Culling the stack…

Before I fell ill with whatever crud wore me down after Christmas, one of the major items I managed to knock off my to do list was culling the to-be-read shelves. You can count on one hand the number of times I’ve willingly let things fall out of the collection. Buy enough books over enough years, though, and things have a way of accumulating. Despite your best efforts, some of those things turn out to be real dogs. 

I’ve never been shy about buying a nicer volume to replace something I already have on the shelf, so some of them were duplicates I was happy to move elsewhere. Occasionally I’ll look at something occupying shelf space and realize no matter how much time I have, I’m never going to read it. I hate to admit it, but when you start approaching 2000 volumes in your average home, space starts to become something of a premium. That’s all a way of saying that even for me there are good reasons to sometimes get rid of books.

I filled the back seat of the truck with my culls and cast offs. I’d waited until the volume justified taking a minor road trip. The local shop might have offered a few dollars for the lot – hardly worth going there versus just donating the bunch to Goodwill. I don’t blame the local shop owner. He knows his business and that he’s the only game in town when it comes to buying used books. Judging from the unopened boxes sitting in his aisles and stacked in every foot of space the fire marshal will let him get away with, getting inventory is never a problem.

The trade off with taking my batch on the road is that I’m sure to spend far more filling the gas tank than I’ll recoup from selling everything I’m hauling with me. There was nothing special or rare in the mix and the return on most used books is pennies on the dollar. It’s just part of the obsession that you accept when you’re into it deeply enough.

Knowing I wouldn’t even recoup my travel cost was worth it though, to hand them off to a proper bookman at one of the great east coast used book shops. They’ll get most of these good reading copies placed into the hands of someone who will appreciate them. Better that than dropping them somewhere where they’ll inevitably end up turned to pulp in the hands of a paper recycler.At my level of collecting, it’s not about turning a profit. With the exception of a few high points, all I’ll manage to do is make sure most of the books here are able to survive another generation or two into the future. If I’m lucky, one or two of them might survive to have a bicentennial and find their way into the hands of someone who loves them like I have. That’s not bad compensation for the time, effort, and expense. 

Of scouts and resellers…

I go to a respectable number of book sales each year. It’s not an every weekend thing, but six or seven times a year, one catches my attention sufficiently to make venturing off the homestead for it potentially worthwhile. The ones I like to dig into are usually put on “friends of the library” or other organizations who specifically take in book donations – they’re specialists rather than “used stuff” generalists. If I happen to be passing by an estate sale or yard sale, I might stop out of curiosity. I don’t generally seek those out even when someone advertises “lots of books.” It seems my definition of “lots” is wildly different than the average person’s. Nine times out of ten, what’s on offer is a box or two of kids’ books or beat to hell paperbacks.

There used to be a breed of person who frequented these sales called a book scout. They knew their business. They knew their points, editions, conditions, and values and could evaluate a book on sight. The best of them seemed to have a sixth sense about whether there was real value in a book – whether even the newest ultra-modern was a $2 reading copy or a $200 first edition.

Time seems to be replacing proper book scouts by roving bands of resellers. They ply their trade online, making their money in arbitrage – buying for $2 and selling for $3. Their business seems to be one of volume over quality. They’re hell with a barcode scanner and figuring out the spread on Amazon. They collectively seem to know price, but not value. 

These resellers are in there like vacuums sucking up all oxygen in the room – sitting on the floors, sprawled out, making obstacles (if not spectacles) of themselves, trying to scan every barcode in sight. It feels tawdry somehow. There’s not a bit of old-fashioned book scouting about any of it. They surely passed over the $200 book I walked out with for $10 last weekend because it simply didn’t have a barcode to scan. It must be more cost effective to sell 200 books on a $1 margin, but there’s no soul in it.  

I don’t think these guys are evil. They wouldn’t be doing what they do if there wasn’t a market for the $3 book. Increasingly, though, I wonder if my days at the sales are numbered. At some point the sheer aggravation of dealing with them won’t be weighed out by the utter joy of making a real score. There’s a big part of me that would rather just pay a dealer something close to retail than continue to trip over 101 resellers.

