Wednesday, August 15, 2012

Walking With Blinders Through The Last Book Sale, part 4

In case you missed them, here's  Part 1  Part 2  and  Part 3

The auction as seen from my seat.
Saturday started with a potato, egg and bean burrito breakfast and a frantic drive into Archer City, slightly faster than the law allowed. Cathy was riding shotgun with me this time, to help keep me in check, and also to look over out a few shelves that we both agreed would be great to have...if the price was right.

Which, it turned out, it most definitely wasn’t. All that was left of the Booked Up stock was art and history, fiction and poetry, and some misc. collecting books, and four crummy shelves of science fiction, and the like. We had a cuckoo idea that the big, oversized art books would just go zipping out the door for the minimum cost. Heh. Yeah. That didn’t happen.

As soon as the bidding opened up, the numbers were popping. The auctioneer was surprised when the shelves started selling for between $300 and $500 a lot. Well out of our price range, no matter how good the value was. And it was a steal. But I had a strategy up my sleeve.

I paid attention to the lots that I wanted, and I wrote down the titles of the books on those shelves that interested me. Then, when the shelves sold, I pulled the buyer aside and asked, “Are you a dealer?” The answer was always “yes.” I then told them all what I wanted was a few books off of X shelf, and would they be interested in selling them to me? The answer was always “hell yes.” So I wrote down the lot number, the book title, and even the price I’d pay for the books, with instructions to contact me after the auction. It was genius. And it worked like a charm.

I passed out six or eight of my business cards, and passed notes back and forth like a naughty fourth grader, all throughout Friday and Saturday. If they all bear fruit, I’ll probably end up spending at least a couple hundred bucks on single tomes in the next four to six weeks. This was useful not only for me but for Cathy as well. She hates to lose out on auction bids, and this was a nice consolation prize for her.

Larry, talking about The Last Picture Show.
Throughout all of the goings on, both during the preview week and the auction itself, there was a constant refrain of “Where’s Larry?” usually uttered in a sibilant half-whisper. I’d seen him several times, usually in passing, and always looking a little freaked out by the enormity of what he’d set in motion. On Friday and Saturday, he was positively beset on all sides by a clutch of reporters, hovering around him like horseflies. You could just look at his face and see that it made him uncomfortable, so he did as any right-thinking Texan would do when confounded by flies; he stayed in motion.

Larry flitted, in and out, back and forth, for two days straight, never staying long, and only occasionally sitting down. I think it was equal parts survival and curiosity, but I have to tell you, he looked tired. He had a heart attack in January of this year, and that will take its toll on you. But I could see it on him, this kind of weariness. It made me wonder if there was another reason for The Last Book Sale. Suddenly, the title took on a morbid connotation. Was this Larry’s way of handing us twenty dollars as we were on our way to Mexico? Had he finally become Sam the Lion?

No. Throughout the weekend, everyone was assured that the main store, Booked Up #1, would remain open, its stock on hand for perusal for anyone curious or with a taste for the good stuff. Larry himself spent a lot of time in Booked Up #1, when he wasn’t being hounded by reporters or folks wanting an interview, or a photograph, or—of all things—a signature.

More than one person, perhaps sensing my Inner Texan, or maybe hearing me speak with familiarity about the town and the operation, asked me where Larry was. They always explained that they just wanted to ask him about X or Y, or they needed a photograph, or wanted blah blah blah. I was cautious in pointing him out to these people. The majority of them weren’t bidding on the auction. As such, I felt they had little claim to his time. Listen to me, like I’m his press secretary or something. I sent only one guy over to Larry, a professional photographer who assured me he would be unobtrusive.

I did this partially to ease the pressure on the man, but also because in my tenure as a Booked Up customer, I learned early on that when Larry was in the house, he was not “the Pulitzer Prize-winning author of Lonesome Dove and The Last Picture Show.” He was Larry the bookman. Different guy altogether. If you had a question about stock, or what he just bought, or how often he comes across Dell map backs, or the value of Frank J. Dobie books, or anything else along those lines, you could have a great and interesting conversation with the man. But come at him, head bowed, tattered copy of Lonesome Dove in hand, murmuring, “Mister McMurtry, your book meant so much to me...” and he had no time nor use for you. I know, for I saw it first hand one day during an early visit.

Looking around at the inadvertent circus he’d created, I know he was cringing inside at what he had wrought. So I endeavored, in my own tiny way, to take some of the pressure off of him, as much as I could. Just my little way of saying “Thank You” to the guy who wrote Cadillac Jack. As it turned out, Larry was on his best behavior that weekend. He was tired, of course, but he was very gracious about interviews, photos, and even a few autographs.  I noticed that most people who needed any of the above were quick to get in and get out, in deference to his health and his legendary temperament.

