There is a certain macabre joy that comes from discovering a hidden treasure among a dead person’s items. For whatever reason there is also some romanticism associated with those that do so in a “respectful” way. Archaeologists are viewed with both the swagger of Indiana Jones and the childhood wonder of discovering unknown cities, palaces and riches. Booksellers too hold a unique and attractive role to those of us who often get lost in a good story.
Of course there is the sketchy side. The modern day grave-robbers who only have dollar signs in their eyes during the reading of the will, the ones scrambling for priceless finds, the bitter feuds and family fights that ensue from divvying up the property of the deceased.
Within this same vein, yet another breed entirely, are the booksellers. They don’t roam the deserts of Egypt or pry open caskets for valuables, but they do sell the stories that inspire the same fantasies of eye-opening wonder and dark tales of mystery. No graves are robbed in a literal sense but the rush for the once prized possessions, or, more often than not, the forgotten gems, at estate sales feel reminiscent of those contested readings of a last will and testament.
The bookseller’s Holy Grail varies from person to person. Like anyone else on the hunt for a treasured item it can be a lifetime of unfulfilled quests, tales of the “one that got away”, or the silently recalled joy of finding that once in a life discovery.
“It has almost an element of grave robbing,” Dan Danbom, author and bookseller at Printed Page Bookshop opens the conversation, “honestly, that’s the real thrill of finding these kinds of things. I get calls from people saying ’my father in law died and he had a huge library. Will you come out and look at it?’ and my imagination runs wild. They’re all great until I get there.”
YS: That’s part of the romanticism that people think of when they think of running a bookstore – finding that treasure trove.
DD: Yeah I used to refer to it as urban fishing. There’s an element of luck with fishing but there’s also a very complicated understanding of the significance of books. I’ve been doing it off and on for 40 years, and I’m still learning every day.
YS: What’s your great book find story?
DD: It was a first edition of Catcher in the Rye at an estate sale. The person running it wasn’t a novice, they knew about it. On the dustjacket, the flap on the inside of the book, it said ‘Selection of the Book of the Month Club.’ Those are not as collectible as publishers editions, the first printing. The person running the estate sale took that to mean that it was a Book of the Month club book – well it wasn’t. It was a beautiful copy and it’s a valuable book. I sold my copy for $10,000. And that was several years ago if I had it today I’d price it at $25,000.
YS: And the ones that got away?
DD: You remember the ones that got away. I just walked up to a garage sale once and said do you have any books? ‘Yeah, I got some back here.’ They’re in his garage, and he’s taking sacks of fertilizer and cans of paint on top of them. He opens it up and it’s cobwebby and there’s a bunch of cheap James Patterson books – and then there’s a signed copy of To Kill a Mockingbird. So I take the stack of books and ask what do you want for these. He goes ‘I think one of these is signed’ and finds To Kill a Mockingbird and says ‘I’m gonna keep this one.’ I thought – excuse my language – in you’re fucking garage? In a box? I thought, I need to confiscate this, as a self-deputized guardian of Western civilization.”
YS: Are there any books you’ve refused to sell?
DD: Anything damaged. Reader’s Digest. We don’t sell textbooks, very little self help books, or tour guides – unless they’re vintage things. We don’t sell porn. There are booksellers who get very hesitant about selling Mein Kamphf. I don’t feel that way. There are no books that I would refuse to carry just because I disagree with their intent. Other than books that I regard as better use for insulation.
YS: What do you do when you find something personal when buying something from the deceased?
DD: You find personal things. I try to return that kind of material to people. I bought a bunch of books from an estate and there was a box of personal items from this guy’s brother. It was cool stuff. I was able to return it to his brother.
Dan ended the interview reminding me of the support he receives, “I want to make it clear that what I do isn’t in a vacuum. My partner is indispensable. I don’t want to give the impression this is me who’s doing all this stuff. It’s a lot of people who all have the same passion and love of books.”
Booksellers will continue to hold that romantic sway as long as the dream of finding that white whale exists. Reality may be one of numbers and taxes, cleaning toilets and interacting with customers, but the dream of perusing stacks of old manuscripts, of recommending books to the devotees, and searching high and low for that pristine text will continue to call to the imagination of those of us who bury ourselves in the written word.