Sunday, Jan 15, 2006
One of the many stops on my evolutionary journey to becoming a bookseller was as a sort of quasi-collector/scout. I would accumulate books from library sales and flea markets that I had a vague idea were collectible, and then trade them to dealers or other collectors for books more suited to my modest and wildly unfocused collection. Anyone who has little or no respect for me as a dealer might reconsider if they had seen by comparison what unpromising material I made as a book collector. When I look back to my beginnings, sometimes even I'm surprised that I'm still in business.
To keep body and soul together while waiting for the bookselling Gods to anoint me into my destined profession I found myself otherwise employed. I worked in the local county library while I (occasionally) went to college, wasted a couple years cooking in a restaurant, spent some time constructing massive pieces of sculpture for a nationally-known artist (sometime when your at the New York Book Fair, stop in at the lobby of the synagogue about a block away from the Armory and see if you can figure out what the 18-foot tall rectangle covered with gold leaf and randomly punctured with holes is all about. I built it, and I still don't have a clue), and eventually spent nearly ten years as a cabinetmaker. For legal reasons having to do with product liability, the less said about my cabinet-making career the better. Suffice it to say that compared to my tenure as a cabinetmaker, I was a distinguished book collector.
Curiously enough, only the library job seems to have taken in any meaningful way. I can no longer figure out how to boil water, and I refuse to even own a hammer. One friend has stated emphatically that if I gave up bookselling I'd probably forget how to read, and he may be right.
My tentative entry into bookselling didn't really take off until a friend of mine, a young librarian and fellow collector who I had stayed in touch with, invited me to visit he and his wife in their new home in the western highlands city of Asheville, North Carolina. And while I was at it, why didn't I bring some books along to sell or trade to his new friend, the local bookseller?
This bookseller, whose name is Chandler Gordon (Note: I have not revealed his middle initial, W., which stands for Walker, to protect his identity) had recently given up his new bookstore and had opened a used and rare bookstore, The Captain's Bookshelf (as far as I can tell, he is not now, or never has been the Captain of anything, except perhaps the local vollyball team). I had heard a fair amount about bookseller "Chan," and was somewhat startled to find, when we met at dinner, that he bore a closer resemblance to Hunter S. Thompson, than to the wizened oriental detective I was expecting.
After a pleasant dinner, and in retrospect, one of the last dinners I've had where the topic of conversation was not books, I unboxed the modest group of books I had brought down to sell or trade. Chan, while never loosing his charming Southern manner, spent the next forty-five minutes denigrating the quality, condition, desireability and readability of my books. This did not upset me unduly, as I had spent, literally, 5 cents on the whole lot at a local auction. After the tirade subsided however, I was shocked to find that he would pay $65 for a handful of the books, and not a penny more. Why, this was easy, I thought, like taking candy from a baby!
Upon my return to New Jersey, and during my appointed rounds of the flea markets, Jules, a junk dealer from Philadelphia from whom I had occasionally bought some interesting books, told me that he had recently bought 20,000 books and was storing them in a garage in Philadelphia. Had anyone seen them yet? No.
Ah, the perfect time to call my new friend Chan! After all, if he had $65 to throw around like a drunken sailor, perhaps he could help finance this venture as well.
Chan, eager to accumulate books for his new store, duly undertook the 11 hour drive to my home in Ocean Grove, on the Jersey shore, and from there we made the additional hour drive west to Philadelphia. After some searching around we found Jules at a non-descript garage with a half-door through which we had to crawl. Jules had not overstated the number of books that he had bought. What he had neglected to mention that they were all the same book! I don't remember the title any longer, but Jules had apparently bought the remainder of a diet and exercise book, about 20,000 copies of it In retrospect, Chan and I should have each bought a copy.
All was not lost, however. We spent the day traveling around to Philadelphia bookstores and we both found some things to buy. When we returned to the Jersey shore, Chan, who had brought some books along with him, and I spent most of the evening, and all of the night trading books until dawn. I recall the next morning when he called home and was asked by his wife Meigan , "Does Tom have any good books?"
"He used to," was Chan's response.
