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AND IT WAS!
A Bookstore-y
by George Cowmeadow Bauman

As the world was going to hell in late 1968, I was retreating into a world I could control – the world of books.

I was a 22-year-old thankful not to be rice-paddy-deep in Vietnam. General Hershey’s U.S. draft had grudgingly assigned me the scarce, magical 4-F deferment because of a knee damaged in a summer church-camp prank five years earlier. I protested the Vietnam war on the campus of Slippery Rock State College (PA), where I was a manager at the campus bookstore. I lived with the constant pain of carrying heavy boxes of books rather than carrying a soldier’s pack and dead buddies out of a war zone.
The assassinations of Dr. Martin Luther King and Bobby Kennedy along with the 1968 Democratic convention in Chicago increased my anguish and cynicism, begun in 1963 during my freshman year at Bethany College when JFK was killed, shattering my pre-ministerial, Ozzie and Harriet world.
With a lifelong love of books, I thought about developing a moonlighting business of dealing in used books, something to focus on beyond our disintegrating American society. The closest used bookshop was 50 miles away in Pittsburgh. I made up business cards with “Cowmeadow Books” and began to hit flea markets and yard sales and country auctions to acquire inventory.

A late fall classified for a farm auction at a nearby crossroads named Leedsdale got my attention, for it advertised books, which were not often found at those rural estate sales. I was pleased and pumped, for both the possibility of books and the distraction from the omnipresent war news.

The auctioneer was having a Friday night preview, so I drove over to see if the books were anything more than the three R’s: Religion, Romance, and Reader’s Digest Condensed Novels – the kind of low value books omnipresent at auctions and yard sales, even today. Probably not, but there was always good homemade food at those farm estate sales.

About 25 bargain-hunters were at the preview, but none were looking over the books. I began pulling the book boxes out from under the tables, “lookin’ for the silver, lookin’ for the gold, lookin’ for the big payday,” as Ian Tyson sings.”.

After going through several boxes with books of value “only” for reading and sentiment, I hit paydirt, real paydirt: an early printing of “Huckleberry Finn”. And just maybe it was a true first edition.

I was astounded. Glancing nervously all around, I bent over to examine the treasure.

It wasn’t in perfect condition – the corners were bumped; the interior hinges needed repaired; and the binding needed tightened – evidence of many readings/adventures with America’s prototype boy. The repairs wouldn’t be major, and would raise the condition of the book from G+/VG- to VG, adding several hundred dollars of value to the book – if it were a first edition, first state.

From having taken a graduate seminar in Mark Twain and Henry James, I was aware that “Huck” went through several printings/states in its first edition, and that various “points” dictated which state the book was. Naturally the first state of the first edition held the most value, significantly more than the second state – rather like being elected vice-president instead of president. Pretty good, but no one collected your bill-signing pens or published your memoirs.

Though I knew this, I hadn’t memorized the points of that desired first state. I did note that “Huck” was in a Heinz ketchup box before driving home in my red ’68 Comet convertible to research “Huck’s” points of issue.

At that time, I’d been married about 18 months to my first wife Lori, who taught math to disinterested junior-high students, coincidentally at the same school my father had taught his love of geography to a previous generation. Lori had accepted my proposal in the summer before our senior college year, thinking she was going to be the wife of a preacher, not of an activist bibliomaniac.

Excitedly, I told her about finding “Huck”, and how it would be a great investment for us, especially if it were the first state. She was pleased, but cautious – as usual when I used “books” and “buying” in the same sentence. As most book-widows are.

A true first of “Huck” was worth about $1100 at the time, so I argued persuasively that if we – of course I had spun the angle around to talk about the book being a jointly-pursued purchase – were to get “Huck”, we could sell it at a very good profit. We discussed – or rather she told me – how much we could spend on it – not the amount that was worth investing. No matter how persistent I was, Lori wouldn’t budge over $100, which I felt was about $200 too low to assure us getting it. Then again, she was in charge of our finances, the only way to keep biblioholic me from bankrupting us.

My reference books helped me learn what points to look for in “Huck” when I returned to Leedsville early Saturday morning. I wrote it all down and had trouble sleeping that night, highly anticipating the sale’s challenge.

