March 23, 2022

How I Spent $8 at the BMW Book Sale and Came Home Happy

By Stuart Mitchner

Once upon a time I was a regular gambler in the Bryn Mawr Book Sale casino. That was before Wellesley had a stake in the annual event at which book dealers come to play and pay, but not to deal.

In those days early birds would start lining up at the crack of dawn, primed for a shot at the most desirable items as soon as the doors opened. It’s all about getting there first when you know a volume marked $10 might be worth $100 to $500 or beyond. Or so it seemed until various digital devices took most of the guesswork out of the game. By that time I’d moved on, covering the sales as a member of the press, which allowed me a view of the virgin stock before it was ravaged by invading hordes of collectors and book hawks.

Imagining the Castle

Every now and then I miss the adrenaline rush of those charged early morning waits outside the entrance, caught up in the mystique of the book quest, a wayfarer at the gate of a vast imaginary encampment divided into covered markets of literature, art, history, science, mystery, fantasy, and volumes rare, old, and unusual.

At this moment in my reading life, the image of the wayfarer at the gate is derived from the opening chapter of Franz Kafka’s The Castle, where K., the Land Surveyor, first sees the Castle hill “veiled in mist and darkness.” A clearer view shows “a rambling pile consisting of innumerable small buildings closely packed together and of one or two stories; if K. had not known that it was a castle he might have taken it for a little town.” As K. moves closer, “thinking of nothing else at all,” he’s “disappointed in the Castle,” which is, “after all, only a wretched-looking town, a huddle of village houses.”

Recalling images of his far-off home town, K. has an uneasy fascination with the Castle tower, which is “pierced by small windows that glittered in the sun — with a somewhat maniacal glitter — and topped by what looked like an attic, with battlements that were irregular, broken, fumbling, as if designed by the trembling or careless hand of a child, clearly outlined against the blue. It was as if a melancholy-mad tenant who ought to have been kept locked in the topmost chamber of his house had burst through the roof and lifted himself up to the gaze of the world.”

I penciled three exclamation points in the margin next to that passage in my copy of the novel. Rereading it, I think what impressed me was how “maniacal glitter” mocks the mystique of the quest, the wildness of the writing jumping out at you after a relatively restrained approach.

The First Find

Speaking of “melancholy-mad” tenants, how about Edgar Allan Poe? No players trying their luck in the BMW casino actually expect to find Poe’s Tamerlane and Other Poems, which sold at auction in 2009 for $662,500. Dealers online are asking as much as $8,500 for a first edition of Kafka’s Die Verwandlung (The Metamorphosis) and $15,000 for the first English translation of The Castle. I bought a nice copy of the “Definitive Edition” (Knopf 1954) for $35 plus postage from a California bookseller. What appealed to me was George Salter’s cover art (no sign of the Castle, just a snowy storybook landscape of tangled pathways leading nowhere), and the homage by Thomas Mann, who places The Castle in “the world’s treasury of literature.” Better yet, Mann’s piece is dated “Princeton, June 1940.”

The dust of the opening day stampede had cleared by the time I arrived at the Stuart Country Day School last Wednesday. In a matter of minutes I found Franz Kafka Today, edited by Angel Flores and Homer Swander (University of Wisconsin Press 1962). Next to it in the savaged shambles of the Literary Classics table was Franz Kafka: An Anthology of Marxist Criticism, which I didn’t buy. I needed Kafka today, in the moment, even if the “today” was more than half a century in the past. And it cost me only $1. Plus, I was traveling light, well aware of the steepness of the hill leading up to the parking lot; my guess is that the two Kafkas had been swept up and discarded by weary dealers with loads of books to keep “and miles to go before they sleep.”

The Poet’s Table

Covering my first BMW book sale for the paper 18 years ago (“Billy Collins and the Homeless Poets of Bryn Mawr”), I focused on the poetry tables. By “homeless” I meant the low-priced, lesser-known poets left behind at the sale’s end. It’s safe to say that in terms of his readership over the years, Robert Frost, whose 148th birthday is this Friday, has always found a home somewhere. He showed up at last week’s sale by way of Richard Poirier’s landmark 1977 study, Robert Frost: The Work of Knowing, which begins with a quote from Frost worth repeating in the context of homeless poets: “There ought to be in everything you write some sign that you come from almost anywhere.”

