“HEY JEREMY HOW’S YOUR BOOKSTORE DOING?” belched Shelly, setting off a chain-of-events that would culminate in me buying more books than I’d bargained on and for a lot less than I’d expected.
It was a dick move by Shelly, but then most of her moves are dickish by design. Shelly likes to poke the hive and belch at whatever surfaces. She is a book dealer and thus knows that by shrilly identifying me as a fellow traveler, she will indubitably make my life that much harder. How so? Well, this was an estate sale and the only thing lower than a book dealer at an estate sale is a jewelry dealer at an estate sale. The shoppers will hate me; the estate sale proprietor will overcharge me at checkout. I will be shunned by decent society. Why? Because book dealers, such as Shelly, exhibit defective behavior here.
I’d taken great pains to separate myself from other book dealers, when I’ve infrequently frequented these things, by pretending to act decent. I did not steal books from other shopper’s piles, force my way to the front of any line, bogart an entire bookshelf by spreading my feet & butt cheeks wide and flailing my hairy elbows, or any other acts explicitly book-dealery. With one deafening announcement, Shelly had undone my good deeds, leaving me butt nekkid as she tore off my skimpy cloak of civility.
“Hi Shelly,” I said. “Can’t make out what you’re saying when you speak so daintily.”
With a snorty Horseshack laugh, she punched me roughly on the shoulder, knobby little knuckles digging in, and spoke words meant to be reassuring. They made me shiver.
“Don’t be embarrassed. You’re not alone buddy. You’re a book dealer,” and then fiendishly added, in the sort of stage whisper that would cause a patron sitting in the nosebleed seats to ear bleed: “WANT ME TO GET YOU PAST ALL THESE RUBES AND INTO THE HOUSE?”
This here was a crowded estate sale. I’d been standing on the sidewalk for some 20 minutes now, and judging from the present lack of movement, it might take another 15 minutes before I stepped through the front door.
I mean, book shmooks; I had to fucking pee.
Yet I declined Shelly’s Faustian proposal, because I knew that if I went in there with her that I’d be with her in there. As Groucho Marx sorta’ said, better to be grumpy and alone for fifteen additional minutes in my pee-stained undies than comfortable in the company of schmucks.
Ever ask an estate sale employee to use the deceased’s bathroom? They’d prefer you take a dump in the neighbor’s yard. They’ll stand outside the lavatory with an ear plastered to the door, pat you down for shampoo and deodorant when you exit, and then ostentatiously sniff & cringe at the air as if a cow had shat in their dead person’s bathroom. Nevertheless, it was worth the trouble. I emerged reinvigorated, deodorized, and zealous for the book hunt.
Since she is strictly an on-line seller, and I own an actual storefront, Shelly’s book buying interests do not necessarily conflict with my own. Whereas a mass market edition of Catcher in the Rye is a worthwhile addition to my collection, its inexpensive price & worldwide ubiquitousness renders it meaningless to an on-line seller.
In context, it was not so strange that Shelly followed me around handing me small bundles of books. She was probably just being nice. And maybe she enjoyed shouting at my back: “HEY JEREMY YOU COULD SELL THIS ONE FOR A HUGE MARK-UP AT READ BOOKS! IN EAGLE ROCK!”
Dick move or not, her judgment was unimpeachable. Of the dozen or so books she selected for me, I ended up purchasing ten of them.
The best books were in the den at the back of the house, but one had to navigate around the record dealers in the hallway who had spread their prospective LP’s out across the center of the narrow floor, all hunched over that memorabilia with their flaccid rumps pressed against the walls. Not wanting to step on a dead person’s vinyl, I opted instead to step on the impudent hippy capitalists that had placed them there. They ignored my ‘scuse me and pardon, though they were consistent enough to also ignore my feet on their feet and my hands in their faces. I would be inclined to hit anybody who trampled over me. But then, I would not be inclined to block an entire hallway at an estate sale. Human nature, man, is a beautiful, chaotic, aggravating jigsaw puzzle.
