A bag of books I’ve been trying to reunite with a rightful owner.

by Hugh Gilmore

Most people who buy and sell old books live in personal spaces choked, crammed, stuffed and strangled with stuff acquired years ago, for example, stacks of 18th-century floral prints, engraved portraits of Civil War generals, abolitionists’ pamphlets from the 1840s, shoe boxes of old postcards, advertising pamphlets and studio photographs.

“Must get to that someday,” one thinks, as he trips over yesterday’s cargo once again.

This past summer I decided to put my personal writing aside and, with “Time’s winged chariot at my heels,” dive into my crawl space and come up with a few things I’d vow to be free of by summer’s end.

The first agenda item came to me back in 1996. I was in my bookshop on Chestnut Hill Avenue one day when a middle-aged man walked in carrying two Caruso’s Market (now defunct) shopping bags.

“I’d like to sell these books,” he said. Most of them were old and leather bound. The most interesting one described voyages to Arabia and Africa the author made. It was dated 1727 and illustrated with maps and engraved plates. Unfortunately (for my market) it was the first French edition (the first English was 1723). America is still a fairly backward nation when it comes to reading materials written in a “foreign” language.

“Where’d you get these?” I asked. He said they were his mother’s, but he had no interest in them because he couldn’t read them. She’d brought them with her when she emigrated from Europe. The books had belonged to her scholarly parents.

So, did I want to buy them? They were old and mostly in good condition. With only two exceptions, however, the content was not interesting – text books, religious exegeses and some minor literature. Finally, they were printed in languages other than English – hard to sell, even though the Internet offers a worldwide marketplace.

I asked if I could research the books and then make an offer. He said OK and left the two bags with me. He was a nice fellow, a gentleman, and I wanted to offer him a fair deal. I spent quite a few hours learning about the books and figuring their market values. Then I called and made my offer. “That sounds fair,” he said, “I accept it, but …”

There was an impediment. “The books belong to me and my sister,” he said, “I have to get her approval.” He suggested it was easier to just leave the books at the shop and he’d call as soon as his sister OKed the deal. A month went by. I called him. Sorry, he said, his sister was slow in responding. He’d try her again. OK. I waited. And waited. And waited. And then I saw the poor fellow’s obituary in the newspaper.

I moved the books farther back in my workroom so that no one browsing my shop would think they were for sale. I called his office and asked if there was a next of kin. Yes, there was a daughter. She lived out of town. The daughter emailed me one day and asked if she could pick them up some day. Yes, I said, she was welcome to come get them if she wanted, but I’d like to buy them and her father had agreed to sell them to me. Well, she said, send me a detailed list of the books. I reckoned I might do that, but it would take some time. Bibliographical description is time-consuming labor, especially in languages one does not speak.

After that, nothing happened. My landlord decided at that time he wanted my shop space in order to expand his own business, so I had to move. I decided to create a work and storage office at my home and (for many reasons, especially economic ones) never open a shop again. Thus the two Caruso’s bags of old books came home with me.

Were those books now “abandoned property” and thus mine now? I wondered. I researched the laws governing such matters. They all seemed to say that I had a responsibility to hold them till they were claimed. For the next 10 years nothing happened.

Then this summer I decided to tackle all the projects that had accumulated during my shop-keeping years. I wrote to the gentleman’s daughter again, asking what she’d like to do about the books I’d been holding for 11 years. She asked me to ship them to her. She’d reimburse the postage. I wanted to be done with them, but now faced another dilemma. I wrote and said I’d be glad to reunite the books with the heir(s), but my recently acquired (admittedly superficial) legal education suggested that that the true co-owner and heir was probably her aunt, the sister her father had mentioned.

No, she said, I am the heir because I’m his executor. Send the books to me. I felt by then that my role in this drama was changing from good Samaritan to possible lawsuit victim – the aunt might sue me for not exercising due diligence in finding her.

We disagreed back and forth through half of June and July until we agreed to talk on the phone. When we did, I said I have to know what your aunt thinks, a subject she’d avoided discussing with me. But on the phone she said: “I love my aunt. We’re very close. I intend to share these books with her and see that the whole family gets to know about the books grandma brought to America with her.”

That was really all I’d needed to hear all along, but I added one request: Would she put what she just said in writing? (So I had some protection against the aunt if she didn’t keep her word). She wrote the email. I shipped the books. She sent a thank you note. End of story, I suppose, unless they tire of looking at big, thick, brown books mostly written in Latin and accept my standing offer to purchase them.

That little task wrapped up on July 17. I still had three weeks before vacation to get two other projects done. One involved a circus and the other a zoo. Stay tuned.