This set the stage for an extended flurry of buying, selling and trading. Several times a year I would load up my van with the boxes of books I had accumulated and set off for Asheville. After the shop closed at 6:00 p.m. on Saturday we would order up pizza and beer and then trundle the books up the long flight of stairs to the second-floor Captain's Bookshelf.
Chan would triage my books into piles of good, bad and indifferent. Luckily for me, most of the Captain's Bookshelves were relatively empty, the store still in its infancy, and I even managed to leave him with most of the indifferent, and even a few of the bad books. We thought that our first trading session might take several hours. We didn't imagine that at 7:00 p.m. the next day, liberally fueled by beer, cold pizza and a bottle of bourbon that Chan had stashed in the shop, we would still be sitting there on the floor, for the past several hours, each of us poised motionless over a single book of equal value, unable to muster the brainpower needed to effect the final trade.
For 25 hours we hadn't left the room, except to retire to the small adjoining bathroom, more often than not to check our poker faces in the mirror.
It was stupid but fun.
During this session I was introduced to (or trammeled by) some of the many strategies of my canny Southern friend. The most effective of these was "the apple and oranges" gambit. Chan would insist that in order to get a "really good book" (the apple) I would have to overtrade books of a lesser value (the oranges). He would produce an interesting book in an obscure field, show me an auction record, price guide or catalogue entry showing high value, and duly impressed, I would allow him to decimate my stock of cheaper but highly saleable modern first editions. Invariably the "apple" would turn out to be an unsaleable white elephant that had benefited from an over enthusiastic bidder or cataloguer.
Another of Chan's stratagems would be the sneak attack. I would be heavily armed with good books, and seemingly I would be having my way with the hapless and self-described "poor country boy from Murphy, North Carolina." Then, at 4:00 a.m. just when I had him on the ropes, beaten and battered, he would reach into a drawer and pull out a book that he knew I would be willing to die for to complete one or another of my collections. Invariably, he would make me die for it.
I learned to retaliate. Once I lured Chandler down to the van on some pretext (checking tire preassure or something - all Southern boys think they can fix cars), allowing my girlfriend to secret several better books behind the books on his shelves. Then when 4:00 a.m. rolled around and he reached into a drawer to pull out some treasure with an innocent "What do you have that you'd trade for this?" I would casually stroll over to the homeopathic medicine section, rummage for a minute and pull out a volume: "Perhaps this would be of some interest?"
After a year or two, the books in the Captain's Bookshelf got better and better. I no longer could unload any of the bad books, and I could seldom even sneak any of the mediocre ones into any of the piles for trade. I knew the tide had finally turned when, while triaging my books Chan came upon a bookclub edition of Joseph Heller's Good as Gold, which I thought he might want as a reading copy (inexplicably, the Captain's Bookshelf persisted, and still does persist, in actually selling books for people to read, rather than collect). Even now, almost 20 years later, the first edition of Good as Gold, is one of the world's most common books. That it was a bookclub edition was adding insult to injury.
When Chan saw the book his eyes went wide. His nostrils flared. I'm not sure, but steam may have come out his ears. After a few seconds, he flung the book across the room. Running after it, he jumped up and down on it judiciously a few times, and returning by the path that he had just traversed, flung it out the second story window into the deserted Battery Park Avenue, where it lay forlorn in a cold and teeming Sunday rain storm. In a single movement, Chan returned to where I sat dumbfounded, and stuffed a dollar in my shirt pocket.
At least I made a profit.
I have to admit my debt to Chan. The constant haggling, dealing and double-dealing was a strong incentive to learn or perish. He was like the high school football coach that you constantly resented and who spent every day hitting you in the head with a 2x4 to make you tough. After a sufficient number of years have passed, and probably due to some minor brain damage resulting from being hit in the head by a 2x4, one gets a little weepy with gratitude. My revenge has been to loudly proclaim him as my mentor to all who will listen, a claim that has apparently caused him considerably more anguish than he caused me.
But this has nothing to do with frog-water iced-tea.
Once I had finally exhausted all legitimate means of employment, I finally launched myself upon the unsuspecting book world as a full-time bookseller. This recalls the first time I met Boston bookseller Peter Stern, at an Albany Bookfair. Apparently baffled by yet an another reasonably able-bodied adult who had chosen to be a bookseller, his first words to me were, "You do this full-time? What's the matter with you?
