David writes it: Friday is an ending for many, for it is the end of their workweek. One Friday in February, 1997, was for me the beginning of one of my most unusual book-sparked adventures. That day had been extremely exciting and rewarding. After weeks and weeks of cataloguing work and coordinating and letter writing, Philadelphia Rare Books and Manuscripts had sold a VERY LARGE collection to the rare book library of an Ivy League university north of Philadelphia.
But our day did not end at 5 or 6 p.m., for Cynthia and I were scheduled to attend a benefit auction at the Library Company of Philadelphia starting at 7. We were taking off our bookselling hats to put on our "friends of the library" hats.A very good crowd was in attendance — everyone having paid $50 each for an exhibition, reception, and privilege of bidding in a silent auction and a live one as well. The silent auction featured such diverse items as medieval leaves, interesting Bibles, work to be done by a local binder, and a wide variety of good books and book-related items of many eras. The live auction was to be conducted by David Redden of Sotheby’s (New York office). It featured such prizes as an illuminated manuscript, a crystal elephant by Lalique, a week’s stay during the summer at a cabin in Booth Bay Harbor, Maine, and an afternoon of sailing off Newport–Jamestown, Rhode Island, coupled with a personal tour of one of that old resort area's splendid "cottages."
The Library Company's food was delicious, the drink was ample, the exhibition and the general conversation were lively — and the silent auction attracted decent if not spirited bidding. But in spite of David Redden's best efforts, the live auction that night was "dead"! When Cynthia started the bidding on the crystal elephant, an early-up item, she and the auctioneer got NO response — so she turned around to tease the crowd by saying, "Come on, surely the Republicans here won't let a Democrat buy this for so little — ?" But it looked like the crowd was going to do just that. So, I bid against her, saying helpfully, "Actually, she's a Socialist!" Even this call to arms did not result in an adherent of the GOP coming to the rescue of its mascot and symbol, so Cynthy and I continued bidding against one another until we had brought the price up to the donor’s stated value.
A little surprised that few others seemed to be getting into the traditional benefit-auction spirit of "Bid, bid more, and bid generously" — but certainly prepared to benefit ourselves, therefrom — we repeated this tactic until we had secured all four lots I've mentioned as "featured."
The manuscript (below) was eventually to go to a most happy buyer — a calligrapher himself, who could be heard grinning over the phone as he ordered — and the elephant stands alive on Cynthy's desk to this day, to attest to the truth of my tale.
Eventually came July and time to avail ourselves first of an afternoon of Newport sailing, and then later of the week’s worth of cabin-dwelling in Maine. Being a water-lover and one partly brought up in ye olde New England at that, Cynthy was looking ahead to both these adventures with unbridled happiness. I was a bit more cautious, especially with regard to the sailing. This sailing would take place on an ocean, and oceans are where sharks live and where middle-aged men from non–New England cities go to drown in sight of people who cannot save them.
By carefully worked out prior arrangement she and I were scheduled to meet with our hosts, the Library Company benefactors, at the family’s summer "cottage" at 10:30 Saturday morning. The directions to the house — actually on the Jamestown shore — were detailed and extremely easy to follow.
As we turned off the small country road and through the stone pillars, I knew I was no longer in the land of the blue-collar people who are my neighbors in Philadelphia — and when we parked the Festiva in front of the "cottage," the juxtaposition of the sub-compact car and the Victorian extravaganza of a mansion presented an absurdist snapshot.
We were taken on a tour of the house with its rich wood-panelled rooms, wide landings, and comfortable nooks, not forgetting the basement with its octopus-like central heating system — a fine and imposing antique in its own right. Cynthy and I both love architecture, so this was a great treat, and we enjoyed our host's company more every minute. Eventually, we climbed a ladder from the top floor to the look-out walk on the roof. The house was situated on a promontory, so the view was spectacular: We could see Newport harbor proper, a wide expanse of the Atlantic, and much of the surrounding "highlands" with their fin-de-siècle mansions, more than a few inhabited by cousins and other relations of our hosts.
