Taking Bookselling
To The Top

by Craig Stark

#51, 5 September 2005

Part II: How to Succeed in Bookselling
Without Really Trying

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At the conclusion of Part I of this account of my misadventures in bookselling, Mrs. Z. (motivated seller, you may recall, of a substantial collection of George Bernard Shaw books and ephemera) had invited me to look at something else she had, something to do with none other than Abraham Lincoln. You may also recall that up until this point my interest in what I'd already seen had been growing increasingly lukewarm, especially since discovering that G. Bernard was the collectible equivalent of Lee Iacocca on my side of the planet. The $2,000 or $3,000 I'd considered offering her at the outset was starting to feel much more comfortable right where it was - in my wallet.

This soon changed.

When I caught up to Mrs. Z. in her living room, she was carefully withdrawing two dark-green, elephant folio volumes from a bookcase adjacent to the fireplace. She set them carefully on the coffee table, invited me to sit down, and opened the first one.

There, on the first page, inserted in a glassine sleeve, was an old letter dated sometime in 1864. The prose was turgidly formal (typical for that era), but it was immediately clear that this was a parent's heartfelt plea to President Lincoln to pardon a Rebel soldier from Camp Douglas Prison in what is now Chicago, Illinois. Several family members had signed it on the back; so had a few town officials (ostensibly to give it more weight), each of whom had added brief notes praising the prisoner's character and/or lamenting the family's urgent need of his earning power. Mrs. Z. pointed to a scrap of paper affixed to the bottom of the letter, then looked at me.

"It was approved by the president," she said.

"So I see, and it's ..."

"Signed." She then smiled a wry, I-told-you-so smile, and said, "Tell me, does this meet your criteria for being 'collectible'?"

I don't know how you guys are, but when I get into situations like this, I instinctively shift down to a pretty indifferent persona. It's a kind of gift, I suppose, something you're born with, and more than once I've been told that I have strong Stoical tendencies. The thing is, I'm not at all Stoical; I'm just good at cloaking stuff. It doesn't matter if my chest is pounding like a jack-hammer, I can still nod casually and toss out nonchalant that's-interestings with the best of them.

"Collectible?" I said, looking up at her with a now imperviously masked face. "Yes, it's interesting. Of course, I'd need to authenticate it first. Lots of forgeries floating around, you know. Got anything else?"

Mrs. Z., having delivered, presumably, her best shot at impressing me, was now a spent force. She emitted a massive sigh, no doubt concluding that I was hopelessly ignorant of what constituted a valuable document, and passed through the rest of the album in silence. I, of course, looked on with my best casual countenance.

In essence, this album housed a fairly extensive collection of Lincoln ephemera: booklets, portrait reproductions, letters, etc., but I didn't see anything else of staggering interest (that is, no more presidential signatures - more about this later). There was, however, a handwritten document (more about this later too). This one was very old, dated June 10, 1834. "Is this signed?" I asked, flipping it over.


I was relentless: "Anything good in the other album?"

"Oh, just some original Ford Theater playbills," she said in a now distinctly resigned but noticeably sarcastic tone, handing it to me. "At least I think one or two of them are authentic. Most of them are fakes."

I leafed through the album, noted that there were a number of playbills dated April 14, 1865 - that fateful Friday - then said, "Too bad they're mounted. I bet they'd be worth something if they weren't."

I know. Horrible. But the truth was that I still didn't know what was what. I was pretty sure that Lincoln signatures were going for at least a few thousand bucks on eBay, but my hopes weren't exactly sky high for the playbills - or anything else, for that matter. Still, I most definitely wanted the signed letter if I could get it for a good price. I snapped some pictures of it, told her I'd need to do some investigating, and left.

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