Rex Stout and Me (sort of)

Sometimes serendipity enters a book collectors life. When I worked for A&E mysteries.com as their bookclub moderator, I  wrote articles and interviewed authors etc., but I also had conversations via comments, just like here. I noticed on one mystery board, a woman was asking anyone who may have info how she could sell a collection of signed Nero Wolfe books. Now, Nero Wolfe titles could range from anywhere within the long years Rext Stout wrote them. From his first Fer-de-Lance, in 1934, to his last A Family Affair in 1975. And depending upon the date and print run, if they were first editions, if they were in good condition, and if they were actually signed or inscribed by Stout, value would be assigned. For the unfamiliar, Rex Stout created one of the best known and regaled detectives in print. A gourmand, orchid growing, large curmudgeonly agoraphobic (although Wolfe wasn’t afraid to leave the house, he simply chose not to)  genius, named Nero Wolfe.  Archie Goodwin, a tough wise acre gumshoe leg man, who did all the running around finding clues that Wolfe then sat at home perusing and solving the crime, was Wolfe’s right hand man.

The seller of  the Stout collection was not close by, and therefore I wasn’t  in a position to go view the titles. I let it go, but asked my great friend and wonderful book dealer, Jamie, what he thought. He was interested, but reserved like me. We have  been down those roads where we think we may have found some golden prize only to realize it was tinsel. He had me ask her a few more questions via e-mail, and I ascertained the collection of books was plentiful, all signed, and most inscribed to her mother. And not only that–there were letters–from Rex Stout. Letters! Circa 1960s-70s. Now that piqued Jamie’s interest a good deal, and he then started a dialog with her himself, digging out more details and solid descriptions of what was actually in the collection.

Jamie was now excited–he thought there may be a decent turnover profit in these if we pounced on it before she contacted anyone else–if she had them appraised, we’d be out of luck, because the cost would be beyond our grasp, and we wouldn’t want the collection at that point, we couldn’t make a profit. She would need to sell them herself, or through an agent of some sort, like Jamie, and he take a cut of the profit. Converstation bandied about. The lady’s husband wanted her to take her time and get the books appraised. She just wanted them gone. Lucky for us, she had the upper hand and Jamie traveled  to access them before making a deal.

He was to put it mildly, gobsmacked. Yes, there were piles of otherwise worthless paperbacks,but with Stout’s signature came some value, and there were inscribed book clubs, another usually worthless form of publishing, but again, Stout’s inscription is rare enough to raise the bar for even them. There were also some newer first editions nicely inscribed, and some older ones inscribed–both in jacket–which made the pot much sweeter, despite the recent dislike of inscriptions instead of a straight signature collectors today prefer.  The little pile of letters and a gigantic find, a big fish, the golden fleece, the jackpot of discoveries, won the argument to purchase the collection. Jamie didn’t have enough money on hand to purchase them alone, so he asked myself and a friend if they wanted in. He fully believed he would make back the money and more.

We hadn’t any available dough, but my mom had the enough for our contribution and we put it to work buying the Rex Stout collection. Believe me, doing this was not without reservations–what if they don’t sell like we think, what if they don’t sell at all? But I had complete faith in Jamie, and although a bit nervous to use someone’s money other than my own, I felt it was worth the risk.

And here’s why. Among all the decent books, and paperbacks, and booksclubs, was an advanced reading copy of—-Fer-De-Lance!!! His first Nero Wolf and Archie Goodwin mystery. And it was signed–not inscribed, simply signed. Hard enough to find a copy of a first edition of the book, but an ARC? Unheard of. It wasn’t in perfect condition, but we planned on having it repaired professionally by an archivist restorer. 

