booksellers is the fact that local libraries allow their sales to be pre-picked and estate sale companies know a lot about a lot, but not much about books and have reached the conclusion that all are worth their weight in platinum. As I am writing this I also just had an email from another local seller I like and respect complaining about -- you got it! -- the difficulty of book acquisition.

Exact quote: "I am, finally, not as optimistic about finding inventory."

Just in case the severity of the problem is not clear, we also have a picker who swings by once a week, but even he is not bringing in the sheaves, as it were. This is a guy capable of dazzling results, but lately he’s left me standing upright with no need for smelling salts. His best offering this summer? A nice three volume set on the history of Lake Shore, Ohio pictured in the photo on my previous post about the bookseller blues. It’s nice enough and I am happy with it, but I am not dazzled and I want very much to BE dazzled. Dazzlement becomes me!

So what to do? What to do? The first thing is definitely not to hang out in the Dark Place visited in my last post. Be proactive! As Professor Hill recommends in The Music Man (my favorite corny Broadway show ever), use the THINK SYSTEM. So I am doing just that and have decided that once Eric is done with all his September shows we need to hit the road. It’s time for the Great American Bookseller Road Trip.

P.S. The photo is of the Lethal Weapon, un-bubbled -- shot from above onto the glass which extends beyond the black frame and has angled corners. A gold star for anyone who spots my girl Emily D.

Friday, September 03, 2010

Beating the Bookseller Blues

The sun is shining now, but all day long it’s been dark and dreary with intermittent rain, a combination that coupled with a sales slump and a not-so-great estate sale this morning has brought my blue, blue Irish mood drifting to the surface. I know the cure for it – I even applied it – but though I am maybe a smidgen more cheerful than I was earlier, I’m not exactly Mary Sunshine. Trust me – you would NOT want to be here.

It all began with the estate sale, as I had been very happy last night to have had dinner with my librarian friend Liz whom I haven’t seen for longer than both of us could explain. We caught up, laughed a lot, dissected the world’s problems, talked books, and laughed some more. We have this bizarre custom that Liz started, but I love renewing every now and again because I’m a pushover for the power of ritual. We go to the restaurant in the grocery store and order – get ready for this – sushi and hot fudge sundaes. It never fails to elicit a reaction from the server which is part of the kick. Last night they were out of sushi though (it’s good – they buy it from an Asian woman who supplies it fresh daily), so we had to settle for salads, but that was okay. Liz and I aren’t just about sushi.

Anyway, today’s estate sale promised lots of books and delivered them in good quantity. But as has been the case lately, the quality left something to be desired. I bought three retro cookbooks that should sell on one of my many venues and a colorful(maybe a little gaudy, but not too much)straw purse because vintage purses always whisper my name, but overall it was one more reminder of what a tough summer it’s been for book acquisition. I wandered around for awhile looking at the vast array of stuff -- the owner clearly loved cooking, Christmas, and crafts -- when suddenly it struck me that a woman’s LIFE was spread out throughout her house. All the holidays, the accoutrements of family meals, the pretty golden demitasse set she likely treasured -- all of it had been slapped with a price tag. My entire being plummeted like the Dow Jones in September, 2008.

When I got home I wrapped my few orders and checked email, only to find just one new sale in the box. You’d think for a woman who’s ridden the wild wave of bookselling for over 13 years I would get a grip, but no. Immediately I began enumerating all the likely reasons for the slow-down – ebooks, electronic readers, I’ve lost my touch, the economy, I’ve lost my touch, we can’t find any good stock right now, I’ve lost my touch, Labor Day weekend, I’ve lost my touch …..

Invariably this leads (and led) to a thing I do that psychologists actually have a name for, but I’m damned if I can remember what it is. It sounds like prevaricate, but it’s not because to prevaricate is to mislead, a kind of lie. But then again, maybe in it’s way all this kvetching and moaning IS a sort of lie. In the big picture I truly have nothing to complain about, so all this angst is not a reflection of the truth. But does that stop me from doing the THING? No, it does not. I leap boldly into the dark place only the most neurotic booksellers dare to go and start bemoaning my future fate. If it’s bad today it will be as bad tomorrow, or possibly even worse. It’s over! I’ll be out of business! Then what? THEN WHAT???????????????

