Friday, November 27, 2009

From the Books: "A Pound of Paper"

Some time ago I read a book called A Pound of Paper: Confessions of a Book Addict, by John Baxter. The book is a memoir of Baxter's years as a book collector and sometimes dealer, and it's full of amusing anecdotes about that craft. Here's one of them:

One in a row of three-storey detached homes built in the Twenties, the house and garden had the shabby look of a place run to seed, belying the red MGB sports car parked in front. The car's owner opened the door, a young man of the type known as "Hooray Henry", in yuppie uniform of pressed jeans, flannel shirt, Hush Puppies, no socks, and -- my God! -- a cravat.

"You're the book chaps, yah?"

"Yah," I said. "I mean, yeah."

"Come in, come in. Haven't much time. Lots to do."

He led us into the front room, lined floor to ceiling with big books in uniform leather bindings. Sorting papers was a girl dressed in the female equivalent of his outfit; same jeans, same shoes, same no socks.

"These are the book chaps, sweet," he said.

She spared us an uninterested glance and went back to the papers.

"The house belonged to my fiancee's father," he said. "I'm helping her with the sale. Now these," he went on, waving around the walls, "are not for sale. A valuer from Sotheby's will be here tomorrow. That understood?"

Martin nodded enthusiastically, groping at the same time for his tobacco pouch and the makings. I looked around the books with my best poker face. Even I knew that bound volumes of the Proceedings of the British Dental Association were worth about as much as telephone directories. Both he and Sotheby's man were in for a mauvais quart d'heure.

"The rest are upstairs." He led us up the staircase. At the top was a large room lined with empty shelves, in the middle of which was a neat parallelepiped, two meters by one by one, of the books that had been on them. "You can have any of these. See if there's anything you want. I'll be downstairs."

As his steps receded, Martin, nodding with pursed lips, as if listening to an unheard voice, picked up one of the books. It was a first edition of P.G. Wodehouse's The Heart of a Goof in its original gaudy dust wrapper with its gold motif. I'd seen one less good in a catalogue at a hundred pounds.

There were more underneath, all in their wrappers. Eric Ambler novels, Sapper, Taffrail, John Buchan -- and Graham Greene; my heart jumped as I spotted the near diaphonous wartime cover of A Gun for Sale and the plain cream one of his first novel, The Man Within.

"Boots rebinds," Martin said, peeling off the Wodehouse wrapper to reveal the plain cloth cover. "Boots rebound everything, but they kept the dust wrappers. At the end of the year, they put them back on and sold the books at a shilling each." He turned the spine to me, showing the "one shilling" label.

"What are they worth?"

"The books? Ten quid each, maybe. The wrappers..." He shrugged. "Hundreds."


"Well, the Wodehouses anyway. And the Greenes. The Buchans..."

We tried to calculate a total, but hadn't got far when the young man bounded up the stairs again.

"Well, what do you think? Anything here you can use?"

"Oh dear, oh dear..." Martin muttered. In moments of stress, he betrayed his middle-class origins by descending into a variation on the maiden-aunt's fluster that sat oddly with his boho look. He didn't quite wring his hands, though he came close. "I suppose...two hundred quid for the lot?"

Said with more confidence, the sum might have seemed almost insulting, but Martin's nervousness, not to mention his wardrobe, suggested that £200 was all he had in the world.

"And you'll take them away -- tonight?"

"Car's outside," I said, not revealing that it was a Fiat with the cubic capacity of a shoebox. I took out my chequebook. "Who do I make it out to?"

We spent an hour ferrying the books to the car, convinced that at any minute he'd realize the treasure he was giving up. Each trip just made the experience more intense. If there is anything more pleasurable than not giving a sucker an even break, I don't know what it is."

How fun it would have been to hear the chuckling of the Sotheby's valuer the next day, huh?

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