By Frank Werner
Buying collections is always an exiting business, at least for me. There are so many elements of surprise, even if you have an idea what is in the collection, because you helped build it. Here is one of my most pleasant recollections of buying from an old customer.
The Pelew, now Palau, Islands are a group of about 250 islands in the Western Pacific. They were first sighted by Maggelan in 1522 and claimed for the Spanish crown. In 1899 the Spanish sold them to the Germans, who owned and explored them until 1914. There is some literature on them, most notably Keate’s “An Account of the Pelew Islands” and several German publications. Not a region that lends itself to extensive collection of its literature, one would think.
However, I had a customer in Bochum, in the industrial heart of Germany, who collected just that. He didn’t buy much, but he bought regularly, was well informed and paid on the dot. A pleasant customer.
One day he phoned me and told me he had to part with his collection, as he and his wife were moving into a home for old people. I said I’d come and have a look at his books and he was very pleased.
A few days later I drove up to Bochum, right in the middle of the Ruhrgebiet. I was looking forward to meeting this man and seeing his collection. My route guidance system led me to a unprepossessing block of 50ies flats. I rang the bell and walked up the dingy stairs to the third floor, where a small, elderly man greeted me and took me into the tiny flat that was furnished in the typical 50ies style. His wife, a sweet, grandmotherish old lady, had prepared a huge plate of sandwiches, made coffee, and had set out what was quite obviously the best china. I ate and drank a cup of coffee, and asked to see the books. As I’d received a list, written out by hand with a fountain pen, I knew what I was going to find. But to keep up appearances, I dallied here and there, and after about an hour I said I’d reached a verdict. He called in “Mother” and they sat on the sofa, looking expectant. I quickly hitched up my original price a little and told them. They exchanged glances, and after a few seconds, “Mother” nodded almost imperceptively and “Father” agreed.
Then I asked him why he collected books on such a specialized subject. Well, he said, as a boy he’d read about these islands in a magazine article, and the name had captured his imagination. So he wanted to know more, had gone to the library, and, drawing a blank, had bought his first book on the subject.
Had he ever been there? Perhaps he’d been a seaman earlier in his life? No, he said, the farthest they’d ever been from home was Basle in Switzerland. “I’ve been a postman all my life, he said, and we never had much money to spare. What Mother saved up I spent on books.” Mother smiled and squeezed his hand.
I packed the books into boxes they had thoughtfully provided. Mother put the remaining sandwiches into a paper bag and gave them to me, and offered to fill a thermos with coffee. I thanked and took my leave.
And, yes, the books sold quite well.
(Published on Books and Other Animals, presented here by permission of the author. As ever, thank you very much.)