The House Call
Published on 16 July 2013
The house call is one of the of the most exciting parts of the used book business.
It’s a thrilling experience, a rite of passage into the trade. A member of the public thinks so highly of your skills as a book maven, (or your status as a cash cow), that they invite you into their private space to examine, and make an offer on, their books. You get to walk around pronouncing on the current state of the market, on what’s hot and what’s not, all the while maintaining an ingratiating stream of patter that, you hope, will convince the owner that you’re a sage and trustworthy expert.
In its intimacy, its often strange sensory dimensions, its occasional risks, and its inevitable commercial consequences, it can be a heady, exhilarating moment. It is also, probably, the reason some misguided dealers begin referring to their customers as “clients” – thinking this lofty designation marks them as Berensonian scholar/brokers. In fact, lawyers and whores are the people who have “clients.” We're merchants. We sell stuff. We have customers.
In due course, however, the thrill wears down. After hundreds of hours of time wasted with lonely or stupid people and lousy books you develop a certain expertise in determining, from the initial telephone call, whether the books being offered will be worth your time. I won’t give away any trade secrets for filtering such calls, and don’t get me wrong – most book dealers have nothing against lonely, or even stupid, people. They just can’t afford to be running a social service agency as well as a book business.
So the house calls dwindle. And if you’ve burned out on the bricks and mortar retail business, as I did two decades ago, you’ll find that the house calls dwindle to an alarming degree.
A book store is your best advertisement. When the store closes, the cash dries up and the visitors disappear. So do their books. These days, huddled in my book cave, I might get a call a month. Two or three turn out to be worth investigating. Two or three a year.
Last week I drove a long way to visit a man who sounded reasonable on the phone, and who had a few rare and desirable voyages to sell.
He was about my age and size, a friendly, look-you-in-the-eye sort of fellow. He lived in a tidy condo with a sunny library room, and he had a pretty wife with a funny nickname, with whom he liked to joke. He sported a limp and carried a cane on account of the cancer that was eating his bones away. This also explained his baldness and frequent coughing spells.
All of this he revealed to me in the most matter of fact way, as if he were talking about my journey to his house, which he soon was, and then about how he and his wife had traveled, on account of his work, and had lived in great cities in America, Europe and Australia. They’d managed to raise three children through all of this, now scattered across the globe, with children of their own. And their house had been designed so they could button it up for months at a time when they went off for more traveling, which included visiting children and grandchildren. Yes, it had been a wonderful life, really terrific. But now, of course, there wasn’t going to be any more of that. On account of his –
“On account of my situation.” He looked up at me, smiling. “I’ll be spending the rest of my life – however many months that turns out to be – right here in his library.”
“I can see you love your books,” I said. “They’re a comfort. Why would you want to sell them now?”
“Well, I do love my books. But my kids aren’t interested, and my wife sees them mostly as dust collectors, though she does have her favorites - the books, I mean, not the kids. So I thought I’d better do something about best ones before I died and some shyster came in and bought them for $200. There'll be plenty left to read.”
“Oh, I’ll pay you $300,” I assured him.
That got a laugh, so I plowed ahead and asked him what his expectations were, price-wise. He quoted me prices he’d seen on the Internet. I explained to him, very carefully, that the prices he saw on the Internet were prices for copies that had NOT sold - probably because the price was too high. If they had sold, I continued, they wouldn’t still be on the Internet. He frowned, coughed, wrinkled his brow, and coughed again. Then the frown cracked and a smile emerged. I was really starting to like this guy.
“So, if you can’t trust the Internet, how do you price this stuff?”
I pulled out my laptop and showed him auction records for the books in question. “These are records of auction room sales,” I told him. “These numbers are what real people actually paid at Christie's or Sothebys, or wherever. And, see, they tell you what date, and give you a rough idea of the condition, so we can find copies that compare to yours.”
“Like a real estate appraisal.”
In the end, I offered him a little under auction prices for his books. He accepted without a qualm. Without the faintest hint of uncertainty or remorse.
I wrote the check and then we talked for another twenty minutes or so. His “situation” - the fact that he had months to live – should have been the elephant in the room, but it wasn’t. This guy had so tamed it, beaten it down, disciplined it, that now it was more like a pussycat curled at his feet. He talked about the importance of cleaning up before he checked out, and how lucky he was to have his wife, and how fortunate that his kids were successful enough that they could afford to visit. I told him stories of house calls to the dying and dead, the widow who thinks her deceased husband’s books are worth millions, when in fact… I told him the story of the customer who was a compulsive collector who’d left a house full of boxes – many of them not even opened – when he’d died, and how his wife had been so furious at him she couldn’t even grieve, though she loved him and missed him. She was just so pissed at the mess he’d left her… My man laughed and laughed.
Then it was time to go. The wife with the funny nickname helped me pack the books into canvas bags that had come from the markets of cities around the world, and off I went. With a cargo of treasure from a man who’d probably be dead before I could finish selling them all.
It was a long ride home, and it should have been a depressing one. But no. My way was clear, the scenery more beautiful than I'd remembered it. I thought maybe I was getting a buzz because the books were so good, but that wasn’t it.
What kept returning to me as I drove was that man's smiling face, and the absolute joy with which he drew his every breath. The unconditional pleasure he took in each moment of his conversation with me, his jokes with his wife, the pleasure of their library, recollections of their travels, their children…
His time was brutally short, and probably filled with pain. But somehow, brilliantly, he’d seen what was important and how to focus on that alone. He’d figured it out.
I’ve had a lot of strange and interesting house calls, but this was one of the few where the experience was worth more than the books.