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The Dead Guy Buy

A Personal Essay

by Jaime Frontero

#98, 2 July 2007

After 40-some years of doing this book stuff, I've come to understand certain immutable laws and progressions in the trade. There are many that are easily categorized, some that are more difficult, and a few that I still haven't quite put together - although I'm working on it.

One of the simplest to understand and recognize is the Dead Guy Buy. Whether you get your large book purchases from people bringing books into your store or get them by seeking out people with large caches to sell, the Dead Guy Buy is instantly recognizable and of only two major varieties.

By far the most common DGB - probably in the neighborhood of 90% of them - is the book accumulation put together by someone who had a normal, reasonably long life; and died from a well-known, hard-fought, and expected cause - cancer, for example. Typically, these buys are offered in dusty (and frequently basement-dampened) cardboard boxes, packed carefully and lovingly with crumpled newspapers dated from two to ten years before you see them. It's hard for the relatives who offer these books for sale to do so, and they almost always keep the books for several years. Books are such personal things that letting go of them is perceived as tantamount to letting go of the decedent. As you go through the boxes, you go through a life ...

Sometimes, at least for the more serious of accumulators, there are the books that form their reading habits, and to some degree shape their lives for all time - the children's books. Lives progress differently when they start with Oz than when they start with Hardy Boys or Nancy Drew, differently begun with Edward Gorey than Disney. Do enough of these kinds of buys and you can't help but see that. Oz gives way to the fantasy of endless possibility, whereas Nancy Drew leads to a more conventional and approved reality. Edward Gorey as fare for children leads to Vonnegut or Salinger - and other thoughtful evils.

Then comes fiction, followed by perhaps a bit of politics. The dates of the books show the progression. There are usually a couple of choice college texts that "might come in handy some day," followed by a decade or two of professional reading as a career unfolds. Eventually, history comes into play, as the droning boredom of the elementary school history teacher is forgotten, supplanted by a need to understand the world. And more politics, with some political and/or general philosophy, perhaps. Also in about that time frame are the books relating to a serious hobby pursuit.

It's amazing, really - if you stack the books by time as you sort through them, rather than by the more common route of price-point, you have an entire human history spread before you.

Then the end approaches: A couple of "popular" medical self-diagnosis books show up, thumbed and marked, inevitably followed by some fairly technical disease-specific guides. And after that, almost invariably, some references on self-management of pain. Our nation's pathetic, puritan take on drugs has made this last quite common: Government-mandated fear intrudes on even our doctors, as it does on our lives and deaths ... no pleasure allowed, no unregulated joy, and certainly no freedom from a "sinners" pain.

The last and newest grouping of books is more often than not religious, or (lately) New Age-y quasi-religious. And the deals with whatever gods there be are struck ...

The much less common DGB is the one involving a sudden, unexpected death. Normally, relatives deal with this shock by getting rid of all the possessions of the deceased fairly quickly. Conventional wisdom has it that this is the easiest way to get through the turmoil of a sudden loss. One hopes to not be put in a position to discover the truth of that.

A couple of months ago I did one of those. The books of a 14-year-old girl. A reader and a thinker. A stick-figure doodler. And a devotee of exuberant marginalia. It started with a call - a reference from a long-standing customer. The woman's voice was dry and brittle, utterly business-like. After she'd offered the reference, she told me a child had died - just like that:

"A child has died." My first question was whether she was the parent.

"No," she said.

I won't do DGBs for parents anymore. I've done it twice, and it's just too hard. Once it was nothing but sobbing and furtive last touches of the books. The other was like an automaton disposing of something in a landfill - bend and shovel; " you want a receipt?" Both times made me want to hurt something, and I won't do it again.

So I went over to the house of the woman who'd called to go through the books. She was pretty much what her voice had indicated - an anti-macassared maiden aunt we might have called her, in a different day. It was only six boxes, hastily packed - and for some reason I decided to approach it en masse, emptying it all on a ping-pong table in the garage and sorting it from there.

You take care - and time - with these kinds of things. Aside from wanting to avoid the books that have been scribbled in, you want to make sure you catch all the scraps and pieces of that life, so you don't have to go back later to return them - photographs, postcards, bits of poetry, drawings and the like.

She'd been an interesting person. Neat - the books were always kept shelved (only dusted on the top edges), and had no spills on them or broken parts. All the dust jackets were there. Yet she'd been an undisciplined and voracious reader - field-expedient bookmarks everywhere; torn strips of college-ruled notebook paper mostly, some folded over to mark two spots. Also, she was more than an accumulator; she'd had the beginnings of a collector in her.

Her first books were the usual - board books and floppy naming books with plastic pages. There were yellow chicks and duckies, fluffy kittens; alphabets made of other, less likely critters. Nothing she'd chosen herself, certainly.

Then I found the book - it's always there, the one she probably learned to really read from. As is not uncommon for those who get read to, it was Alice - that ubiquitous, cheap Random House slipcased set (minus the slipcase) with the Tenniel illustrations colored by another artist.

It was the only book(s) in the lot that was really beat up - but it was beat up from reading, and probably from falling asleep on. I found two hairs in two different places in Wonderland.

There was a hollowed-out book safe with a diary and some photos, which I returned.

What I really wanted to do was ask the aunt if I could check the bookmarks on the girl's computer - for such sites as ABE and AddALL - but I didn't. She had an interesting bunch of kid's books - Trixie Belden, Animorphs, and a couple of the better Star Wars serials. They were bagged; and in all cases they were the valuable books in the series (almost always the last few). Once I caught the faintest whiff of Goo-Gone, but maybe it was my imagination ...

There was also a very nice first edition copy of Maurice Sendak's Outside Over There. Almost flawless, really, in a fresh Brodart with a bookseller's price still penciled in - $75.00. Some hustling there, for such a young one. One of us - a book person.

Her tastes had developed into somewhat dark urban fantasy, toward a Francesca Lia Block take on fiction (excellent writer in general, by the way - highly recommended). While examining her books I could watch the little girl falling down a rabbit hole into a world of makeup and the uncertainty of the almost-woman she must have been.

It was a good buy, really. A couple of nice pieces for me, and some excellent shelf stock to trade to the brick & mortar bookstores I do business with.

I also returned the Sendak - I told the girl's aunt that the family might want to hang on to it - along with all of the ephemera, of course. I kept Alice though; call it a tip of the hat from one bookman to an embryonic other. It's on my shelf. Still not sure what I'll ever do with it.

I'm a professional, dammit. I didn't cry 'til later, when I was alone in my car.


The author of this piece is an unpublished novelist (thus far, he avers) who was born in Los Angeles and grew up in New York City amid the remnants of the old Book Row - one block north of the storied bookstore owned by Jack Biblo and Jack Tannen. He turned his first profit on a book sold to Mr. Tannen at age nine, in 1960. His father was an artist and his early life was spent among the bi-coastal beat crowd. He claims to have been raised as the male analog of suzuki beane.

He has variously been an asset smuggler in Europe, a used car salesman, an art restorer, a network administrator, a short-order cook, and - in the only constant thread woven through his life - the itinerant owner of several bookstores and a life-long hustler of antiquarian books. He currently resides in Minnesota with a daughter, a cat, several computers, his books, and a mannequin which goes by the name of Audrey.

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