The Book Stops Here
My mother always warned me to be careful what I wished for, but did I listen to her? Of course not. I love my mom, really, but this was the same woman who liked to recommend espresso enemas to perk me up. The same woman who performed magic spells and exorcisms on a regular basis and astral traveled around the universe with her trusted spirit guide, Ramlar X.
Believe me, I’m very careful about taking advice from my mother.
Besides, the thing I was wishing for was more work. Why would that be a problem?
I’d been in between bookbinding jobs last month and was telling my friend Ian McCullough, chief curator of the Covington Library, that I wished I could find some new and interesting bookbinding work. That’s when Ian revealed that he had submitted my name to the television show, This Old Attic, to be their expert book appraiser. I was beside myself with excitement and immediately contacted the show’s producer for an interview. And I got it! I got what I wished for. A job. With books.
That was a good thing, right?
Of course, I didn’t dare tell my mother that I considered her advice a bunch of malarkey. After all, some of those magic spells she’d spun had turned out to be alarmingly effective. I would hate to incur her wrath and wake up wearing a donkey’s head—or worse.
“Yo, Brooklyn,” Angie, the show’s stage manager said. “You look right into this camera and start talking, got it?”
“Got it,” I lied, pressing my hands against my knees to keep them from shaking uncontrollably. “Absolutely.”
“Good,” the stage manager said. “No dead air, got it?”
“Dead air. Right. Got it.”
She nodded once, then shouted to the studio in general, “Five minutes, everyone!”
I felt my stomach drop, but it didn’t matter. I was in show business!
This Old Attic traveled around the country and featured regular people who wanted their precious family treasures and heirlooms appraised by various local experts. The production was taping in San Francisco for three whole weeks and I was giggly with pleasure to be a part of it.
And terrified, too. But the nerves were sure to pass as soon as I started talking about my favorite topic, books. I hoped so, anyway.
Today was the initial day of taping and my segment was up first. My little staging area was decorated to look like a cozy, antique-strewn hideaway in the corner of a charming, dust-free attic. There were oriental carpets on the floor. A Tiffany lamp hung from the light grid that was suspended high above the set. Old-fashioned wooden dressers, curio cabinets, and armoires stood side-by-side, creating the three walls of my area. I sat in the middle of it all in a comfy, blue tufted chair, at a round table covered with a cloth of rich burgundy velvet.
Seated across from me was the owner of the book we would be discussing. She was a pretty, middle-aged woman with an impressive bosom and thick black hair styled in the biggest bouffant hairdo I’d ever seen. She wore a clingy zebra-print dress with a shiny black belt that cinched in her waist and emphasized her shapely hourglass figure.
She had excellent posture, though. I’d give her that much. My mother would be impressed.
Between us on the table was a wooden bookstand with her book in place, ready to be appraised.
“Are you Vera?” I whispered. I’d already seen her name on the segment rundown but wanted to be friendly.
She smiled weakly. “Yes. I’m Vera Stoddard.”
I smiled at the sound of her high-pitched, little-girl voice. “I’m Brooklyn. It’s good to—”
“Settle down, people!” Angie shouted, and everyone in the television studio instantly stopped talking. Angie listened to something being said over her headset and then added loudly, “First on camera today is the book expert. It’s segment eight-six-nineteen on the rundown, people! Stand by!”
“I’m so nervous,” Vera whispered.
“Don’t worry, we’ll have a good time.” I could hear my voice shaking but I smiled cheerfully, hoping she wouldn’t notice. It wasn’t like me to be this anxious. All I had to do was talk about books, something I was born to do. It was a piece of cake. Unless I thought about the millions of people who would be watching. It didn’t help that several zillion watts of lighting were aimed down at me and the stage makeup I wore, while it made me look glamorous, was beginning to feel like an iron mask.
“So stop thinking about it,” I muttered, and plastered a determined smile on my face.
Angie caught my eye and pointed again at the television camera to her right. “Don’t forget, this camera here is your friend. This is Camera One. When you see the red light go on, it means you’re on the screen.” She turned and pointed to another camera a few feet behind her on the left. “Camera Two will get close-ups of the book and the owner’s reactions.”
“Got it,” I said, nodding firmly. “I’m ready.”
“Good.” Angie glanced around, then bellowed, “Here we go! Quiet, please! We’re live in ... Five! Four! Three! Two!” She mimed the word “One!” and waved her finger emphatically at me.
I took a deep breath and tried to smile at the friendly camera. “Hello, I’m Brooklyn Wainwright, a bookbinder specializing in rare book restoration and conservation. Today I’m talking with Vera, who’s brought us a charming first edition of the beloved children’s classic, The Secret Garden, written by Frances Hodgson Burnett.”
I smiled at the older woman and noticed her lips were trembling badly and her eyes were two big circles of fear. Not a good sign, so instead of engaging her in conversation, I gestured toward the colorful book on the bookstand.
“This version of The Secret Garden was printed as a special limited edition in 1911.”
I touched the book’s cover. “The first thing you’ll notice about the book is this stunning illustration on the front cover. The iconic picture of a blond-haired girl in her red coat and beret, leaning over to insert a key into the moss-covered door that leads to the secret garden, is famous in its own right. There are some wonderful details, such as this whimsical frame around the picture, painted in various shades of green with thick vines of pink roses.”
“I didn’t even notice that,” Vera muttered in her odd, sexy-baby voice.
“It’s subtle,” I said. “The artist was Maria Kirk, known professionally as M.L. Kirk. She was never as famous as her illustrations were, but she did beautiful work. Isn’t this lovely?”
