The following is a guest post by Associate Editor Jim Bessent on a pleasant day spent rummaging through other people’s books.
Sometimes they’re called “estate sales,” sometimes “tag sales,” sometimes “yard sales.” They can be because somebody died, or is moving, or got divorced. Any way you slice it, they’re an excursion down memory lane.
I went to one this past July. The house was in a cul-de-sac, and when I got there, cars were lined up on both sides of the street. People were swarming like ants. For the seller, it’s the ultimate invasion of privacy.
Just inside the front door was a landing, with steps up and steps down. I chose up and soon found myself in the kitchen.
What do I need? … Nothing. Well, maybe they have something collectible.
Look around. Pick up this. Pick up that. Nope. On to the dining room.
Cut glass. Not my style. Wedgewood. Can’t afford that.
Skirt around the living room where the “sales team” has set up its appraisal and money changing operation. Speak to the ladies and scurry back to the bedrooms.
What’s this? Little girl dresses from the thirties? Who lived here, Shirley Temple?
Yikes, $500 for that? My budget is $20. Don’t have any place to put furniture anyway.
I go downstairs. People blocking the door to the right, so I go left.
Oh, the garage. Maybe they’ll have some tools.
Flower pots … vases … golf clubs … Hey, check out that old sled. Oh! Books! Look at that—a whole table full. Two tables! Let’s see, Michener, Atwood, just paperback novels. Wait, what’s this? Pollyanna Grows Up. I always had a thing for Pollyanna.
And is that what I think it is? The Little Colonel. That was Shirley Temple. Maybe she did live here. And there’s a copy of Heidi Grows Up. I didn’t know there was a whole Heidi series. I used to watch Shirley Temple and that old guy in Switzerland. Early movie on Saturday afternoon.
I wonder whose books these were? Wait, this one’s inscribed: “To Susan. Christmas 1942. Love, Mom.” Wow, Susan must be … 80 years old now. But she was a little girl, and she read these books, and her parents gave her books on special occasions.
There’s an old-looking one … Whoa! A children’s pop-up book, from 1943. I didn’t know they had pop-up technology in 1943 … That was World War II. So the world didn’t just stop. Children were children. Mothers were mothers.
There’s one that’s not stamped on the spine. I wonder what that is? Looks like … a diary. I wonder if they know this is out here? Probably an uncle or something—maybe a grandfather. Should I take it up and show them? Would they care? I mean, it’s a family member. Maybe an eccentric one, but it’s a record of someone’s life, what they cared about, what they thought was important.
Okay, I have to go. I didn’t mean to spend an hour out here. One last, quick flip-through … and … I’m … out … of … here … What’s that green one? John Marvel, Assistant. Assistant? Assistant to whom? How’s that a book? Who would title a book John Marvel, Assistant? Is that like Captain Marvel? Wow! It’s got illustrations. Look at the people in these drawings. How old is this book? 1909! “From Mother to Simon, Merry Christmas.” By Thomas Nelson Page. Who the? What the? John Marvel. How funny. I wonder what it could possibly be about? I have to get this one.
And so I gathered together my haul—too many to carry now until I got a box, and I piled them in and went upstairs, where I put them down on the floor in front of the sales team ladies.
“How much for this pile of books?” I was trying not to betray any emotion. How much will they want. Probably $5 apiece. I can’t afford that. I can’t give $5 apiece for a bunch of old books.
What? I asked her to repeat.
A quarter apiece. You have 12 books. Three dollars.
Oh. Well. Wow. I counted them again. “Okay. All right. Let me see if I have three dollars. Tell you what. Do you mind if I leave these here for a few minutes? I just remembered I didn’t look in the den.”
“Sure. Go ahead.”
The wheels are turning. A quarter apiece. Did I examine those tables thoroughly? Three dollars. Wow. A quarter for John Marvel, Assistant, and some stranger’s diary.
Oh look, some old dishes. I used to collect this pattern and resell them at a collectibles mall down South. Is that a wooden camel figurine? These people must have traveled to Egypt, or Africa.
How did I walk by that and not see it? There was a bookshelf at the end of the den that filled the wall, floor to ceiling. I’m never going to get out of here! I’ll just be very systematic: right to left, one shelf at a time, just look at spines … Yearbooks! … University of Texas. Somebody here went to the University of Texas. Let me see … 1954. I wonder if the little girl who got Pollyanna for Christmas—Susan. But I don’t know her last name.
Well, I scoured those shelves. I bought all eight college yearbooks, four from the University of Texas and four from Texas A&M, plus three from Austin, Texas High School, along with:
- Datebook 1945 (the diary)
- Beautiful Joe—The Autobiography of a Dog
- The Little Colonel’s Holiday
- The Autobiography of Will Rogers, inscribed “To Dad, Mary and Fred, Oct. 26, 1949”
- Grandmother Brown’s Hundred Years, 1827-1927
- The Operation, Care, and Repair of Farm Machinery
- Elmer Wheeler’s Tested Public Speaking
- Penrod and Sam, by Booth Tarkington
- Vermont Maple Recipes
- The Story of the American Soldier
- Poultry Enterprises, revised edition
- Massachusetts Beautiful
- The Standard Dictionary of Facts
- And several others
It’s not that I read all these books. It’s more of a rescue mission. But in this case, curiosity led me to read John Marvel, Assistant. The pages were brittle and hard to turn without damaging. The story turned out to be a case against Robber Baron-type greed and social injustice, with considerable emphasis on the Christian message, embodied by John Marvel. There was a fascinating Jewish character whose aim was to educate the lower levels of society regarding their condition. All three men were in love with the same angelic woman, but I shouldn’t divulge who “won.” Thomas Nelson Page, by the way, had become famous for his portrayals of the “happy slave” of antebellum times. John Marvel is one his last novels. Check him out on Wikipedia. He is quite a complicated guy.
Thank you Jim! We had fun finding so many of these old books on GoodReads!
Jim Bessent is an Associate Editor at AMACOM. He works in the production department and sees finished manuscripts through the various stages of production: copyediting, proofing, indexing, all correction cycles, etc. Prior to joining AMACOM, Jim worked as an editorial freelancer and had a small collectibles business. Visit our website for freelance editorial opportunities.