The book room was dominated by two different breeds of book people: The Hoarders and The Scanners. Some Hoarders are on-line booksellers, some are bookstore proprietors, some are both; more often than not, Hoarders have a decent-to-vast knowledge of books and their value. Scanners are almost exclusively on-line sellers; they tend to know very little about books other than what their little scanners tell them. Hoarders hate Scanners. A scanner does not harbor human feelings such as love and hate; he/she/it is more machine than man.
Howard, who sells on-line and owns a smallish used bookstore (twice the size of READ Books), was working a corner with a few colleagues. They had stockpiled several hundred books that they were roughly perusing. That is to say, the books that they choose to discard (“This shit is worthless. Get rid of it!”) are thrown roughly aside onto a mangled pile on the floor. The books that they are going to purchase are placed neatly in boxes to be carried to the check out table on the front porch. Howard is a Hoarder. He works in a group of three. A couple of cohorts seize half the books on the shelves and dump them in a corner, while a third plays sentinel by chasing away humans who demonstrate any latent interest in their stockpiled books. When they are finished hoarding, they get down to the business of keeping or discarding. In their wake, Hoarders leave a mess of sad rejects scattered across the room after prevent others from even looking at all those books.
“Don’t you hate these god-damn scanner people?” asked Howard the Hoarder, thumb gesturing toward the guy scanning books about two feet away from us. Howard was less obstreperous than Shelly, but not by much. If they ever got together and spawned children, those children would be well-read flinchers. And we think our parents were fucking embarrassing…
“Hi Howard,” I stage whispered. “I think the guy you’re talking about is close enough to touch.”
Howard is a monologist. He ignores my occasional interruptions and soldiers on: “They’re not even people. They’re gerbils. A gerbil could use one of those god-damn scanners. No art involved, no skill, just push a button, read a number and listen for the beep. Death knell of culture I tell yuh.”
“Have you seen this model?” Scanner Man pleasantly inquired in our direction. “It’s the tops. All you do is point this guy at the numbers on the back of this thing…”
“Book,” said Howard. “It’s called a god damn book.”
Howard’s subtle manner failed to make its intended impression on Scanner Man. “No argument here,” he smiled, flashing the thumbs up, “So you just point this thing at the little numbers on the back of the book…”
“The isbn! Do you mean the freakin’ isbn?”
“… and it tells you the sales ranking and whether or not it’s worth selling on Amazon. Beep! Takes all the thinking out of the job.”
“Thinking!” Howard lamented at me. “Wouldn’t want to combine something like that with literature! Can you imagine how many brain cells might get damaged in a gerbil’s so-called brain?”
“I don’t know,” said Scanner Man. “A lot?” His scanner beeped. “It’s a keeper!”
“And this guy,” said Howard, shaking his head mournfully, “this gerbil, is probably making more money selling books than you and I put together.” Probably? Definitely!
The wiry broad with the curly black hair, who was vigilantly rummaging through Howard & friends’ books, was clearly in charge. Two hunched old church ladies standing sentry appeared to be placed behind her as a visual joke; kind of like Mike Tyson stationing a couple of kindergarten girls behind him with nary a worry in the world about anyone stepping out of line. These are my bodyguards whose presence is an adorable reminder that I need no fucking bodyguards.
Accordingly, Howard and his mates stood at a distance, their hands clasped behind their backs like good scouts, with several feet separating them from the curly-haired broad and her checkout table.
“Excellent sale today, Alice,” Howard called across the open space. “Impressively organized!”
“Yeah,” grunted Alice, looking up distractedly from Howard’s books.
“You & your lackeys didn’t leave another one of your fucking messes in my house, did you Fine?” From this I deduced (a) that Alice was both possessive and observant regarding her client’s homes, and (b) Howard’s last name is Fine.
“No, no. Definitely not. Leave it as we find it, that’s our motto.”
“That’s your fucking motto? Jesus.”
“Yup. Now some of the other book buyers, I dunno. There were a few messes in there, granted, but not from us, no way. Talk to those god damn Scanners. No mottos for those guys. I mean what can you expect from fucking amateurs who can’t even make a decision without consulting their god damn…”
“Stop,” groaned Alice, putting one hand up in the air. “Christ almighty.” She gave Howard’s three boxes of books a quick, final inquest. “Ninety-dollars, Fine.”
