Monday, August 13, 2012

Walking With Blinders Through The Last Book Sale, Part 2

The gas station in the movie is now the Visitor's Center.
I slid into town on three and a half wheels Friday morning (my tire is on order, so I’m driving with the donut on the back right side), and squeezed into Booked Up #4, where the auction was taking place.  It was standing room only, and everyone looked worried and apprehensive. The auction staff wore masks of grim resolve against the crush of bodies, the dangling boom mikes, and the interminable whir and click of cameras.  I ended up off to the side, right up front, by the podium, along with five or six guys who were taking pictures and writing notes. Great. Stuck with the press corps. 

The air conditioner was working overtime, and it was a losing battle, at that. There were just too many people crammed into a small space. Everyone was fidgeting and mouth breathing and already the pressure was on. The auctioneer informed the crowd that they were going to go fast, attempting to sell a lot every thirty seconds or so. There would be no hemming and hawing. No “Storage Wars” last minute Yuups like that bullying jackass Dave Hester does. No, we’re going to fast and in a gentlemanly fashion. Right? Everyone ready? Okay, here comes lot number one. We’ll open the bidding at one hundred and fifty dollars.

There was silence. The air pressure in the room changed in a fraction of a second. Suddenly, it was real. And it was going to get expensive, real quick.

The auctioneer, stunned that forty yellow cards hadn’t suddenly blossomed in the air before him, informed the crowd that there were over 300 books on that shelf, and $150 dollars was a dirt cheap asking price.  Someone in the back tentatively raised their hand. The auctioneer proclaimed the lot sold, and we were off and running. Lot number two...let’s start the bidding at one hundred and fifty about one twenty five? That got a card in the air. He sold that lot, and grimly plowed ahead with the same results. As the lot numbers became books about theater and film criticism, the auctioneer lowered the starting price to $100 and that seemed to stimulate folks a little more. The shelves were selling for between $125 and $150, and we could all see that it was pissing the auctioneer off something fierce.

When we got to lot one hundred, he proclaimed that we were going to take a break, and then we’d start back in with The McMurtry 100. Yes, of course! That’s why everyone was bidding so conservatively. It made perfect sense. They were holding out for the valuable books, the marquee items. Duh!

I texted Cathy and asked her which books she wanted me to try for. Several lot numbers came back at me and I quickly looked them up: the Elmore Leonard first edition. Yeah, right, baby. Keep dreaming. The Tony Hillerman first novel. Okay, that may be doable. A Frank Lloyd Wright book. I can see that. And...The Mermaid and the Messerschmitt. What?  Cathy explained to me that, in addition to being a very cool vintage-looking book  with a great dust jacket, it was a memoir about three sisters who lived in Poland at the time of the German occupation. Okay, now it made sense, because that’s exactly the X-Y axis point on the graph that would get Cathy’s interest; a heartwarming memoir, coupled with great vintage graphics. Can you blame her? Can anyone?

The bidding resumed, and I scrounged a chair to sit down and record the winning amounts for posterity. If you’ve looked at the list, you know that there’s a weird, odd assortment of books on there—literature, art, history, and education were well represented, of course, but then there’s some of those strange things you find in libraries from time to time. Things like a ledger containing 1,200 pages of original erotica writing, circa the 1940s, commissioned by an Oklahoma oilman, and a privately bound copy of something called Selective Blood Studies of Swine, which was exactly that.

Auctioning off The McMurtry 100.
Lots were flying, and of course, everyone was waiting for the first big marquee item: the first edition Elmore Leonard book. The auctioneer reasonably started the bidding at $850. And once more, the only sound heard was the distant chirping of the crickets. “You’re kidding me,” he said, out loud. “Folks, it’s not going to get any cheaper than that, and you all know it’s worth a hell of a lot more...” Nothing. The auctioneer’s face started to redden. Someone in the back put a card in the air. Thank you, said the auctioneer, trying to resume the natural order of bidding.

There were no other takers. He declared the lot sold, and visibly slumped, defeated, in his chair. “You just stole that book, you know that, right?”

Some of the lots had a lot of action. The four volume Winston Churchill set went for $475 after a false start. Or a false end. Or some sort of technical screwup that forced him to reopen the bidding.  I’m really not sure who was in attendance that had never been to an auction before, but apparently it was a lot of folks, because there was wriggling, strange hand signs, late bids, and a lot of “Sir, I’m already got you in for a hundred. You don’t need to bid yourself up” going around. One guy was standing in the back, partially blocked from sight by a support pole, and was intent on scratching his nose with his bidding card. That’s not a rookie mistake. That’s Mister Magoo action, right there. The auctioneer finally asked him to please stop doing it, and the bidder more or less complied.

Many of the McMurtry 100 were selling for their reserve price, thirty to forty dollars. Not the collectable stuff, mind you, but the “interesting” and unusual selections. Again, can you blame anyone? Sure, there’s some provenance associated with what has become a national story like this auction, but you have to be into something as a collector to drop fifty bucks on it. Or, in the case of Selective Blood Studies of Swine, which sold for $110 dollars, I shit you not. Of course, whoever bought that book was buying it as a found art object, and not because he’s into porcine bloodletting. I hope.

The Hillerman book went up past my limit, but I hung in on the Frank Lloyd Wright book and won it, which was a nice thing since both me and Cathy like his design. Then we came to the last thing on her list: The Mermaid and the Messerschmitt. Well, it’s so weird, the odds are pretty good that I can nab it for her at the reserve. So I stuck my card up when he opened the bid at $40. Now fifty. Now sixty. Now seventy. Now eighty. What the hell?

I dropped out of the bidding and saw who was gunning for the book. This is her, right here. She won the prize for $90. I couldn’t believe it. What was going on? What could she POSSIBLY want with that book? I resolved to find out.

We broke for lunch and I found her, hanging outside the diner, smoking. I walked up and said, “I was your competition for The Mermaid and the Messerschmitt. Sorry about bidding you up.”

She immediately got chatty with me and said, “We’re not going to fight about it, are we?”

I said no, of course not. “But I have to ask, what’s your interest in the book?”

She took a drag off of her cigarette and answered, “Well, after I got bid up on that swine blood book, I decided I was not going to get outbid again!”

Unbelievable. The thought that Selective Blood Studies of Swine was responsible for me NOT getting The Mermaid and the Messerschmitt sank in. I took in her piercings, her tattoo-sleeved arms, and I realized that she was buying the book ironically, and not because she was dying to read it. Without meaning to be rude, I blurted out, “So, basically, you’re here just to bid on the weird shit that falls in your wheelhouse?”

She grinned, busted. “Yeah, pretty much,” she confirmed.

I wished her good luck, and then drowned my sorrows with a couple of corn dogs and a sweet tea. It was noon, and we had a long way to go.

1 comment:

Todd B. Vick said...

I'm kicking myself for missing this! I had the day off, my brother was in town and I have saved a ton of money for just such an occasion (for a future project that I asked you about in Austin). Sheesh!