Monday, February 2, 2009

Respectfully Yours

People sell their books to a dealer for various reasons. Ours as used books dealers is not to question but to buy. When a seller brings in a half dozen banker's boxes, each carefully labeled by subject; "history," "art," and the like, it is a good sign that what is inside will be worth looking through. Conversely, folks with plastic storage tubs so heavy that it takes two people to carry them in, are not likely, in my experience, to be met with enthusiasm at the Buying Desk. Experience, like any superstition, must be undone now and again by facts, but one learns to distrust exceptions and dismiss them as soon as they've passed. So I feel safe in saying that almost anyone storing books in a grubby tub, unwashed canvas grocery sacks, garbage bags, or loose in the trunk of a car, while not necessarily a bad person -- at least in the larger sense that it can not be assumed that they neglect their children or kick their dogs or are unclean as to their person -- such people are not book people. Now and again a dealer might find a treasure or two buried in tub, amidst the dross of coloring books, ancient accounting texts and computer manuals, but this is not to be hoped for. If a clean paper bag, or neatly labeled and tidy boxes yield similar junk, at least one needn't assume the risk of spider bites, cat urine and or fleas. One smiles at a banker's box, even if one doesn't buy. One frowns at a tub, however nice the seller that dragged it in.

Respect for the books connotes respect for the dealer, and the potential next owner. To treat books otherwise is, if not criminal, at the very least to precipitate diminished return for the effort put forth in the hauling. That this seems obvious does not make it so to the owners of storage tubs.

The reasons for selling one's books tend to be reflected in the container in which one transports the books: clean shopping bags full of tidy mysteries suggest the need to make room for new mysteries, moving boxes suggest a move, or a death, a tub suggests the need for more room in the garage to accommodate the new three-wheeler somebody got for Christmas, and clean white boxes can mean anything but usually mean either a scout, if there are too many boxes at one time to handle quickly, or a book lover, unwilling to send even the least loved of his books out into circulation again without the proper respect.

(People can be strangely reverent about rather worthless books; wrapping a battered and stained cookbook in butcher's paper, or putting a perfectly common novel in first one bag, then wrapping that in another, and another, etc. Whatever the book, and whatever the reason for handling it so, it is always worth while to be gentle with its owner. Such hearts are true. There can be many memories nested in all that fuss.)

Whatever the reason for selling a book, the reason to buy a book as a dealer is to resell it. The transaction is ruthlessly commercial, however kindly undertaken on either side. But however coldly one must judge each copy of each title, what makes dealing in used books a pleasure is not just in finding good books to resell, but in having regular and repeated interaction with people who love books.

A dear lady sold us her poetry last year. Time had forced the sale, and while she seemed not to regret it, both seller and buyers were moved by the finality of letting such a personal library go. Tucked in her many rare and interesting books were letters from poets long dead, poetry periodicals long discontinued, even photographs of famous writers. These we returned to her, asking her to donate them to a library, where they might be preserved. And the rarest of her books -- many inscribed by the author to her or to her late husband -- we urged her to do likewise with, or to take to a proper antiquarian who would be likelier to find their next appreciative owner. The time the buyers spent with this wonderful woman was very special to all of us.

But no less special, in its way, is the almost daily visit of a tatterdemalion young man from The Ave., who brings us the produce of his scavenging, each book cleaned and stacked always in the black plastic bags he is careful to preserve and reuse. He may not know the authors he finds, or have read any of the books he rescues, but he is in his way as much a lover of books as anyone parting with a personal library. Whatever use he makes of the money he's given -- and sadly it's seldom much -- his respect for the books he sells bespeaks a humble spirit, just as his shy smile betrays a kind heart. And we are gladder to see him, in our way, than we are to see even the treasures found in a banker's box.

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