House Calls


I don’t mean to sound insensitive with the following account, but things like this happen in the world of house calls.

My son was along on this one, to speed the work, for company, and you never know…he might consider this for a career some day. If there was a slim flicker of hope there, this visit may have snuffed it out.

It was an old green and white house on a quiet outskirt city street, perched way up high with a long black iron railing along two flights of steps that were something of an engineering marvel. I’ve mowed some severe grades in my time but can’t imagine how they do this one. I’d say it looked like the house from Psychoexcept it was not alone, as there was a long row of these, and it was the dead of winter. Street parking only, and little if any side or back yard.

We knocked and knocked but no answer. A faded Pet Finder sticker on the door listed eight or so cats and dogs. Thank goodness for cell phones.

The senior citizen who finally came to the door would have been described as a crone in the past. Bright white hair including facial, two remaining teeth on the far bottom ends like gleaming white posts at the track, stooped, with piercing blue eyes. She grabbed my son’s hand during the introductions and did not let go, remarking on his looks about half way through.

“I may be old, but I’m still sharp. I used to do flea markets. I need at least $75 for these. There’s a lot of them.” Fair enough, though she had said something on the phone about just wanting to get rid of them. These were newer. There were many “very old” ones in the attic (the only reason I came) that would have to wait until next time.

As we entered the dimly lit living room, it was immediately apparent that this was sort of a Colliers Brothers situation, for those familiar with that early example of packrat achievement. Piles and paths only, though a huge Christmas tree must have displaced the usual lay of the land. No pets greeted us, but stuffed animals were in great abundance. We just watched the director’s final cut of Blade Runner together a couple of nights earlier and it kind of looked like Sebastian’s apartment from that movie, but with no room for somersaults. There was a glorious stained glass window on the right hand side of the house, but it was almost completely blocked by an enormous cabinet of some sort. As our eyes began to focus I could see nice antiques like partially buried Victorian marble top stands everywhere. As I began to recalibrate she interrupted with a bulletin.

“I have to tell you that I have a mentally retarded grandson asleep upstairs right now. He doesn’t like strangers in the house, and he can get full of rage. He’s pretty fast too.” She went on to say he was in his forties, etc., but as the short and pitch black center staircase leading to his present location ended right at our feet, boy and I were already planning our escape through the front door. (He told me later that he would have bounded down the steep snowy front lawn where bare feet or slippers may have hesitated to follow. All that advice about exit strategies must have took.)

Unfortunately, these boxes of books were arrayed left and right, so I had to venture away from the one escape route. I quickly determined that it was all unsalable dreck, with an unhealthy proportion of Dungeons and Dragons titles in the mix. Back by the front door, I broke the news that it was not what we needed. I did extend my standard $25 charity book sale offer, but she thought I was trying to lowball her and refused, to our great relief.

“What am I supposed to do with these? I thought you wanted books.”

“Well, like I said on the phone and just now, I don’t take any old books. You could try to call other booksellers in the Yellow Pages, but I don’t think they will come over or want them if they do come over. I don’t think an auction hall would take these either. You could have a yard sale when it gets warmer, or just put them out on the sidewalk for free.”

“Can you at least move them out onto the porch for me? I have to make room. I have a vintage clothes dealer from Hudson coming next.”

This was no small favor, as the large boxes and laundry baskets full of books were hard (and noisy!) to get at, but at least we helped her a bit.

As we descended toward the street down pitched and timeworn steps that were dangerous even without carrying heavy boxes or being chased, I pictured the plight of the distant clothes dealer whose potential treasures were closeted deep within the bowels of this dark and seemingly dangerous house. Did she have the nerve to proceed?

The Standard: The Journal of the Independent Online Booksellers Association

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