The second-hand book business is predicated on death. A collector constructs their collection over long periods of time, cultivating it by adding and sometimes purging books, hunting (pre-internet) in dusty shops for essential but hard to find out-of-print titles. Death comes, and, in many cases, the relatives are uninterested in the the departed’s library. Most just want to unload the bulk as quickly as possible. The vast majority donate, but if they suspect the books are of some value, they call a book dealer. In this regard, bookselling is a higher form of recycling. We are all just stewards to our collections in the end.
Book dealing is a notoriously unscrupulous business. Basically, it’s the dealer’s expertise–their knowledge of books, of their value, and the demands of the current marketplace–versus the seller’s blind ignorance, their absolute lack of information. The dealer has the upper hand, nobody has to buy your old books after all, and, as is the case with many businesses, unethical behavior can quickly prove profitable. There’s an amusing and accurate characterization of this shady kind of book dealing in Polanski’s film The Ninth Gate.
To my endless regret, I was never really a true book dealer myself. I did buy a fair amount of books for resale, but I was mostly a primo flunky for one of the best dealers in the business. My boss was a worldly gentleman, and I took great pride in that he trusted me with some aspects of his business. I was privy to much dealmaking as a result. I had a fly on the wall view of the business, and not just his, as I engaged with other antiquarian book dealers worldwide, visited their shops, saw them at fairs, listened to their lore and grievances.
Let me say from the outset, unequivocally for the record, that my former boss always paid a fair price for books–very often at much higher rates than could be found anywhere else. Typically familiar outfits downtown often only offered a flat price per yard, ridiculously lowball amounts, taking advantage of peoples’ ignorance and bereavement. The man I worked for never did anything like that. In my eight years of observation he always behaved absolutely ethically.
One time, early in my employment, my boss bought an art book library and I was sent to pack it up. It was a large library that filled an entire floor in a brownstone in Brooklyn. It was a tony area with older trees– on Joralemon or Pineapple St. The previous owner was an art historian. He had been a lover of art and had a voluminous library. He had died young, prematurely and tragically. His grieving sister was pacing, arms crossed, throughout the apartment, which was already mostly empty and packed away. She closed the door to the library and I set about packing the books. It took me half a day–maybe 30 or 40 boxes of books, all carefully packed.
Packing a library can be more interesting than it sounds. Books are intensely personal items. They are interesting in themselves to be sure, but they also bear the marks of their owners. They can be stuffed with letters, with cash, with flowers, with pornography–I have discovered all manner of remembrances placed in books while packing libraries.
About halfway through the job I pulled out a small book, thin and brochure like, on the Flemish painter Hans Memling. Memling had always interested me, and books on him were hard to find. This book was small and fine–it shared many of the small charms I associate with Memling’s paintings. I decided I would keep this book for myself, as a reward, for packing the library. I set the book aside, face up, on an empty shelf.
I would still have to clear keeping this item with my boss, but I knew from experience that this was the kind of book he was not interested in because it was small, and not so valuable. It was originally priced at 75 cents. It could probably sell for $5 or $10 at the most. There are much better, more modern, books on Memling to be had. I was confident he would let me have this one small thing, this little reward. From a business perspective, this book was a waste of time. My boss was buying and selling entire libraries on a weekly basis. He had a disdain for gallery catalogs and other small things. They might have some value, true, but why give limited space for a $5 dollar book when you could just as easily fill that same space with a $500 book? When you buy entire libraries you accumulate a lot of “plugs.” I was certain this Memling was headed for the stacks of dreck located in the back of the downtown store, our refuse pile.
I had just finished taping the final box when the sister returned. She was slight and dark. She looked like the actor Toni Kalem who played Angie Bonpensiero on The Sopranos. The grieving sister slowly circled around the stacks of boxes a few times. She was crying, her cheeks were tearstained, and she was breathing through her fingers as her hands covered her mouth and the bottom of her face. I stood there mute, holding a tape gun. She walked and wept. She saw the Memling on the shelf. She paused. She picked it up and pressed it to her mouth, tightly, with both her hands and then she walked out of the room.
I have to admit, for a second or two I was shocked, surprised, and a bit taken aback with a small amount of anger. I had pinched that Memling from the library for myself, and then she came in and boosted it from me! I didn’t even have permission to take it yet. However, I very quickly realized that what was going to be my little souvenir for an otherwise uneventful day of labor, would be a much more profound memento for her. It was all she had left of her brother. The library was bought and paid for, but, of course, she had every moral right to take and keep that book.
I bought my own copy for a few dollars a few weeks later.