by Hugh Gilmore
Today’s column, the third and final installment of a three-part series, is meant to be both an adventure story and a cautionary tale. For dramatic purposes, I’ll begin at the end.
Eugene Okamoto and I agreed on the phone the other day that our used-book businesses would run a lot easier if we weren’t burdened by our love of books. Gene is co-proprietor with Jeff Blake of Harvest Book Company in nearby Fort Washington. They’re just about the biggest Internet-based bookstore on the East Coat. They also run a small, very cheap, retail operation at their warehouse.
I’d called Gene to follow up on the final disposition of Professor Robert Llewellyn’s book collection in Wyncote. I’d been the first bookseller in on the “job” and he’d been last. (Second, actually, but there’s no need to call a third bookseller after Harvest Books has been there; Gene and Jeff have “the eye,” as we say.)
In an ideal world – that is, a world where we would force ourselves to follow common sense and economics – Gene and I would not get caught up in the human stories behind the books we see. We’d enter a house, see stacks and stacks of books, buy only what we were 99 percent certain would sell – at a price that would give us a decent profit – and walk away from the rest.
Sometimes that’s easy to do – only a few of the books are resalable, or the people are mean spirited, or greedy, or suspicious of our honesty – and we just walk away.
But at other times, the people who call us are just so nice, or desperate, or impressive, or open in their dealings with us, that we are ineluctably drawn into their plight. In a way that seems beyond our control, we wind up feeling personally responsible for the preservation of human culture. Literally. And in the same way a soldier would salute bones found on a battlefield, we try to give respect to persons who formed significant personal libraries during their lives.
Of course, if there’s not very much money involved, we’d rather someone else did the job, but often, far too often, we’re the last line of defense before the bulldozers come over the hill, bearing down on the house.
To the specifics: A month ago I got called to come see a house in Wyncote filled with old books. Terry and Roberta Foss, of Mt. Airy, were handling his parents’ estate, which included about 6,000 books that Terry’s step-father, Robert “Bob” Llewellyn, had accumulated over his lifetime as a scholar and as a professor of English literature.
In a telephone interview last Saturday, Terry told me that in the years before he died, “Bob” would occasionally worry out loud, “What’s going to happen to my books when I die?” And everyone would give advice, which ultimately Bob could not bear to follow. His books were a second skin, I guess, and to lose them would be to lose too much of his life, his memories, and his self-valuation. Bob died; the books stayed. And began gathering dust.
Bob’s widow, Jane, would not allow the books to be disturbed. (Many widows can’t wait to get “the damned books the hell out the door,” so they can decorate, or use the space for a collection of their own – neither motive blamable.) Jane Hosmer Llewellyn didn’t feel that way. The family knew the books would stay till Jane herself died.
When that day came, Terry Foss hoped he’d get lucky by calling some university libraries. Perhaps Bob’s library could be kept intact and removed in one grand swoop. He called Temple University and Dickinson College who both indicated emphatically that they could not accommodate Mr. Foss’s wishes. He’d have had the same result with more calls too.
I was called next. Ever since I closed my shop I am forced to be selective. But I do try to keep my business advantage by promising people that I’ll be “as helpful as I can possibly be.” By that I mean that I’ll give them a “game plan” and tell them how our business works. If there are only a few hundred books I’ll pay for the salable ones and just haul the rest, giving most of them to charity or treating the cheap ones as a break-even for the time spent hauling and handling them.
At Bob Llewellyn’s house, however, there were thousands of books. I asked permission to pick selectively and then give the Fosses the name of someone who has the ability to handle thousands of books. I went to the house in Wyncote three times and altogether bought about 300 books. Hardly noticeable, but I paid good money for the right to choose.
Perhaps Harvest Books would come over next. I called Eugene Okamoto, and he agreed, even though he was in the midst of handling a similar library at that same time (ex-English lit professor). Eugene and his staff made three trips, filled the van three times and bought another thousand books. He and his co-owner, Jeff, considered renting a truck and offering to empty the house of all its books as a break even, but backed off, considering the deal a form of financial suicide motivated more by emotion (honoring a life dedicated to books with extraordinary zeal).
Sometimes “free” is more expensive than one should afford.
In the end, Terry Foss and his brothers got lucky. A neighbor wants to buy the house “as is,” with contents. What happens to the three or four thousand books remaining is anyone’s guess.
Gene and I, in talking last Saturday, agreed that some books, as wonderful as they are, have had their day. They’re thought bubbles given weight by the nature of ink and paper. Maybe they’re like theater or movie ticket stubs: you paid your money, your got your use, and now it’s time to let go. The recycle basket is an honorable end in some cases.
Of course, if Professor Bob had accumulated 6,000 volumes of first-edition Hemingways and Faulkners and Dickens and Jane Austens and so on, preferably in fine condition, and signed … I’d have found a way to handle the entire library myself. But he hadn’t, he’d formed a working library that represented a time capsule of literary criticism and history and analysis during the all-too-brief 80-or-so years he lived on earth. The library was a testament to his sparking intellect, deep powers of concentration, willingness to work hard, and sheer love of learning.
For Eugene and me it was an honor to walk among his books and get to know him. We felt we did as much justice to his collection as realistically can be done in this day and age in America.
Hugh’s most recent paperback original, “Scenes from a Bookshop,” would make an excellent booklover’s gift, It’s available for $5.99 from Amazon.com and leading bookstores everywhere. Also available in e-book format.