by Terri Fox of The Garden of Readin’ — the used book shop and tea room in historic Edenton, NC
So a man walked into a bookshop.
[I was hoping to come up with a clever joke but couldn’t think of one, so we’ll just move on.]
My used book shop is in a really small town, so when someone comes in that one hasn’t seen before, one figures the person is a visitor. Visitors think this is some form of small-town Southern ESP. So this gentleman introduces himself – Carter, from New Hampshire – and asks me if I can help with the books left in his aunt’s house after she died. [I would have known he wasn’t from the South even if he hadn’t told me; he would have at least said “passed”, if not “gone to Jesus, bless her heart.”] I told him that I would be happy to help, and that I had provided such services in the past to others.
Then it got interesting.
Carter warned me that this case might be a bit more complicated than usual – his aunt was Miss Elizabeth, whom I knew to have been a crackerjack historian and beloved town grande dame – and that many of the books were “old.” And there were a lot of them. Thousands. Of really, really old books.
I am pretty confident about my abilities as a used book seller, but I am the first to admit I know next to nothing about the antiquarian market. As much as I would have liked to have even seen Miss E’s library, I knew I was not the right person for the job – I wouldn’t have even been able to bluff my way through. And, seriously, I am a champion bluffer. But I have A Guy: Ed is a semi-retired antiquarian and antiques dealer who had sold a few things for me before. I gave Ed’s number to Carter, let Ed know Carter would contact him, et voila! And that, I supposed, was that – my good deed for the day.
But an hour or so later, I got a call from Ed: “Meet me at Miss Elizabeth’s house tomorrow morning at 8.” I reminded him that I had no idea what I was doing regarding antiquaria [my dictionary says this is not a word, but I hereby say it is]. “Well, you’re going to learn. Wear grubby clothes and bring your laptop.”
And so it began. I entered Book Heaven. Thousands of really, really old books… each seemingly more beautiful than the last. Gilding! Engravings! Marbled edges! Copperplate handwriting! If this had been a movie, this would have been the time for a montage. I was in a total Book Coma.
But the condition of many of the books was absolutely wretched. No bugs, fortunately… but books dating back to the 1740s, kept in a house that had no air conditioning until the 1980s, in the South, near the water? Mildew! Damp spots! Foxing [a word I learned in the first five minutes, and then bandied about at every opportunity because it sounded so professional]! I would see a beautiful gilded leather spine and, ostentatiously wearing my new white cotton gloves, gingerly, gently tease the volume out – and poof! There went the binding! The pages nearly dissolving! Sneezing! Eyes watering! Heartbreak!
Apparently, antiquaria [yes, it’s a word now, and you’re welcome] is best learned like a foreign language – by immersion. I was learning by being thrown in the pool. Like a cartoon character’s, my brain was smoking as I learned to look up values and editions. The prettiest books were not necessarily the most valuable; neither, necessarily, were the oldest. Like real estate’s “location, location, location,” this was “condition, condition, condition.” I am the kind of person who is not allowed to visit the animal shelter [“Okay, kids, you’re all coming home with me!”], so I couldn’t bear to leave any of the books behind. Fortunately, my Antiquaria Sensei Ed was much more discerning, and we left with just a hundred or so of the most promising books. Then we did it again two days later.
In the end, we saved about 350 books. Gorgeous books – and downright odd books [there was no way I was leaving behind Lectures on Skulls and Hell… two copies, no less].
Just to give the whole picture, this all happened the same week as our long-delayed new-location Grand Opening & Ribbon Cutting reception AND our sidewalk sale during the town’s Music & Water Festival AND a long-delayed visit by my mom. Dear lord. Did I mention that, except for three hours on Tuesday morning, I am the entire staff?
So, what have I learned so far? I learned to never, ever schedule four things in one week again. I learned that you can’t leave boxes of antique books out in the shop, because people will start to paw through them as if they are bargain paperback romances – hence, $350 later, I have a new [locking!] cabinet to house them. While researching the books, I learned enough esoteric history to win at Jeopardy. I learned that if I didn’t get back to regular used-book-shop work, I would no longer have a used book shop. And I learned that I absolutely love, love, LOVE really old books.
Next, my education continues: I price the books and list them online. Piece of cake, right? I thought so, too.