House Calls, Estate Sales and Auction tales


Of all the ways to find books, house calls are now better than ever, what with all the competition in other venues. House calls are generated through direct contact if you have your own book store, through advertisement, and through referral or word of mouth. This is not an in-depth tutorial on house calls, but here are a few points to remember.

It really pays to weed out those likely to be unproductive right in person or on the phone, before you make the trip. This takes a bit of practice. Have a list of questions ready. Type and approximate number of books, hardcover or softcover, on shelves or in boxes already, have all the family members taken what they want yet, etc. Condition is paramount. Were they in a damp basement, did they belong to smokers, etc. I also like to get a rough idea of what they expect for them, which is an age-old game in which the seller is usually in the drivers seat. Most are wary enough not to name an amount, in case you offer much more. What I am more concerned about though, is that they dont have extremely inflated ideas about what the stock is worth. If it seems helpful, I often provide a quick explanation of how we pay a certain percentage of what the retail value may be worth for stock that we may have to carry for many years, and how many copies are probably available online since The Glut. I also mention other options, like getting a second opinion from another book buyer, running them through an auction, yard sales, donations, etc.

My preference is usually to take the good with the bad all in one lot for one money. It is very time-consuming to cherry pick the titles you want, and if the deal falls through you have just provided the seller with your valuable knowledge free of charge. I prefer clients who simply want everything cleared out because they are moving, settling an estate, or whatever. I triage these books as soon as I get home, out in the driveway. Usually about 5% get listed online, 10% or so are good for the shop, and the rest go to auction, get donated, or get recycled or dumped.

You have more of an obligation to be above board when making house calls than in any other situation, such as an auction or estate sale where everyone had the same opportunity that you did. First of all, you should be qualified to make house calls to begin with. You wont find many booksellers who will take you along for lessons, for obvious reasons, but you should know something about the trade from the regular school of hard knocks before you presume to claim expertise. There is a big difference between an appraisal and an offer to buy. Appraisals are more properly reserved for experienced professionals, as there is probably more at stake for the seller. Appraisal fees are often steep, and the bookseller will sometimes ask to purchase materials of interest separately. In most cases, however, the stock is not worth that much, and if you can pay ten to fifty cents on the dollar (depending on how quickly you can flip the winners) and the seller is happy with that, both sides can make out well. Practice with these common transactions and work your way up to estate books and fine libraries. If you come across one that is way over your head, work with a more established bookseller or auction house on a shared or commission basis. I recall an early house call where I was very nervous borrowing most of the $12,000 necessary to close a deal for a large collection of newspaper file photos and books. It probably took me two years to make $20,000, and there was a ton of work involved, but it was a great learning experience. The seller was very happy, and at one point his wife took me aside and said, I want to thank you. I havent been able to sew on this front porch since the 1950s.

Here are a few more recent examples from my own experience, starting with a poor one. An astute elderly woman one town away said she was trying to sell a house that had nothing left in it but books, which needed to go. They sounded common and I was not interested, but she persisted, and upon inspection I finally agreed to take them all for $100. This took two full van loads and the better part of a day, and I was quite sorry I agreed, though she was sort of an early independent-minded university graduate and I enjoyed meeting her. Loads of book club editions, biographies, and the like, and she had a bad habit of slicing up the front dust jacket panel and lumpily pasting it down on the inside front cover. My favorite title in the otherwise bland lot was a nice first of The Rubaiyat of a Scotch Terrier, fairly common but sweet. Anyway, a few days later a wealthy son who she mentioned was not very helpful called up and accused me of ripping her off. I was finally able to convince him that if I hadnt already dropped off 98% of this common dreck for donation or disposal, I would have been very happy for him to come pick up the whole load for a full refund. It was a good reminder to avoid bad house calls, and to be extra careful when dealing with senior citizens. I usually try to ascertain if there are any relatives who can be present during the transaction, though in this case she understood getting rid of crappy old books better than her son or I did.

On a happier note, I just completed my third house call over several years to the widow of a magician. They met in 1945 when she was a young blonde in the Black Forest of Germany and he was with a passing U.S.O. show. She became his professional assistant back in the states, but he succumbed to Alzheimers decades ago. Once she came home to find that an unidentified colleague had stopped by and basically stole all the props and artifacts from the confused man, along with some books, which is about as low as you can get. She finally decided it was time to divest herself of his remaining professional literature, which spanned the mid-1900s, and she heard about me through the lovely woman who cuts our hair. First came all the booklets, laid out in piles on some card tables for my inspection. I took my time cataloging them, and learned a lot about the magic scene. Many were on specific tricks, with cards or coins or silks, and they all stressed practice and patter. I did well with the booklets, but a year or so later I paid more than I should have for runs of journals with great names like The Linking Ring, Ibidem, and The Jinx. This last trip was for the books, quite a few of which were signed first editions. I bought my wife along this time as I wanted her to meet this remarkable and charming person. I volunteered that a signed Harry Blackstone second printing with decorated covers and cracked hinges was probably the pick of the litter, and she pulled a little magic of her own just before the final settlement by keeping it, but that was fine. Some of the scavenger booksellers in this area would have seriously lowballed her, and many of the premier booksellers are now above this sort of house call. (I previewed an auction just last month and was surprised to find truly fine antiquarian estate books that the local expert had declined to appraise at the home they came from.) In the long run, it pays to treat people with respect, and to pay a fair price. And it is often far more enjoyable to purchase a small specialized library than to wade through tons of junk or spend half a day at some exasperating auction or library sale.