I at first thought Peter said "What's the matter with you?" as a rhetorical sally, the way your mother would reprimand you for doing something wrong, and not expecting an answer. As the conversation ensued however, it turned out he really wanted to know what was the matter with me that made me unfit for any other occupation. That was more than a decade ago and I'm still trying to come up with a snappy comeback.
My dealings with Chan, of neccesity now consisted more of commerce than barter. I actually had to sell books, and while I developed my catalogue and book fair sales Chan proved to be both a good outlet to buy from and sell to.
We visited back and forth, exhibiting at book fairs in Atlanta and St. Petersburg together, and occasionally going on week-long buying trips throughout the South. These trips were a great deal of fun but occasionally fraught with tension. There was something incongruous about taking a pleasant and leisurely four-hour drive, and then sprinting to the first edition section of a bookstore to beat Chan to the good books (okay, maybe "sprinting" is a bit of an exaggeration).
On one particular occasion we decided to end the annoying tension. We would divide up what we bought at each store, and whatever we couldn't agree to trade out, we would own together (I'm not sure about this, but I don't think we were the first booksellers ever to arrive at this solution).
On to Atlanta
We set off on a bookselling tour of Georgia, making our base of operations The Old New York Book Shop in Atlanta. The owner, Cliff Graubart, had moved to Atlanta from Brooklyn, New York (to hear Cliff tell it, this was sometime in the last century), and he claims that he was the first Jew ever to move into Atlanta, but I think he's exaggerating. Cliff is the acknowledged Dean of Atlanta antiquarian booksellers, a title he came by honestly many decades ago, when he was apparently Atlanta's only antiquarian bookseller. When we told Cliff about the first stop on our itinerary, the home of an elderly collector named Boyd who lived on the outskirts of the city, and who had recently set himself up as a private dealer, he heaped upon us scorn and derision. This wasn't all that surprising, as Cliff does scorn and derision very well:
"Your not going to go see that cheap, racist, anti-semetic bastard, are you? You'll never get anything out of him. I've stopped doing business with him, he hates everyone, but especially Jews."
We were shocked by Cliff's characterization of the collector, to whom we had all sold books at one time or another.
When we arrived at Boyd's office, he was the soul of Southern cordiality, with the possible exception of periodically snarling , "damn Yankee" or "carpetbagger" at me in his thick southern accent in what he must have thought was a playful tone.
The collector had amassed a comprehensive range of postwar author collections, and now had decided to sell several of them in order to finance the acquisition of some missing highspots for the collections he cared most about. The books were arranged on a double-sided bookcase in the center of his narrow home office.
The portly and florid collector's enthusiasm for his books was demonstrative, resulting in an unsettling exuberance, the most physical incarnation of which was, after describing the wonderment of one or another of his treasure, he would fling himself backwards into his wheeled desk chair where, usually gaining purchase by just a thin sliver of buttock, his momentum would propel him rapidly backwards, his arms and legs flailing, careening into bookcases and office furniture. On several occasions he nearly missed the chair altogether causing Chan , with a concerned look on his face, to trail along behind him, arms thrown wide, like a outfielder, waiting patiently for his chance to arrest Boyd's inevitable downward progress.
Boyd's enthusiam for his books made it difficult to part him from even the volumes he had declared he wanted to sell, but patience and a sense of humour eventually bore some fruit and we did manage to conclude a few purchases. It didn't hurt our efforts that we had contrived to bring along a few of the missing highspots from his collection. After Chan had patiently explained to the collector about the apple and oranges, things went much more smoothly. We bought his collections of Saul Bellow, Bernard Malamud, Philip Roth, Norman Mailer and several others.
Basking in the warm afterglow of successfully transacted business over a pleasant tumbler of bourbon, Boyd became expansive. In the spirit of magnanimity he even allowed that I "wasn't too bad for a damn Yankee." I believe I had cleverly effected this change in his opinion by saying nothing at all beyond the requisite pleasantries and letting Chan do all the talking.
We tied up a few loose ends, although Boyd was still hesitant about parting with a couple of his collections.
"Could ah contact yew while you're still in town if ah decided to sell?"
"Where ya-all staying?"
With Cliff Graubart, of the Old New York Book Shop.
