Finding “The Best of Us” at the Bryn Mawr-Wellesley Book Sale
By Stuart Mitchner
At the 2009 Bryn Mawr-Wellesley Book Sale, I found a book on a cart marked “Declined by Collector’s Corner,” the room where the rarest volumes are displayed. Given the event’s stated purpose (funding student scholarships) and timing (March being Women’s History Month), Hart’s Class Book of Poetry (1845) seemed worth a closer look. Compiled by John S. Hart, principal of the Philadelphia High School, the time-worn little anthology had a name and date written in brown ink on the title page (“Lizzie Shipp, June 18, 1858”) and under that, the words “school almost out.”
I bought the book not because it had been marked down to a dollar, nor because it was appropriate to the purpose of the sale or the national occasion; it was the specificity of time and place matched with the owner’s name. If it had been Elizabeth Shipp, I might have left this foundling on the reject cart, except that this was an anthology of selections from Chaucer and Shakespeare to Wordsworth and Coleridge that belonged to a school girl who signed herself Lizzie, a name that for me still sings with the immediacy of the moment. I can almost hear the cries of “Lizzie! Lizzie!” echoing down the hallways and out on the schoolyard. But there’s another, later date at the bottom of the title page: “June 21st 1861 examination next week.” Apparently Lizzie had lived with the book for three years, the Civil War was looming, and now here she is in the 21st century on the magic carpet of this weathered volume, denied a place in Collector’s Corner, like one of the “homeless poets of Bryn Mawr” I wrote about in my first piece on the sale in March 2004.
Making Volunteers Smile
In last Sunday’s visit to Collector’s Corner, I found Iliana Bjorling-Sachs and Julie Steinman busy unloading and stocking the usual assortment of treasures and curiosities. They were particularly elated about books from the library of Princeton historian James McPherson, and not only the older, rarer volumes such as the Personal Reminiscences of Gen. R.E. Lee or McClellan’s Own Story. What had them smiling were the ones that the young McPherson, born in 1936, had written his name in, perhaps when he was the same age as Lizzie Shipp and had yet to know that the subject of his life’s work would be the Civil War.
In fact, Collector’s Corner has much to offer in addition to rare and pricey volumes. Last year I wrote about some things I found on the tables marked Ephemera (“How I Spent $8 at the BMW Book Sale and Came Home Happy”), including a brochure about Jack Kerouac, a paperback on Kafka, a booklet about the inventor of the saxophone, a piece of sheet music from 1934, and a facsimile of a typed memo from Orson Welles suggesting sound and editing changes for his film Touch of Evil. This year just before I left, Julie and Iliana showed me a Women’s History Month coup — a program for the June 1916 National Woman’s Party Convention in Chicago, headed “Congressional Union for Woman Suffrage.”
One recent morning when the New York Times was late in arriving, I had breakfast with a piece of ephemera I found at a long ago Bryn Mawr sale. This copy of the November 1923 issue of Scribner’s magazine has been in the family for years because of the cover showing a cat like a sibling of our tuxedos Dizzy, Nick, and Nora rubbing up against a Russian wolfhound like the one that belonged to our then-next door neighbors.
Besides being more convenient than the huge splayed-out pages of the Times, the 100-year-old magazine was easier — and less depressing — to read with toast and coffee. After 70 pages of advertising, volume LXXIV No. 9 opened with “An Intimate Portrait of RLS by His Stepson, Lloyd Osborne.” Even readers old enough to have grown up with A Child’s Garden of Verses or Treasure Island may not associate those initials with Robert Louis Stevenson.
Lloyd Osborne was 8 years old when he met the man who would become his stepfather: “He was tall and slight, with light brown hair, a small golden mustache, and a beautiful ruddy complexion; and was so gay and buoyant that he kept everyone in fits of laughter. He wore a funny-looking little round cap, such as schoolboys used to have in England.” The detail of the schoolboy cap brought Stevenson to life for me in that breakfast moment — another example of residual book sale chemistry.