Just after this, I received by mail a five-page typescript list of titles from a woman up in the Adirondack Mountains of northern New York. What a pleasure to indulge in such an old-school method of book buying again. She explained that she was moving, had a trusty typewriter but no computer, was working off a list of upstate NY booksellers, and preferred to sell everything as one lot. There were some common works of poetry and literature, but the majority was composed of hardcover and trade paperback titles relating to Adirondacks local and natural history, many of them signed. Some relative rarities too, such as two copies of Notes on the Amerind Manufacture of Smoking Devices as Artistic Expression in Northeastern Iroquoia, one of which carries a nice signed inscription thanking the seller for her contributions to the work. Others are not to be found on the major search services at all, which does not always equate to immediate sales but is better than a silverfish running around in your boxers. I put her list aside for several weeks, to give everyone else she contacted a chance to make an offer, and finally called. Of more than a dozen booksellers, only one nibbled, and he wanted her to bring them to his distant shop so he could cherry pick desired titles a month or two later. She sounded shocked at my generous offer, and was delighted that I would take them all and even make the long journey up to Indian Lake to retrieve them. I picked the one sunny day in a two week stretch of rainy May weather, and was in her living room by 11:00 A.M. We had a nice chat. She herself was an Adirondacker of some note, having rubbed elbows with many of the greats. Coincidentally, she had run into her first moose exactly one year earlier, almost literally. Indian Lake is tiny and charming, though I would not want to brave the winters there. There is not a single traffic light in all of Hamilton County, and the scenery is fantastic. I found one no-name restaurant in town for a nice post-sale lunch, and fished my way back on smaller roads, bagging a fine brook trout to enjoy for dinner in the spirit of these books. I received a follow-up note, offering lots of ephemeral items that I wish she had shown me the first time. I called, and she confides that she only sent this list to two other booksellers this time around. The nibbler replied that he does not purchase ephemera, perhaps miffed at the loss of his cherries. She brought her list into one shop as well, where the proprietor told her to bring the material next time, but that she does not make offers but rather requires the seller to name a price. This really rubbed her the wrong way, and she accepted my offer to take the lot through the mail on approval.

One more tale. This same week, a fellow one county to the east saw my advertisement and wanted me to look at 100 old cookbooks before their garage sale on Saturday. I wasnt into it but tooled out there anyway. They turned out to be little commercial pamphlets from the 1930s I see everywhere, with a few okay Jell-O examples in the usual stained condition. There was one interesting signed coast of Maine fishing book whose title I forget. He claimed that Hitler offered thousands for a copy of this at the beginning of WW II, as it had maps which showed all the coves. Anyway, as I finished up a tour of garage sale junk in the living room, a wall of LPs and 78s came into view, and before you could say Django Reinhardt I gave him $3,000 for a lifetime collection of jazz albums. (And records are a lot like books, except it is often harder to determine their condition with the naked eye.) I can see now that half of them are from the ubiquitous likes of Mitch Miller and Perry Como, but the jazz titles are numerous and in very good condition, and the 78s are mostly blues. I use banana boxes with perfectly-sized flat USPS Priority Mail 1097 boxes in the bottom (which I eventually utilize for the intended postal purpose), and habitually travel with ten or so, but not this time, so I had to stack the albums in long standing rows instead, and they waved like wheat in the field on the careful return trip. We had a great chat too while loading up, and he had enough stories to leave a book of his own on the mid-to-late 1900s New Hampshire jazz scene, which I strongly suggested. I called him when I got home with a few going prices on better books he asked about like that Maine title, and to let him know my tires didnt burst.

To review, there are too many jackals after too much dreck at many yard, estate, and library sales these days; too much wasted time, chicanery and competition at many auction houses; and fewer seriously under-priced bargains at most book stores than in the pre-internet days. House calls are relatively relaxing, both parties usually come away quite satisfied, and you often meet highly interesting people. Just learn the ropes first, and practice good karma.

