From the Improvement Era, January 1946 –
Entertaining Angels Unawares
By Julia W. Wolfe
Anne Ross had always wanted to run a bookshop – new or second-hand, she didn’t care which; school-teaching was not her bent, she had concluded, so this summer she had taken her savings and invested them in an old bookstore. The business was located in a rather large summer resort town, and the building was not in the pink of condition by any means. Living quarters were over the shop. With a grand air she had told her people that the investment was promising and that the little seaside village was delightful. But she suspected them of guessing the unbusinesslike truth, that she had succumbed to the temptation of having three thousand books of her own. Now she felt obliged to have a profitable season, if only to show them she was a “practical business woman.”
In the old shop there were books everywhere. There were even books piled high in her living rooms. There were a few old pieces of furniture thrown in. Now all this was hers.
First, she attacked the shelves. Some of the volumes were almost new; some of them were two hundred years old. The price marks in the old ones were higher than the new. She dusted from John Adams to John Zwermer. Before two o’clock her back was aching with dusting old biographies and tales of missionary journeys. Suddenly she heard a thumping on the old door.
An odd figure was standing in the street, surveying her mildly through heavy glasses. He must have been at least seventy-five years old. There was something childlike in his odd expression. He wore a hearing aid, and his dress was almost shabby. He said: “I saw you working with the books. I thought I’d come to call and read a while.”
“But I am not ready for customers,” she shouted to him.
“That does not matter to me at all,” he assured her. “I am not going to buy. I’ll just take a chair and sit in the corner – as I used to do when Miss Cook had the shop.”
He sat down, and rather than lift her voice again, Anne let him pick out a volume of poetry and settle himself; but she was exasperated with him and herself because she had meant to be so businesslike. It was a poor beginning to have as a visitor this strange person who frankly said he meant to be a reader – not a buyer. Wouldn’t her twin brother, William, have thought it a joke!
Back to work she went, but the flying dust failed to rout her visitor. He merely sneezed and read on and on. It was not until Anne said she was closing that he took his departure.
She asked a person down the street: “Who is that queer old man?”
“I suppose he seems queer to you,” said the woman. “But we are used to him. His name is Edward Rice. All the children and young people like him; he seems to do nothing but read.”
“He’s no ornament to my shop, though,” said Anne.
“No, I don’t suppose he will be. He lives off a little pension. The previous owner of the shop spoiled him, I guess.”
Anne decided she would be firm. “I’m dusting all the poetry books today,” she said to him the next morning, for he had appeared bright and early. “You won’t find it convenient to read.”
“I’d just as soon read philosophy today,” he answered accommodatingly. “Poetry I like for steady ration, but I enjoy philosophy, too, when I feel equal to it.”
Anne stood helplessly by while he picked out his book. She could not summon courage to renew the argument; instead she went on with her work.
So many problems arose in the next two weeks that Anne had but little time to spend on her visitor. Moreover, even when she finally put up a sign – “Ready for business” – many questions remained unanswered.
One day a fine looking old gentleman stepped out of a handsome car and asked, “Where is Miss Cook?”
“Oh, she has gone to California. I bought her shop and its contents,” replied Anne.
“Umph,” grunted the man. “Where are the old schoolbooks?”
Anne remembered the pile of dog-eared primers and spellers and readers she had carried into the rear room.
“I’ll bring them out for you,” she told her customer, and soon spread out a lot of them before him.
“Anything new?” asked the old gentleman.
“Why, yes,” said Anne. “Here are a couple I just unpacked.” She had found them upstairs still unpriced.
The old man brightened as he looked them over. “How much?” he asked, holding up one.
Anne considered. It was a curious old volume, dated 1812 and illustrated with coarse wood cuts of impossible children; a cover of figured calico protected the back. “Twenty-five cents,” she decided offhand. “It’s in good condition.”
The old man examined the unoffending book suspiciously and then slapped it down on the table and slammed the door as he hurried out.
“He must have wanted me to make him a gift,” said Anne to her old steady visitor.
“What is the matter?” asked the man. “Let me look at it. That book is worth ten dollars. You had better look it up and see. It’s one of those rare old primers printed in an out-of-the-way printer’s shop. When you asked him only a quarter, he thought there was something wrong. He’s a collector and knows all about books.”
So Anne used her evenings examining Miss Cook’s trade books and journals. She must learn her business. She studied first editions; she found that old volumes of Thoreau, Burroughs, Lowell, and Hearn were so amazingly expensive that they were almost impossible to pick up at auctions.
August was proving much more profitable than June or July. Miss Cook’s old friends came in; they liked Anne’s eager interest and rather ostentatious use of bookseller’s terms that she had picked up.
“Don’t let stocks get too low,” one friendly customer said to Anne one day. “You have not purchased much this year.”
“I haven’t,” said Anne. “I don’t know yet what items to buy or where to find them.”
“Learn by buying. Almost any farm-house sale includes books. There will soon be a number of auctions. Why don’t you try buying on judgment on some of the lots?”
Anne was impressed with the advice, and when the next week she heard of an auction in the village, she shut up shop, without telling her daily sitter about it. The village was small and auctions were really social events; it seemed to Anne that half the town had turned out to attend it. Edward Rice was there, too! He spied Anne and came up to her and said, “If you have come to buy, you ought to look out for Brown. He’s a dealer from Dalton, and he’s tricky. Miss Cook never had anything to do with him.”
Anne was tired of hearing about Miss Cook’s wisdom. There were ten piles of books stacked up. Anne looked them over; she found it hard to get an idea of them and hesitated to untie the bundles. There was a set of Waverly novels that she decided to bid on; there was quite a demand for them, she had learned. A man on the other side of the table spoke up; “You don’t want them; the edition is no good.”