Jamie paid her a very good and fair price for the collection, an amount that any decent bookseller would have paid. He is not in the business of ripping unsuspecting people out of what their books are worth to a middleman. If she had taken and put them on boookfinder, ABE or Biblio, maybe, just maybe, she would have made more. Because Jamie has been in the business for decades and has a stellar reputation, the likelihood of his getting the full value was multiplied. He knew how and where to sell them, and for just the right amount. He had collectors around the world as customers, and he understood which article would not bring in much cash, and which ones had great potential. And he knew the ARC was the most important of the lot and it needed much repair and would pay for it, something unlikely to happen if she handed the books off to someone to sell for her, or listed them herself. 

She was quite thrilled with the deal, was happy to see the books go, and we were ecstatic. I was able to see the collection before it was sold, and read all the correspondence he had with the mother. And it was quite an interesting one. She was a fan but one that seemed to be on closer terms with the author than what usually occurs. She sent him chocolates all the time, something he really loved, and he send back whichever book she sent him to be signed. We discovered the ARC came from him, which is logical, who else would have one still? He sent it to her signed, as a gift, I guess. I believe her husband worked at a chocolate factory, which kept Stout supplied with the goodies. 

I can’t remember how many books and letters there were in all, but the partners in buying the collection were allowed to chose and keep one of the letters. I did. I haven’t yet framed it, I wanted it to be perfectly done, and had no idea how to do it. It’s carefully stored away until the day I decide to give up and have it done professionally, ha.

The paperbacks and bookclubs were sold on ebay with varying end prices, which financed the repair of the ARC, not an inexpensive task. Plus, as Jamie was doing all the seller’s work, he was to get a certain amount as payment, a common practice. 

When they were finished selling, and the better titles also sold, the ARC was finally ready to be put on the market. Before that, however, Jamie just had to gloat a teeny bit by bringing the prize to a known major collector who probably wanted the piece, but wouldn’t want to pay what it was worth. Which is exactly what happened. I can’t recall if this collector already had an ARC of the book in his possession (believe me, if any collector of crime fiction would have such a rare prize, this one would) and the ARC was not in the best condition, so the collector would want to ‘upgrade’ to ours, or he never had a Fer-de-Lance ARC, and was thrown by Jamie having one. Whatever the case, the collector drooled over the piece for a little bit, offered a ridiculously low price, and Jamie had the satisfaction or walking away with it, and leaving this particular customer empty handed. Not that he wouldn’t have sold it to him if he met Jamie’s price. As arrogant as this one collector has been known to be, bookselling is bookselling and you sell to whomever and get the best price possible.

When Jaimie did eventually sell it, it went for around the amount we had hoped for, perhaps a little bit less, but we were all happy campers! My mother doubled her money! And a little more. That’s a nice return, if you ask me, especially in the book business, not known for great profits. And the letters had not yet been sold.

Jamie wants them to stay together, not be parsed out to various different customers. He had hoped a library or some such group would purchase them, so the public would  have a shot at reading them.  Other bookdealers will sell single letters for a hundred dollars or more, a piece. There are quite a sum of letters, so Jamie decided on a price he would not go below, and an auction house put them up. Unfortunately, this was a time when the economy was faltering, before falling altogether, and although bids were made, the amount didn’t reach his minimum. The letters went back in the ‘vault’ for another day and another shot at selling them.

Serendipity. Just because I was idly scanning the message boards, just because I responded to the inquery and no one else did, just because the seller was eager to be rid of the books, just because I contacted Jamie, just because Jamie decided to take a chance and view the collection–those of us who invested in the purchase feel we have a tiny connection to Mr. Stout, if only the ownership of a few short sentences regarding thank yous for sweets!

Footnote: I wrote this to correspond to the recent Nero Award nominations from The Wolfe Pack–a fan group of Stout’s. See my other post for details.

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  • Who says bookselling isn’t exciting?

    Good story Diane. Must have been fun as well as some other emotions thrown in.

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    • Oh, I completely agree, bookselling can be very very exciting–especially when a rare find comes across your hands or a great book is discovered and we enthusiastically sell it. Oh, I loved selling books!
      Thanks for the nice words, prying1–it does help to know people appreciate the stuff I write!

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  • How terrifically exciting, Diane! Thanks for your wonderful description.

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