I hired Jack Salling as our Internet specialist because Ernest Hemingway wrote “Men without Women” in 1927, and because 78 years later a young couple courageously decided back in the spring of 2005 to open up a secondhand bookstore in Indianapolis.
The wannabe Indiana booksellers broadcast a call for donations to fill their shelves, and received dozens of boxes of books from family and friends, readers and collectors. There are booklovers who want to help buck the trend of declining presence of non-chain bookstore in cities, who recognize the cultural benefits that a bookshop brings to a community. Having a new neighborhood bookshop to hang out in inspired many Indy bookstore-lovers to part with their own goodies.
As these budding bibliopoles sorted through the hundreds of literary – and some not-so-literary – offerings, they came across something special: a signed copy of Ernest Hemingway’s “Men without Women”…in a scarce dust jacket.
I can just imagine the two of them sitting on their cluttered apartment floor, night after night, going through box after box of mostly low-value, beat-up books, exhilarated about achieving their dream, but a little discouraged with the lack of quality among the titles. If they were knowledgeable enough to know which were low quality, unlikely-to-sell books. Empty pizza boxes and cans of Coke probably sat on whatever flat surfaces that weren’t covered by piles of books in various categories. Maybe a couple of young cats jumping delightedly in and out of the boxes and bags being unpacked. All night sorting sessions pumped up by Bruce Springsteen and The Beatles so the day job can be attended to with any leftover energy.
Opening and operating a bookstore is not for the weak of body or the weak of spirit. It requires the focus and dedication of an Olympic athlete, whose goal is to succeed in doing your personal best regardless of the inconvenience of ceaseless effort.
As their discouragement spread – where do all those romance paperbacks come from?! – the Hemingway appeared, and their bookstore dreams became a little more real.
But what to do with it?! How could they tell if it were a first edition, which of course would increase the value. These were rookie bookies, and had neither experience nor a reference library to help them understand what they had. But they suspected that they had something special.
What they also had was a good friend attending Indiana University to study book conservation and preservation. Nicole Wolfersberger was from Columbus, where she used to work in one of the bookstores here.
Nicole examined the book closely for edition and condition, knowing that those attributes for valuable books can become the combination which collectors pay big money for.
There was good news and there was bad news. The book was a first edition, indicated by the famous Scribner “A” on the copyright page, elevating its value way beyond what a non-first would bring, especially with the dust jacket. The bad news was inside the book. On the front free endpaper was a large bookplate of the previous owner. That wasn’t as bad as what held it in place: In addition to using the adhesive backing of the bookplate, someone in the ‘50s had stupidly inadvisedly taped the edges down with cheap cellophane tape, which had yellowed with age over the years, becoming as ugly as a large, oozing pimple on a prom-queen’s nose on the night of the big dance. This book should have had a bag over its binding.
With her book connections in Columbus, Nicole knew Harry Campbell, the nationally-known book-conservation wizard at the Ohio State University’s library. She knew that if anyone could turn this monstrosity into desirability, Harry could.
If he would.
Nicole knew that the work on Ohio State’s special collections kept Harry as busy as D.C. spin doctors. But she thought it was worth a try, and told the couple that the next time she came to Columbus, she’d take the book with her and see what could be done about giving Hemingway a makeover and inflating his value.
A few weeks later, a slim, dark-haired young woman was browsing at Acorn, and as she brought several books to the counter, she began talking about how she formerly worked for Books on High in town, and about these friends of hers in Indy who were opening a secondhand bookshop, and how they had found the Hemingway and didn’t know what to do with it. About how she was on her way to see Harry that day.
“I know what to do with it!” I thought to myself. “Sell it to me and let me deal with its significant flaw.”
When Nicole mentioned that she had the special book with her, I asked to see it, still not showing my cards that I might be interested in buying it, though I knew it was worth thousands. While Nicole went to her car to retrieve it, I quickly researched online prices, and learned that if it were bookplateless, it might list for $7000.
We examined the book together, and casually I mentioned that if the couple needed the money to get their bookstore ready to open, I might be interested in purchasing it.
“What do you think it’s worth?” Nicole asked.
“As crazy as this sounds,” I replied, “with the bookplate mess, they’d be lucky to get $4000 for it. If Harry can clean it up, it might go for as much as $7000.”
We both thought about that for a moment, then I said, “Tell them that if they chose to wholesale it for money now, as opposed to waiting until they develop a market for it, I’d pay them $3000, and pay for the restoration myself.”
“I’ll pass that along to them,” she replied, “and I appreciate you taking time to talk with me about this.”
Nicole came back the next day and reported that Harry said that he could take a crack at it, as time permitted, and the charge would be between $100-200, depending on how much time the operation took.
Once again I asked her to tell her friends about my offer, and off she went to the state next door.
Several anxious weeks went by without any word from Indiana, so I emailed Nicole to ask what the situation was with the Hemingway book.
She wrote that she had conveyed my offer, but the couple was unsure as to what to do. To keep or keep not the Hemingway was the question.
After another fruitless query a month later, I gave up and resigned myself to having had the opportunity pass me by.
Ah, ye of little faith.
