Friday, August 24, 2012

Words About Whittier; Secret Solved

NOTE: This is part II of a post. If you haven't read Part I read A Few words From Whittier first."

I’m almost disappointed that I so quickly solved the conundrum of the scrap of letter in the Whittier book, but it looks like I very likely have. One of you smart people deciphered a word on the envelope which contained said scrap and ended up adding great credence to what I’d already learned. But more on that later. The important thing is that I am ninety-nine per cent (at least) sure that Whittier wrote it – and here’s why. Samuel Pickard, the author of the little green book and the one who sent the scrap of letter to the unknown Ohioan, was married to Whittier’s favorite niece Elizabeth (Lizzie) to whom Whittier had written the letter in 1868 while she was away in Richmond, Virginia. Whittier also hand-picked Pickard to be his literary executor and biographer.

If you recall, on the envelope containing the scrap Pickard stated that he was sending the small snippet of the poet’s handwriting because it came from a letter that “could not be used” due to the fact that it discussed personal matters. Initially, that comment shot up red flags for me because I viewed him only as the author of a minor book which I thought was more of a tour guide than anything else. In a sense the book IS that, as it gives the reader a tour of the Whittier house and grounds, but there is also much biographical and anecdotal information. It’s rather ironic -- I spent hours combing the internet when some of what I was searching for was right there IN THE BOOK, including a picture of Elizabeth Whittier Pickard (see image above). Once I realized that Pickard was closely allied to both Whittier and Lizzie I could see why he wanted, and had the authority, to use his own discretion about what was kept for the historical record and what was jettisoned.

The next big game changer came in the form of the private email referred to above. One of my readers somehow made sense of the word “freedmen.” I had already verified that Lizzie was in Richmond, Virginia in 1868 just as Pickard had said she was, but all I knew was that she had likely been teaching. The word “freedmen”, however, coupled with the reference Whittier made to “school” and “scholars” on the back of the scrap) shed a whole new light on it. Whittier himself had been a vocal abolitionist, so it stands to reason that after the emancipation of the slaves his beloved Lizzie, like many young white women of the day, would head south with a missionary group to teach in the schools set up for the freed slaves by the Freedmen’s Bureau. In fact, one of the earliest freedmen’s schools had been built in Richmond in June of 1865 and immediately attracted 300 students. By 1868 figures showed that the age of students ranged from four to twenty-nine! I’m still puzzled though as to why Pickard chose to cut up the letter’s contents, as there was certainly nothing incendiary, at least in the north, about volunteering to teach ex-slaves, but there may have been other things mentioned. Of course we’ll never know.

What I do know is that Samuel and Lizzie figured large in Whittier’s life until his death in 1892 at the age of 85. Ten years later Lizzie died also after a sudden unnamed illness overcame her as she was decorating her famous uncle’s grave! Samuel and Lizzie had just one child, a son named Greenleaf, who grew up to make major contributions in the field of radio communication. Below see a photo of Whiiter's funeral in the garden.

But what does all this mean in terms of bookselling? Do I have a valuable book here? I suspect that I do not, at least monetarily. Whittier was a popular poet during his lifetime, especially after he published the long poem Snowbound, and even for a lengthy span after that, but these days it seems that he's been largely excised from the study of American literature. In fact, I read that though vistors still enjoy Whittier House the Pickard family actively works to keep his name in the vernacular. Whittier, it would seem, is not Whitman. But having said that I also think the book DOES have some value to the right person especially given the provenance that exists.But how MUCH value is a huge question. Everyone I told about the book and its secret had heard of Whittier, but only two could pin down an actual title of one his poems. One said Barbara Fritchie and the other, my friend Nancy,said A Barefoot Boy. Of the two, only Nancy could provide a quote.

Blessings on thee, little man, Barefoot boy, with cheek of tan!

Nancy was a poetry major at Ohio University back in the day, so whenever information is needed in a poetic emergency she's the woman! But here’s the kicker – Nancy hadn’t heard Barefoot Boy from a professor. She’d heard it straight from the lips of a moose.

Remember Rocky and Bullwinkle? Bullwinkle was a Whittier fan!

