Wednesday, May 29, 2013

Charms and Incantations -- The Superstitions of the Bookseller

Three days and counting to one of the biggest book sales of the year. You’d think by now I’d have the sense God gave a gnat to know better than to act like I’m expecting to find a previously unknown original of Shakespeare’s First Folio on the specials table priced to sell at  $15. It’s absurd and of course getting more absurd with every passing year. But all it takes is one lucky find, however many years ago, and a bookseller’s common sense packs its bikini and heads south.This year, I’m embarrassed to say, is no exception. Mine snagged a cheap flight to Mexico and flew out of Akron-Canton this morning.

Believe it or not, I'm so jazzed up I actually dragged out our bags an hour ago and put them next to the door like I might be in danger of forgetting them. All I need is a rabbit’s foot, a four leaf clover, a horse shoe, a St. Jude medal, and my lucky underwear and I’m good to go. I know. It’s  crazy – of course it is – and yet here I am tossing salt over my shoulder and crossing my toes as well as my fingers. So far I have not succumbed to the desire to chant incantations in the backyard under the quarter moon, but there’s always tonight.

Frankly, I assign at least some of this madness to the glitzy card that came in the mail touting 80,000 books. I mean REALLY – out of 80,000 volumes something must be good, right? Wrong! Not only is it very possible to come up empty, but it’s also very possible to pay too much and wish you HAD come up empty. Past experience has hammered this home to me many times. But here’s the thing. Last year – oh, hallowed, glorious  last year! – the number of books had visibly decreased and yet I made the best two finds ever. EV-V-V-E-E-E-E-E-R. The first was a four volume leather-bound set of Don Quixote in great condition  illustrated with engravings and published in Dublin in 1795. The second, a slim innocuous -looking volume titled Some Letters of Edgar Allan Poe to E.H.N. Patterson of Oquawkwa, Illinois With Comments by Eugene Field  published  by the Caxton Club in 1908 in limited edition. See what I mean? Toss a bookseller a couple bones and she’ll follow you anywhere.

Okay, I’m exaggerating a little here about my craziness over this sale. But not much. Four years ago on the day before this very same sale I tore my rotator cuff when I accidentally tangled my foot in my capri length pajamas and fell up the stairs. For a few seconds the pain actually winded me and by the time I caught my breath I was shaking  like an aspen in  a hurricane. But  did that stop me? No, it did not. Honestly, it never once crossed my mind to skip the sale. I tried to go – I really, really did, but I finally had to admit that I couldn't get dressed even with Eric’s help. Ah, but  wait!  I DID show up on Monday during a raging thunderstorm for reduced price day after sending him to Kohl’s for an over-sized shirt that buttoned up the front. I also went that same day to the see the collection in Bay Village that took me three years to finally acquire.

Was it worth it? I don’t know. Probably not. But that’s beside the point, as are the long lines, possible rain, too much time waiting around, the odds of inadvertently  buying damaged books, paying too much for  must-have books, paying too much for so-so books just to have something to show for the effort, and  years of heartfelt  avowals to never, ever again go to the preview. Which, by the way, starts at ten. We’ll be there by 7:30.

Now all I have to do is remember my lucky number (do I even have a lucky number?)  and follow the exact same path I took around the tables last year and I should  be fine. But just to be on the safe side if anyone knows of a reputable supplier of eye of newt do let me know.

Powdered preferred.


Monday, May 20, 2013

Dwelling On My Book House

I love when life serves up a little serendipity, so I was over the moon to have chanced into The Bookseller Inc., a cozy shop in west Akron, yesterday afternoon just in the nick of time to have one last look at my favorite thing there. Or at least one last look in that setting anyway.The shop’s showpiece item has been purchased by Kent State University for their Special Collections and is soon to depart to Kent in the next few days. It had been sold online once, but the buyer was from Australia so -- surprise! surprise! -- the extreme weight and shipping  squelched the sale.

For years and years I had been aware that the ever-popular My Book House set once came in a wooden box shaped like a house. I had sold the books any number of times – the black edition, the blue edition, the rainbow edition and once even the white edition which doesn’t charm me – but I had never laid eyes on the house itself and its smaller set until I went to The Bookseller for the first time. We weren’t in the door five seconds when Eric homed in on it like a pigeon with a GPS. It’s funny really how I even knew about this house at all. A casual anecdote buried in some long forgotten book popped off the page and lodged permanently in my brain. The author had gone antiquing with her mother, found both the house and its books in a dusty shop in New England (of course – where else?) and bought it to replace the one she’d had as a child, but had somehow lost.

Lost?????!!! I know it sounds ludicrous, but it happened, which is why seeing one of  these little wooden houses is about as likely as spotting a great snowy owl in the backyard.You know if you were a certain kind of little girl that you would absolutely HAVE to take the books out and turn the house into a dollhouse with curtains at the windows. And maybe if you were a boy it might even serve as a handy garage. Either way, the house/garage became a toy and the books landed in the bookcase. Even keeping the books  together must have been a challenge judging by how many stray volumes turn up at book sales.

My Book House was created in the 1920’s by Olive Beaupre Miller who formed an entire industry around them. What I love most is that it was an enterprise entirely run by women. Instead of selling the sets in stores, Olive decided to sell by subscription and hired a coterie of women sales reps known as The Book House Ladies to knock on doors and sign people up just like encyclopedia salesmen did for Colliers and Britannica. Eric and I bought a set of Britannicas that way back in the early 70’s and we still laugh to this day at the salesman’s extravagant pitch.