"That Geeee-eeeew?" he exclaimed.
A Geeee-eeeew? Did he mean Jew?
He continued with a question that seemed to have genuinely perplexed him, and he thought that we might be more qualified, by virtue of our youth (which apparently implied certain social sensitivities and a
pre-disposition to political correctness) to answer.
"Kin you boys tell me, why when you call a Geeee-eeeew a Geeee-eeeew, they get all upset?"
After exchanging abashed glances, Chan gently hazarded a guess:
"Gosh , Boyd, I don't know, but I think maybe its the way you say it."
Boyd was incredulous that anyone could take offense at his pronunciation, and we made further endeavors to explain the problem, but apparently without any salubrious effect.
When Chan and I left, to return to Cliff's store, it finally dawned on us. The author of almost every collection we had purchased was Jewish. We had apparently participated in a bibliographic form of ethnic cleansing.
This part of the story is not entirely without a happy ending. Some years later Cliff mentioned that he had resumed doing business with Boyd on a very cordial basis. The reasons for this are not entirely clear but common sense would suggest a couple of things might have occurred: Cliff has one of the best bookstores in Atlanta and the collector realized alienating the proprietor was a ruinous collecting strategy. Or maybe it was because Cliff is an uncommonly pleasant, funny and reasonable individual who can make almost anyone like him (when he isn't heaping scorn and derision on you), Boyd had seen the error of his ways and had adjusted his behavior accordingly. Its almost certainly one of those reasons, but my interpretation of this little slice of social history is that by our temperate manner and cogent reasoning, Chan and I had convinced Boyd of the evils of tolerance. Don't be surprised if we're shortlisted for a major humanitarian award sometime soon.
The next day, Chan and I set out for one of the southernmost towns in Georgia to visit a very elderly, no, ancient, bookseller at his shop in the countryside.
Cliff was surprised: "That old geezer hasn't bought a new book in 30 years."
Cliff apparently had been there when he had bought his last new book.
Chan had laid the groundwork for our visit with a series of phone calls to the nearly deaf bookseller, who when appraised of the forthcoming visit by the distinguished booksellers Chan Gordon and Tom Congalton had reinvented us as "Steve Congleman" and his loyal assistant "Fred."
I was Fred.
The bookseller, pleasantly moldering into retirement, had a comfortably appointed shop but had long ago sold almost anything that was obviously of any value, with the exception of a large section of fox- hunting books. Fortunately, no one had been there in so long that some of the mediocre book had had time to "come of age" and were now at least mildly collectible. We found a few good children's books, and amongst the fox-hunting books, a couple of good sporting books.
As Cliff said when we returned:
"Sonofobitch - who'd of thought!"
Our next foray was into the distant suburbs of Atlanta, to visit the owner of a paperback store with the unlikely name of Mr. Glickenstein and with whom Chan had been in contact, and who had apparently squirreled away some better first editions.
Cliff's advice (which I've learned to almost always ignore): "I've been there, don't bother. Its creepy. He's got a Jewish name but I think he's not a Jew, his house smells revolting and whatever you do, don't buy that copy of Wise Blood."
Chan and I drove the hour to the paperback store where we met up with Glickenstein, and then followed him back to his house. This domicile was a concrete block building completely surrounded by a huge puddle apparently formed by bad drainage. The front door was accessible by traversing a long plank thrown across the natural moat. Every room in the little house was crammed with books of little or no value. Cliff was right, the smell was foul. Most of it came from the Glickenstein menagerie of damp dogs who seldom bothered with the plank when entering the house. This, co-mingled with a couple of decades of cooking smells and that unmistakable waft of bad hygiene, created a bouquet that I trust many used and rare booksellers are familiar with. One particular jar in the kitchen (which was also crammed with books) seemed to be filled with something that seemed to have gone missing from a major crime scene, and we hastened to avoid that room altogether.