That was a relatively pedestrian ramble, but it had a purpose. Please consider sharing your own significant house call accounts under this heading. Also soliciting short, one paragraph stories for a future compilation entitled, House Calls from Hell, which will be more tasteful than it sounds.

 

Garage/Estate/Library Sale Tales

Estate sales are not the relatively genteel affairs they used to be, mirroring new pressures and tactics one also sees at garage (aka yard) sales, library sales, and auctions. First of all, there is the morning line, which I don’t deal with any more. Some of these people are incredibly obnoxious. In this neck of the woods, the antiques dealers, furniture guys, estate jewelry women, and vintage linen and textile ladies are the worst (not to generalize, as there is some gender crossover within these specialties). Many of them who compete for the same items despise each other. I think of that line these days as a bunch of people stuck in their own little bleary-eyed coffee-breath corner of hell for two hours or so. Or familiar turds with a regular Saturday morning appointment to bump into each other in a swirling bowl of maniacal mercantilism that never flushes all the way. While they strike up catty little conversations or peer through windows, I’m either sleeping, cruising the more fluid yard sales, or preparing to make house calls or preview auctions, where you are firmly in charge of your own schedule.

This is all a fairly recent development. I have fond memories of pulling up to estate sales at the opening bell and strolling right in, or arriving at yard sales around noon and still finding $20 quilts spread out on the lawn. In Florida, my mother had a happy hunting ground for years, especially for vintage linens and signed pottery. She brought me home the best-looking set of dust jacketed Elbert Hubbards Little Journeys Ive ever seen, for peanuts. Now it isnt even worth going out, as good merch is rare and the competition is fierce. I was down recently clearing out her house and had to fight people off from going through the garbage bags I was putting out. Town-wide sales are not what they used to be either, as the good stuff is long gone.

Not long ago a friend of mine got a very early waiting line number for an estate sale. She dropped it off with her husband and went elsewhere. When he showed up and strode to the front of the line with that valid number there was practically a lynching. The police were called and he got out of there just in time. I went to one early in the summer where a couple of gun guys slept in their car all night just to be first on line. When I entered that one the daughter of the estate sale operators was filming the whole thing for a college level documentary from behind the money table. That is the only safe place to stand, because they burst through the door like a human avalanche. I made a wrong turn for the book shelves one time and couldn’t get out of a bathroom for many precious seconds, which is an eternity when the competition is at the trough. The furniture and antique guys slap pre-made sold stickers on the better pieces. Compatriots guard these against sticker-removers, and later on they take their time deciding if they really want those items, often dickering for a lower price earlier in the sale than is generally acceptable. Another trick I heard about not long ago was a clock fancier thirtieth on line paying the antique dealer friends and bribers of the estate sale operators who are always given the number one spot $200 to reserve all the clocks for their perusal and purchase. The vast majority of shenanigans occurs even more behind the scenes though. This includes operators or specialists cherry picking the best stuff early. The dealer dumps really get to me. These are objects which could sit in an antique shop for years, but they sell quickly in the heat of the moment during estate sale mania. You learn to identify these as belongings which don’t fit the general tone of the estate. Another telltale sign is hang tags and stickers with different letter codes on them. Your average estate sale shopper, including the bottom feeding (but happy) late arrival pot and pan brigade, is completely oblivious to all these machinations.

Even though I am mainly after books, one has to deal with all the above, plus a long check-out line at the end. I avoided estate sales for a couple of years but have started going again, when the crowds are thinner a couple of hours into the sale. There are more book competitors than there used to be, but half of them are just guessing. You can stroll in and find good items after they are long gone. I bought five boxes of music for $10 each late the second day once and made huge profits off the softcover clarinet and recorder books, with some single items going for $100 and more.

The other approach is to get friendly with the estate sale operators and point out how it would be to their benefit to let you in early. I know I’m prejudiced, but with something like books this is a smart option. Unless they use the shotgun approach of uniform pricing, marking every book and piece of ephemera is time-consuming, items get stolen or damaged, the line is swollen by those waiting to buy $1 novels, and they are stuck with most of the detritus at the end anyway. I say let me take the good with the bad for one money before the sale. You might even leave a few outstanding books for the estate sale with a suggested price, as a gesture of good will. Sets and big old bibles come to mind. Several of the estate sale operators around here are amenable to this arrangement on a case-by-case basis. The others are usually newer to the game. They don’t know books, but they are seeing some high prices online and marking everything unrealistically high.

Although I like the thrill of the hunt and what sociability there is, I really don’t want to compete at the intense level increasingly evident. Life is too short. Such venues are very good experience for newbies, like that first crumby job you had, largely so one can learn the ropes and more deeply appreciate greener pastures once they find them. Also, at least in the northeast, there are plenty of book fish in the ocean. Garage sales, library sales, and estate sales often require pushiness and physicality. With auctions, it comes down to how much time and money you are willing to spend, as well as psychological sparring skills. Book shows are the best place to learn about better books, and house calls are the best place to acquire them.

