Monday, August 16, 2010
In the arcane and eldritch profession of book and record buying, the art of "doing a house buy" is both a staple of fueling the stock with treasures and a psychological immersion ceremony. People, some who have maybe never seen you before in their lives, admit you into their homes to peruse their valued possessions. Often these people are at crossroads or turning points in their lives. A loved one has died, they're moving, they're splitting up a home due to divorce, or maybe they are convinced their eyes have become possessed with the spirit of Bluebeard and once they sell all their reading materials they are going to have them yanked out by Bill on the corner who has some pliers and a mechanic's license.
But no matter what the situation is, it becomes an intimate moment between mortal humans and usually stories are traded about crucial personal history. The book buyer, even one as lowdown and hated as myself, becomes a bartender without booze or a priest without religion other than the printed word.
The scariest and most haunting house buy I ever did was one of my first. I was working at Second Story Books in Bethesda and the very knowledgable, but perhaps at the time a bit grousy main buyer was either consciously or unconsciously trying to clear the deck of all the shiftless hippies working there. He was either attempting this with me, or letting me earn my stripes or perhaps just plain dodging a bullet, when he sent me out - a green rookie of maybe two weeks bookstore experience - to a ramshackle house in Virginia to look at some books a family had. But when I eventually made it there, this being pre-Map Quest and GPS and me being map illiterate, the family was more along the lines of the Family Manson or Leatherface and his bloods.
The house was huge and falling apart and almost without light. Each of the honeycomb rooms had someone either sleeping (at 3pm) or lounging on a ratty bed looking confused or just lethargic as a toothless 20 year old cat.
The five or six books they had were arranged on a picnic table outside spine up.
"We thought you'd be older and wearing a suit, being all into books and things," the one who was apparently in his 60s or so, but still leaking an air of danger while also being the healthiest looking of the lot said. There were about four others standing around me and the table. A couple in their thirties who had jailhouse hand done tattoos and a feral looking tyke somewhere between 12 and 100. "Well, the oldest guy was real busy and he sent me out, but I'm sorry to say we can't use these." There was an incredibly long period of silence after this as if a coffin had just been lowered into a grave containing everyone's favorite relative. All eyes were transfixed by the five or six books. I sadly can't remember exactly what they were anymore, this being 1982 at the time, whether they were book club or Time Life or outdated textbooks.
"So could you drop me at my parole officer's?" the one guy somewhere in his thirties asked.
His breaking the silence, even if it was to suggest a further trip down into the rabbithole of questionable employment, was a relief and my positive answer came out almost with great excitement. I turned down many offers of various chemicals from him as I delivered him to his appointment and then with a great rush of freedom and elation promptly got lost for hours in the Virginia/DC maelstrom which was so fond of chewing me up.
The main buyer looked almost surprised to see me return.
One buy that I luckily missed out on turned out to be the books of my dead high school english teacher, much beloved, who had brutally spiralled downward in the five years after my classe's graduation.
Often, more often than not, the degree of funk found on house buys is wildly disproportionate to what you'd expect from the person and their bearing. One gent who we were fond of calling "The Dancer" because he carried himself with such aplomb and was always dashing about in Edward Gorey-length scarves and crisp slacks and sweaters that looked so new they could cut you, lived in what basically amounted to a Cottage of Mold. A green cardigan grew along the lower outside walls and when my strong young helper The Bow-Legged Gorilla sat down at one point to rest his eyes immediately puffed out like a Famous Monsters of Filmland still. And on that buy I found not one, but two used pairs of tighty whiteys draped over cd piles and lodged between record jackets.
And brothers and sisters, you who know me, know I am no stranger to the funk. Some of the more mean spirited may say I have lived among the foulest funk. The last days of the glorious House of Wigs featured an unworking toilet and a blackened bathtub. But I have to say, most house buys make me feel just a little bit better about my personal hygiene.
Today I had a pleasant house buy that got me thinking about the long history of house buys in my past. An acquaintance from the durable Baltimore arts world with great stories of an artistic family and of poets that I admire. All kinds of shadowy corners full of mysterious cabinets. And a friendly cat with a tiny head. Two humans going about survival and trading tidbits about what they have gathered along the way.