Monday, September 7, 2009

My weekend rummaging tales of triumph and woe

My two primary vices are records and books. My apartment is heaving with collections (or perhaps accumulations) of thousands of both, and for many years a large portion of my disposable income has gone into rummaging used record and book stores, flea markets and, yes, even perhaps your trash for prime selections of the rare, strange and wonderful.

I had a mixed bag of expe
riences this Saturday, and I'm going to share those whether you like it or not. I'm sure anyone who likes to dig through used stacks of anything can relate. I know some of you are hardcore record and book "collector scum" (as MaximumRocknRoll used to call us) yourselves, and others of you I imagine have lots of Pokemon pogs in the closet.

And hey, feel free to share tales of your best finds and best almost-finds of whatever you collect in the Comments section. I've been carrying this blog's content solo for far too long now.

On the plus side, I scored some cool items at an upper-tier flea/antiques market. For $1 I got a Sherlockian quarterly journal of the Baker Street Irregulars from 1967. For just $2 I purchased a National Lampoon "B[r]e[a]st of... Sexual Humor" from the mid-70s, in nice shape too. I got a Laff pin-up bikini magazine from 1952 for a five-spot, and spent the same on a '50s hardback "adult" (although rather tame by today's standards) cartoon baseball book, on a humor hardback in the Peck's Bad Boy series from 1903, and also spent a Lincoln on a tongue-in-cheek 1907 book of supposedly ancient Persian (but actually contemporary Manhattan) courting advice called Maxims of Methuselah.

That's a nice day's haul for $23.

I was also able to get nice original LP copies of Ten Years After's Cricklewood Green and two
Richard and Mimi Fariña albums, all for $1.50@. These were at a thrift store, about which more below.

On the downside we have the Ones That Got Away, the tales of woe I can't shut up about, and with
which you might be able to empathize.

I was about 5-10 minutes shy of the biggest jazz album score of my life. I'm not a big jazz guy, but I know a few cool things when I see them. Parked in front of 4 big boxes of freshly arrived LPs, presumably from the same Baby Boomer-aged source, at a thrift store I habituate - and which seldom gets any cool records in - was an enormously wide senior citizen and his equally wide daughter. Two lifetimes of Whoppers stored as flank meat literally boxed me out as I helplessly watched the duo work their way though a corner-stored stash of LPs. I could only flip through their leavin's, which wasn't much.

Father and daughter were a bit of a musical, if not culinary, Jack Sprat and wife. Father could listen to no rock, whereas daughter could listen to no jazz. They worked as a team handing each other albums from the opposite genre at a quick pace. But father took almost every jazz album and put it in his "keep" pile, while daughter did the same with the rock. At first I thought that both were rejecting almost every album, but I almost lost a hand trying to check out what was his "keep" pile when I mistook it for the leftovers. Short of assault and battery, I had to wait for them to be finis
hed with each box, minus 90% of its contents, and hand the leftovers back to me.

I had the distinct impression that the operation was hurried along because I appeared to be exactly what I was - the interloping bastard who arrived five minutes too late and who was about to pick out all the good stuff.

Most of the rock stock was pretty common and didn't look very valuable or interesting. I think I scored the albums I did because the daughter didn't know who the hell Ten Years After or Richard and Mimi were. She kept a lot of common and pretty beat up Doors, Stones, Beatles etc. I only coveted her Dylan's Blonde on Blonde, which looked nicer than my copy at home.

The father, about 65 or so, killed me though. He put his stack of about 90 LPs in a cart, and did so without checking the condition of the vinyl on any of them, which I thought was a pretty rookie move. I then watched him wheel the cart into a different corner of the store and then begin checking the condition on the vinyl of each. I was actually dealing with a ruthless operator. He did so with his back to me, shielding the haul, and it looked pretty much like Gollum inspecting his Precioussss. They must have been in good shape, because he put precisely one LP back and kept the rest.

With nothing to lose I just stood next to him and hoped maybe to be tossed some crumbs. Unfortunately the old man knew his jazz. The item I wanted most was what appeared to be a very clean copy of an original Thelonius Monk LP, which I imagine you could probably throw up on the wall of any Greenwich Village vinyl shop for well over $100. There were two Nina Simone records that looked pretty desirable, and a host of clean copies of hard bop and free jazz from the '50s and '60s that I suspect many into that stuff would soil themselves over.

Fortunately for the old timer there didn't appear to be any Sun Ra; for clean, original Sun Ra LPs at $1.50 a pop I would have had to have grabbed an unabridged dictionary - he set up right near the reference book section - and caved in his skull.

At the same store I also grabbed a 1966 paperback of Velikovsky's crackpot "non-fiction" Earth in Upheaval for about 30 cents, so all was not gloom.

