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Prelude to the Gloat: The Grab
Harrumph. It has been a long day. But now I am safely back home. Quiet. Ah blessed quiet. I braved the elements, I braved the drive through inclement weather and the frustrating traffic, I endured the long wait ... and I braved the competitors - mostly I braved the blasted competitors. Humph. Some were colleagues - I'll give you that - and we traded anecdotes, dissected a few individuals who were not present to defend themselves. But mostly I was gearing myself up mentally for the oncoming melee. No matter that I'd promised myself a hundred times over while on the drive to the sale that I would not take apart in the mad scramble. I awoke with that thought firmly in mind - or at least as firmly as thought is allowed to be so early in my day. I was determined to be above the fray. Above - the - fray. There would be books enough for all. Yes, books enough for all: I allowed myself the indulgence of these few stray egalitarian and altruistic thoughts. No mad scramble made by this old man when the doors to the sale were opened.
The doors opened and then - and then - then happened the scramble and the grab. The grab. Haw. No matter I mentally held myself above the fray. Haw! Simple resolution melted into nothing in the face of the reality of piles and piles of books. I had seamlessly melded myself with the body of fellow sale-goers and joined them in the rush to the tables - I was part of that first tidal wave of humanity that flowed in, around, over and under the tables piled with books. Hands grabbing books left and right, up and down. A hundred grabbings. A thousand. My hands operated as if they were instruments with volition of their own. You no doubt imagine me mindlessly grabbing books wildly left and right all the while singing mindlessly, sotto voce, "grab and stash, grab and stash!" Wrong. Wrong. Wrong. At a book sale my thought processes became focused in such a manner that if one could only harness the very power of that focus, great things could be done every day. (If we were on-line now, I would add a little winking emoticon after that last.)
An hour or two after the doors had opened I came to my senses ... I mean, I descended from the high state of perceptive puissance and returned to my ordinary state of everyday sharp perception. I realized I had filled several cartons with books. Looking down at the books on top, I vaguely remembered placing them in the box. They looked good. Harrumph! Of course they looked good. On the way out, wheeling the cartons to the car on a handcart I caught a glimpse of myself in a mirror - disheveled, a bit sweaty, dusty, a determined grimace just starting to fade from my visage, not exactly gimlet-eyed, but ... Where was my hat? Was that a bruise on the left side of my forehead? What had happened in the interval between when the sale doors opened and this moment?
Before leaving I cast one last look into the sale room. I noticed a few stray pages wafting about gently on the breeze from over head fans ... a smell of ozone lingered ... I espied a pair of legs sticking out from under one of the tables, seemingly inert. I recognized the polished oxfords of a colleague. Haw. He just wasn't up to the battle. Haw! One less competitor. Various sale organizers were wandering about, dazed and frazzled. One of them huddled in a corner, clutching a metal cash box to her body. In the opposite corner huddled a buyer, shivering and clutching a large tome. I couldn't help noticing with some sense of satisfaction that it had no covers. Harrumph. Amateur.
When loading the car, a sense of excited lassitude enveloped me. Surely I remember finding regal goodies, scarce first editions, wonderfully illustrated volumes, rare academic treatises ... it was good ... I ignored the momentary sense of embarrassment that warmed the back of my neck when I briefly recalled that I had abandoned all of my early morning's resolutions. I had been part of the scramble. I did rush to the tables. I recalled stumbling over and around fellow sale-goers - the swarming competitors; I recalled crawling - crawling! under tables scrabbling for what seemed a shiny bauble of a book. I recall snarling. Surely not!
But it was good. It was exhilarating. It was so ... satisfying.
But it was over, and I headed home for part two of the adventure. Something even more satisfying.
The sale had only been a prelude.
Appendix to the Grab: The Gloat
It is certainly gratifying to sit in one's home, or shop, the cartons filled with booty from the sale lying about one, and bask in the satisfaction of a quarry well sought and justly obtained. I challenge any bookman to think of something more satisfying. Now, in the heat of battle - at the sale - one does not have time to inspect closely every book chosen. The usual onsite examination consists of a quick perusal of covers, flipped once for edges, flipped easily - one, two for end-papers, a peek at title page and copyright pages, and a quick ruffle through the leaves. More often than not, even that much attention is neglected. One sees the title, and into the box it goes.
This first perusal of all my goodies is always fun, but I try to work utility into the process.