Wednesday, August 22, 2012

A Few Words From Whittier

One of the best things about bookselling is the perpetual element of surprise. You go to the ordinary library sale and find a gem in a box that somehow got shoved under the far corner of a table. You buy an unprepossessing little book and it’s hiding a secret. It doesn’t matter if the secret’s worth a lot of money – it’s the intrigue, or even the sheer whimsy of it that provides delight. I feel sorry for wannabe booksellers who scan the soul out of every book that crosses their path yet never cultivate a friendship with any of them. The desire to accumulate huge inventories at the expense of learning reminds me of the frantic attempt to collect “friends” on facebook.

These last days have been crazy with the continued work on the house and the pressure to process much inventory for the new space at the mall. As always, I was flying around like a whirlybird hovering here and hovering there, but strangely unable to stay in one place and accomplish anything. My whole being buzzed like a nest of hornets until I opened a small green book, sat down, and quietly allowed it to offer up its secrets. I bought this book quite a while ago as part of a lot. I remember seeing it and even glancing at it, but it didn’t call out to me. It’s mildly fetching, but the title certainly didn’t grab me – Whittier-Land, A Handbook of North Essex by Samuel Pickard, 1904. I remembered that it was signed, but seeing as how the name Samuel Pickard failed to ring any bells, I let it languish in the dead zone otherwise known as the office closet. Yesterday though I rummaged around in there and eventually unearthed the little green book again, only this time I immediately saw evidence at the top edge of something laid inside. I opened it and found the handwritten and decorated trueism below

Not exactly earth-shaking, though I was still charmed. But the little green book had only just begun to whisper secrets. There were two more to tell, one of which is quite astonishing. The first was a letter written on August 7, 1905 to a man from Warren Ohio by Samuel Pickard, the author. Dear Sir, I am sorry I missed seeing you when you called at Whittier House. I enclose a bit of Whittier’s handwriting per a letter the whole of which cannot be used, as it relates to personal matters. Hoping you have enjoyed your visit to Whittier Land. Very truly yours, S.T. Pickard
Well! How about THAT? Imagine a time when a personal letter by a famous poet is shielded from public scrutiny! And – horrors! –imagine it being CUT UP as a souvenir! I couldn’t fathom such a thing and besides, even if it were true a single word penned by John Greenleaf Whittier would have been squirreled away for safekeeping by the recipient, or someone who later got the book – that is, if the scrap even managed to survive the passage of a century which itself seems highly doubtful. Needless to day I wasn’t even a tiny bit surprised when I opened the envelope again and found it empty. But then some twenty pages later in the book a second envelope appeared. On the front of this one it reads “Part of a letter sent by Whittier in 1868 to his niece --- (indecipherable) then ---- (indecipherable) at Richmond, Va.” Beneath is stamped the name Samuel Pickard, Amesbury, Mass.)
Well, what do you know -- a second chance to discover a tiny piece of literary history! But really, what are the odds? I don’t know, but whatever they are, I beat them! I really did. Gently I reached in and took out a small scrap of paper carefully scissored from a larger whole. For a second I just stared at it stupified until the word “thee” jumped out at me and I began to actually believe that maybe Whittier really DID write it. I knew he was a Quaker, so the use of “thee” made sense, but of course that’s a long way from proof. So I headed to Google and typed in John Greenleaf Whittier. The first thing that popped up was the Whittier House website, so I clicked on that and immediately his handwriting formed part of the homepage! It took only a short time to see that it appears to match my piece of letter. So what is this piece of letter about? I have no idea. One side says “we should want to know … how thee are situated and if thee care to know her.” The reverse is less easily read, but here’s what I can make out, “… in a school … per week with only a few scholars. …. thyself …”
Who is this niece and is it possible to find out about her? Time will tell, but I am going to try. It looks like I’ve been handed another mystery much like the Chinese autograph book from a couple years ago. In both cases the secrets were visible. All that was needed was someone who cared enough to look. And, as always, to listen.

Thursday, August 16, 2012

The Name of the Sale

(Picture will follow, but there seems to be a technical issue. Can't load it. I finally decided to just post.)

By now you probably know all about The Last Book Sale held in Archer City, Texas last weekend by Pulitzer prize-winning author and long-time bookseller, Larry McMurtry. At age 76 McMurtry decided he was ready to close three of his four bookstores all located in this small town 150 miles west of Dallas. It was, he figured, time to allow 300,000 of his 425,000 volumes  to re-enter what he calls “the river of books.” I find that phrase especially apt, as I often flash on that very image myself --  a current of books moving rapidly, volumes tumbling  over volumes in their colorful, endless progression to  -- somewhere. When you think about  it it’s  really a rather  strange visual though coming from a seller like me who can’t even  find a dozen  good books a month these days!

