by Tom Congalton
Monday, Jan 02, 2006
Before I was a bookseller I was, as most booksellers were at one time, a book collector and scout. I was a singularly egalitarian collector and scout. I would buy books pretty haphazardly. As long as they seemed interesting I would buy them. Aside from the usual circuit of used book stores, library sales, thrift shops and such, every Saturday morning I would get up before the sun, roust my friend and neighbor Mickey up from his house across the street from mine in Ocean Grove, a New Jersey shore resort community, and head inland to Englishtown Auction.
Englishtown Auction was not an auction at all but a flea market spread over perhaps a dozen acres in central New Jersey. It was set idyllically downwind from a sewage treatment plant, and just up the road from Raceway Park, the local drag strip. The place was in all weathers a roiling mass of humanity, most of which was busy peddling knockoffs of designer clothes, rusty wrench sets and greasy food. It was among many other things, the tube sock capital of the world.
Near the back of the market was an acre or so of antique/junk dealers: burly gentlemen with dirty fingernails who would clean out your basement for a fee and sell the detritus at Englishtown; blue-haired old ladies displaying carefully tended depression glass; and antique scouts who would scour house sales during the week to amass enough inventory to bring it out to the market. There was even a toothless used book dealer (who, I am happy to report - and in part by virtue of my many purchases - has incrementally provided himself with nearly a full set of dental hardware). Here the "collectibles" would eventually make their way further up the food chain to specialist dealers, dealers who could afford to maintain open shops and collectors hardy enough to brave the early hour and immoderate temperatures. While literally hundreds of antique dealers would be there before dawn with flashlights, examining the backs of station wagons and pickups for useable merchandise, only myself and perhaps a half dozen other book hunters were out at the market consistently.
Usually the pickings were slim. We would slowly accumulate acceptable volumes from the troves of the junk sellers, which we would in turn sell to "real" booksellers, meaning those with shops or who published catalogs. Perhaps once or twice a year, some book collector's descendant would manage to overlook all of the obvious signs of value or rarity and trundle out a car load of really good books. One summer I remember a young couple was selling an Arkham House collection for fifty cents a volume. Another time a modest Faulkner collection made its way onto the field: while I was off scouring another corner of the market Mickey had bought a nice first edition of These Thirteen in its bright white dustjacket for a dime. We lived for these moments of serendipity. If we had balanced the time and effort and hardship that had gone into the search perhaps we could have bought the books at retail, but the search was much the best part of the process.
We would spend the morning scouting, eat breakfast with the other book scouts, where we would gloat about finds or bemoaning the ones that got away, and eventually meander back to our homes.
But what I'm about to tell you has almost nothing to do with this except that the event in question occurred when we were on our way back from the market.
After a moderately fruitful morning of scouting (for books, not fruit) we were barely a block from my house on the one-way street running parallel to where I lived on Mt. Pisgah Way. Outside a local rooming house we spotted a line of cardboard boxes perhaps twenty feet long and three boxes high. Steely-eyed scouts that we were, Mickey and I knew immediately what was in those uncovered boxes: books, and lots of them. I jammed on the brakes and we hastily disgorged ourselves from the van.
When we got to the boxes though, we were bewildered. These were books all right, and good ones too. This was obvious enough from a glance, even to novices like us. What we hadn't expected though, is that they were ripped to pieces!
A quick examination revealed remnants of first editions of The Scarlet Letter, Walden, The Great Gatsby and The Sun Also Rises. There were several groups of Dickens in parts (way too many part in this case), tattered scraps of color plates from Audubon octavos and Curtis Botanical Magazines, Catlin Indian plates, and who knew what else.
Dustjackest? Yes-early Hemingways and Fitzgerlads, Steinbacks and Faulkners ripped into a million pieces, turned into multi-colored jazz age confetti.
Despite being apprentice booksellers, Mickey and I retained a small measure of self respect. We were after all, conspicuously going through the trash of a boarding house in a shore resort community in the middle of the summer. Lesser men would have written it off as a lost cause, but we weren't lesser men. We drew ourselves up, took a deep breath and loaded the dozens of boxes in the back of my van.
We spent the afternoon leisurely inspecting the contents of the boxes. In this endeavor we were assisted by Mickey's half demented English bull terrier, Elmo. Elmo was something of a philosopher among dogs, or so Mickey claimed. Elmo's sole organizing philosophic principle was that he wouldn't walk on leaves, presumably because he didn't believe there was anything underneath them. I guess you could call him a skeptic. He wasn't much for tricks though. His only trick was eating the mail. He would wait by the mail slot every day and eat the mail. His favorite treat was Mickey's employer issuing a replacement check, which they would mail to his house, and which Elmo would also eat. Elmo, has since gone to his reward, to be replaced in Mickey's affections by another bull terrier, Leo. Leo is only about a quarter demented.
But back to the books. Upon inspection our worst fears were confirmed: the books were a total loss. Not only had the destroyer actually ripped the books up, but for the most part he had ripped them horizontally across the boards, the way the strong man in the circus would dispatch telephone books. There was no hope of repairing or rebinding these books. And these were very good books indeed. We could identify the prices and codes of some of the dealers we knew, and the owner had paid good retail prices for most of them, and it was clear a fairly fine hand had selected the volumes.
