I've been a full-time antiquarian bookseller for over two years now, specializing in selling original materials that tell interesting American stories, with an emphasis on social movements. So my every day involves intellectual adventure as I make a living helping to preserve bits of history. Until the first week of January though, I hadn't quite experienced anything like I'm about to share, so with all due respect to Mr. Everitt, I couldn't think of a better title. I hope you'll keep reading and agree.
It started the morning of Christmas Eve a couple weeks ago, when an eBay seller listed several books by the important civil rights activist, W.E.B. Du Bois. Du Bois was a prolific writer, and his books are not uncommon. But, what made these special was they had their dust jackets -- which I knew were rarely seen for these particular titles. The seller also listed a few other scarce African-American pieces, so I sent an email asking if there was anything else. 90% of the time I send an email like that the answer is "no." The other 10% will occasionally involve interesting pieces. I was having dinner at a restaurant with my family later that evening when I heard back from the seller, and his response almost caused me to choke. The seller had bought a storage unit that included the contents of several generations of a black family from Ohio, where at least two women attended Wilberforce University (the first black-owned-and-run university in the United States) and one of the men was a noted jazz trombonist. The seller, understandably, had a strong disclaimer admonishing anyone for sharing contact information via eBay email. Ebay has been cracking down on such things, so I didn't risk requesting his digits. Instead, I lucked out: his eBay name was his business name. It was an LLC, so I was able to get his phone number by cobbling together information from the Ohio secretary of state website and other corners of the interwebs.
I called him the day after Christmas and he was happy to hear from me. I'd never flown to look at a collection (I should point out here that I live near Houston, Texas) and the few times that I've driven more than a couple hours to see a collection I've been sorely disappointed. Actually, I try to steer clear of collections because my business presently is mostly just me, and I'm backed up with enough good stuff for my next few catalogues. But the more we spoke and the more I heard, the more I wanted to experience single digit weather. From what the seller said on the phone, I had an idea in my head as to his maximum asking price where it would be worth the risk of capital, and more importantly, my time to fly there. When his asking price was less than that number, I asked if I could visit, he said "yes," and I made arrangements.
But here's where the title of my essay first comes in. There's a Southwest Airlines hub near my home, about 35 minutes away, and all of my flights in recent memory were on SWA, flying out of that airport, Hobby. SWA does not fly to Akron, so I used Orbitz for the first time in years. Whether it was excitement or stupidity (I'm voting for the latter), I thought I was clicking a button which meant, “click here and review your flight times and fees on the next page”. Instead I clicked a button that meant “You just bought a ticket! We'll get you to Akron and back on the days you state, but we'll do all we can to make you miserable.” So, I got a cheap flight, but arrived at 11 p.m on Wednesday, January 3rd when I really wanted to arrive 12 hours earlier and my flight back was at 6:30 a.m. on Saturday instead of at a time that might allow more than a few hours of sleep. Why did I want to be there for so many days when I was only going to look at one collection? First, I did not know its true scope and how long it would take to view. Next, if I made a deal, I wanted a day to pack things properly and ship home. Last, if all that took less time than expected, I very much wanted to dig through the seller's three warehouse-sized storage units.
It gets worse. Since I was not flying SWA, I assumed I was flying from Houston's other airport, a little over an hour away from me. I never once looked at the ticket. You know where this is going. I brought a huge Pelican case with me — in case I made a deal I wanted to bring some of the stuff home directly with me. It's a damn good thing I did: when I tried to check it, the woman looked at my ticket and without emotion told me I was at the wrong airport. Had I not brought the Pelican, I would have meandered all the way to security and learned of my error too late. A younger version of me would have freaked out, but I didn't. I immediately called the off-site parking place and a driver showed up right away. Google maps told me I could make it to Hobby in the nick of time if I did not check the Pelican at the correct airport, and the driver got me back to my car post-haste. So I told the driver the problem and gave him $20 not to pick anyone up. I've never been in one of those buses going that fast, but I didn't care. I managed to get to the gate at Hobby as they were boarding, but only because I have a trusted traveler number and got to go through TSA pre-check. That number was a blessing. Later? Not so much.