Considering first that most of this material is for resale, I prepare an area for the review. A clean surface. That's the ticket ... and enough room to sort into piles. Of course some liquid refreshment is advised; but I make it a strict rule not to imbibe any liquids around the books. So my glass of Highland Gold sits on a table away from my finds. If I need to take a sip - and I will need to - I get up and stroll over. A nice seventh binding stretch.
Secondly, I'll always want to take notes. So handily nearby I have a notebook and a nice easily erasable pencil. Always pencil. No lousy bleeding pens anywhere near the books. No matter how careful I am, if there is a pen in my hand, eventually there will be a mark on a book. That ink will stay ... a monument to my carelessness. So I have a nice supply of favorite pencils and a nice clean Magic Rub eraser. This nifty little item is indispensable.
Magic Rub is handy for safely erasing unwanted pencilings one might find in books. Someone did some ciphering on the rear paste-down. Who cares. It's lousy scribbling. Magic Rub will take care of it. Inscriptions, signatures and textual annotations I let remain in the book. I am always interested in whatever signatures I find in a book, and consider them, not flaws, but an intrinsic part of the book's history. Of course there are signatures and there are signatures. Almost to a one, a book signed in magic marker is not worth picking up in the first place. Nor is a book with a single highlighting. Dross. Toss.
So. I have cleared my work space. No drink in the immediate vicinity - and that goes doubly for foodstuffs: no crumbs, no greasy fingers, no splashes of mayonnaise. Clean workspace. Clean hands. (Haw. Sometimes I wonder if any school children in the nineteenth century ever bothered washing their hands before they handled a book.)
I first review my finds and it is at that point that I make the tough decision - keep the blasted thing or not. I don't care how long one has been selling books, there will always be a few that get picked, only to be discarded later, for various reasons. At the sale the books were being picked fast. During the gloat, at leisure, I am then able to take stock - literally. Things I initially look for in this first review are various. But all go toward keeping one's stock from being larded with stinkers. At this point in the review, all books are mere objects to judge.
First thing I look at is condition. This comprises two aspects - physical defects and completeness. A book can have many defects and still be salable. Everyone has their own fault line, beyond which they refuse to consider a book's viability. With certain esoteric considerations encompassed, the older the book, the further down the road is the fault line. I like to think my picking at a sale is perfect. No damaged books ever get grabbed by this old man. Haw! In my heart I must own up, and memory's reminder tells me so: that there is a long trail of rue concerning books quickly grabbed at sales.
Is the book complete? Blast! I can tell you I have let loose with some scorching phrases when, upon riffling through the leaves of a book, I find there are some missing. Sometimes at a sale it will be obvious, as the book falls apart when you pick it up. But more often than not, such things as a missing page or two can easily slip by. The task of collating can be tedious. In older material it is absolutely necessary. In newer material it is still necessary, but does not entail such extended tedium. One goes through the book counting pages and plate illustrations. Plates are usually listed for a book and thus it is easy to check them.
A pox on the busy fingers who extracted either plates or pages. They have reduced the value of the book to nil. Missing plates are easier to shrug off than missing pages. Irritating, maddening even, but the book can still be salvaged. NO! I make a concerted effort here to stick to my protocol. Do I really want to explain the missing plates in a description? The book must be scarce enough or the text have such intrinsic interest that such lame statements as, lacks map, lacks plates, etc. are palatable. So the book is complete. Good.
Is it clean? I shudder at the immense amount of mildew that people seem willing to live with. "Oh that ... it just brushes off," say some. I am allergic to mildew. I do not bring mildewed books into my home or place of business. But once in a while some internal evidence of the nasty stuff will not be discovered until the book is home. Drat! Into the garbage. A mildewed book is three quarters of the way to being just so much mulch.
At sales, and even in stores, I will perform the sniff test. Long ago I gave up apologizing for testing books for what I call "whiff." One whiff of whiff and the book is rejected. If, when walking into a book sale, one's nose is assaulted by the smell of mildew it is best to just turn around and leave, as there is nothing there worth buying, even at sale prices. I have yet to see any mildew worth any price. Sometimes one may be able to see that it is only one particular box that has the whiff ... even so, proceed with care, for if one is in a shop, or a sale room where there is a predominant odor of mildew one will not be able to tell if a particular book in hand has the whiff or if it is only the room. In my opinion it is not worth the effort or the price, no matter how paltry.