Anne glanced at him quickly. Then he added casually: “I see a fine copy of Pickwick Papers that you might like. I don’t pay much attention to Dickens, but I’ll make a bid – a small one.”
Back in Anne’s shop was a very desirable set of Dickens. when all the volumes were there it would be worth many dollars; she lacked Pickwick Papers. She began to feel interested. “How I wish I dared look through those books!”
“See here,” said the stranger, “You are the new owner of Miss Cook’s shop, aren’t you? Did she ever complete her set of Dickens?”
“Did she tell you about it?” asked Anne eagerly. “No; it needs this item.” The next moment she wondered if she had been tactful. She dismissed the thought.
“Lucky you!” said the man, not dropping the subject. “That set is worth a neat sum today. You bid high on this – when it comes up.
Anne nodded. Her pocketbook held ten dollars.
“See here,” proposed the stranger, leaning closer than was necessary. “What’ll you give me not to bid on that lot? Nobody else knows what it’s worth. You can get that book for fifty cents, I’ll wager.”
“And are you not bidding?” asked Anne.
“There are some items here I want in a few of these odd lots,” the man lowered his voice. “Nothing much, but I can dispose of them. This is an unusually good auction. Suppose you don’t bid against me on lots five and eight and nine, then I’ll not bid against you on this lot with the Pickwick Papers item. We will divide when the auction is over.”
“I did not come here for that sort of bidding,” said Anne, shortly.
“My word! Why not? They can’t do anything about it.”
Anne walked away disgusted.
“Very well, then; I’ll bid on Pickwick Papers myself,” said the stranger.
The auctioneer was now beginning – that important personage was in fine spirits. By the time he had moved over to the books, Anne had laid her plans. She meant to get lot number one with the Pickwick Papers if it took her last cent. Then, for all that, that other dealer might have all the others.
She saw at once that she had not followed Edward’s advice. The stranger she had talked to was the bookdealer of whom he had warned her. It was too late to remedy the mistake now. She would have to bid high.
“Lot number one of ten fine books,” the auctioneer changed. “Number one books, all of ’em. What’m I offered?”
“One dollar,” said Anne promptly.
“One dollar,” roared the auctioneer.
The thin hand of the stranger went up: “Make it two.”
“Two twenty-five,” said Anne.
“Am I offered three dollars for this pile of books?” asked the auctioneer. “Let me see – one family book on medicine, one Cook’s poems, one volume of Dickens and others too numerous to mention. Now, who the dickens will make it three?”
“Three,” said Anne.
“Four,” shouted the man in the rear. The crowd chuckled.
“Make it five,” shouted the auctioneer.
“Five,” said Anne hopefully.
“Five I have – ”
By this time the stranger had walked close to Anne and was studying her closely.
“Five and a quarter,” said the auctioneer.
“Five and a quarter,” said the stranger. Anne dropped back; she did not raise her bid. She saw the auctioneer’s clerk hand the books to the highest bidder.
As the auction continued, Edward Rice, of all people, was bidding against the strange book buyer. His devices for keeping track of the bidding diverted the crowd and exasperated the stranger. Edward never quite bought a thing, but he always stopped just under the stranger’s top bide. The stranger was getting in a bad humor. When the sale was over, he dumped his books into a station wagon and drove off.
“Don’t know when I have had so much fun,” laughed Edward. He was grinning from ear to ear. “It was like a guessing game, and I guessed right every time.”
“What were you doing?” asked Anne decidedly.
“Same thing that man tried to do,” he answered blithely. “Only he guessed wrong. He thought you’d pay more than five dollars for that lot, but then he had to take them and pay for his poor guess. What was it you wanted in the lot?”
“Pickwick Papers,” said Anne.
“Lucky for you you didn’t get them. That copy had several pictures missing. I looked through all the books this morning.”
“So he got an imperfect copy?” asked Anne.
“I wouldn’t worry,” said Edward. “He knew well enough it was mutilated. I saw him opening the books before you came. He never meant to buy it. He only wanted to make you pay high.”
Then Anne felt humble and told him of her encounter with the book buyer.
“Well, you will learn,” said Edward. “Now come around to the back of the house with me.”
On the outside cellar steps was an old bushel basket piled high with rare old books. “They were going to burn them,” explained her adviser.
The basket held treasures. There were primers of the eighteenth century; spelling books that had been printed on remote presses; old histories with woodcuts of country towns in New York and Pennsylvania and Virginia when those states were partly wilderness. Anne’s eyes fairly shone.
“Won’t they take the eye of your old gentleman when he comes back,” asked Edward.
“What will they want for these?” asked Anne.
“Well, Mr. Taylor said he did not want them in the auction because they were too old and musty. He did not want to burn them, either. I told him you would give him five dollars for the lot, maybe. You don’t have to pay him all at once if you can’t. I’ll carry them to the shop for you.”
“I’ll take them this minute,” said Anne.
Though Anne was quite as capable of carrying the books as the old man, he picked up an armful and was off, shouting: “I’ll be right back for the others.”
When they reached the shop, Anne asked: “Why did you not buy these books yourself? You would have made a neat sum.”
“Why should I want to deal in books so long as you let me read all I want at the shop? Besides,” he said diffidently, “I can’t do things like other folks. I stutter, and I am just an old man with poor hearing. But I like to have friends that are strong and interesting like you, and if I can help them it is my greatest pleasure.”
There was a remorseful lump in Anne’s throat, but she spoke distinctly so that he could not miss a word. “We are friends!” she said. “Here is my hand on it.”
She grasped Edward’s awkward hand and gave him a smile of understanding gratitude. Thus disappeared Anne’s pest, and in his place appeared her particular adviser and friend. Anne’s shop made expenses that year. And that night Anne wrote home: “No one can ever again tell me that angels do not come unawares.”