Jack’s bookstore destiny was back on track when several months later I received word from Nicole that the couple had decided that they needed money more than the book. They were willing to sell it to me for what they thought was an amazing amount of money. They hadn’t even opened yet, and were about to sell a book – a donated, free book – for $3000! This was a serious financial blessing on that literary endeavor.
Paper magician Harry Campbell restored the Hemingway beautifully, leaving but a ghost of the bookplate and no evidence of the offensive tape. I put the fragile dust jacket in an archival book cover, priced the Hemingway at $7000, and placed it prominently in one of our glass-front showcases.
I would have listed it on the Internet as many bookdealers were doing, but we hadn’t taken that mighty leap to cyber-selling. We had been wanting for several years to go online, as we had many books – such as an extensive collection on the geology of Canada – that would be desirable to a market far beyond central Ohio. However, Internet selling required someone knowledgeable about that approach, with dedicated time to research and list the books, as well as to process the orders that came in. Christine and I had our hands full just handling the buyers and sellers at Acorn. We needed someone to join the staff, but we had no idea where to find such an experienced person. In Columbus, the pool of qualified cyber-oriented booksters was as shallow as an inverted contact lens.
So Hemingway began its life in our showcase, receiving many admiring glances and comments, but the price was intimidating. I didn’t care whether I sold it or not. Having such an outstanding book displayed at $7000 was great PR for the store.
Most folks don’t come to a secondhand bookshop to spend thousands of dollars. But one man did.
He was a book-dealer from Atlanta, on a buying trip through the Midwest, and was doing the bookshops of Columbus that day when he spied “Men without Women”. Uh-oh.
We dickered a bit about the price – I had the upper hand since I wasn’t eager to sell it, and if the deal fell through, Acorn still had its prize possession. On the other hand, if we were able to ring several thousand dollars through the register…
Finally we agreed on a price, and I lovingly and sadly packed our peach of a book in bubble-wrap for its trip to the Peach State. The showcase looked drab without Hemingway to brighten it up, despite having many other fine books on display.
About a week after we sold the Hemingway, Laralyn Sasaki came in. Laralyn worked Saturdays for us, and was Acorn Nut #15. She was also a bookscout, going to yard sales and other venues where she could buy books inexpensively from our provided list of needed books. She would then sell them to us profitably to build up her store credit. As she lugged two large book-filled bags past the showcase, she did a double-take. She turned to me behind the counter, raising her eyebrows, and asked, “What happened to the Hemingway? Did you sell it?”
There was a browser in the history bay, but he didn’t seem about to check out, so I pulled her books to me for evaluation and told her the story of selling our literary prize.
Just as I mentioned that the buyer was a book dealer from Atlanta, our one browser, a short, slim bearded man, appeared with a stack of books from the American history section.
Tilting his head and smiling, he asked, “Did you say that a dealer from Atlanta bought a special book?”
Laralyn and I exchanged a glance before I replied that yes, we had sold a signed first “Men without Women” to an Atlanta dealer.
“Which dealer?” he asked.
I wasn’t surprised at the turn of conversation. When you work in a bookstore, talk with customers ranges widely and changes directions quickly. I told History Man the name of the dealer.
He nodded and said, “I know him. I used to work in the book business in Atlanta and though I never met him, I ordered books from his store.”
Naturally that begged the question from me, “What did you do in the book business in Atlanta?”
He had worked for a dealer that I had visited just the year before, so that gave this interesting 35-ish guy some credibility with me. He said that he had worked for an appraisal company as well, dealing in manuscripts and autographs.
But the most exciting thing was that he sold books on the Internet for himself. And he seemed affable enough to work with customers.
As he was talking about his experience, I wondered about inviting him to join my staff. What were the chances that he was available? Nah, too coincidental to happen.
But I did ask him what he was currently doing.
“My wife is an executive with Scotts Miracle-Gro company, which is why we came to Columbus,” he said. “I’m thinking about taking a few classes at OSU, perhaps working on a Ph. D. in history.”
Oh, lordie, he might be available!
I rang up his sale, and while bagging his books, I told him that we’d been thinking about selling books online, but we didn’t have anyone to do take charge of that aspect of the operation.
Apprehensively, I asked, “Would you be interested in coming in to talk with me about the possibility of working here, specifically to get us up and running on the Internet?”
I think that caught him a bit by surprise, for he hesitated, not sure what to say. How often do you go out shopping and come home with an unexpected, unsolicited job offer?! Then he said, “Sure. Why not?”
Because he came to the counter when he did – not five minutes earlier nor five minutes later, Jack was hired.
I’m writing this store-y 4½ years later, and Jack has listed over 27,000 Acorn books online, and we’ve sold about 13,000 of them, a very satisfactory percentage of sales to listings. In that time our online sales have zoomed to be 50% of Acorn’s total sales. After hiring him to work two days a week, the response to our online books was so strong that within a month he began working fulltime. Our former customer has become an invaluable employee.
Now we call him Jack-in-the-back, and we also call him Acorn Nut #16.
Thanks to Ernest Hemingway, Harry Campbell, and the young Indiana booksellers.