More often than not you will get the book home only to discover the book has turned into nothing more than a malodorous object. Toss the blasted thing. I often leave sales with headaches or a sniffly nose because of performing the whiff test (against all healthful warnings).
Always check under dust jackets for mildew, and/or damp stains - or any other sort of wear. Avoid books whose dust-jackets have melded with the cover because of humid conditions at some point in the books history. Toss.
The following passages are intended as suggestions for treating common, everyday garden variety of books. It is not suggested to follow through with these suggestions on rare or valuable volumes. There is a time and a situation for the services of a book conservator. Don't try this on your rarities. I do not want to hear from anyone who attempted treatment of their Gutenberg Bible or rare Kelmscott Press volume, or some other rare book and botched it.
Dust is a bookman's lot in life. Often I will find that the top edge of a book is dusty - or dust-darkened - or moisture splattered (a common enough sight on books kept near spluttering radiators or open windows.) If there is one thing I give absolutely no value to, it is grime. People handle books with their grimy hands, leaving all sorts of smudgy marks, usually along the fore-edges of the leaves. The smudges on the page surfaces - well, there is not much one can do; but the dust-darkened top, the smudgy or soiled fore-edge, the shelf-rubbed bottom edge - these can all be treated to new life.
I always keep a number of various brushes on hand - a couple of fairly stiff ones, but still with give - like a clean shoe brush (one that has never been used to shine polish), and a few paint brushes of various sizes. These are good for sweeping off the dust and whatever cobwebby residue might be attached. One would be amazed at the various kinds of soft, clingy debris that attaches to books. Thin, fairly stiff art brushes are good for sweeping out a book's gutters, and end-paper hinges. For hollow back spines, I always check down the spine hollow for hidden debris and remove it as best as I can.
Accompanying the brushes I keep two or three very fine grades of sandpaper. This sandpaper I use to remove grime from the books edges. I have had other book dealers feign shock or dismay that I would alter the book so, as if the grime or soiling added some degree of authenticity to the book. Nonsense. The book is what it is. Its pedigree is printed there for all to see. It came from the printer and out of the bindery clean. There is no provenance added to the book by soiling. Someone once said to me that they viewed with suspicion any book they saw with sanded edges. But they are talking of an entirely different sort of sanding - sanding to disguise a book's provenance. But that is different, and hardly worthy. But - I repeat - there is no value to grime, and a book's appearance and value is only enhanced when grime is properly removed.
This is a delicate process and I do not suggest you tackle it until you have practiced on a few junk books. And I do not suggest you ever try it on true rarities. The following is for treating only everyday common, garden variety books. Like I said earlier I give no value to grime, and I am loath to include in my condition report in catalogs and auctions, "top edge dust-darkened," or "edges soiled." I hate typing "edges soiled." There is no reason to leave them soiled. Grime reduces the value of a book, and I have yet to run into a customer who complained that the book they were purchasing had clean edges. Where is the pedigree of this dirt that we must keep it with the book?
I am not advocating here the removal of library stamps on edges - don't do it. A properly deaccessioned library book confers its own provenance on a book. That is its history. As well, gilt tops and dyed edges, of course, present problems - leave them alone. However, a careful treatment with a properly fine grade of sandpaper to un-dyed or un-gilt edges will produce gratifying results. I cut the sandpaper down to small, easily handled squares, and wear a dust mask whenever I am sanding. The brushes come in handy after the edges have been sanded. You will be pleased with the results. A new purchase on life for an old book and a better purchase price realized for the same.
When cleaning the edges, remember that the grime has settled not only on the very tippy edge of the paper but also on the fore-edge of the surface of both recto and verso, transferred there by fingers and air currents. One must apply the sandpaper fanning the leaves ever so slightly both ways - imagine a wind blowing the leaves first one way, and then the other - this for each of the three page edges. For gilt edges or dyed edges use only the brushes. Sometimes a crumbly art eraser will clean a dyed edge somewhat. I find all of this to be somewhat tedious but satisfying labor, and it all goes to increasing the value and appearance of your book.
And, believe me, it is much more pleasant working with clean books.
After culling and tossing the junk, and removing grime from those of the remainder that needed cleaning, I am ready for the next few steps. But, wait - I see my glass of single malt across the room - it is time for a seventh binding stretch. I probably have missed mentioning a great deal but such is life; perhaps we can continue this little discussion at a later time. Harummph ... if any of you are still interested.
Questions or comments?
Contact the editor, Craig Stark
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