He was a dealer I didn’t know. His stock – a melange of subjects, dates, and conditions – suggested that he was something of a picker, a bookscout at heart. His stock lacked both focus and discrimination. Disbound 19th century religious tracts sat beside modern firsts piled next to old copies of LIFE magazine. But what he lacked in quality he made up for in salesmanship. The man could talk. Touch a book and he’d tell you something about it. Open one and he’s take it from your hands, look at the price and give you a better one. His was the kind of booth I both loved and hated. Spend half an hour, and it could be just so much crap. Or you could emerged with the find of a fair.
He was short and compact. A little round. Spoke with a vague accent and smelled of smoke. From the neck up he looked like a professor or European intellectual: thinning hair combed neatly back over the head, designer horn-rimmed glasses. But from the shoulders down, he was all huckster. Wrinkle-free slacks, polyester shirt, and black sneakers disguised as dress shoes.
I wandered in and scanned his books. He schmoozed nearby. I touched nothing, careful not to draw his attention, and was almost relieved when I found nothing for me among the heaps.
Then in a table-top suitcase display I saw a scrapbook. There was no catalogued description, only an handwritten index card: “Helen Keller School Scrapbook.” The case was locked and only two pages were visible. I saw a real photo postcard of Helen Keller. I saw an image of Keller surrounded by young women. I saw a graduation program.
“Tell me about this,” I said.
He opened the case and took out the album. “This is an album put together a young woman at a school for the deaf and blind in the midwest where Helen Keller was also a student. It’s her class scrapbook.” He turned the pages and pointed out a few more images of Keller. Then he flipped back to the original page and pointed. “I could sell this image alone for a thousand bucks,” he said.
I took the album from him. He continued to narrate. Snapshots of classes, buildings, activities. The sort of scrap one would expect from a school album, but fascinating as an uncommon view into the education of the disabled in the early part of the 20th century. Significant on its own, but the hook was clearly Keller.
“How much?” I asked.
I nodded. Perhaps too enthusiastically.
“Net.” he added.
Net meant no discount, no negotiation. It was more than I was prepared or able to spend. I handed the scrapbook back.
“Let me make a quick phone call,” I said.
Most dealers have a few trusted booksellers with whom they tend to partner on books, books they otherwise couldn’t afford or for which they might not have a ready customer. A few minutes later a friend and colleague was in the booth, standing between me and the dealer. The dealer gave him the same pitch. And the same price. My friend raised an eyebrow and glanced at me.
“Yeah, okay. We’ll take it,” he said.
“I’ll put it under the counter.”
Back at my booth, drafts of the catalogue description began forming in my mind. I made note of special collections where I should offer the album. And I won’t lie, I began imagining prices. Big ones.
But as I imagined, questions began to nag at me. Why (and how) would a blind student make a scrapbook? Maybe for a parent? With a teacher? Maybe it it didn’t belong to a student? Perhaps a sighted faculty member or administrator? And in the pictures, why did Keller seem so much older than the other students?
The questions were only half-formed, but a short while later I returned to the booth. The other dealer smiled and pulled the album from under a tablecloth. He frowned when he understood I hadn’t returned with his check. But he confirmed everything he’d told me before. Student scrapbook. Classmate of Keller. Provenance? From the family.
I nodded and went back to my booth. But still something wasn’t making sense. Not only was Keller older than the students, she also would have already been quite famous at the time the pictures were taken. Indeed, the album bore this out. The images of her were given prominent placement. In them she was often surrounded my many people eager for her attention. Did Keller go to school after the success of her autobiography? That didn’t make a lot of sense to me.
I opened my laptop and fired up Google. Nothing about the school on Keller’s Wikipedia page. Exact phrase searches for Keller’s and the school’s names yielded nothing. But further reading confirmed: the scrapbook dated from after Keller’s autobiography. Something was wrong.
I again brought my questions to the dealer. Again, he stuck to his story, but with obvious and growing frustration. “It’s all online,” he barked. “That’s where I found it. You’re not looking in the right place. No, I don’t remember where.”
Giving him – for the time being at least – the benefit of my now considerable doubt, I sought out my partner. And after some discussions and further Googling, we agreed.
“Maybe he’s right, but ditch it for now,” he said. “And let’s see if we can turn something up tonight when we have more time.”
Back at the dealer’s booth, he was nowhere to be found. I asked his neighbor in the next booth.
“He’s having a smoke,” he said.
“Can you let him know I need to see him?”
Forty-five minutes later I was back. Again, the booth was unmanned.
“Lunch,” the other dealer explained this time.
An hour after that I finally found him.
“You have my check?” he asked.
“Listen,” I said, pulling him aside. “You’re probably right, but I’ve talked to my partner and we still have some questions about the piece. So we’re going to do some more research tonight, but in the meantime you should put the item back out for sale…”
“What!?” he barked.
“You call yourself a professional!?” He was yelling now.
“I could have sold the book in the meantime!”
“Well I’ve been trying to find you for almost two hours…”
“Get out! You disgust me. Get out of my booth!”
People were looking. I shook my head. As I walked away, I could hear him muttering behind me.
I still see him every year at the same fair. He avoids my glance and rushes past me. After talking to other dealers I discovered he’s often unpleasant with customers and dealers. But I’ve never returned to his booth. And I never will. But it’s not because he lost his temper. Or even that he insulted me. It’s because when a dealer places a book for sale, the burden is on him or her to properly document it — its edition, condition, history, provenance, importance. And when mistakes are made (as they sometimes are), to accept responsibility for them and make them right. The fatal error my colleague made was not how he treated me. It’s that he hadn’t properly catalogued the book and when challenged couldn’t or wouldn’t support his claims. He may have even been right; or I may have misunderstood. But the book business should never be caveat emptor.
Coincidentally, during that same fair I bought an item from my almost-partner on the Keller scrapbook. It was a thin, fragile little issue of a rare 19th-century serial. Months later when I finally got around to cataloguing it, I realized that it was not a first printing as my colleague had claimed, but rather a fourth – in fact, the later date was clearly printed on the cover. But even in this later state the book was rare. So I decided to keep it. But the next time I saw my friend I took a certain pleasure at ribbing him about his mistake, especially since the correct information had been staring him right in the face.
“Well,” he said slightly embarrassed, “if you can’t sell it you can always return it.” He was joking a bit, but I also knew he meant it.
That’s how the book business is supposed to work.