The Book Auction

…or Golly, There are People Who Spend Lots More On Books Than I Do!

Though I have thousands of books, I am no book collector. Years ago, I bought a copy of The House of Barrymore at the Atlantic Book Warehouse. I had called ahead to have the book held for me so was perplexed when I went to pick the book up. A very serious young man gave me a doleful look.

“We do not have the book,” he said.

“But I was assured it was set aside for me.”

“The only book we have is flawed.”

Now when I was in grad school I learned about the concept of textual depravity and got a sharp look from a professor when I laughed like a loon at the idea. Somehow I didn't think that's what we were talking about here.

“Well, unless there are pages missing, I think I can cope.”

The young man reluctantly brought the book to me. I examined it closely; it looked fine.

“See here. The front jacket flap does not align with the edge of the book.”

Was he serious? He was.

I insisted that I would take the book; I assured him that as a reading copy the book was flawless. I know he thought less of me as a person but he agreed to sell me the book.

I hadn’t thought of this incident in years until my husband and I attended a book auction at Swann gallery two weeks ago. Bob wanted to see an auction for some research he’s doing and since everything I know about the rare book business comes from John Dunning’s Cliff Janeway novels, I thought this would be fun.

Truly, I expected to be met at the door by someone who would say, “You’re not dressed appropriately for an auction. You’re wearing stretchy leggings and a T-shirt.”

But we were greeted warmly and given lovely catalogs of the books to be auctioned. (My T-shirt came from the British Museum’s “Shakespeare: Staging the World” exhibit so maybe that made a difference.)

I scanned the shelves and then found a seat that put me right next to novels by Dickens and Chandler. The auction was a decorous affair but there was certainly tension as some books elicited fierce bidding between the people in the auction room and those in touch by phone or on the internet. Among the books getting the highest bids:

Arthur Conan Doyle’s The Lost World (expected to go for between $6,000-$9000, it sold for $19,000) I think if you spend this much money for book you should be allowed a heartfelt “Yippee!” or “Huzzah!” but as this world is not mine, I shouldn’t attempt to dictate behavior.

Harper Lee’s To Kill a Mockingbird. (expected to go for between $8,000-$12,000, it sold for $13,000). It was not only a first edition, but had a presentation card that read: “To Miss Ethel, with love, Nelle Harper, September 17, 1960.” I love the book. I own two copies, both serviceable paperbacks.

George Orwell’s Burmese Days (expected to go for between $3,000-$4,000, it sold for $14,000.) Please forgive me when I tell you that my first thought when I heard that astronomical sum was “Gee, I got that as part of a Kindle Featured Deal for $3.99.”

I would hate anyone to think that I left New York City without buying books. I visited Bluestockings on Allen Street where a very enthusiastic young lady assured me the store was the last bastion of radical feminism. Alas, they don’t ship books so I was unable to buy as much as I might like but I came away with The Autobiography of Mother Jones and four packs of feminist playing cards. Then I went to The Mysterious Bookshop (alas, several days before it became a tangoteria) and left a nice sample of my paycheck.

If you’re looking for a bookish night at the theater, may I suggest Matilda: The Musical? I was a touch discouraged when I heard a little girl behind me say, “Well, I guess I like reading books, sorta,” but Matilda herself is wonderful. In fact in a few years maybe she’ll be joining the folks at Bluestockings.

Stephanie Patterson