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Wondering in Wonthaggi

September, 2005
By Anthony Marshall

I am in high spirits. The sun is shining and the open road is beckoning. Today I am not spending the day closeted in my stuffy old shop, doddering around in its dust and dinginess; to-day I am out and about, to-day I’m on the road, on a mission, on an adventure, on a quest. Who knows what the day will bring? Trash or treasure? Dollars or disappointment? At this point in the day it hardly matters. The journey’s the thing, and the lure of the unknown.

I point the car south-east towards the Monash Freeway. We’re heading out of town into darkest Gippsland, to a coastal town I’ve never been to, it’s called Wonthaggi, about three hours’ drive from Melbourne. I’m doing a house call, a home visit, going to someone’s place to look at some books and very probably buy them. Susan’s beside me in the passenger seat navigating. She knows the way to Wonthaggi. She’s got family there, and she’ll be calling on them while I’m looking at the books. So it’ll be a nice day out for her too. Excuse my singing, but this is fun! But now we’re on the Monash Freeway, and the traffic’s heavy so I’d better pay extra attention. My driving (according to the passenger seat) has got worse as I’ve got older. Notwithstanding the fact that I have driven for nigh on forty years without serious mishap, the passenger seat maintains variously (1) that I need my eyes and my brain testing (2) that, for the public good, I should voluntarily hand in my driver’s license and (3) that there must be a God, because it is nothing short of miraculous that when I’m driving we have managed to finish all our car journeys in one piece. Our car is certainly special: it may well be the only place in the world where road rage is directed exclusively at the driver from the passenger seat.

I’d better fill you in, give you some background on this house call. A few weeks back I got a phone call from a lady called Pam Harris in Wonthaggi. (Let’s stop right there. We may as well get this right. Won — thagg — i, with the stress on the second syllable, is how you say it. It’s Won to rhyme with Ron, and thaggi to rhyme with shaggy, and the th in the middle is like the th in thick. Won— thagg— i, OK.? And in case you want to know it’s aboriginal for “The Place with Brown Coal” or something like that.). Anyway, Mrs Harris says she’s got a house bursting at the seams with books, and she wants them out fairly soon as she can’t stand it any longer. Her husband Bill has inherited the books from his best friend Tom who was a great book collector and had a house full of books, but when Tom died his books have taken over their house and they can’t move. Besides, they don’t read much and certainly not his sort of books. So would I be interested?

Possibly. So far so good. But there’s no point in getting excited. “It depends on what sort of books they are” I say. “Are they mainly fiction or non-fiction?” “All fiction, I think” Mrs Harris says. Not so good. There’s too much fiction in the world and most of it dross. On the other hand she did not stumble, as so many do, at the hurdle of “fiction or non-fiction?” “Can you name some of the authors?” I say. This is another hurdle which I like to lay in the path of prospective vendors. If they are unable to muster the names of two or three worthwhile authors within five seconds, (or make the tricky distinction between fiction and non-fiction) I write them off as sub- or semi-literates whose books will be useless. (No doubt this is an imperfect system and I suppose I must have missed out on great treasures as a result but I get a lot of phone calls in a week so my triage is perforce rather rough and ready). Well, Pam is primed like a musket. “Conan Doyle,” she says. ‘And Rider Haggard, P.G.Wodehouse, Arthur Upfield, Zane Grey, Ion Idriess and Edgar Rice Burroughs.” And quite a few more of lesser significance. Obviously she’s reading from a list. Good woman! I fire back some stock questions to which she makes satisfactory responses. There are around fifteen hundred books in the house; they are mostly hard bound, in dust jackets and very probably first or early English editions of some very bankable authors. Unless I am much mistaken there is a little pot of gold waiting for me in Wonthaggi

Like all good expedition leaders I have double-checked our equipment before we leave: cheque book, road map, mobile phone, pen and clipboard, video camera, digital camera, wife, diary and a piece of paper with the Harris’s name, address and phone number on it. In theory, the details of the appointment are safe and snug in my pocket diary, but the piece of paper is back-up. Too often I have set out on house calls and discovered—too late—that I have no record with me of the exact address of my destination and must resort to humiliating phone calls to shop or home to retrieve them. On this occasion, I have taken the precaution of ringing Mrs Harris the day before to confirm the time and location of our appointment. It’s a small courtesy and besides I don’t want to drive 3 hours to somewhere and find that I’ve arrived on the wrong day or that she’s forgotten all about me and gone shopping.

