(Ed. note: Part 1 of this 4-part series appeared in the Local on May 4; Part 2 on May 18)

In February, a widow of a year who was selling her house called me in relation to my “old and rare” bookselling business. Her husband had been a prominent scholar who’d owned thousands of books that had to be sold before she could move. Might I help?

I said yes, but as soon as we hung up I started worrying that they might not be the kind of books I buy. I didn’t want to stall the sale of the house, but I also didn’t want to stick myself with a lot of unsaleable clunkers. I wouldn’t know till I saw the books.

That was in April. After a cordial greeting, the professor’s widow led me upstairs to his study. My first impression: I’d wandered into a branch of Borders Books – a wonderful sight.

My next: “No way.” Most of the books I buy have a certain look: muted tones, dark cloth covers with gilt titles, leather, an overall feeling of somberness. Dull, dull, dull, but dull in a way that makes my pulse race.

This library held over 2000 books, but they were shiny and neat trade paperbacks or hardbacks with dust jackets. Nearly all were in excellent condition. Their subjects included Japanese, Chinese, Korean, and Sanskrit dictionaries, poetry anthologies, literature, philosophy, religion, history, anthropology, and sociology. Most of them, fortunately, were printed in English. (Foreign language books are very hard to sell in America, even on the Internet.) About 10 percent were in Japanese. I saw nothing I suspected was a rare book.

Other rooms of the house held a few hundred more books of the same type. They weren’t for me. Too recent, too many, too hard to schlep.

And yet, an urge, a strong feeling I couldn’t define, had been tugging at my heart the whole time I’d been there. I decided to give the library a second, more methodical look. Normally, as I go along, I pull any books of exceptional value forward on the shelf (making them “stand proud” is the old-fashioned expression). That gives me a visual sense of the proportion of greater-than-average-value books and helps me assess the dollar value of the library.

In this case, I did not pull a single book forward. That’s usually a warning to back off, say “thank you,” and leave. This time I didn’t, though. I was actually quite excited – as a booklover, not as a businessman. The range and depth of this library was amazing. Every major contemporary philosopher was represented, as were hundreds of poetry books and analyses of Asian cinema.

I also noted books related to ethics, including medical ethics, and lots of history volumes, many related to the effects of the Second World War on the Japanese psyche. I was so enthralled I wanted to sit on the floor and start reading and not come up till I’d finished them all.

Consuming the product is not an economically healthy indulgence for a businessman. But I felt filled with admiration for the man who’d assembled this library. In a very real way the professor’s room was a statement about himself, about what mattered to him and how he chose to spend his precious, only, life on earth. I felt humbled and awed. And even a bit protective of the professor. I decided to buy the books.

I knew I’d be buying a lot of trouble, too, but I felt overcome by the desire for adventure and the learning I knew would rub off on me in the process. So I cut the wires to that internal speaker that says to me at such times, “You’re about to make a big mistake.”

I felt that this man’s library deserved to be fussed over, appreciated, acclaimed and admired. I’m good at that. If I could manage to not lose money doing so, that would be a nice bonus.

I began figuring a reasonable and fair offer to the professor’s widow. Here’s how that is done in the case of recent books like these. (Old and rare books require a much different approach.) First question always: buy all or some? The lady needed an offer for all. Okay, how many books are here? Easy: just count them. Next, what percentage is saleable?

That’s a tough question. The Internet is a buyer’s paradise nowadays and a seller’s nightmare. Books only two-years old, purchased for $35, are often available for a mere 2 cents + shipping. How do you compete with that? You can’t. How much should you pay the owner for that kind of book? Nothing.

But what about the ones that do have value? Depending on the mix, often the only fair solution is to say it’s a break-even – I’ll haul all the books you want to get rid of in exchange for the half I can sell.

To know the percentage you exclude from your reckoning all the old paperbacks, recent fiction, “bad conditions,” best sellers, Book-of-the-Month clubs, very familiar titles, and so on, from your count. They’ll be books you’ll donate somewhere. Then you must allow for the Internet “two-centers” by assuming that at least half of the remaining hardbacks and trade paperbacks won’t be financially worth listing.

Next, still talking mostly about recent books, you estimate the average price-per-book you should pay and multiply it by the number of keepers. This being a professor’s library, with some esoteric titles – probably printed in small numbers and now out-of-print – you add a slight bump up in figuring your price.

If that sounds like brutish logic, it is. Bookselling is extremely labor intensive. Calculations of your hourly wages are always humbling. When you’re dealing with large numbers and heavy time-and-labor costs, nothing can really guide you but your experience, instincts, and enthusiasm for the task. It helps if you love books. Many booksellers do not. That’s partly why they’re so grumpy.

Regretting my enthusiasm even as I expressed it, I made my offer. It was accepted gratefully. We shook hands and I went home to prepare.

Modern adventures all require boxes. Every bookman has his favorite type. Long ago I made a pact with the God-of-Backs ‘n’ Spines: He would not smite me if I promised to use Staples’ white, collapsible boxes with handles and always use my legs when lifting. No matter how many books you load, they hardly ever hold more than forty pounds. I bought 100 boxes (about $165.00 added expense).

On the night before a big job, we hold family “box-folding” parties where my wife, son, and I make up the boxes from the flats. Then we load them in the van. That way, we arrive at the job ready to go. Just pack and haul.

By a nice coincidence, my friend Lynn Hoffman, the Mt. Airy writer, said he’d like to come along and see what it was like to dismantle a large library. Free labor? The answer was yes, of course. Lynn is making good progress in recovering from his bout with cancer and we asked him to be the packer. As a bonus, it turned out that he had actually met the professor a few times, has a personal interest in Buddhism (the subject of many of the books), and, wonder of wonders, leases a minivan to transport his kayak.

We packed and removed 80 boxes of books, fully loading the two vans, in two hours. The professor’s widow, as you might expect, felt quite sentimental seeing the empty shelves of his library, a sad visual image that marked another phase of his passing.

The books had come into their home a few at a time and many years later exploded out the door all at once. The Big Bang had happened, as it will with all of us, and the professor’s library’s dispersal throughout the book world had begun. To be continued.

PS: If you’ve read this far, you deserve the chance to see and buy some of the professor’s books. See the Local’s classified ads for details of my carport sale this weekend. will lead you to more of Hugh Gilmore’s writings.


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