Upon his deathbed, Mark Twain was asked what accomplishment he was most proud of.
Here was an internationally-famous man who had written some of the best and most popular books of his time and had toured the world lecturing to huge crowds. He had consorted with kings and flirted with queens and dined in the fanciest castles.
But Twain’s answer reportedly was this: “What I am most proud of is getting Sam Grant’s memoirs published.”
One day a man called to ask if we would be interested in that much-desired two volume set of memoirs from the former general and president, published in 1886 by Charles L. Webster, who was the husband of Mark Twain’s niece.
A copy of this crowning achievement was being offered to us, but was the deal going to end up a bust or a blessing? Every secondhand bookshop receives calls daily from hopeful folks with books to sell. With careful questioning we can eliminate a wasted trip for about half of them. Sometimes we learn to our regret that the books being offered are book-clubbed bestsellers, or romance books of the monthly Harlequin kind – which sell as slowly as books on the Gerald Ford administration, or old books in such bad condition that the rotting corpses of their authors might be in better shape.
Other books which sound possible on the phone are a disappointment when we see them and their owner: “Oh! By good condition did you mean that they shouldn’t be just readable but should actually be in one piece?!”
I told the caller with the Grant set that depending on condition – this set had a tendency for its binding to become brittle and need substantial repair – we would grant him an opportunity to show us his Grants. I informed him that we already owned one set, but would be pleased to purchase another because of the demand for the hard-to-find title.
“This a very special copy of the set,” he informed me in a lowered voice, as though the Patriot Act had assigned agents to listen in on booksellers’ phones in case we were trading in un-American books such as John Stewart’s “America”, Michael Moore’s “Stupid White Men”, or Al Gore’s “An Inconvenient Truth”.
“I’m not familiar with any special sets of this title,” I replied, wary, but curious. “Can you tell me more about it?”
“It’s signed by Grant himself!” he revealed with semi-subdued glee, visions of golden Corvettes carrying thong-clad nymphet’s zoom-zoom-zooming across his heart’s highway of riches.
Or he might have been raising funds for his daughter to attend the University of Chicago. Whatever.
I know something about signatures in that particular Grant set, so I was certain that the guy didn’t know what he was talking about, but before I could comment, the dreamer continued.
“My grandfather first bought this book, and had President Grant sign it”, he related, telling a familiar family fable.
It would have been impossible for his grandfather to have had the book signed by anyone other than Ulysses the Friendly Drunken Ghost.
I wasn’t able to say anything yet, for he was too amped up about his family legacy to slow down. “My grandfather passed the books and the story about the signature onto his son – my father, along with the caution that it was valuable and to hold on to the family’s one treasure.
“And when my father passed the Grants on to me, he told me the family story and instructed me to save them for my son or until a really rainy day came along and I needed some serious money.
“And, man, do I need some cash right now. Is it OK if I bring them in for you to look at? Your yellow pages ad says that you pay cash for books.”
“Sure, you can bring them in,” I agreed, “but one question for you first: Are you sure the signature isn’t a facsimile signature?”, certain that it was, and wanting to at least caution him before he came in that there was a possibility that he might have incorrect information. “We’ve had this set before and all of them carried the facsimile.”
His generations-old belief in the book’s value and the trust in the signature’s authenticity made him confident that I would be proved wrong when he brought the book to me. The family grail legend was so deeply ingrained in him that he had no doubt that he had the real thing. That’s kind of like Cubs fans telling themselves each year as they buy season tickets to the perennial losers that this year could be the year.
He made an appointment to bring the set in the following day.
The next day a 30-ish man – not dressed for success – came in and asked if I were the man he’d talked to about Grant’s memoirs.
I said that I was, my gut clenching. I was about to ruin a three-generations-old family legend.
He came to the counter and carefully pulled a box out of an old Lazarus Department Store shopping bag. Inside the box each dark volume was well-wrapped in newspaper, which is a terrible wrap for books, as the ink tends to migrate to the covers of the book. Think of your inky fingertips after finishing the Sunday papers.
He pulled the first volume free from its sports pages and carefully, reverentially, set it on the counter between us. He said nothing, just looked down with affection at the book he’d known from birth as having been signed by President Grant for his fortunate and perceptive grandfather. Images of that special rite of passage in his family were haunting me: grandfather granting the set to father who passed it on to son, along with the story of the personal favor of a presidential signature.
I let him have his moment, knowing this was tough for him, selling off the family jewels. He wasn’t aware that the books were more like a good expensive suit than pricey jewels: attractive, but lacking the financial wherewithal to Corvette him to Bling Glory.
He then peeled the Sunday funnies off volume two, and set it on the first book, and slid them across the counter to me. “I know these are worth a lot of money, and I trust that you’ll be as generous as possible with me.”
I hated what I knew was coming. His golden goose was about to be cooked on the engine of that ‘Vette.
Taking volume one out from under its companion, I carefully opened the book to the signatured page.
“See, here’s where Grant signed it for Grandad!” he said with pride, pointing at the signature.
He looked up at me expectantly.
I glanced away quickly, and silently walked over to the glass-fronted bookcase on our eastern wall of books. I opened the door and pulled out volume one of the Grant set we already owned – priced at $150, and brought it back to the counter. Avoiding his eyes, I turned to the exact same page as his was opened to, and exposed the identical machine-printed facsimile signature…and the folly of his family’s dream.
He looked at the twin signatures, looked up at me, and in his eyes I could see the wrecked Corvette. I don’t know what his “rainy day” needs were, but if he was depending on more than $50 to meet them, he was going to be caught out in a downpour.
I felt I had to make him certain of the impossibility of the signature, and said as gently as I could, “I’m very sorry I have to be the one to tell you this, but Grant died just before his memoirs were published, so a facsimile signature was printed in each volume one. He couldn’t have signed this book.”
He stared at me for a few seconds, saying nothing. Then he packed the books back up and mumbling something that might have been, “Thanks for looking at them anyway,” or perhaps, “Thanks for ruining my life”, quickly left the store.
I felt wretched for what happened to his faith in the truth of what his father and grandfather had told him, for ruining his trust in the family trust, for taking away his rainy day umbrella.