The video camera is not for filming the Gippsland scenery. I shall be using it to record the books I’m hoping to buy. Partly so that I have a handy record of what’s there, if I have to do some research when I get back home, but mainly so the vendors know that I have a record of what’s there. So that when I’ve made my offer and gone away, they won’t be tempted to remove the odd treasure which they can’t bear to part with, or sell off a chunk of books to some one else without telling me. Such things do happen. Pete Jermy of Ulverstone Books in Tasmania put me on to the video camera idea but in a different context. A famous City Library was selling off its surplus antiquarian stock and had called for tenders. When Pete found out about the sale, it was almost too late; he had only an hour in which to view several thousand books. Others bookdealers had spent hours, days even, combing through the stacks. Pete zipped round the shelves with his video camera and did his research later; he put in his tender and got the books. “How did you work out the condition, when you’d hardly looked inside any of them?” “I assumed the worst—that they’d all have library stamps inside. As it turned out most of them didn’t.” So my video camera is in, plus a spare battery or two. And my digital camera too, for back up.

Ideally, I wouldn’t be leaving books behind after a house call. Not good ones anyway. The neatest, the cleanest house calls are the ones where you go in, look at the books, name a price, the vendor says OK, you write out a cheque, load up the books and get going. No mystery, no confusion, no hassles. But life is rarely so simple. Sometimes there are simply too many books to haul away in one go. Sometimes vendors—executors for example—have to get approval from a third party before they can accept your bid. Most commonly, vendors want to get quotes from more than one dealer before they sell. All this is quite reasonable. But it makes things complicated for bookdealers. House calls cost us time and money and effort. We can recoup this expenditure if we actually buy the books; if we don’t buy them, we can’t. Unlike plumbers, electricians, white-goods repairmen and doctors, bookdealers will visit your home for free. We do not charge a call-out fee, nor charge for our services by the hour or by the quarter-hour. (When our washing machine packed up a few months ago, the call-out fee for the repairman was $120, plus $30 for each quarter-hour of his time.) I, on the other hand, will appraise your books, if you intend to sell them, in the comfort of your own home for no charge. Even if it takes me half a day; a whole day even.

So it’s not surprising, if I am wary about committing myself to a house call, if I quiz people hard, so as to ascertain the quality of their books and to see how serious they are about selling them. Are they perhaps “vendors” who are really only looking for a free valuation? Or for free garbage disposal? And I need to know the full story. Are the books they’re offering me simply left-overs, books already picked over and rejected by another bookdealer? Are they getting quotes from a number of dealers or just from me? Are they prepared to let me pick out the books I want or is it an all-or-nothing deal? Why did they choose to call me, rather than someone else? Occasionally vendors offer this information candidly, but often they don’t: they sit tight, poker-faced, with their cards held close to their chest. Luckily, I always go into the game with an ace up my sleeve. As a general bookseller with an eclectic stock I’m not desperate for particular books. I’d like them perhaps; I’d like them very much, perhaps. But I won’t be heart-broken, or go bust, if I don’t manage to buy them. Or even look at them. I can just walk away. Tomorrow, next week, next month, there will be more books to buy. Different books, better books probably.

Here we are on a hill, looking down at the small metropolis of Wonthaggi (Population 7,541 ). A few dark clouds are piling up on the Strzelecki Ranges in the distance but to the right the bay is twinkling in bright sunlight. The town spreads inland from the Southern Ocean, and is skirted by green paddocks dotted with sheep and cattle. Looking neat and prosperous, it’s an old mining town which has converted to light industry and manufacturing. It has a livestock market and an abattoir, and (I’ve read all this in the guide-book) it has a growing tourist trade. I check the car clock. We’ve had a good run. And I’m still on speaking terms with the passenger seat. We have ten minutes to spare with plenty of time to find our way to Abercrombie Street. I like to be on time. The politeness of kings, and all that. If I’m going to be ten minutes late or more, I’ll phone to say so. It’s not so hard. So at exactly eleven o’clock, I’m standing outside Number 11, waving Susan good-bye. Then I turn and have a good look at the house, which is a neat cream—painted weather—board. And as I stand in the porch, about to ring the door-bell, my heart starts thumping the way it always does when I do house calls, which is ridiculous. You’d think I was on my way to face a firing-squad or something but it’s only a bookbuyer’s adrenalin rush and it lasts but a few moments. The door opens and Mrs Harris is inviting me in like an old friend. “Call me Pam,” she says. So I do.