Coffee-carrying people were milling about the farmyard when I arrived at 8 a.m., examining the merchandise and eyeing each other as competitors. Friends were chatting around the three rows of tables – the kind of long, folding tables commonly found at church basement potluck dinners, and just as laden. Many of these casserole dishes on display probably had been at church dinners at the Methodist church around the corner on US Rt.19.

I headed straight for the Heinz box, and opened the lid.

What the hell?! “Huck” was gone!

Had it been pulled from the sale because the auctioneer discovered its value? Stolen? Moved, and if so, by whom and why?

Anxiously I opened the next box under the table and breathed a sigh of relief. “Huck” was on top. Which meant that someone had moved the book. Was it accidental or purposeful? Did I have a competitor for the Twain who was trying to hide it in their designated box?

I looked around suspiciously to see if anyone were watching me check “Huck” out. The coast seemed clear. I pulled the box out from underneath the table, crouched down painfully, and with my back to the crowd, carefully opened the book on one blue-jeaned knee and laid out my notes on the other.
Let’s see, was it published in New York by Charles L. Webster in 1885? OK. It was octavo in original full sheep gilt with original red and black morocco spine labels. Did it have “Decided”, not “Decides”, on page 9? What about the “with the was” on page 57? Yes. Did it have the re-drawn illustration without the curve to the fly on page 283? Yep. There were several other points that checked out as well. Be still my heart, we had a scarce first state here of “The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn”. On a farm, to be auctioned off with plows and milking machines.

I carefully placed it back in the Heinz box, my heart hammering.

Trying to control my excitement, I wandered over to the food stand for a cup of coffee at the little white wooden shed on wheels with three lights dangling on a string above the window, attracting attention from the early morning buyers, as if coffee addicts needed bright lights to find their energy-juice. Caffieners find coffee like crows find road-kill – unerringly.

The smell of sizzling hot dogs got me, and I had one slathered in mustard and onions for breakfast with my coffee, having been in too much a rush to eat at home. I ate the dog while watching the table hiding the book-boxes, but saw no one hanging around…initially. As we got closer to the first bidding, a well-dressed older man began going down the book-table, stooped over, opening each box of books, then closing them quickly, as though he were looking for something.

Like “Huck Finn”?

When he opened the Heinz box, I was as stressed as a meadow-trespasser unexpectedly facing a snorting, pawing bull protecting his territory. Oh, shit.

He pulled out the Twain and a couple other books for a quick look, then dropped them – ouch! – back into the box and continued down the line before merging into the growing crowd. Whew.

Books are not usually a high priority in city estate auctions; in country auctions they’re almost an afterthought. I knew it would be several hours before the auctioneer would work his way through kitchen implements and house furniture before moving to the barn for machinery and tools there, then returning to the books and other low-priority miscellany in the oak-shaded farmyard.

“Let’s get this tractor started!” bellowed the auctioneer exactly at 9 a.m., waving his green John Deere cap back and forth over his head. He spat out a tobacco plug, and stepped up on a small stand. With a smile and a glare, he told us how he was going to run that auction: “Hold your identifying number-card up, like you was trying to get the attention of your teacher to go to the bathroom. Don’t scratch your nose with your paddle ‘cause you might buy something you don’t want. The interior of the house will go first, then the items in the barn, and we’ll conclude with these table goods.”

In my jacket pocket I had a copy of the appropriately-titled “Great Expectations”, just in case I got bored with all the non-book stuff. I could follow the bidding on just so many pots & pans and carpets & chairs before joining Dickens in London, one ear constantly cocked to the cadence of the caller, and one eye on the crap-laden folding tables above the books. I had hours of waiting ahead, but it was going to be worth it.
Around noon, while the crowd was in the barn, I re-visited the food stand, and successfully bid on two more hot dogs during a chapter-break in Dickens.

Soon pickup trucks were backing up the short lane to the barn to load auction winnings. A big old once-red tractor with those huge knobby tires as high as an elephant’s eye came chugging slowly out from behind the weather-beaten barn, heading out onto the country road, parting the exiting bidders. I knew the book-action wasn’t far away.

