Wednesday, March 25, 2009
It Is Only Necessary to Make the Thing Difficult to Attain
Today at the bookstore, passing the General Merchandise counter, I heard an enchanting imp, perhaps all of five, her hair in loose curls, her eyes wide with outrage, gasp in disbelief when told to put a string of candy back. "But this one looks particularly good!" was her surprisingly articulate and compelling argument. I did not stay to witness her failure to persuade her no doubt implacable parent. My sympathies were all with the precious, greedy child. A man on his way to have a cigarette understands the particular appeal of an unhealthy indulgence.
To forbid is to render irresistible, to elevate, even the most commonplace of sins to a murderous, ravishing enchantment. To forbid arbitrarily not a sin, but an appetite, provides better proof of "an angry and jealous god" than could ever be undone by the gentlest guitar-mass or the sexiest Youth Minister holding one's hand in circle-prayer. God is Love? No. Just plain mean, it seems, is what He was, and no Commandment more footling came down from Sinai than the prohibition against covetousness. To not want?! Even if so inhuman an injunction were possible, who would it profit but the god who has everything, who wants only to give without being asked? Awful old misery, was God. Like an aunt with a candy dish only meant for decoration. Better without.
But even in a world without the full list of sins from Sinai, there are still such universals as paying a fair price for goods received. (I have been in retail so long, it seems, that even my theology, such as it is, can be reduced to good business practice.) Perhaps the ugliest instance of covetousness I've seen regularly in the business of used books is the sharp deal. I've not only witnessed dealers pay economically and price dear, I've heard true chicanery bragged about in indecorous detail; the pigeon described, the treasure coming invariably up from the bottom of an otherwise undistinguished lot, the title withheld in the telling 'til nearly the end of the tale, the lucky dealer's sweated patter and assumed nonchalance reenacted down to miming the slip between lesser books of the only one wanted, the seller paid pennies... and then the title triumphantly revealed at last, followed quick by the astonishing (usually exaggerated) price got for the thing online or from some "special" client. Such duplicity, it seems, is common in the trade, or was at least among some of the otherwise reputable enough rag-and-bone-men I met at the lower end of the business. That antiquarians, or those sometimes so called, tell each other similar tales when privately gathered strikes me as no less likely, though I make the assumption only as a frequently disgruntled customer, shopping beyond my pay, never having moved in such rarefied company much myself.
The sin then, so far as I can see, is not in the wanting, but in why and the getting. The deal I've described has nothing to do with books. Real greed would find a better, more regular way, by means of an MBA, I should think, and a place at Morgan Chase. No, what such dishonest dealers do is gamble; on the ignorance of sellers, on unstable quotes from websites, with their own reputations and livelihoods. For such dirty practitioners of the slight, a book's contents, or beauty or worth, are irrelevant, even it's condition secondary to it's market value. I've known book dealers as ignorant and unlettered as panhandlers, no better than car dealers, book dealers who never read a book, or who read nothing but pulp to please themselves, but whose experience in the trade has taught them to spot, if not quality, rarity. Buy and sell used books long enough, and any ape can learn how to pluck a first edition from a bin, find gold in dumpster, or recognize a fine binding and a peerless name without ever reading more than a title-page. Such sorry, soulless grubbers, when swapping tall tales, covet each other suckers, not each other's books.
One outside the business would never know this, of course, unless one returned to see the book sold for a dollar listed for thousands. It's happened. But the once-rooked, while twice shy from experience, can still be got 'round by the truly slick. There are disreputable dealers -- known to the trade, even warned against -- who somehow oil and sooth, and go on from swindle to swindle. As Ben Franklin said, "Covetousness is ever attended with solicitude and anxiety," though the opportunities are as rare as the truly rare books, and I should think the thrills for such people come so infrequently, they must sooner or later give up the more usual business of book trading.
And even the most honest dealer, in the rush to conclude a buy, makes mistakes and discovers too late, the seller gone, that a book was worth considerably more than what was paid. A good bookman will hope to see this seller again, will even pursue them if the means are available, to pay the difference owed. It's simply good practice. One wants always to buy more, to be brought good or better books. Being honest is the only way to bring honest sellers in.
But wanting great books, as I said, is no sin, and there's nothing of brimstone in the good smell of rare volumes, no heat but from hands in the feel of fine leather, no guilty glint in fine gilding. In my time buying books, I've handled so many glorious things, books so beautifully made I'm glad of the privilege of seeing them and flattered to be offered. Whole private collections of treasure have come my way through the years, and have been regularly, reluctantly sent on their way to other, better financed, better situated or better qualified dealers. Doesn't mean, for the brief time I held them, I did not covet. Oh, but I have! Such books though are not what I deal in. Better I take what I know I can sell, what I might hope to turn over in the time that I have. The average book dealer sits on at least a few books worth more than the whole of the rest of his stock, but it's the rest of his stock that pays for that prerogative, and no dealer's above selling even the greatest find, should the rent come due before enough paperback romances have been moved in a month.
There are, in this city, some excellent, honest and learned antiquarians, real masters and mistresses of their trade, who appreciate the finest and rarest, who have the good taste and the customers and the patience to wait for them. I envy them their equipoise, and covet their stock, but I haven't their experience, training or skill, and may never should I spend a very long life in used books, any more than I would want or be likely to ever acquire the necessary brass balls and bad character to tell outrageous stories about taking the signed Hemingway from some innocent widow.
But why elevate my humble trade to such psychomachia? All I'm really describing is how easy it is to be virtuous when one can't afford real sin, either spiritually or financially. If my sins are little ones, if all I can manage is a bit of honest coveting, I've nobody to blame but the God, or likelier, the biology and parents that made me. Too late now to regret the limits of either my education or my criminality.
The next gorgeous, grand book to come across the buying desk will be passed on with the usual explanation, though greeted as always, I do not doubt, with my usual wide-eyed, covetous wonder, my coworkers, all equally poor, called over to admire, before it's let reluctantly go.
"But this one looks particularly good!"
Amen, little sister, amen.