One of the good things about doing house calls is getting to see inside people’s houses. It’s so interesting. This house gives me a slightly creepy feeling. It’s so neat. No mess or fripperies anywhere. No sign of dogs, cats, children or grandchildren. Just polished wood floors, with rugs and runners. Take away the bookcases and the books, which don’t belong anyway, and there wouldn’t be much left. And it’s cold. Don’t they have central heating in Wonthaggi? I am glad of the coffee and biscuits Pam serves me. She is short slim woman in her late sixties I suppose. She makes friendly conversation and she smiles a lot, but I sense a sadness about her. Especially when we get to talking about Tom, whose books I’m about to look at. He was a bachelor, she says, and he loved his books like nothing else. But she can’t wait to get them out and her house back to normal. And no, she has no objection to my taking video footage of the books. She stays in the kitchen while I look at the books. I like that. I can’t stand vendors hovering over me while I’m working.

Things are going well. After an hour and a half I’m about a third of my way through. They’re a good lot of books and pretty much what I expected. Here’s a whole bookcase of P.G.Wodehouse, most in dust-jackets, with just enough in the way of first editions to make things exciting. But no squillion-dollar gems, no early highlights, no sign of The Pothunters or William Tell Told Again or My Man Jeeves. And nothing signed or dedicated, no special presentation copies. I get the impression that Tom had a limited budget, simply collected on an ad hoc basis and that the real rarities simply never came his way or if they did, were beyond his means. But still. There’s good stuff here: colonial editions of Rider Haggard and Conan Doyle, for example. Here’s the Newnes 1902 edition of The Hound of the Baskervilles in its nice red cloth. The last copy I sold netted me quite few hundred dollars. And here is a first edition of The Lost World which didn’t. It should have but I didn’t know when I sold my copy that the English first, published in 1912, is undated. At a glance, it looks like any old reprint. So I sold it for fifty dollars, instead of for ten times that amount, which is what the man who bought it from me politely told me it was really worth. After he’d bought it of course. And so it goes.

Here’s Allan Quatermain. A first ? No, a second impression , but nice. And there’s a heap of more Rider Haggards. Strange that I have never willingly read a single book by Rider Haggard. When I was a boy, we read King Solomon’s Mines round the class. An excruciating experience for a fluent and accomplished reader to hear semi-literate classmates hacking their way through Rider Haggard’s prose. It put me off Rider Haggard forever. Strange though that I remember the character Umslopogaas. I was fascinated by the name, so foreign, so African, so romantic. He turns up in Allan Quatermain too, (the correct spelling of which our English teacher drummed into us). He was based on a real person, M’hlopekazi (d.1897), otherwise known as Umslopogaas, the warrior son of Mswazi, King of Swaziland in southern Africa. I know because I’ve looked him up in that fascinating treasure trove of a book by William Amos: The Originals — Who’s Really Who in Fiction (Cape 1985). “Asked if he were not proud to be immortalized in Rider Haggard’s books, Umslopogaas replied: ‘To me it is nothing. Yet I am glad that Indanda (Rider) has set my name in writings that will not be forgotten, so that when my people are no more my people, one of them at least will be remembered.’” Appropriate then that one of my heroes, Paul Robeson, played the part of Umslopogaas in the movie of King Solomon’s Mines made in 1937. Not a great movie, but a great man.

I’ve finished in the lounge, now for the dining room. Mostly American literature. Two big bookcases. One full of Zane Greys, the other full of Edgar Rice Burroughs. Did I say literature? Let’s call it fiction. The Zane Greys don’t strike me as much good. There is not a single fishing title among them and the fishing books are what people want. At least in my shop. Especially An American Angler in Australia and Tales of The Angler’s El Dorado which are set here in our southern seas. The cowboy books are all English editions, nearly all reprints and in moderate to poor condition. Though I stock half a shelf of cloth bound Zane Greys in my shop it’s a miracle if I sell more than one every six months. I spot a couple of nice English first editions here: Call of the Canyon and The Last of the Plainsmen. At least they look like firsts. Any good? I make a note on my clipboard and will look them up later. What about the Edgar Rice Burroughs? My gut feeling is that these are pretty good. I see none of his science fiction books, which I suspect is a pity, but Tarzan is here in spades: and Tarzan is wearing a jacket, lots of jackets in fact, splendidly illustrated and in excellent condition. If these are English firsts#8230;..hallelujah! I think they are. I know he’d rather have the American firsts but these must be good enough for Tom Congalton, specialist dealer in modern firsts at “Between the Covers” in Merchantville, New Jersey. Surely he’d lap them up? How pleased I will be to have an excuse to get in touch with Tom and Heidi.

