by Hugh Gilmore
Roberta Foss, who is an artist and lives in Mt. Airy, emailed me about a personal library last week. She reads my column and knows that I also buy and sell old and rare books. Her mother-in-law had died recently. Five years ago her mother-in-law’s husband had died. He had been a college professor and had left behind a house full of books. They’d lived in Wyncote. Might I be interested?
I said yes, of course, but with my fingers crossed. Most teachers believe that books are meant to be read, not “collected.” And being smart, they pride themselves on knowing how to buy books cheap. Edition and condition, the two pillars of rare book collecting, usually mean little to them. They buy books for their contents. Their libraries contain treasuries of wisdom, but they’re usually not worth much money.
Sometimes, however, college professors acquire a few old and rare books within their specialties. That possibility is always worth checking out. And Wyncote has a lot of big, old charming houses. Roberta Foss’s email also said her in-laws were Quakers – people well known in my profession for having generations of papers. The combination – college professor, Quaker, old house in Wyncote – was irresistible.
On the way to Wyncote I fantasized that the library might also contain old papers, pamphlets, correspondence, photographs, diaries and the like–the minutiae which sometimes are more interesting than the books themselves.
I hoped for the best, but expected the ordinary. Shortly after I arrived, however, this house call turned into a strange adventure for me.
Once inside, I saw books everywhere, as advertised. Crammed bookcases lined the living room. Every horizontal surface held more books.
I met the family – two (of three surviving) brothers and Roberta. We talked and connected briefly before agreeing to get to work. Their goal? I asked. To clear the house of books. I’d best start upstairs. “Bob’s” study was on the third floor. Thousands of books, three steep flights of steps. Groan (mentally).
As we ascended, I said to Terry Foss – who is a photographer at Morris Arboretum, “Can you tell me something about this gent whose books I’ll be looking at?”
“Sure, Bob taught in the English Department at Temple University for a long time. His name was Robert Llewellyn.”
I paused mid-staircase. “You mean Doctor Llewellyn? Professor Robert Llewellyn? That’s who you’re calling Bob?”
“You knew him.”
“He was my professor. He was brilliant. And very funny. A great lecturer.”
“I hear that often,” he said.
The walls of the top landing were lined with bookcases. As was the hallway leading to the study. Side-stacked layers of books extended past eye level. We sidled past towards the study, where, again, bookcases lined all four walls. More books on the floor too. Terry said, “All yours, Mr. Gilmore,” and left.
Gulp. Here I was, a prowler in Professor Llewellyn’s precious study. I immediately stowed that thought. I had a job to do. Thousands of books. I stood there, trying to take it all in.
This is a moment I dream of – literally – and it is always a happy dream. Alone in a huge library, I’m free to browse and pick, to roam about, to handle freely. It’s a moment where I know I’ll be calling into play everything I’ve ever learned about literature, history, philosophy and people. No other moment in book buying equals this one.
After the initial thrill, however, a mild panic always rises in me. I feel like I’m a kid standing at the base of the great Pyramid of Giza and hearing the pharaoh command, “You! Move this thing somewhere.”
I need to find the order beneath the seeming chaos. Normally, I stand and let the scene work me over. But this room was dark, the only light coming from two small front windows (on a cloudy day) and a small floor lamp. Figuring the logic of a library takes forever if you must carry books one by one to the window, then bring them back to re-shelve. I found a goose neck lamp in another room and brought it in, using it like a flashlight.
I picked a wall and began working from top to bottom. Before long I saw the organization. This room was dedicated almost entirely to British literature. The rows near and around the desk held Chaucer and Chaucerian criticism. They moved abruptly to 19th and 20th century authors. The biggest wall held 18th and 19th century books, alphabetically.
Next question: Since the “lit crit” would be, with a very few exceptions, of little commercial value, were any of the literary works first editions and possibly valuable? I began pulling books by famous writers. Evelyn Waugh, Grahame Greene, Henry Green, W.H. Auden, Ronald Searle, P.G. Wodehouse, for example.
If the outer condition (covers and/or dust jackets) was in good shape, I’d open a book to check its edition. It’s an entire other education to know how to do this, but one frequent, simple way is to see if the title page and copyright dates agree. Some publishers make it easy by saying “First printing.” Not many publishers are so obliging though.
Some of the books I pull are firsts. Most are not. Even with the firsts, however, there is a problem: on the first blank page, in a large hand, is an inked notation like this: “Robert Llewellyn, Blackwell’s, April 1951, $2.00.” Every book. An ownership signature, unless the person was famous, knocks the price of a first edition in half. Is this book, therefore, worth carrying down three flights of steps and down the ramp to the van at the curb? Will it sell in today’s market?
I need to take home about four or five boxes of books as samples to research the Internet market values for them. I go down and ask the family. They say yes, I may do that. I re-ascend and fill four boxes with samples of the various kinds of books.
Two hours had passed by then. I have my samples. I’m now looking for rarities – obscure things that elude the casual, untrained eye. But a nagging feeling is slowing me down. A feeling I need to acknowledge.
It was time to deal with the elephant in the room: Where you are, Hugh?
“I’m in my professor’s house.”
“Where in your professor’s house?”
“In his sanctum sanctorum.” His holy of holies.
“Let’s not forget that, Hugh.”
So … yes … I pulled The professor’s chair back from his cluttered desk and sat in it. I got up again. I’d sat on a large Random House Dictionary covered by a thin cushion. Was I really taller than he? He seemed such a god. I sat again.
I thought, I am in Professor Llewellyn’s personal home library. I am now sitting in Professor Llewellyn’s chair. I am facing Professor Llewellyn’s desk. I’ve come here to take Professor Llewellyn’s precious books away from his precious study. I feel like a bad boy.
I don’t know what he thinks of someone like me – I mean “I” – free-ranging among his books. Or what he thinks of me, if he’s looking down from above. Aren’t there laws against having students break into professors’ houses to disturb the order of their private universes?
I’m look at Professor Llewellyn’s wall calendar and above it, the pictures of famous writers he’d tacked up. This desk is frozen in time, I imagine, since he died five years ago. There are unopened packages of books on the floor.
I am in awe. I feel I have I have no right to be here. I have so much respect for Professor Llewellyn. The last time I saw him I was 22-years-old and fresh from the streets of a blue-collar mill town, Colwyn, where I’d never see the likes of him before. I feel his presence. I feel rude There is a small wooden box on his desk. What’s in it? Pamphlets? Letters from T.S. Eliot? I don’t dare, do I?
I reach out …
(continued next week)