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Perhaps the most meaningful thing I took away from watching The Wizard of Oz when I was a kid was this: the things we're forever looking for in life are often the very things we already have but just don't see. This is true on so many levels, from profound to superficial. And everything in between. True believers can spend entire lifetimes in quest of the Lost City of Atlantis, for example, only to discover that it's precisely where it's always been: within. There for the taking. On a much less profound level, you can lose your keys, and the last place you'll look is where you put them only moments ago.
In your hand.
The bookselling story I'm going to tell you today illustrates the same irony. Several times over. From the outset, I was caught up in an almost a continuous, bungling quest for things that kept showing up, ultimately, in my hands. And I'm not even sure I'd call it a quest. It was more like having things shoved at me despite my best efforts to push them away.
Anyway, this started one morning with the delivery of something called The Treasure Chest, a neighborhood publication comprised entirely of classified advertising that gets chucked into our driveway once a week. Usually, the only time I look at the thing is if I'm trying to find a plumber to fix a leak or something - and never for books (which are never advertised anyway).
On this particular day I didn't look at The Treasure Chest at all, but my neighbor did. She called and said that she'd seen an ad for - first time for everything, I guess - books. And even then I promptly forgot about it. Of course, since fate was marching merrily on without a shred of input from me, she called back a few days later and asked me what I'd found out. Only then did I glance at it, and I do mean glance. It was an ad for a collection of George Bernard Shaw first editions, some of them signed, and I thought, oh boy, they're probably way, way overpriced. I don't recall why I finally decided to call, but eventually, well over a week later, I must have had a what-the-heck moment. I set up an appointment to look at them.
At that stage in my bookselling life I hadn't had much experience with Shaw, so I did some homework before I met with the seller. It wasn't looking good. Despite being a Nobel Prize winner and having authored Pygmalion, the masterpiece My Fair Lady was based on, Shaw can be a tough sell, especially in North America. I'd found some nice prices for signed first editions on fixed price venues (mostly in the UK), but the poor slob was tanking right and left on eBay US.
There were and still are a number of good reasons for this. For one thing, Shaw was primarily a playwright, and most of us would rather watch a play than read one. For another, he'd had a long career, ultimately wrote scads of stuff, and was pretty enthusiastic about signing anything and everything. No shortage of supply, in other words. Worse, he was a confirmed Socialist. Some of his plays were nothing more than thinly disguised vehicles for advancing his political agenda, and Socialism is hardly the hot commodity it was a hundred years ago. Since the seller had told me she was asking $10,000 for a collection of about 50 books, maybe a dozen of them signed, my appointment was looking more and more like a giant waste of time.
Speaking of homework, the seller (hereafter referred to as Mrs. Z.) had most definitely done hers. Shortly after arriving at her house, a sprawling, brick ranch in an upscale, palm-infested neighborhood, I discovered that she'd already had three appraisals done, one of them as recently as the year before, had consigned (without success) about half of the signed titles in a local bookstore, had met with a half dozen other potential buyers, only one of whom had made an offer - a $2,000 insult, she called it - and had been running the ad in the "blasted" Treasure Chest for several months! I'd arrived a little late, it seemed, to the party.
Still, to be polite, I went through the motions of reviewing the collection, took some pictures, wrote down a list of signed books and ephemera, and told her I'd be in touch - oh, and on the way out, I let it drop that the current market for Shaw wasn't what I'd call, uh, steaming.
As if she didn't know.
At least one more week went by, probably two. By then, I'd sort of half-assed researched a few of the best things she had and had come to the same conclusion my instincts had: no way in hell would I pay $10,000 for these books. $2,000, in fact, seemed not such a bad offer after all.
What I did then was what I'd already been doing. Nothing. I put off calling her. Whatever interest I'd had going in had since plunged. I'm sure you're with me here: that's when she called me. I was doing my best to walk away from this, but mysterious forces continued to yank me right back in.
I was massively indifferent when we talked, and I'm sure it showed. I told her what she'd no doubt heard from the other buyers - that I couldn't possibly meet her price, not even come close, that at best I might be able to give her $2,000 or $3,000. What was different at this stage of the game, however, was that she was significantly more motivated to unload the books than she'd been when she'd first placed the ad. She asked me to stop by again - no, insisted. Said perhaps we could discuss the price.
Predictably, the next appointment went much like the other had. At least at first. Don't get me wrong. This was a superb collection, and I enjoyed looking at it again. Not only were there books; there were some intriguing pieces of ephemera as well: handwritten letters, postcards, corrected scripts, etc., and a signed rough proof of Pygmalion - a book, by the way, for which I'd found no comparables whatsoever. It seemed a shame to let the stuff go for a few thousand, but the reality of the market was staring me in the face. And I sure as hell wasn't going to be the one to bail her out.
Would I pay $5,000?
"Very sorry," I told her, "but Shaw just isn't wildly collectible right now."
Mrs. Z. was hovering out of sight when I said this. A moment later she was at my side, arms folded, glaring indignantly at me. "Well!" she said. "Well!" Then she walked briskly to the window and looked outside. "Is Lincoln?"
"Is Lincoln what?"
She practically spat the word out: "Collectible."
"Certainly, young man, who else would I be referring to?"
"Well, yes. Why?"
"I have something to show you. Come with me."
To be continued ...
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