I stand up and stretch: with all this bending and burrowing, my bones are beginning to creak and my muscles to moan. How am I doing? I must be half-way through at least. No, better than that. Two bedrooms to go, but what’s there I reckon I know my way around pretty well. It’s predominantly Australian literature, the highlights being the detective novels of Arthur Upfield, starring Napoleon Bonaparte, nickname Bony, the aboriginal policeman/tracker/detective. I read one once: Bony and the Black Virgin which sounds like a Mickey Spillane sort of book but isn’t. I enjoyed it, in much the same way that I enjoyed the only Agatha Christie I’ve ever read: I was happy to have had a taste but never felt an urgent need to read another. Still, Upfield is big, even in the U.S. Especially in the U.S.

Which is not the case with Ion Idriess. Few people outside Australia have ever heard of him, and in Australia those who have cannot agree on how to pronounce his name: Ee-on Ee-dris or Eye-on Eye-dris? (The first is correct). Idriess (1889-1979) was a prolific author, a knockabout wanderer who wrote about his experiences in Australia (and occasionally overseas) as a merchant seaman, rabbit exterminator, boundary rider, drover, rouseabout, gold fossicker, opal miner, pearler, crocodile hunter, explorer, surveyor and cavalryman. An action man! The stories are enthralling, tautly written and full of authentic Australian vernacular. They introduced many urban (and suburban) Australians to the wonders of their continent and its inhabitants. Naturally his books are keenly collected by admirers of the Australian “walkabout” genre of literature. I have read two: The Cattle King which is a biography of Sir Sidney Kidman who by the 1920s owned a whole swag of cattle stations across Australia, (and from whom I dare say the actress Nicole Kidman is descended) and The Desert Column which tells of Trooper Idriess’s part in the actions of the Australian Light Horse in Egypt and Palestine in the First World War. Both are absorbing books but The Desert Column is irresistible. If you want to know what it was like, say, to have taken part in the massed cavalry charge against the Turks at the Wells of Beersheba in 1917, Ion Idriess is your man. But The Desert Column is a not uncommon book. For the Idriess collector, the Holy Grail is the first edition of Cyaniding for Gold (1939). Not that it’s much of a read; it’s a pretty dry technical book which explains the process of extracting gold from rock by using cyanide. But it’s scarce. Especially in very good condition, in a dust jacket. Most copies went walkabout in the outback with their gold-prospecting owners; and few came back, and certainly not in good repair. My initial scan of the shelves has not revealed this treasure. But who knows? Just maybe…?

“I wondered if you’d care for some lunch?” says Pam.” It’s getting on for two o’clock and you must be hungry.” I hadn’t planned to stop for lunch, but it’s true I am hungry and I’m well on track. Another hour should see me finished. In the kitchen Pam has prepared dainty sandwiches and coffee. “An interesting man, your friend Tom,” I say. She explains how her husband met him while they were doing National Service in the late fifties. “Tom was always a romantic,” she says, “while Bill is sort of down-to-earth, he’s a fitter and turner by trade. Of course he’s retired now. He’s out playing golf. Tom was a printer but he would have liked to have been a writer. Not that he really had the chance. He left school when he was fourteen.” “And he never married?” “No,” she says. “He never quite found his dream woman.” “That’s the trouble with romantics,” I said. It’s funny me sitting here in a kitchen with a complete stranger talking like this. But I like it. It’s part of what I call my “psychic salary”, the non-financial return I receive for doing what I do. (I’ve borrowed this conceit from Paul Keating, a former Prime Minister of Australia, who, well aware his job carried a financial salary which was pitiful compared with the packages awarded to the CEOs of multi-national companies, freely acknowledged that it also carried a “psychic salary” of much greater worth).