In the end I pulled myself together and did the right thing – I listed books. As I’ve told you before on another funky day earlier this summer, the thing to remember during a slump is to LIST, even though it’s the exact thing you do not want to do if you aren’t in love with the books you have available. Invariably, you find a recipe in one that you used to make for your husband’s birthday (the Redbook spice cake), or the nondescript little book you keep ignoring is drop-dead fabulous inside. Whatever it is, all of a sudden you’re hooked on books again, as surely as if you were attached to fishing line.

Does it mean you’re cured of the blues? Nope. But I have one more idea for that. Write about them in your blog and see just how ridiculous it looks on the screen for all the world to see. And then you will stop for the day, pour a nice glass of wine, and read for awhile before dinner.

Wednesday, September 01, 2010

Virginia, Emily and The Secret

Lately I’ve been jonesing on Emily Dickinson. It started when I mistakenly chose Jerome Charyn‘s novel The Secret Life of Emily Dickinson which had been mistakenly shelved in the nonfiction section of the library which lead me to believe it was White Heat:The Friendship of Emily Dickinson and Thomas Wentworth Higginson by Brenda Wineapple, a book I’ve been wanting to read since a customer recommended it. Yes, I know there’s big difference in the titles, but I was in a hurry, saw Emily’s name, my heart leaped a mile and the book leaped to meet it. As it turned out, there are no accidents. I was meant to be privy to Emily's secret life, though I must warn you -- this is one of those books you either love madly or hate with the same ardor. I love it madly.

At first I found myself a bit confused though. Why was the quintessential wordsmith, the poet of Amherst, tossing around such common words (and I mean that in the lowest sense)as ain’t? And why was she frequenting unseemly places and falling in love with unseemly men? For a brief moment I thought of jumping ship, but the part about the insane asylum grabbed me by the ankles and anchored me back to the pages, thank God. And so I read on and with reading came a glimmer of enlightenment. Aha! – the light bulb dangled above my head as in a cartoon, brightly lit. The novel is not meant to be excruciatingly biographical! Charyn has created a dream sequence based on a scholarly study of Emily’s work, particularly the Master Letters. Emily, he contends, was a woman ahead of her time, a woman so 21st century it’s no wonder nobody “got” her, even her own family. Her father, with whom she lived for years as an adult, waxed poetic over his mediocre son Austin and kept his praise for Emily, a literary genius, confined to her ability to bake bread and black cake. Go figure.

So having read this book I now realize that I need to explode the myth – forget the whole Belle of Amherst thing, read some recent scholarship, and then reread Charyn’s book from a more educated perspective. So book by book, I am piling up a formidable task. At the rate I’m going I think I’ll be hanging out with Emily at least until Christmas. I also am now addicted to the astonishingly creative and interactive Facebook page for The Secret Life of Emily Dickinson. AND I got on You-Tube, typed in Emily’s name and went on a tour of the cemetery in which she’s buried as well as a tour of the famous house the Dickinson family inhabited in Amherst, Massachusetts, and heard a lovely song written as a tribute to her. But the thing that struck me most was the short film about the house (The Poet In Her Bedroom) in which the narrator tells a story about Emily and her niece entering Emily’s bedroom one day. Emily closed the door and, using an imaginary key, pretended to lock it behind them.

When she had finished she said, “Mattie, here’s freedom.”

Immediately I made the obvious leap to Virginia Woolfe’s classic A Room of One’s Own, but for me the the key, as much as the room, is the amulet, the magical protective charm. Though I don’t lock the door of my office – I don’t even close it because most of the time I’m the only one here -- in my mind I think I actually do turn the key. In this small space I sell books, write this blog, write a novel when I have a chance, think, ponder, obsess, and worry. In this small space resides my heart, my soul, everything I am.

Some years ago an Episcopal priest asked me if I had ever taken the Meyers-Briggs personality test. I said I had not, but had often wondered what the outcome would be. He told me he gives the test, but in my case he could already predict the outcome.

“You’re an introvert masquerading as an extrovert.”

If you met me you would not jump to that conclusion. I’m outgoing, talkative, vivacious and – um, talkative, VERY talkative. And yet, there is only so much talking I can do. So much interaction. So much laughing. And then I need to go away again, to close the door of this small room and figuratively lock it behind me. Emily and Virginia crossed centuries with their secret. And now here in the 21st century I, too, share it.