Howard rapidly peeled off several bills and absconded with his books.
Alice spent the next minute or two haggling with some stocky jewelry dealers in track suits, showing off her impressive capacity for both geographical expertise and racial insensitivity. After she stated a price for the merchandise they desired, one of the men made a counter-offer in his thickly accented voice, to which she counter-countered: “This isn’t Glendale, pal. You can’t bully me with your hairy… Hey,” she turned to her geriatric bodyguards, “this isn’t fucking Glendale, is it?”
“No ma’am,” declared the first.
“I don’t think it is,” said the second. “I do believe we’re in Pasadena. Now let me think…”
Me, I was hoping to be back home in Highland Park real soon. With the brusque departure of the offended Armenians, all that stood between me and the rest of my life was Shelly and her huge box of books. She dumped her load in front of Alice, the table rocked, and Alice frowned.
Shelly leaned on the box and snorted: “Jewelry dealers, heh? Can’t live with ‘um, can’t live without ‘um. Heh? Am I right?”
“You didn’t leave another one of your fucking messes, did you Shelly?” From this I deduced that Shelly did not have a last name— just Shelly would do— and (unlike Howard) just Shelly was not especially intimidated by racially insensitive Alice.
“Huh? Since when do I leave messes?”
“Don’t blow smoke up my ass kiddo. Fine says that somebody left a book mess, and now here comes you, lo and behold, with a box of books.”
“Huh? I don’t leave messes, Alice.”
“Tell it to Howard, Shelly, don’t tell me.”
“Howard said I left a mess? No. He said the scanner scum…”
“Did he say you didn’t? You got all the fucking answers, Shakespeare, but not to my question.”
“Oh shut up, Alice. God. Just tell me how much for the box of books.” Shelly took a wallet out of her purse and snapped her fingers in Alice’s face. There was so much silence around us.
“For one box? You just charged Howard the same for three boxes!”
“What can I tell yuh kiddo? You got expensive taste.”
“But you didn’t even look at my books!”
“Yeah, but I looked at you, and now I’m sick of looking! A hundred dollars! Going going gone!” Alice slammed her fist on the table and pronounced: “Banned! Thou shalt no longer haunt an Alice Estate Sale! Ipso fucking facto! This pig is officially persona non fucking grata!” With a ceremonious jolt of her neck, Alice threw her curly mane over her shoulder like a rather grotesque movie starlet and aimed a finger at me. “Next!”
And there went Shelly tramping down the stairs of the porch in a dust storm of ugly words.
I was holding two heavy boxes of books, and there was a heavier box of books still sitting there on the table. Alice understood. She turned to her geriatric security team and barked: “Return this defiled box to my house! It stinks of Shelly! That fucking pig.”
Confronting the box from opposite sides, over 150 years divided amongst four decrepit arms attempted to nudge it toward the edge of the table. Looking upon these befuddled, impotent Sisyphuses with blue veins threatening to burst upon the canvasses of their pallid temples, I set my boxes down and wrestled away their load not because I’m a heroic motherfucker but because their dueling heart attacks would only obstruct my departure.
Before I could find a spot to set the box, Alice asked me: “So you one of those fucking book people?”
Recalling precious wisdom imparted upon me by my dear mom—admit nothing, Jeremy—I said: “I know what you mean. So where should I set this ma’am?”
“Twenty dollars for the box and whatever books that imbecile put in it.”
“Huh? You want me to buy a box of defiled books?”
“Okay ten for that box,” she repeated, “forty for the other two boxes, fifty altogether. Just get them the hell outta here buddy.”
“Fifty dollars for three boxes?”
“What are you,” she said, “the village fucking idiot?
“I know what you mean,” said I.
“Forty dollars! Three boxes! Sold! Ad fucking valorem! Next!”
I drove straight to READ Books to unload my spoils. The books from the original two boxes looked to be an excellent addition to the store’s bookshelves. The books from Shelly’s box turned out to have excellent on-line potential, proving once again that the line we like to draw between apparent stupidity & proven competence is a fine one. Think on that for a few seconds.