Please consider sharing your own significant garage/estate/library sale tales under this heading. Also soliciting short, one paragraph stories for a future compilation entitled, Library Sale Shenanigans, which will be as tasteless as it sounds.

Auction Action

We know the basics of auctions. Previewing is nine-tenths of the law, especially if you can do so before the day of the auction. Set limits for yourself, get to know the auction house, identify your competitors, and become friendly with the owner, auctioneer, and runners. If you want all the books and they are choiced out to begin with, win the choices you know you need, let the bidding get down to low levels after that, and then discretely tell the auctioneer you will start all the remaining books at a fair price, like $500 or whatever. This usually appeals to them, in terms of setting up for the next auction with a clean slate. Rather than dissect this venue to death, heres a tale of how you can make a killing at auction.

When I first started attending auctions, before the era of eBay, the Antiques Roadshow, and price guides for everything under the sun but rectal thermometers, I found a good down-and-dirty one (a rural auction . . . not a thermometer) where the largely male regulars taunted anyone who bought an old doll, and you could get fifty boxes of books for five bucks. Not $5,000 Manhattan art books, but some great finds. There was a rather crazed runner there who pointed whatever rifles and shotguns came up directly at the audience. He began to learn which people ducked or cringed at this practice. His little pastime got me to wondering if anyone was ever shot at auction in such a fashion. One night an elderly gentleman who was previewing rifles while the auction was in progress discharged a .22 by accident. The gun was pointed away from the crowd, and luckily nobody was back there where they usually are due to ongoing renovations (some linoleum had come up just before this, someone from the crowd shouted that the auctioneer should buy it himself to use in the new bathroom, and he replied that he didn’t want to make any more improvements in there than necessary so people would be out bidding). Anyway, the bullet punctured a kerosene-fueled Salamander, which operates rather like the exhaust nozzle of a NASA rocket in its efforts to heat up (in this case) the old amphitheater livestock auction barn we were in. There could be an illustration of this great country auction hall next to the word firetrap in the dictionary to begin with, and 200 or so people sat in silent shock as the leaking fuel rapidly spread out in front of the heater, which was still raging away. I quickly decided I would take my chances out a small window way up top, rather than trust the thin veneer of civilization between me and the merchandise-jammed lower exits, and then found myself thinking what a great commercial for Salamanders this would be if the thing didn’t blow up. Finally, one older fellow halfway up in the crowded seating who always bids on military stuff vaulted down and pulled the plug. We cheered him, the shooter left in a state of shock, plywood was thrown over the spilled fuel, another Salamander was wheeled out, and one of the runners went outside to fire the remaining cartridges into the night air. I still might research the subject of auction mortality some day, but I’ve seen enough to satisfy me for awhile.

Please consider sharing your own significant book and paper auction experiences under this heading.

Book Show Impressions

Book shows range from flea markets and car boot sales to extremely high-end affairs. Aspiring booksellers can learn much from them. Visit a few first, and then start with a cheap outside space at an antiques show or festival. If this agrees with you, try a couple of tables at one of the better inside book shows. Most of your show colleagues will be glad to offer advice along the way, shortly after they raid your under-priced offerings and comment on your unfamiliarity with mylar. Losing money and losing face are two things that get ones attention, so you learn at a far quicker pace than through other methods of education.

Some years ago I ventured into a very large community-wide yard sale in an old established development early one Saturday morning. These get panned out, there are more cars than ever, and you see lots of last year’s kiddie clothes and plastic junk. I went right to the very back first this time, where there is still a bit of woods. The driveway of the most remote home was a real hill. I walked up to the garage and there sat a large amount of rare titles on early firearms, shelved no less, and obviously someone’s lifetime collection. A woman was leaving with a couple cookbooks or something and I overheard the price as $1 each. I took pretty much every one before I noticed a round color sticker scheme. I inquired about this when checking out. I’m afraid I didn’t have a chance to tell you. Yellow is a dollar, but blue is $2 and red is $3. I suppose you’ll be putting most of those back?”

One week later I was all set up at the Albany, NY Antiquarian Book Fair. A few minutes before the doors opened the line outside was pretty long. I always positioned myself in the back of this old armory, as my ephemera buckets took up many tables and may have looked a bit unseemly up among the more established tweedy types. One guy showed up almost immediately, following the same rear-first strategy I applied at the community sale. He let out a small gasp and bought nearly every one of these gun books, which as luck would have it was his specialty as a dealer. He thought they were all priced right (about $75 each on average) except for one, which he bought anyway. He told me he got up in the middle of the night and drove straight down from New Hampshire, not expecting to find much. A bulls-eye for both of us.
Please consider sharing your own significant book show impressions under this heading.

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