Ohio was so so painfully cold, but my spirits were warm because I made it when I probably shouldn't. The next morning I drove a little over an hour from the Akron area to meet the seller at his home in Baltic, Ohio. Three different Ohioans had asked why I was in Ohio, and so far it was unanimous that nobody had heard of Baltic. It's a tiny town. No-cell-phone-coverage-tiny, but somehow my map app proved its mettle and I made it.
I knew very early in looking at the collection that I would buy it. A big part of my job is telling stories, and there were a lot of stories to tell here. At a minimum, there is the archive of the jazz trombonist that includes a horde of photos and handbills related to his performances, recordings (some of which may be unique), a partial unpublished memoir that he dictated to his niece, his trombone, and trumpet, and more. But earlier generations of the family had women going to Wilberforce in the teens and twenties, and there are letters written by some of the women going back to the 1880s. I have no idea what's in them, and likely won't for many months, but even if most of the content involves “send my love to _____”, it still documents the lives of these folks during some pretty turbulent times. A more recent generation of the family had a performer entertain troops during Desert Storm, and that generation also had a power lifter who published his own power-lifting periodical. And this was all from a quick glance through box after box after box. So I wrote him a check for his asking price, boxed everything up at my hotel the next day, and found a FedEx Office.
End of story, right? Wrong. I wouldn't be stealing Charles Everitt's title if it ended there.
Because my flight home was at 6:30 a.m., I had to be out of my hotel around 4:30. On 3.5 hours sleep, on icy snow-covered roads with seemingly countless turns at streets with no traffic lights, I managed to get to the airport. Hertz employees, rightfully, are not at the airport at 5 a.m., so I used the key drop box. Around six strides later I patted my pants pocket for my cell phone. Not there. No Hertz employee + key in drop box = still no panic! I asked someone to borrow their phone and left a voicemail for the local Hertzies, and I'll see my phone again in a few days. I was pretty pleased with my sense of calm, got my boarding pass, and was happy to see I was able to go through TSA precheck. I was still calm when I was picked at random to have my laptop bag searched. Still calm when the TSA woman swabbed my laptop, ran that swab through a terrorist detector, and she told me it was positive. I (still) calmly said, “positive for what?” She didn't answer my question, told me I had to have a full pat down search and that she had to inspect everything in both carryons. The male TSA employee very politely explained the procedure to me and asked me if I wanted to have the search in another room. I probably wasn't paying proper attention because I was very concerned about the few items I brought back with me, a few handbills that are likely unique and fairly valuable that I had sandwiched in cardboard and that I was afraid would be harmed if I didn't keep an eye on them. Had I really understood what this search entailed, I probably would not have chosen to experience it in front of 100 people, but hey, sometimes we booksellers have to go to great lengths to preserve history. It also probably didn't help that I hadn't shaved in 3 days, and, as a 5-year-old told me in a park one day while I volunteered at Big Brothers, “with your beard, and your hat, you look like a criminal.” I never did find out what danger my laptop posed, but I survived, as did the handbills.
Steele, Joshua. To the People! [Handbill of One-Legged African American Man Seeking Office of Jailor of Boyd County, Kentucky.] Catlettsburg, Ky: N.P., 1894. 8½” x 5 7/8”. Handbill printed one side on thin green paper. Very good: several old folds and scattered faint foxing. [This item has sold.]
It feels like I messed up seemingly every aspect of this trip other than the reason I went: to evaluate and buy the collection. I've now checked and rechecked my FedEx receipt for the 110 pounds of ephemera I shipped home, and sure enough there are five boxes on their way to my office.
But I'm probably going to have to recheck it a few times until they arrive.