Some Old, Some Pretty and Some Downright Odd Books

odd old books

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. Soodd old books 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.


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  1. Donna B.

    Sounds like book heaven to me!

  2. Jeff Elfont

    May I suggest a week at Colorado Antiquarian Book Seminar in 2014!