Close this window to return to BookThink

Tales From the Book Trail

by Catherine Petruccione

#130, 6 December 2008

Whether you are stalking books at Friends of the Library sales and book shops or making house calls, scouting for book inventory is an adventure that can bring you to laughter or tears. Whatever the setting, it is the people, and sometimes the circumstances, which make it memorable.

I was delighted one day when, in an antique shop we haunt on a regular basis, Ron found something I had been seeking for a long time - a first edition of MASH by Richard Hooker. While I was searching in the usual booths that occasionally yield something of interest, he had ventured off to investigate a newly installed stash of books. It wasn't long before he tapped me on the shoulder to show me his find.

Ron and I have sort of a running joke that when we have a discussion about a highly collectible book - lets say, a first edition Maltese Falcon - after we discuss all its characteristics and points of issue I always finish with, "But don't worry, you'll never see one." Then he ultimately proves me wrong, and usually within a year's time. This works so well that I find myself telling him quite often that he'll never find anything.

A collectible quality first edition of MASH is darned hard to find, as anyone who has searched for it readily knows. So we left the shop in a state of subdued excitement with a short pile of books, including a beautiful first edition copy of MASH. There were errands to do on our way home, and next on the list was stopping by the grocery store. As we headed across the parking lot on foot, I got a bit ahead of Ron. He called to me from behind, "Who is that author again - of MASH, I mean?"

I bounded on toward a rack of shopping carts. "Hooker!" I yelled at the top of my lungs. As I looked up from the stuck cart, I stared into the face of a blonde woman in a tight skirt and stiletto heels just as she sauntered past me, hips swinging. "Oops," I uttered softly. She paused ever so briefly as her eyes flickered up and down. She looked peeved. What could I say? There was no way the true explanation for my outburst would fly. I held my tongue as she shifted her weight from one shiny pump to the other and breathed a sigh of relief when she finally rolled her eyes and moved off toward her car. I'm afraid that when she was safely out of sight, I laughed so much I had tears in my eyes and could hardly focus on grocery shopping at all. (I am easily amused, especially by humorous unplanned events).

But there is often a serious side to acquiring books. At Old Scrolls Book Shop, when we receive a phone call from someone who wants to sell their collection, we generally ask a few questions before deciding to make a house call. Prior to setting out, we have some idea about the condition, edition and genre of the books we are going to see. Circumstances leading to the dispersal of the books, however, is usually revealed only after our arrival. It often involves a life changing event, and sometimes it is a sad one. Perhaps someone is ill or has died, is moving to assisted living, or has fallen on difficult financial times; sometimes they have recently been through a divorce.

It can pull at the heartstrings to watch someone in the process of packing up a life. As any bibliophile knows, books are so symbolic of our passions, values and inspirations. Each volume tells a story - we remember how we acquired it and why. Each book represents a chapter in our lives.

Recently we had a call from a 93-year old man who had been one of our first walk-in customers back in 2001. He lived only twelve miles away, so we made an appointment to go over one summer evening to look at his books. He encouraged us by saying, "I know you'll like them, because some of them are yours!"

We arrived to find his modest apartment in a state of mild chaos - half-packed boxes of belongings scattered throughout the rooms, stuff on countertops, cabinet doors hanging open. There were many books, some in boxes, some still on shelves, others on tabletops.

"I'm moving across the country to live with my son in California," he said. A retired dentist, he was also a musician and an avid sailor; he had many books on both subjects, along with a lot of political books. About five minutes into our visit, I spotted an age-toned color photograph lying on his kitchen table with an image of Edward Kennedy, his arm around a smiling middle aged woman - and it was signed. It turned out that our customer and his wife had lived in Massachusetts in their younger days. The smiling woman was his wife, who had worked tirelessly for Kennedy over many years during his campaigns for the Senate and the Presidency. She had passed away several years ago, after suffering a stroke and its long debilitating aftermath. Our customer had even sailed with the senator and had a book on sailing signed by him, which he was gracious enough to include in the lot we were buying.

We moved from room to room, each one holding a collection of books, listening to interesting stories from his long life. Patiently we boxed the books, filtering out those few which, at the last moment, he decided he wanted to keep after all. At the close of the deal, I hugged him hard with tears in my eyes. Maybe it was due to the sadness that always hits me upon the realization that a long, well-lived life with all that accumulated wisdom is far too fleeting; or perhaps because he rekindled a memory of the many goodbyes I had said to my father over the years.

"I hope you find someone to go sailing with after you are settled in California," I said. He smiled with glistening eyes and said, "You know, I just may do that ...I just may. I found someone when I moved in here, and we spent enjoyable times on his sailboat." He paused for one wistful moment. "He was a Muslim, and I was a Jew, and over the years we spent many happy days in perfect friendship." In that instant I knew this was one special guy.

A call the following week took us over hill and dale on country roads until we reached a very long pot-holed driveway leading to a two story house overlooking a pond. It was raining - not cats, but dogs - and one moppy little fellow growled at us from beneath some shrubbery near the front door.

This phone call had been from a man who recently decided to part with a first edition book signed by Doctor Seuss, which had belonged to his mother. He had hung unto it for years. He was a successful musician who had fallen on difficult times for various reasons, one of which was the debilitating effects of a particularly rare and noxious form of rheumatoid arthritis.

And yet, he greeted us so warmly, giving me a full tour of the house in spite of his cane and hobbling gait. He insisted that I squeeze every dog and puppy scattered like rugs throughout the house. Turns out, when his wife left him, he refocused all his affection on friends of the more reliable four-legged variety. He and his companion popped open a round of beers for us, played some of his recordings, and talked of books, music and life.

We made him a really good offer on the book, but he was hesitant; we suggested he contact several more booksellers to see what they could offer him, and that we were in no hurry if he wanted to hang onto the book for awhile or forever. We moved on to other subjects.

At some point near the end of our two-hour conversation, we let slip that we, Ron and I, were going to get married on an upcoming weekend after many years of partnership. He was so excited for us, you would have thought we had known each other for years.

"Cathy and Ron," he said, "That clinches it. I want to sell you the book, and I want to come and play music at your wedding. Will you let me do that?"

"Well, sure ... but it's going to be a tiny wedding," I replied. "Really just eight people, and we're getting married at home in our library."

"Oh, that's perfect - my favorite kind of wedding. I'll bring my acoustic guitar What do you want me to play? I'd be so honored to come and play for you."

We gave him directions to our home, wrote him a check and took ownership of the book. Three weeks later, he showed up right on schedule, and we had both beautiful music at our wedding and a friend for life. Next week we are going to Rochester to see him perform, and a few people who attended our wedding are coming as well.

We have learned that with an open mind and an open heart, you can receive more than books when you are making house calls.

Questions or comments?
Contact the editor, Craig Stark

Copyright 2003-2011 by BookThink LLC