The wall outside of Booked Up #4.
The oversized art and design books went for way more than we could spend, so I sent Cathy off to write down the titles of what she really wanted, the better to make a side deal with the winner. I cooled my heels listening to the history books sell for cheap, or a lot, depending on what country was being auctioned off. The Chinese history books, for example, were out of my price range, so I made a side deal with one of the winners, a woman I’d been previously chatting with about the sale and my interest in same. She was amendable to selling me the one book I really wanted, and so I took great pains to explain to her, via notes, that I was a collector of the author, Robert Van Gulik, a former ambassador to China, who wrote a series of mystery novels set in historic China featuring Judge Dee, a clever court official who throws the cold light of reason upon seemingly supernatural occurrences. She seemed baffled and a little put out until I told her that the name of the book was The Sex Life of China, by Robert Van Gulik. I included the parenthetical note, “Don’t Judge Me!” to let her know that this wasn’t some weird pick up line, and thankfully, she got the message loud and clear. 

The last big section to sell was the fiction section, and both me and the auctioneer were stunned when the minimum bids weren’t even enough to tantalize people into picking up stock. I had one shelf earmarked, full of Jim Crace books that I didn’t own, which were worth more than fifty dollars all by themselves. No one else wanted it, so I bid on that lot and picked it up, happy as a really happy thing that is happy.

From fiction, looking into history and beyond. Booked Up #2.
It was weird. This was fiction. I would have thought that it would be the section to go for the most. In fact, some shelves did go for a couple hundred bucks, but it was impossible to know what they were fighting over. In previous trips, I’ve bought Thorne Smith and Damon Runyan books for thirty and forty bucks a piece. There’s always a hidden gem here or there in the fiction shelves, and I never passed them up on any of my trips. Oh well. I noticed other collectors doing the same thing I had, buying a section or two, just because, and grinning when they got the books for so cheap.

Some mixed lots and a few reference sections closed out the auction, and everyone applauded weakly, too drained by the experience to do anything else. I was in Monty Hall mode, cutting side deals and looking for one particular bidder (who turned out to be a buyer for Powell’s, I think), who outbid me on one of the last two lots I wanted. Granted, I only wanted half of the books on the shelf; science fiction and mystery fiction reference books, which ran across two shelves. The rest of the two shelves was a set of leather bound journals. I had a hunch the guy who outbid me was wanting those journals, and seeking him out, I was right.

I explained to him who I was and what I wanted, and we went to the two shelves in question and agreed to a swap, right then and there. With three auction staffers watching, he scooped all of the old leather books off of my shelf, and replaced them with the reference books I wanted. Simple, really.

Elated by my success, I tried like hell to get some of the book buyers to come out, have a drink, keep the carnival-like atmosphere flowing, but suddenly the book nerds reverted to type, averting their eyes, shuffling nervously, and muttering something about needing food and sleep. Whatever, losers. The people I’d been talking to all weekend, or had met during the course of the weekend, were all from different places, and as it turned out, going back to those places. I really wanted a post mortem on this experience, if not a dead dog party, and it just wasn’t going to happen.

As I waited in line for my turn to pay out (a lengthy, hour long process, as you can well imagine), I was engaged in conversation by a guy who came looking for me. He was one of the bidders vying for the Jazz lots. We struck up a conversation around that, exchanged business cards, and I told him about the Jack Teagarden museum and he let me in on his research project. We agreed to try and help each other.

While talking over the sale, I mentioned my bittersweet notion that I had helped destroy the thing that I loved. He shook his head and said, “Naw, man, you gotta think of it like this: Larry’s setting those books free, man. He’s got good book Karma for the rest of his life, man.”

The simplicity of that notion fairly stunned me. Here Larry had traveled all over America, and he’d bought up all of these bookstores and private collections, and gathered together this, this, this solid mass of books, fully forty years of pressure on top of them, and then in one very big bang of a gesture, he just sent them back out to the farthest reaches again. It was cosmic. It was beautiful. I smiled and agreed with my new friend. “I hadn’t thought of it that way.”

“It’s the only way to think of it,” he assured me.

I’m smiling as I write this. Even Monday Morning Quarterbacking it, his point is valid. Archer City had served its purpose, allowing these books to collect, and pile up, and become the legendary Texas version of the Library of Alexandria, y’all, and it gave Larry a place from which to operate in relative solitude. But at the end of the journey, the snake eats its tail, the universe resets, the Alpha becomes the Omega, which becomes the Alpha.

Years from now, someone else will take up the quest that Larry put down. Whoever it is will gather the books up and build another repository of information, and it will take decades. It probably won’t be in Texas, but who really knows? I won’t be around for it, but I hope that when it comes time for them to retire, they will remember the story of The Last Book Sale and do the right thing.

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