By all accounts less than two hundred deep-pocketed bidders converged on Booked Up which was the name of McMurtry’s collective  stores, only one of which (by design) now remains in his hands. He opened the first of them in 1988 (I actually remember this – I think I read it in Writer’s Digest magazine), but it was not the first store he’d  ever had, as he’d previously owned shops in D.C. and Tucson. Is it just me, or does anyone else thinks that 150ish bidders is a very  small number to show up for a sale that monumental? I’ve seen more people than that in line at the Planned Parenthood sale in Dayton. Perhaps it’s because of the remote location and the cost of hauling hundreds of pounds of books home, but that didn’t deter some dealers, and even some wannabe dealers. From such far-flung  states as Arkansas, Pennsylvania and New Jersey they came, filling up cars, trucks and trailers with inventory for which they paid very little in most cases. The lion’s share  of the books were divided into 1500 lots of 200 books each, and sold for under $200 a lot for the most part. The pricey items were the  McMurtry 101, all handpicked titles  sold individually, and deemed by their owner to be  the most interesting, though not necessarily the most valuable. The biggest bucks seemed to have been spent on a book of collected  erotica  by Anais Nin and Henry Miller, among other authors. That one fetched $2,750 from an east coast dealer who plans to resell it.

All week I’ve pondered The Last Book Sale, its (to me)  low turn-out, and what it tells us about the industry, if anything. Every day I scoured the internet for new details, but most of the stories are rehashes. A few skirt around the edges of what I really want to know, but none lay it all out, most likely because no one CAN lay it all out, including McMurtry himself. On the one hand he says that the internet has taken a toll on the book business, but on the other he says he thinks the industry will survive because people have a love affair with the physical book. I want to believe that – I do – but DO most booksellers share that belief? Do I? Really, do I? If they do, and if I do,  why then did so many of us pass up the chance of a lifetime to get a lot of fresh new stock? Actually it never occurred to me to go, but why IS that? I’ve certainly had hare-brainier ideas than that in my day, so why didn’t the thought even flicker across my mind? Could it be that deep-down I’m not as true a believer as I like to think I am?

All summer long the bookseller forums buzzed with stories of huge inventories and low sales and just this morning a friend mentioned that she’s had zero sales all week – all WEEK – from either amazon or ebay. My own online sales are down too this month,, especially from ABE, my front runner, and I certainly  haven’t gotten many new  books in here either – which brings up the next big question. If nobody wants books any more where  are  all those unwanted books hiding ? The river should be logjammed with them.

The other thing that bothers me about the Last Book Sale is something that only one writer mentioned -- the sadness – which he said coated everything like Texas dust. I believe it.  McMurtry himself says it was time to let it go – he’d  had a heart attack in January and says he’s becoming forgetful and doesn’t want to burden his heirs with more than can be easily handled. Okay, I get that. But he also says he isn’t sad because he still has 120,000 volumes and can always buy more if he wants them. True. Absolutely true. But I don’t know – it seems to me that it’s not just about the books themselves. It’s about living  in the thrum of possibility  -- the next treasure found, the next great sale made -- that was/is the bookseller’s life. But IS there such a thrum these days and, if so, will it still be thrumming tomorrow?

I don’t know. I truly don’t. It’s the sixty-four thousand dollar question of our profession.  As I read the many McMurtry sale stories online the  first book auction I ever attended played in my head like a movie.  It was a good 14 years ago and I know I’ve  mentioned it before, but  it seems to want me to tell it again. There used to be a small antiques mall in Akron which became home to at least three booksellers I can think of. One of them – Harry – decided he was old and it was time to close up, so he had an auction at which we bought  a LOT of his inventory straight off the shelves at the mall. As we were packing up  I remember going out into the hallway for more boxes and spotted Harry  all by himself at the end of it. The sun was setting  and  there in front of a large window he stood, his back to me, a small almost-silhouette, head bowed, hands in his pockets. I remember wanting to run down the hall and tell him, no, no, it’s all been a mistake! Take them back! Take them back! I didn’t of course and eventually Harry bought more books and dove into the business again. But then eventually there came another day when we bought parts of his inventory again. By then I think he was too sick to mind much though.