Closing a gap…

I’ve been chasing one particular book for about eighteen months. First edition later printings seemed to have a floor around $100. True first editions in fine condition regularly list in the range of $400 and up. I could have snapped one of those up, but it would have blown the book budget for several months all to hell and back.

I have auto-searches on several used book sites that send me periodic emails on when this book shows up for sale. A fresh 1st edition (albeit a 5th printing) showed up on the list this morning.  With an asking price of a mere $65 it’s obviously not the perfect copy I’d like to have, but it is signed, so there’s that going for it. 

I’ve dealt with this particular bookseller before. They’re a reputable outfit running both a respected storefront in the District and a vast discount warehouse I’ve come to love picking through when I have hours to spend wandering their stacks. That’s pretty much the only reason I took a wild chance on a book that otherwise seemed to be markedly underpriced based on its description and photos. 

The trouble with online book sales, like everything else that arrives in a cardboard box, is that you never really know what you’re getting. Based on past experience, I’m cautiously optimistic that what shows up will be something close to “as described.” Worse case, in a week or two I’ll have slightly overpaid for a nice, signed reading copy of Dunning’s Booked to Die… and the search can continue for a true first that doesn’t crush the budget. It doesn’t seem like I’ll have any trouble selling off my new copy to help defray the cost if I ever run across a reasonably priced copy.

As always, I stumble along the fine line between wanting a collection that looks good on the shelves, but that I’m not afraid to take down and fondle a little. At least now my Cliff Janeway series won’t look like a gap-toothed smile. 

Expansion pack…

I’ve had to expand the nonfiction holding section (also known as the spare bedroom). I’m a lot more selective about the history that comes into the house than I am about the fiction, but even so, the two small bookcases were literally bent under the weight of things and books were spreading out to occupy every flat surface in the room. As much as I love books, it just isn’t a good look on those rare occasions when the hospitality of the homestead is offered.

All this, of course, meant a flying trip to IKEA to bring on two new, larger bookcases. Now it’s a simple matter of getting them assembled and reordering the current mess. That can wait on a day that’s not quite so conducive to being outside… but thanks to the eternal shortage of everything, grabbing the flat packs when I had the time and they were in stock was a necessary evil. 

Overall, the questions of books and book storage here are now taking on a Jenga-esque feeling. Where new bookcases will go, if I’ll move ones I currently have, and how they’ll all fit together involves more thought than you’d strictly think reasonable.

My first thought to shore up the nonfiction front was to simply move the smaller shelves out of the library and put them to work in the guest room – replacing them with bookcases that match the two large ones I loaded into the library last year. The trouble is, the smaller cases are already earmarked, eventually, for my own bedroom. Their dark finish fits better there than the guest room. I’m not yet ready to put them to work in my bedroom there yet, though, and I’d really like to avoid cleaning them off and moving them on two separate occasions. It’s a surprisingly awkward and time-consuming process.

So the guest room, otherwise known as my nonfiction to-be-read pile, gets the benefit of two new Billy’s (in birch veneer since basic, and cheap, white has been going out of stock as soon as it shows local availability). Everything else stays put for the time being – and least until after the bathroom renovation is over and I make a decision on new flooring for the master bedroom. It’s not one of those dramatic improvements I’ll see and appreciate every day in passing, but it will be a decided improvement in managing and protecting a large and ever-growing book collection.

Call it money well spent.

The failed bid…

The results are in and someone else is now the proud owner of the stake Buffy used in Season 5, Episode 1 to dust Dracula.

Although I had the foresight to put the auction house in charge of my bidding, in the end, it was as I feared. I wrested control back from them in the final moments for a brisk round of in person bidding, controlled entirely by my heart without even a moment’s input from my head.

This mysterious phone bidder and I threw $1,000 increases at each other all the way from $10,000 to $20,000. Bidding was already at four times the pre-auction high estimate, almost three times what I expected the stake to fetch – and double my pre-auction maximum bid that only a few hours ago felt very aggressive. I tapped out when they pushed the bid to $22,500. In staring at the abyss of a $25,000 price point, my head managed to regain some semblance of control. That might have had something to do with remembering the 25% buyers premium and 6% Maryland sales tax I’d end up owing on top of the hammer price.

