Dispersing a library: The Big Bang, part 2

Opinion May 18, 2011 0 Comments

Dispersing a library: The Big Bang, part 2

by Hugh Gilmore

Editor’ Note: Part one appeared in the May 5 edition.

About two months ago a local realtor called me in relation to my “old & rare” bookselling business. She represented a widow of a year who was selling a house in Villanova. Her client’s husband had been a prominent scholar who’d owned thousands of books that now had to be sold before she could move.

Might I help?

I said yes and we hung up, agreeing that the professor’s widow would call me in about a month. I started worrying immediately. It was entirely possible that, despite my desire to be helpful, the books would be of no commercial value to me. I might not want to buy them, thus stalling the sale of the house.

For 11 years I ran a bookshop here in Chestnut Hill. When I had the shop I could always accommodate a fresh infusion of several thousand books of nearly all kinds. But I closed the store two years ago and now operate out of an office and storage space in my home. Sometimes it gets quite crowded with books. I must be selective in what I buy.

What to do? The professor's books are great but not rare. Another hard decision.

I wondered what kind of books the professor had kept at home. I Googled him and was greatly impressed, slightly awed, and a bit worried. His faculty photo showed a handsome 68-year-old man with a full head of hair only partly grayed. His smile looked confident and friendly. True to his occupation, he also looked like he couldn’t wait for the photographer to finish so he could take off his tie and get back to work.

He’d held an endowed chair at the University of Pennsylvania, being the E. Dale Saunders Professor of Japanese Studies in the Department of East Asian Languages and Civilizations. He was also a professor in the Religious Studies Department, a poet, and a philosopher.

Quite impressive, but I still did not know what kind of books I’d be seeing. More often than not, people in the teaching professions have large libraries, but not necessarily saleable ones. As scholars should, they buy books for reading, not as investments. They don’t mind if their books look worn-out from being read so often.

Sometimes, though, professors keep extensive professional libraries at work, while they also build a complementary rare book library at home. If that was the case here, could I competently handle a possibly rare and valuable library of works related to Asian history, culture, and philosophy? I couldn’t know till I saw them.

Time did its slow/fast magic and the much-anticipated viewing day arrived. The door of the modest split-level ranch home opened and I met the professor’s widow. A lovely, gracious woman, she’d been born in Japan but is thoroughly comfortable speaking English and teaching Japanese in a suburban high school. I saw a small cluster of shoes in the entranceway, so I removed mine and followed her through the sparely furnished house up to the professor’s study.

My first impression: “No way.” Too new, and too many of them. Probably 2500 books, mostly trade paperbacks or hardbacks with dust jackets. Shiny, neat, organized, published in the last thirty years or so. Without a store any longer, the only selling outlet would be the Internet and the Internet eats up this kind of book, originally priced at 15 to 30 dollars, and spits them out “used” for a few dollars each. It’s very hard to make money from modern books. And the hauling was equally daunting. Over 100 boxes of books. And steps. And a long walkway down to the carport.

But then, like all booksellers everywhere, I thought, “Well, I came this far, I may as well roll up my sleeves and look for a few books that would justify the time and effort it took to get here.”

Nearly all the books were in excellent condition. Their subjects included Japanese, Chinese, Korean, and Sanskrit dictionaries, poetry anthologies, literature, philosophy, religion, history, anthropology, and sociology. Most of them, fortunately, were printed in English. (Foreign language books are very hard to sell in America, even on the Internet.) About 10 percent were written in Japanese. I did not see anything I suspected was a rare book, though one never knows.

I kept going. A closet’s top shelves held stacks of books, mostly paperbacks. Upstairs, I saw four more bookcases. Downstairs, the dining room housed another large case. All all levels of the house the books were modern.

I returned to the study. I was fairly certain this was not a library I wanted to buy for commerce. Common sense told me to leave.

And yet, an urge, a strong feeling I couldn’t define, had been tugging at my heart the whole time I’d been there. I decided to give the library a second, slower look.

To be continued.

enemiesofreading.blogspot.com will lead you to more of Hugh Gilmore’s writings.

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