Having studied with Poirier at Rutgers, I already own the Frost book along with copies of The Performing Self  and all his others. Looking for Princeton poets, I found C.K. Williams smiling out at me from the cover of his Collected Poems and, nearby, Edmund Keeley’s translation of The Selected Poems of C.P. Cavafy. I got to know Williams on the rebound from the homeless poets column, where I gave him the wrong last name (the dumbest and most fortunate journalistic gaffe I ever made). Mike Keeley, who died only last month, helped me fill in some amusing details about his Princeton classmate W.S. Merwin, whose book The River Sound turned up at the 2019 BMW sale with some lines referring to Keeley (“we have been friends since both of us / were beginning to shave”). With Poirier, Williams, and Keeley all at home in my library, the one  book I picked up was The Poetry of Solitude: A Tribute to Edward Hopper, which I left behind an hour later during my long wait in the checkout line.

Kerouac for 50 Cents

In Collector’s Corner, I saw a familiar face on the ephemera table: Jack Kerouac in the photo Allen Ginsberg took in Tangiers, 1957. The brochure it came with was Kerouac’s Lowell Places, a Guide, published by the Lowell, Mass. City Library, with an “Appreciation” by Charles Gargiulo, who grew up in the Little Canada section of Lowell 30 years after Kerouac. Given the market in Kerouaciana, this handsomely produced document, with photographs of the city and streets Kerouac wrote about  and a detailed map, was a bargain at 50 cents. It’s also a reminder that 1922 is the centenary of the one writer in America least likely to be left by his lonesome at any book sale anywhere.

Finding Orson Welles

On another table of ephemera I discovered a facsimile of a Universal Studios packet from December 5, 1957 containing a stapled, 58-page copy of a typed memo from Orson Welles suggesting sound and editing changes for his 1958 film Touch of Evil. If you’re a vintage movie buff like myself (and my wife, who started the Films In Print series at Rutgers University Press that included Touch of Evil), this piece, priced $1, would be worth the $25 admission, which I was spared since all I needed to show the keeper at the gate was a print-out of my column about the pandemic-abbreviated event held at Princeton Day School in March 2020.

The Dreaming Saxophone

The priciest purchase I made ($5), also from Collector’s Corner, was Leon Kochnitsky’s Adolphe Sax and His Saxophone, an illustrated 49-page booklet published in 1964 by the Belgian Information Center in Rockefeller Plaza. The fact that it’s an ex-library copy with a check-out card and envelope still intact would usually make it undesirable at any price. But I couldn’t resist the buoyant cover art by Jan Cox and a wittily written life of the creator of the instrument that a century later sang with the poetry of Lester Young, Charlie Parker, Wardell Gray, and Sonny Rollins. A steadfast and “unfailing advocate of Sax’s invention,” the composer Hector Berlioz praised its “incomparably expressive qualities,” which are such that “it can, in slow movements, vie with the best singers. The saxophone sighs and moans and dreams.”

Bryn Mawr 1976

My last purchase at the sale, for 50 cents, was the sheet music for the 1934 film, The Merry Widow, directed by Ernst Lubitsch, with music by Franz Lehar and “new lyrics” by Lorenz Hart. Although the cover shows a uniformed Maurice Chevalier waltzing with a white-gowned Jeanette MacDonald, that’s not why I bought it. I was making a sentimental connection with the late April day in 1976 when I wandered from the old medical center to a book sale in a building behind what was then Borough Hall. I was in a daze, fresh from the birth of a son; my book Indian Action: An American Journey to the Great Fair of the East had just been published and was on sale in the U-Store, and I had no interest in bargains or rarities. The one thing that caught my attention was the sheet music for Hindustan, the silhouette of an Indian scene, an elephant with temples and minarets black against an orange sky. Still here, tacked to the side of the bookcase just behind me, is a tattered, faintly faded souvenir of my first Bryn Mawr sale, and my first ever purchase there. I’ve forgotten how much it cost, but I’m sure it was a bargain.


Today, Wednesday, March 23, from 8 to 9 p.m., PBS Books and their partner libraries will host a virtual event featuring former poet laureate and former chair of Princeton’s Lewis Center Tracy K. Smith, in conversation with Elisa New about Robert Frost’s “Mending Wall,” in honor of his upcoming birthday.