Before we had settled down to actually looking at the books, Glickenstein had supplied us with pencils, in case we wanted to "take notes." While it seemed unlikely that we would have need to do that, the pencils came in handy for poking and prodding books that we didn't actually want to touch, but might want to move out of the way. Amongst the piles of sludge and trash we found an occasional mediocre first edition, which nonetheless seemed lovely when contrasted with their surroundings. One of the benefits of scouting the stock of a man more accustomed to dealing in paperbacks is that the prices were low. One item we bought was a USO pamphlet advertising a tour of Vietnam by Troy Donahue, and signed by that worthy. Of particular interest to bibliophiles, it contained the information that Mr. Donahue's given name was actually Merle Johnson, Jr.!
When we had completed our business, we sat down (as you can imagine, gingerly) and Glickenstein brought out the big guns, to wit, the copy of Wise Blood Cliff had warned us off of. It was a vile copy: stained, scraped, chewed and moldy. It was cloaked in certain scraps of paper that the owner claimed were remnants of the original dustwrapper, but only a forensic paper conservator could have confirmed that fact and it was signed with the author's name, but not even remotely by the author. After some serious soul-searching, the Glicker allowed that he would be willing to part with this treasure for $5,000. We pled poverty.
"I'm glad you didn't let him sell you that copy of Wise Blood," Cliff said when we returned and he rinsed us off with the garden hose before allowing us back in the house, "that autograph is no good, I had to return it."
There's no fooling Cliff.
When we expressed our intention to travel even further into the hinterlands, to visit Buck, a former Atlanta dealer now working out of his house in the country, Cliff was beginning to doubt our sanity. Apparently he had a long and stormy relationship with Buck. He told us how over a decade ago, Buck had come to the City with a job in the Federal government. As soon as he had received his Civil Service certification (and protections) he had developed an interesting work routine. He would arrive at his office at the appointed hour, and promptly put his head on his desk and sleep until lunch time, when he would visit Cliff's bookstore and/or drink. After a long "lunch" he would return to the office and sleep until quitting time. Apparently Civil Service protections were such at the time that it took years to remove him from the job, at which point he set himself up as a bookseller in a remote country house.
Cliff allowed that he was pleasant and intelligent enough , but otherwise of little account, and was extremely unwilling to part with anything good, that is, books that he had accumulated in his personal collections while still gainfully employed.
When Chan called Buck from Cliff's to make arrangements, the conversation went something like this:
"How you doing Buck?"
"Oh, 'bout half drunk" (Scholarly Note: Chan later explained to me that this was a southern-ism that meant relaxed or contented, however we later found out that what it meant in this particular usage was that Buck was about half drunk. As Cliff would say "who knew?").
Buck warned us that in preparation for the visit we should wear socks and boots so the fire ants wouldn't get us, to stay in the car when we got there so his pack of dogs wouldn't attack, and if we got there after dark to honk the horn, because the dogs would be inside and the alligators from the nearby Savannah River, were likely to be prowling about. Additionally he suggested we speak to no one we met along the way, as the local populace, though sparse, had a strong lawless streak.
His house was about 30 miles from the nearest small town. As we drove past the mostly deserted farmsteads the atmosphere was scorching and humid and the architecture and general feel of the place were oppressively gothic. The area was so devoid of people that the vultures seemed nearly domesticated. Instead of drifting above waiting for carrion, they lounged casually by the side of the road frankly appraising us as potential comestibles.
Buck was otherwise engaged when we reached his 1830s federal, gothic-style farmhouse. He had volunteered for the job as county building inspector, a very low paying part time job that allowed him to get into houses where he might find books or old paper. His wife, Nan, was the soul of Southern hospitality, and after she had steered us through the various hazards to their door, prepared us each a tall glass of iced-tea. As we waited for Buck to return, Nan detailed some of the eccentricities of their domestic arrangements, which were of some interest to us, as we were to spend the night. The most inconvenient of these was that they had for some months lacked indoor running water. All of their water came from one of several wells.
"As a matter of fact," Nan mused, screwing up her brow, "I can't remember if I got the water for the iced-tea from the well that's infested with frogs."
Yikes! Not the Frog-water iced tea!
Chan and I both blanched, and exchanging disheartened looks, politely spit repeatedly on to the floor. Nan didn't seem to notice.
When Buck arrived we had regained our composure, and we were immediately relieved when he asked, "Want a beer?" One could only imagine that the frogs hadn't gotten into the brewery. When we replied in the affirmative he said, "Me too, lets go."