“I think so,” Vera said softly.
I picked up the book and stood it on the table near me, keeping the cover turned toward the camera. “What makes this even more outstanding is that this illustration is actually an original painting on canvas.”
“Yes,” I said. “You can see that it’s been signed by the artist here in the lower left corner.”
Vera blinked in surprise and leaned closer. “Oh. And look, there’s a robin in the tree.”
I grinned at her, happy that she was getting into the spirit of things. The show’s director had urged us to keep the owner in the conversation so I hoped Vera would play along. “Yes, that robin has a role in the story.”
“I like birds,” she said with a sigh.
Uh-oh. I shot a quick look at her. Was Vera going spacey on me? My smile stayed firmly in place as I spoke to the camera. “Another unusual feature is that the painting has actually been inlaid into the leather cover. You can see how the edges of the leather have been beveled so nicely.” For the camera, I ran my fingers along the edge of the beveling and gave silent thanks to my friend Robin who had insisted that I get a manicure before the show.
“I’ve never seen anything like that before,” Vera said, her spacey moment apparently past.
“It’s really quite rare,” I agreed. “The bookbinder was clearly an artist, too, in the way he chose a rich, forest green leather to blend with the painter’s softer green frame. And the intricate floral gilding on the leather is patterned after the vines and roses on the painting.” I glanced at Vera. “Do you have any idea what the book might be worth?”
“I don’t have a clue,” she said, shaking her head. “It cost three dollars at a garage sale last Saturday.”
I choked out a laugh. “Wow. I don’t think I’m giving too much away if I tell you it’s worth a little more than that.”
“Oh, good.” She pressed her hands to her remarkable chest, obviously relieved by the news. Maybe now she would be able to carry on a normal conversation. Her voice was high yet sultry, but it seemed to suit her personality. I wasn’t sure why I thought that. I’d never met her before this moment.
I opened the book and showed the frontispiece illustration to the camera. “There are eight color plates throughout the book, all in excellent condition and each with tissue guards intact.”
I angled the book toward Vera. “They’re charming illustrations, aren’t they?”
She nodded politely. “They’re very nice.”
Nice? I thought. Was she kidding? They were spectacular. The entire book was fantastic. I couldn’t believe it had been allowed to molder away in someone’s garage. But I wasn’t about to criticize Vera’s lackluster response aloud.
I should’ve been used to that sort of attitude by now. Nobody gushed about books as much as bookbinders did. I would’ve loved to have mentioned how rare it was that a children’s book printed in 1911 was this beautifully preserved. Children were not generally known for their ability to treat books gently.
I sighed inwardly and changed the subject. “Now, obviously not every copy of this book could be printed with original artwork attached to its cover. So let me explain briefly about this particular edition. Back in 1911 when this book was printed, a publisher would occasionally release two versions of the same book. A regular edition and a limited, more expensive edition. This version is obviously one of the limited edition copies.”
“How limited?” Vera asked, her gaze focusing in on the book.
“Very.” I turned to the next page. It was almost blank except for two lines of print in the middle. “This is called the limitation page. It states here that only fifty copies of this numbered edition were printed. And the number six is handwritten on the next line. So this particular book is number six out of fifty copies made. It’s beyond rare.”
Vera gulped. “And ... and that’s good, right?”
“Yes, that’s very good. And, of course, you will have noticed that on the same page we see that it’s been authenticated with the date and original signature of the author, Frances Hodgson Burnett.”
“I did notice that.” She bit her lip, still nervous, though this time I figured it was from excitement, not fear.
Now that she was finally showing some emotion, it was time to bum her out. Earlier at rehearsal, Jane Dorsey, the show’s director, had advised us to balance things out by mentioning a few negatives. So I flipped to a page in the middle. “I should point out a few flaws.”
Vera’s expression darkened. “No, you shouldn’t.”
I chuckled. “I’m sorry, but the book isn’t without its imperfections.” I faced the page toward the camera and pointed at some little brown spots. “There’s foxing on a number of pages. These patches of brownish discoloration are fairly common in old books.”
“Eww.” She drew the word out as she leaned in to get a good look. “Are those bugs?”
“No. They’re microscopic spores, but that’s not important. Sometimes foxing can be lightened or bleached, but you should always hire a professional bookbinder to do the work.”
Turning to the inside front cover, I said, “There’s also an additional signature on the endpaper, right here.” I made sure the camera could see what I was referring to, and then I took a closer look at it myself. “It doesn’t look like a child’s handwriting. It was probably a parent signing for the child. I can’t quite make out the name, but I assume it’s the signature of one of the book’s first owners. They used a fountain pen and it’s faded a bit.”
“And that’s a bad thing?”
“Writing one’s name in a book can diminish its value, but that’s another topic altogether.”
“Let’s not dwell on the negatives,” I hurried to add, “because other than those items and a few faded spots on the leather, it’s in excellent condition and—”
“And what?” Vera demanded, interrupting what was about to be my rapturous summary of the book’s qualities.
I pursed my lips, thinking quickly. I had been given six minutes to talk about the book, but the director had warned me that as soon as I revealed my appraisal amount, my segment would be over, even if I had minutes to spare.
I wasn’t ready to stop talking about the book, big surprise. But Vera was finished listening and it was time to put her out of her misery. More importantly, I noticed Angie hovering. And Randolph Rayburn, the handsome host of the show, stood next to her looking ready to pounce into the camera shot and cut me off.
“And for a book of this rarity,” I continued hastily, “in such fine condition and with the author’s original signature included, it’s my expert opinion that an antiquarian book dealer would pay. . .
© Kate Carlisle
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