What the Dickens Is Coming Next?

If you were reading this ciolumn last week, you are aware that we have been underoing a Smurf Month, a period during which Book Fair donations take on a touch of eccentricity. This blue tinge was affected by what I call a Surge. This is when a car pulls up with new donations before I can get the last carload moved indoors. Last week’s count was about 200 boxes and 130 bags of books and records.

Yes, this keeps us in business, but I can’t price ‘em and haul ‘em at the same time. The weather, dancing between short sleeve weather and winter coat warnings, didn’t help. Every day I had to consider about four different plans of action, thinking about what Smurfish things might come in and in what quantity during what weather. Which made this past week a Blue Surge With Two Pairs of Plans.

Yes, that was a long way to go for not much of a joke, but I had a rough week.

But there were some treasures among the Smurfish donations, which makes it all worthwhile. There was a genuine Levenger Ergo Desk: solid wood and brand new. None of us knows quite what it does, but it is LEVENGER, after all.

The same donor gave us a fine portable typewriter in its case, in excellent condition, perhaps ninety years old. If this Windows XP business gets any more complicated, you can give up the search for new software and go for old hardware instead.

And we were given a stack of books from James Osgood’s Vest-Pocket Series. These are little hardcover books, roughly 3 x 5 inches, published in the late 1870s for the reading pleasure of commuters and other readers on the go. A lot of them are poetry collections, which are easy to make whatever size you need, but there are some short stories and one-act plays.

Most of these are not worth a whole lot, even the first editions of one-act plays by William Dean Howells. Howells is not read for his attempts in comedy, and come July, you will be able to take these off my hands for about ten bucks. Of course, Charles Dickens is not read for his plays, either.

Dickens loved the stage, and early in his career he wrote a few one-act play apparently just for the fun of it. “Is She His Wife” is a scenery-chewing farce he wrote on his second honeymoon (the story is a reworking of something he’d written earlier, so the plot, about a man bored with his wife after six months of marriage, has nothing to do with his marital status at the time.) It is slightly risque and got very lukewarm reviews when it was performed and published in 1837. But in 1877, Dickens was still a star, and James Osgood was able to fit this little nothing play perfectly into one of his Vest Pocket Books.

Here’s where the fun begins. According to what I read here, the last known copy of that 1837 first edition was lost in a fire in 1879. A later edition, published around 1871, wasn’t very large and only a dozen or so copies are known to survive. A Dickens collector who has not won the lottery has to settle for buying a copy of the third edition, which was published by James Osgood as part of his Vest Pocket Series in 1877. Prices start around $650 for a copy in rotten shape, and can go as high as four figures.

It would be nice to be able to tell you the donor gave us one of these. It’s nicer to be able to tell you that, in fact, he gave us two. Now THAT’S my kind of Smurf month.

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