The second tale of woe happened at an overpriced antique shoppe. I was flipping through a very cool century-old travel book when a rigid, thin and aged cardboard-ish bookmark fell out. It had the image of a locomotive printed at the top and a title something to the effect of "A Railroad Boy's Plea." The rest of the card, printed only on that one side, has this incredibly dark, maudlin poem about how the scruffy urchin who handed you this card was once a normal lad, but now with his legs all crippled up - the word "cripple" was actually in there - he'd never have the chance to frolic like the other, normal boys, and is condemned to ride the rails in search of alms. So, in effect, spare some change. At the bottom of the card, in a different font, it read "Please pay what you will." No date on it. Spend enough time on just about any urban subway on Earth and a person who might or might not be deaf will hand you something similar today.

The word "frolic" and the phrase "normal boys" were actually used too. This was a better than average find, depending on your view of the universe.

Now, this wasn't specifically for sale and the store didn't even know they had it. It was in a book no one had opened for decades, and frankly the bibliophile in me was a little offended that evidently no one who worked there had even bothered to open the book when the store bought it. There were a couple of other unmarked sheets used as bookmarks that fell out when I opened it that made that much clear.

I wasn't buying this book at $50, so I started looking at a few others thinking that if i could pick something up for cheap I could throw the bookmark in and give myself a bonus.

There was a Lowell Thomas (a fave of mine!) kids' book listed at $16, cool but I thought way overpriced (and I was right - available on the web for $4 in similar condition.) And an exceptionally cool turn of the (last) century magic trick manual was listed at $75. Basically, nothing in the store was reasonably priced and nothing else was interesting, so there was to be no carrying the thing out in a book on the sly, the same way it came into the store.

Here I made the fatal mistake of trying to go the honest route, the sneaky bastard route having been exhausted. Approaching the counter, the woman asked "See something you like?" Yes I did... and I explained finding the bookmark. I started out pretty cheerful and got progressively more annoyed.

In the past when I've found little bits of ephemera in books or record sleeves, it's been typical for the shopkeepers to either say "Awww, keep it!" or "Gimmie a buck (or a quarter!) for that, that's cool." There's no obligation of course on their end, but usually when you're in a shop and interested in something the people working there didn't even know they had, they consider it a bonus/burden, and are happy to get rid of it.

Not this woman. She said at first she couldn't sell it to me because it wasn't priced. I asked then if she could give it to me; no dice. She called the owner on her cell to ask what to charge me. I said I'd give her a buck for it, plus applicable sales tax if that's what it came to.

The owner apparently asked for a description of the item, with increasing detail, because the woman behind the counter read the whole poem and described the train. She came back with a price of $12.

I suggested that I could have bought a whole darn 70 year old book for $16, thrown the bookmark in and they wouldn't have known the difference. The reply via the phone was that it was hard to price without looking at it.

I responded that she just gave me a price of $12 without looking at it, so this didn't much hold water. I also seriously doubted, without sharing this out loud, that the woman who owns the shop ever priced anything on more than a whim - I saw no computer behind the counter of this little storefront for example, a sign that the internet never gets consulted - and I further doubted that there are well established prices in any Railroad Boys' Pleas market.

I suggested charging me what the (unpriced) old postcards at the counter went for, assuming this would be a buck or two. The response was that the postcards went for $4-$10 each, apparently at the whim of the counter operator. But for me, having alerted them to an item they were unaware of? $12.

To counter this I raised the issue that no one knew the darn thing existed until I alerted them to it three minutes ago, and since anyone buying the book would have walked out with it for free I deserved some price break as any price at all was pure profit.

The counter-retort was that the unknown bookmark would have come with the purchase of a book, and therefore would not have been given away for free.

My counter-counter-argument was to ask if I could have the bookmark or any other item priced at $12 as a gift with the purchase of any book. Apparently not; the bookmark now cost at least $10, whether I bought anything else or not.

It was a bit like the reverse-haggling scene in Monty Python's Life of Brian. I told them to keep the damn bookmark.

In most of the world's countries, when you express interest in an item an independent shopkeeper will start high, bargain lower, and not let you walk away at the end without making the sale. Here I get the impression that some shopkeepers - usually ones with quaint shoppes - don't really want to sell you anything. Some of them just like being surrounded by their stuff, and if you intend to take anything home, well, that's gonna cost ya. Instead of things having a fixed, reasonable price like at any normal retail store, it's as if I stopped you on the street and asked how much it'd cost to buy the pants right off your ass, right this minute.

The worst place for this I know in Philadelphia is the vintage store near Frank's at 13th and Pine. That woman's open about 6 hours/week, follows you around like you were intending to shoplift, and expects you to come in knowing what item you want without browsing, which is somehow interpreted as a waste of her time.

If you see the railroad item I described above in an area antique shop newly wrapped in plastic with a new cardboard backing and priced at $30, I wouldn't be the least little bit surprised. I tried checking out prices on eBay and couldn't locate an item of that sort, but maybe I'm using the wrong keywords. Anyone know..? She'll likely open all the other books for the first time ever too, just to see what marketable goodies tumble out.
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Catherine said...

There's a half-price book sale at AIDS Thrift this weekend.

QuizMasterChris said...

First off, thanks for the comment as that Comic Book Guy graphic was beginning to make a liar out of me.

Oh, I know about the book sale! Don't worry, I'll be there early, throwin' elbows and kickin' shins if necessary. I refuse to be Thelonious Monked again this month!