Going nowhere? Time to get the brown books out. (Photo by Hugh Gilmore)

Going nowhere? Time to get the brown books out. (Photo by Hugh Gilmore)

by Hugh Gilmore

Our home is on a steep cul de sac. We get little traffic, and after a snowstorm we rarely see a city plow or salt truck. Last week’s storms left our neighborhood looking like the end of the world. Snow everywhere, and not a moving car to be seen. We accept our snowbound fate. Our lives turn inward, our moods mellow. We may as well be on a tropical island.

People who read this column regularly may think I have a special cache of books for snowy days and that I must begin reading them right after breakfast. Not so. To me, pleasure reading must be earned. Between breakfast and 5 p.m., I must work.

Last week, however, “work” involved a special treat. You may know me primarily as a writer, but my writing competes with my occupation as a bookseller. Books tend to arrive in waves. When they do, there are often so many of them I must practice a kind of triage in deciding what to examine first. I tend to attack the obvious ones right away. “Obvious,” for example, would be a ten-volume set of Hawthorne, sharp and bright and easily saleable. Or a first-edition Dickens. Maybe a bright and shining older edition of “Uncle Tom’s Cabin.”

Illustrated books are also easy, especially ones with high-quality prints. So, too, are early, signed editions, such as those from the Limited Editions Club. And books about popular topics, such as firefighting, exploration, baseball, golf, dolls, costumes – in short: anything that’s the basis of a fervid collecting drive.

These sorts of books get plucked and set aside for immediate attention. They’ll sell quickly and, usually, easily. (Old saying in the book trade: “If it sold, it was underpriced.”)

How do I sell them? I contact customers I bonded with when I had my bookshop. I call some specialist dealers if I have material I know they’re looking for. And we sell on the Internet, something I have no patience for or interest in doing, but which my wife (and business partner), Janet, seems to enjoy.

When I buy the contents of a large library there are often a number of books that look valuable to the untrained eye, usually because they are older, maybe 1870 to 1920, and have floral cloth covers. Usually they are worth almost nothing in monetary terms. Except, perhaps, at a flea market – there, the sky’s the limit.

Despite their broken, beat-up, detached covers and ripped pages, folks look at me askance when I say such books are not worth anything. In answer, I have polished over the years a variant of this speech: “What you have is a quaint, lovely, old book of a type rarely seen in everyday life, but one which is quite common in the used-book world. It’s worth a fortune in terms of the wisdom contained within, and you should cherish it for that reason. But, financially, it’s worth less than a dollar. No one collects such books, except people who’ve never seen one before. When they then see one at a flea market or yard sale for a quarter, they believe the dealer has mistakenly underpriced it.”

What does one do with such books? Well, if they’re rotten and moldy they go in the trash. If slightly better than that, but not quite saleable, I put them in the recycle can. As for the clean ones – when I had my used and rare book store on Chestnut Hill Avenue I would put them on my dollar table. Nowadays, I donate some of them to the Free Library of Philadelphia for their sales.

If they’re nearly bright and clean, and most of the illustrations are present, I send them to an auction in Bucks County, where many of the bidders are flea market dealers or Internet sellers. They never fetch much money, but at least the books are not teaming up to trip me when I walk about in my office.

The whole time I’m doing triage, I have my eye on the books bound in 18th- and 19th-century leather bindings (sometimes, 17th century too). Many have no spine labels. They’re rather dull-looking, scuffed, and have bent corners. The very definition of drab. In the used book business the dialogue on them goes something like this: “How was the auction?” Answer: “Not so hot, just a bunch of old brown books.”

To me, however, that’s a clarion call. I want to know who wrote them and why. How were they received in their day? I know about Hemingway. I know Fitzgerald. Please tell me who “A Concerned Citizen,” the author of this 1820s pamphlet, was. Why did he use a pseudonym? Was this a hot issue in its day? I want very much to know. But it takes time to answer such questions.

I place such books in a box. I’ll figure them out later – after I catch my breath. A box fills with them. Then another. And another. Now, they’re in my way and more books are arriving, like coal down a chute. I place the boxes in my crawl space. I’ll get to them someday when I have more time. There they sit, some of the books acquired five or ten years ago.

And then – last week – snow, snow, glorious snow. The outside world changes to a still-life. When I realize I can go nowhere that requires me to drive an automobile, I smile and relax.

Last week I went into the crawl space and brought out the three boxes of little brown books. Next week I’ll tell you about some of the things I found in them.