by Hugh Gilmore

This is how it goes when a big personal library needs to be broken up because its builder has died and his widow needs to move to smaller quarters.

In the way these things so often happen, I was at my desk and received a phone call. Deb Stanitz from Elfant Wissahickon Realtors, who I’d never met before, was calling to tell me that she had a client trying to sell a house in Villanova. Her client was a widow of a year whose husband had been a distinguished scholar at the University of Pennsylvania. He had thousands of books – would I be interested in seeing if I could help? Yes, of course, I said. We agreed to talk again later when the house was sold, or nearly sold.

I hung up feeling I might have just committed to a big time-wasting venture. But there was no way to know for sure unless I went and looked. My bookselling business is based on buying old, rare, and collectible books, but nowadays, with most of the big, old Chestnut Hill, Mt. Airy, Germantown and Montgomery County estates broken up, I see very few old-fashioned libraries. The books I’m most interested in now come to me a few at a time, sometimes several dozen in a visit, but rarely as big, untouched libraries anymore. But we make do: buy what comes along and yearn for the good old days.

As for this library I’d just committed to seeing (and in my heart-of-hearts suspecting I’d probably buy), I was very curious to know what kinds of books were in it. That aspect of my business – never knowing what the books will be like, is rather exciting, not just like reading a mystery story, but being a character in one.

You might be surprised by all the ways there are of building a library of a thousand books or more. Booksellers always hope the books they’re about to see are all on the same subject, or just a few subjects. That would mean that there were a lot of very specialized books in the collection.

Contrary to what you might think, for example, “Lockheed Aircraft: 1942-1945” would have been printed in smaller numbers, have more appeal to specialists and would probably sell faster, for a higher price, than “Airplanes of the World.” The more general book is widely available and too broad in scope to serve as anything other than a coffee table book.

Few “libraries” are specialized in that manner, however. Most of them present themselves as “accumulations,” rather than “collections.” An accumulation is simply what results when a person buys books throughout his, or her, life, according to whatever seemed interesting or necessary at the time. In a mere 50 years or so, buying about 20 books a year, a 70-year-old person suddenly notices he’s got 1,000 books to move to the retirement home. He then realizes his new, smaller digs don’t have space for that many books.

Another kind of accumulation I often see gets created by a person who is not really a reader, but nevertheless has a great reverence for books. He or she becomes an adopter of lost books.

A few months ago I was invited to buy such a “library” from a house in West Philadelphia. Every available space of the house – closets, between chairs, behind the staircase, in the woodshed – was stuffed with books. They had no common theme, were all in bad condition and had all been picked from the trash.

“Oh, Dad just loved books,” his daughter and widow agreed.

We went to the basement. Improvised holding tables had been set up everywhere, mostly by laying old doors on wooden sawhorses. Thick sheets of plastic, covered with dust fallen from the ceiling, or blown from the crumbling walls, covered row after row of what I assumed were books. I began lifting the sheets of plastic, trying not to disturb the dust, and trying to ignore the way that certain kinds of mold, once I breathe them, give me an instant headache and set my insides quivering in such a way I wonder if I’ll make it to the bathroom if I develop a sudden need to “wash up” as the euphemism goes.

As though acting out a CSI-type script, I lifted the plastic, examined the bodies of knowledge beneath, and moved along. I saw perhaps five books down there that might be worth a few dollars in today’s market – if they were not permeated by basement odor, which is hard to determine when you’re still in the basement.

(Such books need to be removed to a clean, dry environment before you can notice if they smell bad. In some basements, everything smells bad and you want to warn people that they should install a dehumidifier because they’re breathing bad stuff into their lungs all day. But there’s no polite way to tell strangers how to manage their own homes, so I just smile and act respectful, and grateful for the opportunity, and move on.)

As for that handful of books that might be worth a few dollars, I usually don’t offer to buy them. Taking the best five books out of 2,000 unsalable books does not do anyone a favor. And such situations are often sad. Dad had always said his book collection would be worth money to his widow. And it’s not.

And often, after you explain that the books have admirable content, but not much financial value, the widow and the kids look at one other with a knowing, coded look that says, “Let’s get this crook out of our house – who are we going to believe, Dad, or him?” Not a comfortable position.

Lest you think the principal problem at that house was the moldy condition, it wasn’t. Even if those books had been dry and clean, they weren’t worth anything in today’s Internet-driven book market. Book-of-the-Month Club books, Reader’s Digest condensed books, dieting books more than two years old, travel guides from three years ago, nearly any bestseller two years later, children’s series books without dust jackets – all are unsalable in the book market.

That’s not to say you might not see someone at a flea market, or an “antiques” shop, trying to sell them. Possibly even succeeding, but such sales fall outside the used book market as such.

The point of the illustrations I’ve offered is that there are many ways to build an accumulation of a thousand books or more.

The same argument is not so true of a “collection” of books. In building a collection, there is a usually a driving intellectual curiosity, a great amount of selection, and a willingness to go into the deepest reaches of a field. Whether the subject is copper mining, railroading, quilt making or Amazon exploration, the forces that drive it are the same: a love of learning, a need to be expansive and deep simultaneously, and a willingness to grow along with your subject.
So, back to that phone call from the real estate agent. What kind of collection might I be going to see next month? As I usually do, I Googled the name of the man whose collection I might be buying. Results weren’t hard to find. But, boy, oh boy, I thought, I might be in over my head this time. I started hoping the follow-up phone call never came. I wasn’t sure I could handle this job.

To be continued. will lead you to more of Hugh Gilmore’s writing.