When I began writing this post I thought I’d write my way to the  meaning of all this. One of the best things about writing is that it teaches you what you already know. But here I am with no conclusion to offer. All I learned is what triggered the whole thing. I thought it was the sale itself, but I can see now that it wasn't.. It was the NAME of the sale. It was meant of course to be a play on McMurtry’s The Last Picture Show. But for me, and maybe subconsciously for other booksellers,  it  meant something else.

Yeah, THAT thing .

Monday, August 13, 2012

Dangling On the Book Hook

Time  shot into hyper-drive this morning as we began counting  down the days until we take possession of the new booth at the antiques mall. The contractor is still off at another job and has been for a week which is good in some ways, but not in others. It really doesn’t matter in the larger scheme of things though. The important thing right now is filling up that space at the mall.

I found a great estate sale  – far away, but maybe worth it – that opened last Friday and had excellent books judging by what was listed. But Friday morning I woke to heavy rain and a feeling of having been run over by a semi. I dragged myself out of bed, made some coffee, toasted a bagel and had breakfast – my pre-dawn cure for anything that ails me. But, alas and allack,  no magic got conjured  this time.  When fibro slams me that hard even a cinnamon raisin bagel with crunchy peanut butter and a mug of Folger’s dark roast is second rate  wizardry. We could have gone the next day of course, but there was little point in making such a long trip when we knew all the good stuff would either be gone or still too pricey, so we took a pass on it and hit the Akron sales instead. Not only were all three of them barking dogs (though I did get a like new 1956 Girl Scout calendar in its original envelope, an 8 volume set of Audel’s from the 30’s for the mall and two like new 60’s gift books of the treacly variety in their original boxes, also for the mall), but it was FREEZING outside. I’d worn sandals which means that for the rest of day I dragged around two blocks of ice attached to my ankles.

By the time we finished making the rounds we felt like a pair of spent balloons, so what did we do? We went  to an auction of course! They hadn’t advertised books, but some of the furniture looked pretty good, so off we went in search of a couple stand-out pieces to help pay the freight at the mall . Within minutes  I spotted a box with books that should have been easy picking, but turned out to be the box from the Twilight Zone. In this unadvertised flat  lay several  celluloid prayer books, one perfect in its original box, two rosaries, one especially pretty, and a ton of religious cards. There was also something I’d never seen before – two patches bearing the image of Pope Pius XII in a deep rose color. Immediately I equated them with scouting badges.

As the recipient of a thing called the Marian Award which provided me with the most hellish summer of my short reluctant Girl Scouting career I know that Catholic scouting programs have their own awards in addition to the official ones. But I didn’t care if that’s what those patches were or not --  I just wanted the prayer books. Usually I get these every time they come to auction, but this time one lone guy challenged me to a spirited bidding war. I never engage in these  – NEVER – but I guess maybe it was the shock of competition that  impelled me to take my final bid  to a mind-boggling $90! Fortunately, I snapped to my senses just in time and let him haul the whole lot  home for $95. I tried researching the patches this morning, but nothing turned up. All I can say is they better be humdingers or his buyer’s remorse  is so far off the charts it’s  probably already caught up with the Curiosity rover that just landed on Mars.

Fortunately, I got  furniture instead and even learned how to date a Lane cedar chest in the process. Not bad for a booky type like me, huh? Anyway, I got a Lane chest  which is from 1948, all sleek, blond and shiny in a modern way that I used to hate, but now find strangely attractive. The chest part is on the top and there’s  a drawer underneath, so it’s sort of a high-rise  among cedar chests. It still smells like cedar, retains  all its original labels and  even has the original key. I’m beginning to think it’s a less common one, as  I perused hundreds online, and didn’t even find it when I googled its model number.  It had some condition issues, but nothing a nice coat of orange oil couldn’t handle, so at the moment it’s all spiffed up fancy as a chorus girl. To add to the fun, I also bought three teak Danish modern occasional tables, again something I didn’t used to like. I’d show you pictures, but it’s all  jammed into the garage with the building supplies, so you’ll have to wait til we get it all in the booth.

