Once Upon a Time

Something was wrong with the book.

One of the things this job involves is “feel”. You have to have a “feel” for the books. Sometimes this means a vague suspicion that what you’re holding reminds you of something else if you could just remember what it is. At other times it’s a matter of actual touch: a book is too heavy or too light, and this sends signals to the brain. Something is out of the ordinary about this book.

Often, what’s out of ordinary is that somebody ripped pages out or folded the front cover back so often that the book has to be thrown away. Sometimes a hole has been carved into the center of the book so people can store their mad money or their passport or those honeymoon photos.

This book was a book in a slipcase. Most books in slipcases are books which have been made with a case, either because they are something special or because the publisher wanted you to think they are. These books fill their slipcases exactly. Sometimes you nearly have to break the slipcase to get the book out (the publisher felt the book was too pretty to bother reading.)

This book did not fill its slipcase. The slipcase had been made after the book, for protection, and the owner had had a chemise made as well. A chemise is similar to a jacket (oh, the book world knows nothing about fashion; look at just about any book dealer) but it is usually made of the same material as the slipcase. Slipcase and chemise here sat loosely over a battered old book that was very special to its owner, since making these things costs a bit more than, say, slipping a fragile book into a freezer bag.

And the book was light, very light. Printed on indifferent paper, bound in a mass market manner of the 19th century, it was, in fact, a cheap elementary school math book. Printed by the millions, battered by children, they are nonetheless frequently preserved as a fragment of a bygone day. They are generally worth, as I have hinted in previous blogs, about five dollars a ton.

But I thought I understood. Somebody was so nostalgic about his childhood that he had enshrined his math book. No telling about some people. I checked the inside cover (the pastedown, if you’ve been following along) to check the impetuous lad’s name.

It was a name I knew, but not a name that was worth building a slipcase for. It was the name of a man whose son became a great figure of American (and Chicagoan) literature. Well, this was interesting, but you’d need to be a pretty thorough collector to care this much about the guy’s father’s signature. Flipping a page, I saw where both of the man’s sons had scribbled their own names. The older brother had a firm signature; the famous writer’s name looked as if he was seven or eight years old and not quite sure about cursive letters yet.

So this was probably the earliest known autograph of a major American literary figure. AND, as it happens, a literary figure who was fanatically collected by not one but two of my regular customers.

He was also a literary figure whose signature has been frequently forged. So I showed it to the more scientific of my customers. He was impressed and, as I had hoped, covetous. “No,” he said, “That shows none of the marks of the usual forgeries. And most of the books he had as a kid were lost in a fire, so that’s quite a find. How much do you want for it?”

I told him. He handed the book back to me with a little bow, and said “Good luck.” I mentioned the name of my other customer, his chief competition. “Oh, he’ll buy it,” said the collector.

We had, and have, a little party for Associates of the Library in December, where the Great Lakes Dredge and Philharmonic Society performs. We put out a small display of cookbooks and art books and other pretty things just to suggest last minute gift ideas. I knew my other customer, who was a generation older than the first man, would be there. When he happened by, I showed him the book, and the three signatures.

He caught the book to his chest, his arms wrapped around it as if he would never let go. It was wonderful, it was glorious, it was something he had to own. His was a glowing smile, and his eyes were ablaze but also a bit wet. How much did I want? No problem. If I could just wait a bit, he had given his checkbook to a friend to carry, but he would be back to pay. I knew he would; he was a Trustee of the Library, after all, and we knew where to find him. Or I thought we would.

Some fifteen minutes later, he collapsed where he stood. An ambulance took him away and with him went his friend, his checkbook, and my book. He was, as I mentioned, an older man and, at the hospital, he recollected that he had not thought to eat anything that day and no, no, he couldn’t remember having had anything to drink since the day before, either.

His friend brought the book back. I still have it somewhere, and I will probably set it out for sale again some day. But when I run across it now and then, I hold it for a moment, and then I put it back where it was. I can’t ever sell it the way I almost sold it once, the perfect match of book and customer. Who else out there would see this as the crown of his book-collecting life, the unique item that gave his collection that final, perfect note? Nobody.

And, anyway, I’ll be charging too much. I do that when the story attached to a book is this long. 

Post New Comment