A few minutes later, just off his 2 p.m. estimate, the auctioneer came out of the farmhouse kitchen with his clipboard, wiping lunch off his face with a blue bandana, and began talking about the books. He told us all about what great readers the late couple was, joking about how he couldn’t figure out how Farmer McCullough had time to read and run a farm. Those bidders still around nodded with understanding of how inclusive and time-consuming farm-work was.

The first boxes went cheap – 50-cents for a full box of books. On another day I might have bid on them for Cowmeadow Books, but today I was focused on just one book.

Finally the Heinz box was lifted to the tabletop by the auctioneer’s burly assistant. Without looking inside, the auctioneer shouted, “What am I bid for this next box of classic books?!” He then began his mesmerizing cadence, eager to get a fifty-cent bid to get this box sold and to slog on through the other boxes of books and the rest of the least desirable stuff. He’d told us that he wanted the auction over by 4. He was to call a square-dance in Mars (PA) that night.

I wasn’t going to bid first and tip my hand. I wanted to see what the competition was going to be.

“Fifty cents!” yelled a large woman in overalls, who had bought the first boxes of books for that amount. I discounted her as a dealer.

“Seventy-five!” came a male voice from behind me. Uh-oh. It was Mr. Well-Dressed.

“One buck!” said a woman leaning against the food stand. She was not farm-dressed, and I wondered if she might be a book-dealer I didn’t know.

“One-fifty!” said Overalls.

The man behind me bid “Two!”, only to be quickly topped with a shouted “Three!” by Food-Stand-Woman before the auctioneer could announce the two-dollar bid.

Damn. Someone else must know about the Twain.

But then the bidding guy shook his head.

Overalls also turned away, and I jumped in at $3.50, ready to settle in for a long bidding war with Food-Stand-Woman, up to Lori’s budgeted $100 if necessary.

The bidding between us moved quickly. $4, 5, 6, 7, 8, 9, and I bid $10. I was just about to begin bidding by five-dollar increments to get this auction over with when Food-Stand-Woman unexpectedly declined to go to $11 by a quick shake of her head.

Huck Finn was mine for $10!

I was ecstatic, but tried not to show it as I secured my valuable box. Curiously, the woman I’d outbid bee-lined straight to me.

“You knew what was in that box, didn’t you!” she demanded, yet with a smile.

I wasn’t sure where she was going with this, so I played it cool. “Obviously, you did too,” I replied enigmatically.

“Yes, when I saw you continuing to bid on a box that normally would have gone for no more than a buck, I knew you had spied those Readers Digest Condensed novels! I wanted those to take to the river next summer.”

Huh? She hadn’t been going for “Huck” after all! She had wanted the commercially worthless Readers Digest books.

“I’ll tell you what, ma’am,” I began, thinking fast. “You may find this hard to believe, but all I wanted was this old beat-up copy of ‘Huckleberry Finn’. If I recall, your last bid was nine bucks,” and she nodded in agreement.

“If you would still like to buy those for nine dollars, I’ll sell them to you, so that way we both get what we want from that box.”

She agreed instantly, asking, “You would do that for me?!”

She pulled a roll of bills out of her jacket pocket, counted off nine curled ones, and said, “I can’t tell you how much I appreciate you being so kind to me…and I thank you.”

“You’re welcome,” I said, handing her the box, carefully extracting the Twain. “I hope you enjoy your reading.”

I drove home way too fast, anxious to share the excitement with Lori. “We got it! We got it!” I shouted, walking in the front door of our small apartment to the sound of Saturday-afternoon vacuuming. “Lori!” I yelled, startling her, causing her to jump. Her minor irritation at my scaring her evaporated her when she saw my face – and the book held up in front of it.

“You got it!!” she cried, and we danced around the room with joy. Our gray cat Sloopy ran upstairs to hide from the bouncing bibliomaniacs.

We opened some wine, and she looked over my shoulder as I showed her each of “Huck”’s points, verifying that it was indeed the rare first state of the first edition.

We went out to dinner, drank more wine, came home and caressed the book so important to our future. We collapsed on the bed that night in delightful exhaustion.

As we turned out the lights on a great day, Lori leaned over and kissed me, and teasingly said, “If we ever get a divorce, ‘Huck Finn’ is the first thing that I’m taking!”

And it was!

We divorced in 1975, and I never saw my copy of “The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn” again


 
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