I took a breath, forced my thumb to stop hovering over the large green “bid” button, and let this particular holy grail of Buffy collectibles fall to the other bidder. I hope it’s gone to a good home, because those two minutes absolutely cranked me through the wringer this afternoon. Having let it go stings more than it reasonably should.

A day at the auction or: On being a hot mess of distraction…

Most of the time, I look though auction catalogs with the vague disinterest of someone who’s curious but not particularly invested. I’m not exactly traveling in the kind of circles that make sales or acquisitions through Christie’s or Sotheby’s.  Most of the auctions I’ve been to aren’t the kind of events that even bother publishing formal catalogs. If you’re lucky, they’ve posted a few of the highlights online, but most of the items heading across the block end up being a surprise. 

One of the auction houses I do regularly check in with is Prop Store. Although I’m not a prop or replica collector, it’s always a little interesting to see what bits of Hollywood history they’ve uncovered for their sales. Headlining items across the block in this week’s auction include Harry Potter’s wand and glasses and Indiana Jones’s Fedora. I’m not mad enough to even remotely consider myself a player at that level. The hammer price for those lots is going to be absolutely eyewatering. Their collection of Star Wars and Star Trek lots should also make an impressive showing. Even that, though, isn’t territory I want to wade into. 

Having said that, somewhere early in Wednesday’s scheduled bidding, there’s something I do want. At the risk of jinxing myself, it’s a piece I want rather badly…. Badly enough that I had originally planned to burn some time off tomorrow so I could bid live during the auction.

I’ve realized, however, that in a live auction setting, heart would absolutely override head and that at some point I have to be willing to be outbid, should someone with far deeper pockets have decided they’re also determined to win. With great trepidation, I’ve handed my maximum bid over to the house with the intention of allowing them to fight my corner while I try not to obsessively watch the live feed. I’m not ashamed to admit I’ve left them with what I feel is a highly aggressive bid, based on what the few similar objects that have been through past auctions fetched at the final hammer.

We’ll know how things turn out by close of business tomorrow. Until then, please excuse me if I seem nervous and jerky… because through most of the afternoon tomorrow I’ll be an absolute hot mess of distraction.

On knowing your coin…

Aside from books, I’m not a particularly avid collector of many things. One exception is Fostoria’s coin pattern glassware. My first pieces were bits from home. I suspect they were mostly things my mother was mostly tired of dusting around and ended up with me because I’m a soft touch for whatever object comes along with a family connection.

Over time, I’ve added to those first three pieces pretty steadily – maybe a piece or two a year as I find them. Coming across new bits for the collection “in the wild” is more entertaining for me than bulk auction buys. I’m not in a hurry to complete a set, so it’s largely a case of adding what I find when I find them.

This past weekend, in recognition of the impromptu three day weekend, I seemed to come across pieces of coin pattern in every shop I walked into. I was awash in an ocean of the stuff. Usually I’d say that’s a good problem to have.

Unfortunately, there was a problem with every single piece I picked up. Fifty percent of it was “reproduction,” or more precisely legitimate pieces made not by Fostoria, but more recently by Lancaster Colony. It’s still nice stuff, but my collection is focused on earlier pieces so I left all of those where I found them. Some of the examples were reproductions pretending to be vintage – their coins sandblasted or acid etched to give the illusion of proper frosting on the coins themselves. Those are always a hard pass.

The real killers were the ones that didn’t fall into either of those categories – and they were correspondingly harder not to bring home with me. These were the original bowls paired with “fake” lids or original lids paired with fake bowls. They were probably the most disappointing of all, since they were in a couple of the harder to find color options. Still, I left them alone, as trying to find the right replacement lid or bowl on its own could take years, if it ever came along at all.

Why am I telling you this? Just a reminder, I guess, that if you’re going to be a collector of anything, knowing a bit about it besides “looks pretty on a shelf” is in order. Otherwise I could have spent a few hundred dollars last Friday and come home with a dozen things that looked like they should fill holes in the collection, but really didn’t. I’ve no idea how that applies to anyone or anything else, but it feels like a decent enough life tip.

The only reasonable thing…

I make no apologies for the length and breadth of my to be read pile. Admittedly, my “pile” occupies a 7×14 foot wall now… with the nonfiction section bleeding over into another room, but seriously, no apologies at all. I like having options from the kings of Wessex to Buffy at my fingertips.