“Right in here,” he proclaimed, thumping a sample book, is “every thought, word and idea!” Hmmmmmmm. Wonder what he thinks of the internet.

But Olive created a small dynasty from subscription sales and it continued to grow. The red set was the first to expand with the addition of a new volume for a total of seven, but by 1932 the original six from the 20’s had doubled. I’m not sure when production stopped, but I know I sold a very nice rainbow set from the 50’s once. Door-to-door sales may seem a little cheesy in today’s world, but  My Book House was no schlock product. The books are bright and attractive and  offer a smorgasbord of fiction and nonfiction which for the most part transcend time. The art too, is stellar, as artists include William Blake, N..C. Wyeth, Caldecott, and my favorite, Willy Pogany, who  illustrated my pet edition of The Rubaiyat of Omar Khayyam in 1909. The later sets also included a parents’ guide. Below you can see a few volumes of a 1937 rainbow set, so named because the books are bound in different colors.

As best as I can tell, the My Travel Ship series that shared the wooden house never expanded beyond  those original three books. I never purchased them with a set and never even all together, though I’ve sold all three many times. They include Little Pictures of Japan, 1925 (the best I think); Tales Told in Holland, 1926; and Nursery Friends From France, 1927. I have all three, but they aren't shelved, so I have no idea where they are and I just created several small avalanches trying to find them.

Scarce as the wooden house is though, there is still one last My Book House holy grail that I would love to see. Well, maybe two because the house was fashioned of cardboard at one time also, rather like Richard Scarry’s library set , so that would certainly beinteresting to see and maybe even to buy. But there is also a rare miniature tin house that’s about 3”x5” and contains small books bound in flexible boards. I saw a picture online and it's priced  in four figures.

Given that, I suspect it  will take a lot more serendipity for me to gaze on the tin house in person -- it's really that rare .But who knows? Serendipity played  more than one role with the set at Booksellers already. Not only did I get to visit the wooden house before it departs, but the canceled sale to Australia proved to be more blessing than bane. The sellers paid no commission and avoided a complex wrapping job. AND the books will remain right here in northeastern Ohio at a university that already boasts a stellar childrens’ book collection and a renowned library science program.

Sooner or later it will go on exhibition too, which is just about as good as it gets!

Wednesday, May 08, 2013

The Bloom Is Back -- Maybe!

Well, I have officially been selling online for two weeks now following my self-imposed hiatus. I know I whined about how the bloom is off the online rose, but I seem to be enjoying the attar and ignoring the thorns  these days – at least for the moment. Nothing has fundamentally changed in the book business itself, so I can only attribute it to the fact that some good stuff has happened lately.

The first big thing is that my website is no longer owned by ABE/Amazon. Some time ago they bought Chrislands, the company that built my site years ago and has continued to host it even after the sale – with devastatingly awful results I might add. As with most corporate buy-outs, everything you loved about the original disappeared and in its place came constant technical difficulties topped off by no option to process credit cards. I had just been thinking that the time had come to light a fire under my computer guru and get him to build me a new truly INDEPENDENT site when the former owner of Chrislands announced that he is once again its owner. YESSSS, Jaymes bought his company back from The Man! How cool is that? Of all the third party sites I like ABE best, but some things, website building and hosting among them, should be left to the little guy with the brains and passion to do  it right. I’m so happy about this that I even played around with the new Chrislands templates (they were actually there before, but I didn’t care) and created a new look. Check it out at I may change it again if he offers some other options, but it was time to shake it up a little. Kinda  like it’s time to shake me up a little too.

The other good news is not quite as huge, but it did my heart good anyway. Last Wednesday we went to a library book sale that used to be GREAT back in the good old days and was still one of the better one in terms of content even in the recent bad old days. I steeled myself for the expected lunacy, but there was no need – I wound up having a wonderful time. The crowd was pretty big, comprised mostly of recycled scanner people, but they all stampeded for the inexpensive room leaving the handful of serious dealers and collectors to their own devices. How lovely to walk slowly and contemplatively up and down the tables browsing, taking the time to look at copyright pages and condition issues, and accumulating small treasures along the way. I didn’t find anything that would knock your socks off, but I did get this lovely set pictured below, among other good finds, including a signed first edition of Christopher Morley’s The Haunted Bookshop for myself.


Another great thing is the set pictured above at the very top of this post and the red book next to it. After so many disappointing estate sales I FINALLY got something good at one last Friday. I paid more for the set than I would like, but I also got the red county history  cheap because it’s not local, so it all balanced out in the end.  I’m quite tickled with them, especially the Ohio history set by Galbreath, because I haven’t had one in three years. According to my database I bought the last one in May, 2010.  But lest you think things are looking up at the estates, be assured that they are not. The very next day we went to one that advertised “lots of good books” when what they really meant to say was lots of cheap common books that you could smell before you saw. They did come with free mold though.

See? I told you I'm feeling more optimistic. I’m even making my dreadful little jokes again, though that may be because of two more good things. Yesterday morning I got a call to see a book collection  which we will check out tomorrow.  And right after I hung up the phone I sold a first edition of The Ambassadors by Henry James!