After this tour and a lively history lesson both about the house and the late-19th-century Philadelphia stock broker whose fortune bought its land and paid for its building, our hosts invited us to use two of the guest rooms "to change." No one in my crowd goes sailing and those few who do have rowboats with outboard motors basically wear whatever they have on to "go out on the water," so I was still wearing jeans and non-squeegee-soled shoes when we headed across the considerable property for the boat. Neither Cynthy nor my hosts seemed bothered, but I was. Anchored in a sheltered bay that ran along one of the property lines, out in middle of the harbor, was the craft of the afternoon’s entertainment. To get to it was a multi-trip process. Only two people at a time would fit into the tiny dinghy that would serve as ferryboat. The hostess rowed out with Cynthia and Cynthy climbed aboard the sailboat. The hostess rowed back and her husband got in and he rowed out and she got on board. Then he rowed back for me.
THIS TIME, I DID FALL IN.
Cynthia immediately alerted the other two dry people that "David can’t swim" — saying afterwards that even before the splash she was kicking herself for not having sent in one of the waiting life vests for me to put on back on the beach — and everyone set about to assure me that I wasn’t going to drown. Yeah, right. Meanwhile the host successfully transferred himself onto the sailboat and coolly handed a life vest to Cynthia, who took it, jumped into the water next to me, and got me into it.
Thus making it easier for the sharks to find me: I was now bright orange, floating on the surface of the water so my shadow was visible against the light of the sky to the man-eaters below.
I would have just climbed up the boat's ladder except: 1) my hands were totally wet and I could not get a sufficient non-slippery grip to enable me to pull myself out of the approaching jaws of death, and 2) the bottom-most rung of the ladder seemed to be about in the middle of my chest, making the first foothold rather difficult.
But besides my underwater predicament, there was the floating problem of the dinghy, which was now one oar shy and apparently also missing an oar lock. It was decided that the boat I had crippled should be taken back to shore and the spare brought out to the anchorage to be used on our return. As I remember it, Cynthy grabbed the prow line of the rowboat in her teeth and swam to shore tugging the dead boat, occupied by the hostess, behind her. I am assured by others who were present that she tied the boat to her waist. In fact, she is a very strong swimmer and this feat was accomplished smoothly and in no time at all.
Somehow while Cynthy was making right the latest David-created catastrophe, I managed to hoist myself aboard the sailboat — with the host's adroit help. He and I then made not-unhappy small talk while I began my period of drip dry, until Cynthia and the hostess had returned with the new rowboat. They tied up to the anchor buoy and spryly climbed aboard, and the host and hostess unfurled the sails and we upped anchor.
All was asparkle and we were on the way.
I vomited for the first time.
While the others felt the bracing wind on their faces, enjoyed the sights and sounds of Newport harbor, and kept discreetly asking if I wanted to go back, I kept a smile on my face between fits of heaving the day's light breakfast overboard. I did enjoy the host’s narration of the history of the port and his memories of Newport since his childhood there during WW II. Cynthy’s face and demeanor offered a marvelous contrast to mine. She was beaming from within and completely at seadog ease — though glancing frequently and with sympathy in my direction. My smile was real though it required considerable effort. The periodic vomiting required no effort at all.
When the harbor tour was over and as the day’s sailing wound down, the hosts had the wise thought of dropping me at a dock at a private club on the then nearest side of the island. Happily, another dinghy dance could be avoided altogether! Cynthy disembarked with me, and the hosts enlisted a kind friend to ferry us from the club to their "cottage." This friend said nothing about my near-death appearance and still-wet clothes, or total lack of proper attire for the boat I had just left. Instead she placed Cynthy and me briskly in the back seat of her 25-year old Volvo wagon and peeled rubber getting out of the parking lot.
Dry land, and the prospect of sitting still soon! But as I reached over to open the window in hopes of getting enough air to prevent me from repeating in her car the vomitous events of the day’s sailing, I realized that this kindly-seeming woman was . . . a professional hitman. There was no handle with which to roll down the window and there was no handle for opening the door! This was a real life scene out of the James Bond movie "Live and Let Die." Instead of James Bond in the back of a taxi driven by one of Mr. Big’s bad guys, it was David and Cynthy in the back of an ancient Volvo driven by an unknown grandmotherly-looking killer. What had I done to whom and when? Who put the contract out on me? And since Cynthy had seen the driver’s face, it was clear that she too was about to meet her end. These were the suspicions and questions exploding in my oxygen-starved brain as I sat in the back of the "overly hot" car, as we hurtled through time and space towards the "cottage" on the hill.