But great though the furniture is I’m still right where I was before the auction -- dangling precariously on the end of the book hook. Somehow between now and September 1st seven  bookcases  need to be filled and  for the immediate future there's no ready  solution on the horizon.  But here’s what I’m thinking. I can bring a bunch of sets, a ton of paper, those elegant slide rules we bought, and what individual books I do have, and at least look reasonably viable.  The problem is that if/when  I sell stuff I won’t have anything much to fall back on without digging  too deeply into my online inventory. Christmas is fast approaching too. And Eric and will be gone most of September. And all the calls we’ve gotten lately were for books so decrepit even a seller with no standards would run screaming into the night

It’s not good. But you know what? For once in my life I’m not going to worry about it. Somehow it will all work out.

Tuesday, August 07, 2012

Just Say YES!

Sorry I’ve been gone so long. I tried to write a post yesterday, but the contractor was drywalling the bathroom and created an Oklahoma dust-storm of Grapes of Wrath proportions. In light of the coughing fits I had no choice but to head for the basement and stay there  -- which was great because I have something wonderful to do down there at the moment. No, not art, though that would be fun too. This post is about books.

As you know, for almost two years I have pined, yearned, and tried to finagle more space at the antiques mall, all to no avail. Space comes at a premium there so every time a booth opened  up it caught me unready in terms of both bookcases and inventory. Finally last year I bought some bookcases from a dealer who closed up shop next door to me, so at least that problem resolved itself. As you know, I scratched alibris from my list of venues last week to free up some cash (not to mention the piece of my soul they constantly gnawed on) and called the mall to see if I could swap my existing space for a larger one across the aisle. But it had been rented the day before to a very nice dealer who had outgrown the booth next to it and wanted to do exactly what I wanted to do. Since it was adjacent to hers I could hardly begrudge her – and I didn’t. In fact, I met her Friday when I was walking by just as her teenage daughter tied an apron on a mannequin backwards. We both looked at each other at the same moment and burst out laughing.

I  told the mall I wanted the next available larger size but only in my own row because the place is cavernous and many people don’t cover the entire thing in a single trip which means that a move could be the kiss of death -- or so it seems to me anyway. But for once I felt okay with the way it turned out and decided I’d spend the wait accumulating inventory. Meanwhile a young woman who has become an online friend is about to launch her own shop at an antiques mall in Florida on Friday.  She’s at the moving in stage now, so all week we’ve been talking about display ideas, buying non-book stuff to help pay the freight etc. A couple days ago she told me that her mall’s owner had gifted her with a free closet next to her booth that’s already fitted with shelving, plus  the free use of a shelf in a showcase for expensive titles. I told her she was very lucky because the odds of anything like that happening to me were about as likely as a sudden growth spurt.

So imagine my shock and awe when a  couple hours later the mall called me to announce that the booth next to mine would be available at the end of August. It’s the same size as mine, but here’s the thing – I can have both mine AND it for what I would have paid had I gotten the larger one which is smaller than the two combined! I have always loved this mall, but never so much as I did Saturday. Thank you, thank you  thank you, Jean! I will now have 20’ of length and the same 10’ of width. We went over Sunday to check it out which was funny because in my head it was the booth on the left  when it’s actually the one on the right! Either way though the space seems cavernous.

Of course with only three weeks left to go I'm ravenous for inventory, though I do have a lot of books left from the two big collections we bought, so I can pull from there. I also plan to systematically remove some of my better things from online, so I think I’ll be okay with books. It’s other items I need to find which is why we’re headed to an auction on Thursday which advertises ZERO books. That should be an interesting experience -- Tess in Antiqueland!  I also want to take the display boards for ephemera to the new booth to add visibility to our paper items. This has been a problem almost since the beginning, so I’m excited about the possibilities. I had been displaying all of my paper flat out on the table, but as the piles  grew too unwieldy I put it in large wooden fruit crates. For a short while that worked, but once the boxes filled up people didn’t flip through them anymore. The best way to sell paper is to hang it up like I did at the Akron Book and Paper Show. At the mall I should be able to use  both sides of the  boards too -- that is, if we can figure out some way to stabilize them.

Anyway, there you have it – the  reason for my silence. I'm very happy and excited. But I also know that there’s an inherent risk in a monthly payment that equals the cost of a good-sized car payment. There's an energy this time though which somehow seems to be pulling us forward in a strange and peaceful way. In the past every time I got to the gate  I immediately pulled out a hammer and nailed up a roadblock. This time there were no roadblocks, no hesitation, no equivocating.

 I just said yes.