I’ve posted before about the ever-expanding need for shelf space. More is never quite enough. Knowing that, I’m going to do the only reasonable thing I could think of.

Over the next week or so, as I’ve been threatening for months, I’ll be culling the shelves. Every book in the pile is one I looked at least once and thought would be an interesting read. Time passes and other, more interesting books arrive. Some book is always lingering at the very bottom of the pile – a book that standing on its own I’d likely find entertaining or informative, but that as part of the wall of text will probably never be the next book I actually read. It’s a regrettable side effect of time being a finite and regularly diminishing resource.

Some of those titles, though, are still things I’d very much like to read, even if it’s at some ill-defined point in the deep future… like sometime after 2035. Other things in the pile won’t even make that cut. Those, I’ll shuffle off to Goodwill or maybe sell off to Wonderbooks for pennies on the dollar. Either way, some of the collection will work its way back into circulation next week.

For the rest, maybe four or five individual shelves worth, I’ve ordered up a bundle of banker’s boxes and acid free packing paper. Those will be going into long-term storage. It may be decades before they see the light of day again… but having spent no more than a dollar or two on any one of them, keeping them around doesn’t cause me any particular heartburn aside from needing to free up some floor space in one of the closets. That’s not too high a price to pay to make a bit more prime space available for new additions of more immediate interest.

It’s times like this I deeply regret not buying the house with a finished basement or a 4th bedroom.

Annual dusting…

I love books. I love the way they feel in my hand. I love the way ink looks on the page. I love the entirely unique smell a room takes on when it’s full of books. 

Much as I love them, there’s one book-related task that I dread among all others. It’s the annual dusting of the books… and I’m in the midst of that particularly onerous task now. That means physically taking each one off the shelf, dusting it, making sure there’s no unexpected wear or damage, and putting it back. It’s not a complicated endeavor, but it’s intensely repetitive – one that I’m bound to repeat at least 1100 times across 15 different bookcases over the next few days.

It would be easy enough to let it go. I mean with very few exceptions you can’t even see the top edge of a book sitting on a shelf. The dust finds its way in there though… and I shudder to think what that build up might look like in another ten or fifteen years when I have a reason to do another wholesale move. I’ve seen too many books offered for sale, otherwise pristine, that were caked with top edge gunk from untold years of not being tended.

I like to think that these books will outlive me – going on to reside elsewhere, with someone who values them as I do, on the inevitable day when this collection must be broken up. Unless I come up with a better process, it means keeping up with the dusting.

From my admittedly biased position, it’s literally the only down side of having hundreds or thousands of texts at your fingertips. 

The making of a complete works set…

After finishing up the refinancing of the current homestead, the bank owed me a few hundred dollars. Sure, I’m a grown adult and should have done something responsible with it. I could have topped up the emergency vet fund, sent it off to the guy who’s trying to make sure I have enough money to retire on so he could buy a few more shares of whatever, or saved it for the impending bathroom renovation. All of those were possible options. All, in my estimation, worthy causes in their own right.

I don’t feel like it’ll be any surprise that instead of doing any of those things, I hit up one of my favorite websites and ordered up some new (old) books instead. Yeah, I know. That was entirely predictable. 

The good news, though, is that sometime in the next 14-30 days, I’ll have rounded off my first edition set of Bernard Cornwell’s Sharpe series. Yes, including the three short stories. It’s still a bastard set, combining true UK first editions and American firsts. Purists will tell you that it’s not a proper “set” because of that. Technically, they’re not wrong. 

Because of its popularity, a really good set of Sharpe novels is a pricy bit of kit by my standards. Thanks to finding a number of my copies through thrift shops and the odd yard sale, my overall price is fairly reasonable. I think that over time I’ll be able to find some of the “upgrades” I need at something other than full retail pricing once I’m back to proper book hunting. For now, I’ll be reasonably satisfied with having all the titles lined up in “very good” or better condition.

Rounding out the Sharpe titles leaves me with just a handful of books I need to put together a “completed works of” collection for Cornwell. Knowing that I have far fewer of his delightful stories ahead of me than I’ve already read is bitter sweet… but I’ll still be glad to finally have them all gathered up in one place.