The car pulled off the now-familiar back road, passed between the stone pillars, rolled up the hill, skidded to a stop in front of the house, and its driver jumped out and came around to open the door for me. She wasn’t a hitman after all! We thanked her, she headed back to the club, and I collapsed on the lawn.
All springing from one innocent
Philadelphia biblio-event months past?
I had lost count.
But I was not out cold, at least not yet. I could hear Cynthy saying something about "being back soon" but it clear she was somewhere over the rainbow in Munchkinland and not on the lawn with me. Soon I was out cold, still wet to the bone, on the immaculate lawn that sloped down to the Atlantic. On exiting the car I had luckily positioned myself so I wouldn’t and couldn’t roll into the ocean in my coma. Some time later I rose to semi-consciousness and could hear voices of people I later learned were arriving weekend guests saying things like: "No, I don’t recognize him either," and "Yes, he is alive. I can see the rise and fall of his chest," and "I’m sure he has some reason for being there."
After a little while more, I came to enough to sit up. Shortly after that I spied Cynthy and the hosts arriving from the sailboat’s cove anchorage. They greeted me with smiles, heartened to see that I had not died of post-traumatic stress syndrome. We went into the house, chatting more about books and libraries, U.S. and Latin American history, archaeology and linguistics, and . . . and had a reviving light repast on a terrace . . .
. . . safely overlooking the late scene of my watery misAdventure.
Not a shark in sight.
Then it was time to take leave of the hosts I had liked so much and caused so much trouble for.
never had more meaning!
Soon we were back on I-95 North again — heading in heavy weekend traffic for Maine, just like tens of thousands of other summer travellers.
We arrived in Boothbay Harbor in the early evening and soon found the wonderful cabin that was to serve as our base camp for an adventurous week’s worth of bookhunting. Boothbay Harbor is still a quaint, small town, much as it was when the movie "" was shot there in the mid-1950s, and our cabin was in a quiet wooded "preserve" that added the unexpected pleasures of the country to the anticipated pleasures of exploring the coast and its
With the aid of a guide to booksellers in Maine, each day we headed out to a different city or town looking for treasures. They proved few and very far between. On our trip to the area ten years previously, it had been an unusual shop that didn't have a considerable jolly depth of "old brown books" — Americana, religion, 19th-century grammars, etc. — and the occasional beacon of a vellum volume. That was gone, gone, gone. But one Maine bookstore owner provided us with one of our most unusual experiences — she now owns the distinction of being the only person to ever throw Cynthy out of a bookstore.
As everyone knows, Cynthia is the epitome of a lady: Demure, courteous, reserved, and polite (mostly). When we entered this memorable bookseller's small store, Cynthy immediately presented herself and her business card to the owner and asked permission to look at the stock. The owner recoiled as from a blow, immediately announcing that as a retired librarian she didn’t sell books to booksellers because one could never tell what they would do with them — though she detailed a good many possibilities, all nefarious. Glancing around while being dissed up and defamed down, we saw that the shop had nothing but used paperbacks with which, as booksellers, we could "do" nothing at all. Rather than point that out, Cynthy tried asking "Mayn’t I even buy a book or two just to read?" And it was then that she was told directly to beat it and not come back.
part of the program, we decided. We were about
to leave the state of MAINE with our
budget almost fully intact.
Taking a non–I-95 route home, we stopped for lunch in a small town whose name we didn’t notice. As we got out of the car we did notice, however, a 19th-century building that looked like it might have originally been a country store, and it had a big sign reading "BOOKS." We decided that if it was open after lunch, we'd see if it had "maybe one or two" books worth having — why not?
The store was indeed still open after lunch on that Saturday — and as soon as we walked in we knew we were going to spend ALL our too-well-preserved $$$$ — and be very happy to do so. Then we spotted the owner, our fellow ABAA member Scott DeWolfe! We were in Alfred, Maine, and we had stumbled into the store of De Wolfe & Wood in the same unexpected way I had tumbled into the Newport–Jamestown harbor. After three hours we had found four more boxes of books well worth having and our week in MAINE was looking much more like an excursion our accountant would be to hear about.
MIDSUMMER "BOOKING" ADVENTURE
But when I write that
"the rest of the trip was uneventful"
— I write with a Relief!
that you now perhaps can imagine!