A key turned in the kitchen door and Bill came in. He looked at me through narrowed eyes. “Who’s this?” he said, and stood by the door, with arms folded. “It’s the man who’s come about Tom’s books,” said Pam. “You know.” “I don’t know as a matter of fact.” He took a step towards me. “And I don’t know what you think you’re doing here. You needn’t think you’ll be buying any books to-day.” “I know that,” I said. “I’ve just come to look at them so I can value them and make you an offer later. That’s what we agreed.” “That’s what she agreed. But I can tell you the books aren’t for sale. Not now and not ever.”

I was dumbfounded. This was a new experience for me. But not perhaps for Pam, who had shrunk away into a corner and was looking steadfastly at the floor. “There’s obviously been a serious misunderstanding. I understood you wanted to sell the books. I’ve driven three hours from Melbourne, I’ve spent another three hours looking at the books and now you’re telling me they’re not for sale?” “Look, I’m sorry you’ve wasted your time, but she never had the authority to call you in… they’re my books, left to me by my friend Tom. And I never intended selling them.”

“He was my friend too,” said Pam. “and he left them to us jointly, if you remember.” I admired her for saying that. And I began to feel angry. “It seems the misunderstanding is between you two, and nothing to do with me. Except that I’ll have wasted a whole day on this wild goose chase. Perhaps you can sort it out and let me know in a few minutes.”

I went out and waited in the first bedroom, still dazed and wondering where I’d gone wrong. Then I thought I should concentrate on how to salvage something from this debacle. A copy of Cyaniding for Used Books would be handy. Sub-title: How to Extract Good Books from Recalcitrant Vendors. Very funny. I actually felt like feeding them cyanide direct and good riddance. Him anyway. Bill came into the room. “Look, I’m really sorry about all this,” he said. “We’ve decided that you can take the Zane Greys, if you want to make an offer for them. And there are fifty cartons of paperbacks in the garage. We’d be prepared to go halves with you on them. I suppose they’d average ten dollars each.” “You mean, ten dollars per box?” “No, I mean ten dollars per paperback. And there must be about 40 in each carton.”

Sometimes there’s nothing to be done. Some people are simpletons or rogues. Or simply suffering too much. To salvage something, my pride perhaps, I requested time to complete my valuation of the remaining books. I zipped through them in half-an-hour then I rang Susan to say I was finished. “I’ll send you my written offer in a few days,” I said stiffly to the Harrises, “in case you change your minds. You never know.”

“How did you go?” said Susan. I told her my tale of woe. “Deceased estates are always tricky,” she said. “I don’t think they were ready to let him go.” “Except for the Zane Grey and the paperback bits of him,” I said. “Maybe in six months or a year it will be different,” she said. “Make your offer open-ended just in case.” I sent them my offer which I said would be valid for two years, but somehow I knew I would never hear from them again. And I haven’t.

As we drove out of Wonthaggi, it was raining and I thought what a dump of a town it was. Full of dreary people and miserable shops, with an abattoir as its main tourist attraction. Somewhere I have a video-tape with twenty minutes of footage of Tom’s books on it. I’ve never looked at it. I’ve better things to do with my time. On the way home, I thought about house calls. How the dynamics of buying in a private house are quite different from buying over the counter in a shop. In a shop, you’re on your own turf and you call the shots; and you’re not wasting time driving around the countryside, filming books in cold houses, witnessing domestic disputes and being harangued by Wonthaggians. I wondered if I could have handled things any differently and I wondered what was going on in the Harris household that very moment. Nothing good, I thought. “I expect Tom was in love with Pam,” said Susan. “And Bill was jealous.” “You watch too many soaps on T.V.,” I said.

“I’m in the shop for the next five days,” I said. I was looking forward to it too. Dusty and dingy it may be, but it’s my dust and my dinginess and it’s exciting too. Who knows what a new day will bring? By the time we hit Melbourne I was over my disappointment. Next day I found a message waiting for me in my shop. A lady in Mooroolbark wanted me to ring her about a large quantity of books she had for sale and she wondered whether I would come out and see them. I phoned her. “Does your husband know about this”? I said. “I don’t have a husband,” she said. “You’re very lucky,” I said. And a week later I bought her books without the slightest hitch.

Anthony Marshall is owner of Alice’s Bookshop in North Carlton, an inner-city suburb of Melbourne, Australia. He is a member of the Australian and New Zealand Association of Antiquarian Booksellers and author of “Fossicking for Old Books” (Melbourne, 2004).