Mustering Enthusiasm

Last time, I discussed the kind of donation we sometimes refer to at the Book Fair as “terrible treasure”, a book that is nice and saleable and in good condition and in such massive quantity that we won’t sell a tithe of ‘em. These sometimes come from distributors who have books they were sending to bookstores but can’t find the publisher now to return the unsold copies (that happened to us a few years ago: it was all Japanese literature in translation, Chicago history, and very esoteric how-to books.) Sometimes it’s bookstores, with a similar problem. Sometimes it’s the publisher itself, unloading overstock in return for a charitable donation receipt. In any case, we sometimes find ourselves in possession of, say, 200 copies of the 2003 Swizzle Stick Price Guide.

Now one of these days, when the Lottery realizes who deserves to win, and we buy a city block for the Newberry Library Book Fair Building, we will have storage space where we can set aside, say, three-fourths of such a book and just release them over the course of several Book Fairs. We, alas, do not have such resources right now, and we just set the books out and hope for a LOT of people who want to price their swizzle stick collection but can’t afford the 2010 price guide. But once, once upon a time….

Once upon a time there was a Chicago poet who wound up working as a lawyer. Now, there have been such poets for centuries, and for centuries, too, such people would gather and publish things and hang out with full-time poets, but this young man was doing it at a time and in a place of great intellectual ferment. His name was Mitchell Dawson, and if you don’t know his name, you’ll know the names of some of his cronies: Maxwell Bodenheim, Alfred Kreymborg, Carl Sandburg, William Carlos Williams. They published and wrote letters and fought over things like titles of magazines no one was going to read anyway, and did all the things young poets do.

In the early 20s, Mitchell Dawson started Musterbookhouse. The first book he published was a collection of the work of German Expressionist artist George Grosz, and the second collected the work of poet Yvor Winters. The third one somehow never got published; this often happens in the small press world.

As years went by, Mitchell Dawson married, wrote columns about the law, published no more poems, and eventually passed beyond the rose. A collection of his correspondence and other things came to the Newberry Library, naturally, and in sorting through this, the Book Fair found itself in possession of no fewer than twenty copies of Musterbook I, just as they had come from the press in 1921. This small paperback was valued at that point at $100.

It’s mighty hard to tell people what a rare book they’re looking at if twenty copies of it are sitting on the table. So we tucked them away in a box, and set one copy on the Collectibles table for $50. When it sold, we would wait a day (to be sure the buyer was clear of the building) and set out another one. It took about seven years to unload George Grosz. Some of our regular customers would look him over and say “Why don’t you try this at a lower price? You’ve had it out for years now.” We just shook our heads sadly and turned away before they heard us giggle. When we reached the last copy, prices out in the greater book world had moved on, and the Musterbook was now trading hands at $200 each. So, as a nostalgic—and profitable—farewell, we marked our final copy at $100, and said goodbye to an era as the customer moseyed off with it.

In this day of online sales, it might be easier and quicker to dispose of twenty copies of what is now, I see, about a $250 book. If you have twenty pristine copies of a $250 book, send ‘em over and I’ll give it a try. I’d even take thirty. 

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