Recession Makes Cool Stuff Cheap

1227301093Last Sunday we decided to check out the rare books and manuscripts auction at Skinner’s. While I was merely curious (I’d gone to my last auction with my parents when I was about 5), my friend had other intentions.

He picked up a bidding paddle at the front desk and spent the hour before the event fondling crumbling, leather-bound tomes with obscure titles. Almost all the potential bidders looked alike—erudite, bespectacled, and in their mid-50’s—with the exception of a South Korean film crew that was documenting “American culture” and the young female interns in black aprons walking the floor, making sure no one stowed a priceless volume in his underwear.

At the start of the sale, John Adams, John Hancock, and George Washington correspondences whizzed by, then came more recent presidential works (like a signed copy of George H. W. Bush’s autobiography).

Up next were dozens of lots featuring 19th century books about arctic exploration. I hadn’t checked out these books before the auction, but during the sale, you could slides of their covers.

The titles dripped like melting ice over lurid drawings of tiny triple-masted ships broadsiding enormous icebergs. There were dogsleds, Eskimos, and more icebergs, all rendered in golds and whites on dark cloth-bound covers.

I was amazed at the sheer number of titles dedicated to arctic travel—those were the days when a good percentage of the crew didn’t come back. Now that we can watch Greenland melt real-time, seeing these books made me a little nostalgic.

It turned out the prices were in reach, even for lowly magazine editors like me, especially because the economy had spooked people away from casual buying. When a book on the Bauhaus came up that I’d seen in a used bookstore, I elbowed my friend. He put up his paddle, and suddenly, we were in the game.

Panic set in when the price neared triple digits, and I nudged him again to get out. But that was all it took—I was hooked. After a dozen or so more lots, a 10-volume 18th century dictionary came up for bid. I had to have it, I mean, wouldn’t it look great on my shelves?

And if I could get it for less than $200, that would equal $20 per book, less than I’d paid for a modern hardcover. I nudged him again. The paddle went up, no one else budged, and in about 30 seconds, this historic artifact was ours. We had no idea what we’d just bought, but we knew its lot number and the price: $250.

We went over to pick it up at a long table. One of the interns took our receipt and disappeared into the gallery. A few moments later, an enormous brown book appeared to my left. “I think that’s ours,” I whispered in horror. “No,” my friend said. “Our set is small.” How did he know?

Then a few more huge books showed up so I sidled around to see the spine. It said, “Dictionary.”

“I think this is our set.”

“No,” he whispered impatiently. “It’s coming next.” Then the proverbial light bulb went on. Yep, it was ours, we’d just bought five square feet of something very, very old. A few hours later, we were sipping Diet Cokes and reading the Who’s Who of 18th century Europe from the original text in our kitchen.

Ah, how wonderful this recession is!