Mickey and I, ever intrepid, hit upon a plan: I would go to the boarding house and try to discover the identity of the books' owner.
The boarding house outside of which the books were piled was known in the neighborhood as "The Solzhenitsyn House" because one of the inhabitants had plastered posters of that writer, accompanied by appropriately anti-Communist sentiments, in each of the downstairs windows. Ocean Grove and adjoining Asbury Park, with large Victorian homes that had long ago been segmented into rooming houses for the summer vacationers, and low rents the rest of the year round, had proven to be the ideal dumping grounds for mentally and otherwise disabled patients who had been released in large numbers by state and federal institutions in the late sixties and early seventies. This was such a house.
When I went to the door I discovered the name of the resident book collector: Ed. Ed wasn't in a present. I was told that Ed was burdened with a steel plate in his head and that periodically, and recently, he had been picking up signals from Mars on the plate which had resulted in some more than usually erratic behavior on his part (of which the destruction of his book collection was apparently a result, or symptom) and had been carted off to the Veteran's Hospital for a tune-up. On these occasions Ed was gone from weeks to months, depending on the severity of the signals and the extent of the tune-up. However, we were told when he was home, as he invariably would be, he was easy to recognize: he was accustomed to sitting in a chair rocking rapidly (or maybe they said rabidly) on the porch for hours on end, drinking beer and smoking two pipes simultaneously - the usual profile of a book collector, I surmised. I resolved to keep an eye out for him on his return.
My fateful meeting with Ed didn't occur until some months later. I was returning home late at night from my part time job as a bartender at Maloney's, a charming little bistro in Asbury Park frequented by outlaw bikers (most of whom were named Stumpy), their go-go girlfriends, various petty criminals, drug dealers, and rugby players. We even had our own convicted serial killer as a patron - a matter of some distress to the owner, because the serial killer hadn't paid his drink tab before he had gotten himself arrested and convicted.
Needless to say, after closing the bar, ejecting the surviving patrons and mopping up the blood (all skills I've found useful in the antiquarian book trade) it was quite late, perhaps 4:00 a.m. I had taken the usual precaution of steeling myself for the five minute ride home with a case of beer, a habit all the bartenders had gotten into at the end of the long and usually stressful evening. After I had parked, some blocks from my house, cursing the blasted tourists, who did I spy rocking madly on the porch of the Solzhenitsyn House, contentedly smoking a pair of pipes? Well, you can probably guess. I made my approach.
"You Ed?" I said, ever ready with the astute observation.
"I live over on Mount Pisgah."
Reminded by my burden, and remembering the recital of Ed's habits, I asked, "Want a beer?"
"Can I sit down?"
I settled into a rocker beside the estimable Ed, although I was unable to match his frenetic pace. I continued to probe. "You collect books?"
"Got any you'd like to sell?" I figured to offer him an alternative to his usual manner of divesting himself of unwanted books.
"What do you do with your books?" I asked, already knowing the answer.
"Rip em up," he said.
"Oh, I don't know," he replied, growing expansive.
"Have you bought any books lately?"
"Yep," he said
"Boswell's Life of Johnson."
I was aghast. "Sure you don't want to sell it?"
"What are you going to do with it?"
"Oh, I don't know." He paused. "I guess I'll probably rip it up."
Even a night working at Maloney's hadn't prepared me for the horror. Surprisingly, it was Ed who broke the silence that surrounded us for the next several minutes, as I searched my besotted brain for my next gambit. He was warming to the conversation, you might say.
"Mount Pisgah, huh?" he said brightly.
"House with all the books in it? I wouldn't mind takin' a look at them books sometime, if you wouldn't mind."
Ah, the time-honored communion of book collectors with a common love!
My internal reaction was immediate: Flee! In haste. Instantly. Sooner!
"Sure, Ed, that'd be nice. Stop by sometime. I'd best be going now. I've got a few things to do yet before bedtime."
Sure - like pack up all my books and mail them to my Aunt Cassandra in Altoona, and to see if there was an all-night realtor around who could put my house on the market.
And so ended my interview with Ed. I never saw old Ed again. Apparently he started receiving radio signals again soon after and was hauled back to the Veteran's Hospital. I actually did put my house on the market soon after that (for other reasons than might seem obvious in this context), sold it and moved away.
I spoke to several New Jersey booksellers who had known Ed well. Apparently he had started collecting books while convalescing from his infirmities at the V.A. hospital in Newark. He had begun by frequenting a local bookstore there soon after the Second World War. Every month he would get his disability check, set aside the portion necessary for his room and board (and apparently a stockpile of beer and pipe tobacco) and immediately spend the rest on the best books he could find.
Most of the booksellers to whom I related the story of Ed's library were shocked, and vowed not to sell him any more books. A minority however seemed delighted that they might now have an opportunity to selling him multiple copies of the same titles.
I guess I shouldn't have been surprised.
This article originally appeared in the ABAA Newsletter and inaugurated that publication's "Housecalls" column.