In the past year I opened a used media store, which has, through various twists and turns, brought me back to this website. I probably boiled some of these down into some of the 300 Memos To Myself, so forgive me if I repeat myself. You can check that one out here: https://writerswithoutmoney.com/2023/04/05/300-memos-to-myself/
In running a second hand store a person is given insight and direct field research into two subjects that tend to be poorly understood by literary critics-why do people buy books (or records, or tapes, or whatever), why do people get rid of books (or records, etc.)? What is their relationship to these things?
A lot of the turnaround of my business, as is the case with my father’s business, revolves around death. People own stuff, people die, and one of the first things to be resolved upon their death is what to do with their stuff. Frequently they come to me.
The first step in many large book purchases is hearing when the owner of the books died. You rarely hear how they died, and it’s probably better that way. The caller shortly or, more often, at length memorializes the deceased and more specifically, their relationship to the books. Usually a hobby is the organizing locus of the collection. Some collections are less collections and more accumulations. If you go to the house to pick up the collection, you’re often the person to disassemble the living space of the dead person. If they’re older, the books are staged in a living space the dead person presumably occupied for some time. You see their interests, sometimes their fantasies, whether they went to college, what they did for work, books reflecting difficulties they had with their children or marriage or parents or health, books given to them by family and close acquaintances they may or may not have read.
I first reflected on the mess of an estate as a naturally emerging self-portraiture early in my book hunting, not too many months after I met Stan. I had a bicycle then and I would ride on it during the day picking up books off the street. I’d walk around at night as well. Blocks and blocks of almost mirrored windows and stoops. One of those nights I stumbled on a water damaged box with some paperbacks. On top were three or four books about how to parent a teenager-the titles were things like “How To Talk To Your Teenager” and “Mom You’re Such A Bitch, Why Can’t I Borrow The Car?”. The latter had either an actual or imitation Roz Chast drawing on the cover. At the bottom, more water damaged than the other books by some margin, was an orange book called “The Bereaved Parent”. I left them there, but the image of it remained with me. The sky was a deep blue slightly illuminated by street lamps. It all felt like how my dreams look.
Ever since then, when I encounter a large collection where I need to make an offer quickly, I rely on a sort of calculus of what other books are likely to be in the lot. Did this person read a lot of introductory books or did they delve deeply into one or two subjects? How did this person handle their objects? Did they see these things as important or disposable? How obsessive was their relationship to packaging? The most valuable collections often aren’t the product of healthy minds.
Does an object carry a certain energy when you’re aware of its former lodgings? An old roommate and I would often riff on the idea of a Pixar musical called either “House Of Unwanted Objects” or “Land Of Fraught Objects”. It would take place in a pawn shop, and each of the glass case items would sing an introductory song about how they ended up in the pawn shop. Some would be bought, others recycled or disposed of.
Much later I bought a tub of books from a house abandoned by an infamous art dealer/suspected murderer. They aren’t anywhere close to the full collection. They’re mostly large art books. One on Giacommetti, one on folk art, one a collection of homoerotic ostensibly artistic nudes. What did they tell me about this man?
The dealer I bought the books from told me they’d found bizarre things in the house-small baggies of crystal meth, a bust by Renoir, old police reports, photos from family holidays. The pictures looked incredibly mundane-for such a frightful character, all the photo showed was man in a sweater reclined near a Christmas tree.
Why did I want to look for furtive clues of the sinister things I knew in the banal things set in front of me?
It passes time I guess?
NOTICE: This is jukebox week. Put what you want me to write about in the comments and I’ll write articles about the first three subjects you suggest. This should be a fun experiment.
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