by Hugh Gilmore
Catch-up from last week: I had been invited by Roberta and Terrence Foss, of Mt. Airy, to come to his mother’s house to buy “thousands of old books.” Once I arrived I learned that Terry’s father, Ernest Foss Jr., had been killed in World War II three months before Terry was born. A few years later, Terry’s mother, Jane Hosmer Foss, remarried, this time a man they referred to as “Bob.” Terry’s mother, Jane, and “Bob” produced three more sons. One died. When Terry’s mother died a month ago, she left three sons by two husbands.
She also left a big house in Wyncote, lots of old furniture and thousands of old books, most of them Bob’s. Bob had been a college professor. Though he’d died about five years ago, his books had remained in the house, on their shelves, gathering dust, as they awaited their inevitable fate: removal by The Bookman.
That would be I. The job would begin on the third floor, where Bob had his study (in fact it would turn out that the entire third floor never seemed to have been inhabited – nay: not even visited – by anyone other than “Bob.”). As Terry Foss led me upstairs, I asked, “Can you tell me something about the gent who owned these books?” I always like to know who I’m dealing with when handling someone’s bones … excuse me … books.
“Yes,” said Terry, “He was a professor of English at Temple University, his name was Robert Llewellyn.”
I almost fell back down the stairs.
Professor Llewellyn! The Professor Llewellyn who’d so captivated me when I took courses at Temple. Dr. Robert Llewellyn: master of Old English, Old Norse, Old Germanic and Old Icelandic sagas and eddas, Dispenser of Chaucer, Milton, Shakespeare, and, just for fun, 19th Century English novelists – that’s who they were calling “Bob”?
I became worried at once. Was Terry about to give me a “blue book” and have me start writing the minute I hit the top landing? Surely I’d fail. It’s been a long time since then.
No. Instead, he wished me luck and left me up there on the third floor in “Bob’s” study. Never have I felt more like a burglar. More impudent. Left alone to prowl, left to handle or mishandle the brilliant, lofty-minded Professor Llewellyn’s carefully arranged books. I doubt he would have remembered me if we’d met years later, though I sure never forgot him.
But I am a bookseller and I had a job to do. (Sooner or later the bookman comes for all of us, gentle reader. Hope that when he comes, he will be kind and fair and appreciative of the mental life you enjoyed when you were still mentis.) I set to work, heavily aware of the responsibility I assumed.
A library is a one-of-a-kind assemblage, a mirror of its creator’s concerns through the days of his or her life. The most ideal thing one could do would be to pack it up and transport it whole somewhere it would be appreciated. J. Pierpont Morgan and a few others (including, in another medium, Albert C. Barnes) managed that, but they bequeathed genuine rarities.
Most people, including Professor Llewellyn, assemble a combination of reference and pleasure books that is often so personally eccentric it would not fit anyone else’s life. In fact, to push the point a bit: Whoever receives another’s library loses the pleasure of assembling his or her own.
Ah, but Professor Llewellyn’s library was also a professional one, as it turned out. I’d venture that at least 90 percent of the books were either English literature or works analytical of the same. Couldn’t the collection be shipped as a whole to an institution?
From the 1940s through the 1980s that sort of thing did happen.
The famed Philadelphia bookseller George Allen once had an emergent college order his entire catalog of Classic Roman and Greek books. And for a while, new institutions, often foreign, bought large libraries whole. But in this post-Internet world those days seem to be over. Far more often, books move in the other direction as libraries deaccess books to accommodate the incoming flood of electronic databases, e-books and “alternative” media.
Professor Llewellyn’s library would have to be dispersed. The “Big Bang,” as I call it: The books come in one at a time over the years and achieve a certain mass until (to borrow from Yeats) “the center cannot hold,” and they explode back into the world of people who care about books. (My “Big Bang” analogy falls down here since that world is shrinking.)
If the professor had accumulated only literary first editions by important writers, or had built a library of books about the Civil War, or steam engines, or motorcycles, or early American trade catalogs, or 18th century hand-colored floriculture or several other topics that remain hot, the library would be easier to move. But he hadn’t. He’d owned later printings of literature – usually worth much less than a new paperback of the same – and tons (literally) of literary criticism.
A word here: This selfsame topic of literary criticism, at which I tried to excel as a lit major in college, but which bored and confused most students, is of interest to very few people on this planet. People struggle to read fiction at all nowadays and, outside of classroom compulsion, almost never buy criticism, certainly not for reading pleasure. There is very little demand for it.
What’s to do, then? Ah, of course: the Internet. I would try a sample against the Internet. I took home four boxes of lit and “lit crit.” The results: a nearly complete strikeout, at least for my business model. Almost a hundred copies of most of the titles could be found for between $1 and $20. The average asking price: about $5. I am not set up to sell books in great daily quantities.
It takes me about an hour of handling (buying, researching, photographing, describing, listing, corresponding, collecting money, wrapping and shipping) for each book. At $5 (less book cost, shipping supply costs and Internet fees) I’d barely make a dollar (pre-taxes) for that hour’s work. Besides, who would buy the $5 copy when dozens of $1 copies compete with it?
But there were Roberta and Terry Foss and the two Llewellyn brothers, Mark and Bob, to consider. Since they’ve decided to sell the house, they want – first of all – for the books to go away. Ideally to a good home. And to be paid fairly if the taker is able to profit by taking them.
I’m not the person for most of these books, but I promised to be helpful. I’ll keep searching the house for rare or collectible books, but I’d like to hook these nice folks up with someone who can handle the great majority.
I phoned Eugene Okamoto, co-proprietor of Harvest Books in Fort Washington, one of the biggest Internet sellers of used books in the country. Gene was driving his bookmobile when I called. He pulled over. I told him the situation. He laughed and said, “That’s amazing. I’m on my way right now to look at the library of another former English professor from Temple University.”
To be continued next week.