Leaving Chan and Nan to entertain themselves, Buck and I climbed into his pickup truck and drove back the 30 miles to the nearest town where he selected a generous supply of liquor and beer. When we reached the counter he asked, "Got any money? I don't." I duly paid and we returned the 30 miles back to the house.
When we returned, Chan and I scouted through the boxes where Buck kept most of his stock and managed to glean a few decent first editions that must have been remnant from Buck's days in Atlanta. Most of them seemed to have markings that indicated that they had originally been bought from Cliff. After we had exhausted this "shelf stock" Buck pulled out a steel brief case which held "the good stuff": a middling copy of The Sound and the Fury - too chipped and faded, a couple of late Joel Chandler Harris firsts in jacket, which we bought, and a long but incomplete Ty Cobb letter - too expensive, and well... incomplete.
By now darkness had fallen as we sat around Buck and Nan's living room. They had thrown open the screenless doors and windows and large winged nocturnal insects bounced off our heads and limbs, attracted by the only electric light for miles around.
What to do with the rest of the night? Drinking was one option, already well underway. Trying to buy books from Buck's private collection was another, and the one Chan had set his heart on. Buck wasn't particularly receptive but allowed that it wouldn't hurt to try. It had occurred that he and Nan had recently received a foreclosure notice from the bank (apparently the bank hadn't actually been there, or I don't think they would have bothered). Buck might sell a book or two, to ease his way through this particular financial discomfort, or he might not.
Things went better than expected. Buck was well fueled with Bourbon and beer and he had never bartered with the likes of Chan before. Buck had two perfect copies of Pat Conroy's very scarce book, The Boo, and it wouldn't hurt him to sell one. He had an old cabinet photograph of Ty Cobb, one of the very few people of note who had lived in proximity to this place, and which he didn't care too much about. We bought a first edition of For Whom the Bell Tolls with a signed card laid in. Buck wasn't to be cajoled so completely though. When we tried to pick off items from his W.B. Yeats collection we met with limited success, and our assault on his Robert Frost collection was repulsed in detail.
One of the most interesting things he had was a first edition of A Moveable Feast, Ernest Hemingway's reminiscences of his expatriate days in Paris in the 1920s with his first wife Hadley. Hemingway and Hadley were divorced in 1927, and each soon remarried. This was no more than a $25 book usually but this copy was different. Before they had moved to the sticks, Nan had spent several years working in a nursing home where Hadley was a resident. Every day Nan had begged Hadley to sign the book. Hadley had steadfastly refused apparently feeling little affection for the book. Eventually, after three years, she had relented and signed the book "Hadley R. Mowrer," her married name from her second and final marriage. This copy was almost certainly unique, and while not a towering highspot, would certainly be of interest to any number of Hemingway collectors.
Neither Buck or Nan were inclined to part with treasure, representing as it did nearly all of the gainful labor they had bothered with in the last decade. They would not set a price, and none of our offers seemed sufficient. Finally Chan prevailed on them to sell the book for the relatively small amount of money which, when added to what we had already spent, would succeed in staving off the bank foreclosure proceedings.
Once his bank problem was disposed of, Buck had no further interest in selling any books, and with the sun coming up and the liquor run out, we retired for a half hours well deserved rest, and while that morning more than any other, we were probably due for a shower, the logistics of hauling cold water from the well up to the second story, there to douse ourselves in a galvanized tub didn't seem worth the effort and we went without. A fact Cliff didn't fail to notice when we had returned once again to Atlanta:
"I'm going to have to start charging you for these hose baths."
On the ride back to Asheville, Chan and I decided that we were too exhausted to engage in the excruciating negotiations required to split our accumulated hoard and working diligently together with a large stack of index cards, several bottles of wine and a Patsy Cline record in the background, in one evening completed our only jointly issued catalogue (so far). On my desk I have a copy of this brilliant little offering:
Between the Covers
The Captain' s Bookshelf, Inc.
(The Troy Donahue Number)
Being An Essay on a Combination of Effort for Mutual Benefit
How Tom & Chan Avoided Breaking Each Other's Legs While Looking at the Same Books on Their Recent Buying Trip.
I'm pleased to report that it was a success.
This article originally appeared in the Fall and Winter 1997 issues of The ABAA Newsletter.