When I was growing up, Stevenson was a pleasant fact of everyday life, his handsome face on a card in Authors, a game I played with my parents and friends; his image could also be found in the biography at the back of the Classic Comic of Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde. The likeness seemed a bit sinister, closer to John Wilkes Booth than the more glamorous image on the Authors card, but then I was
reading Classic Comic No. 13 when America was at war with Germany and Japan, my experience of the novel haunted by the “fiend Hyde” who could overpower and possess Dr. Jekyll “without warning at any moment, any hour.”
Another history lesson of sorts can be intuited from that November 1923 issue of Scribners, which is teeming with what George Kennan used to call “advertising matter,” ranging from Carter’s “writing fluid” and Shur-on Spectacles and Eyeglasses to a painterly full color ad for Steinway, “The Instrument of the Immortals,” showing Sergei Rachmaninoff at work in his cozy lamplit study (“in this quiet room are born the brilliant effects which distinguish his musical creations”). One of the most handsomely designed color pages is for a Kohler Viceroy built-in bathtub (“A Glorious Bathroom”). And, no surprise, there are pages advertising books from various publishers, including one featuring editions of Robert Louis Stevenson opposite Edith Wharton’s “greatest novel,” A Son at the Front, “at sale at all bookstores for $2.00”; the notice comes with favorable quotes from newspapers in New York, Boston, and Chicago, headed, of course, by the New York Times, then as now “the newspaper of record.” Another ad on Stevenson’s page worth mentioning in the context of this column is Ventures in Book Collecting, which is situated next to a boxed notice (“Companionable Books”) for the “fourth large printing” of Princeton author Henry van Dyke’s latest work.
The last actual article in a magazine published in 1923 and bookended by more than a hundred pages promoting numerous products is headed “Hesitant Markets and the Financial Future” with the subhead “Stock Exchange Fluctuations Which Foreshadow Nothing.”
Wednesday Is Now
Edith Wharton’s A Son at the Front, along with a remarkably voluminous selection of her many other works, can be found at this year’s Bryn Mawr-Wellesley sale. At least that was the case two days ago. Even though the set-up was still in progress when I looked in, with stacks of boxes towering against the walls, I could already imagine the magnificent immensity of the completed enterprise. Having witnessed the roaring chaos of Wednesday morning at the 2022 sale, and having recently viewed HBO’s dystopian series The Last of Us (where survivor Ellie’s most precious possession is a battered paperback No Pun Intended: Volume Too), I can imagine an apocalyptic fate for Tuesday night’s fabulous metropolis of printed matter, all its manifold neighborhoods calm, safe, and undisturbed by human hands other than those of the many volunteers; the subject areas well-marked and neatly arranged: history, science, biography all in coherent formation in one of the two vast spaces, literary classics fiction, children’s books, in another, and the treasure island of Collector’s Corner a short distance away in a district all its own. By Wednesday morning when this issue of the paper lands in driveways, real and virtual, the once fabulous city of books will resemble the immediate aftermath of a natural catastrophe.
So I ask myself, why go into detail about books that have already been trucked away by dealers or eagerly snatched up by bibliophiles paying the $30 entry fee? It’s as if I were celebrating the casinos and saloons of old San Francisco on the eve of the great 1906 earthquake. That said, another rebuilt if somewhat smaller-scaled city of wonders will be there for those who show up Thursday through Sunday when admission is free. And keep in mind that in the Wednesday morning frenzy hurried buyers inevitably abandon all sorts of desirable items. There could be a whole street in Book Sale City named Overlook Avenue.
And what of Lizzie Shipp? Surely her descendants and namesakes are still to be found somewhere in the New York-Philadelphia metropolitan area. After a hasty look online, the best I could do is a “massage therapist” at Desert Rose Salon Spa whose boyfriend or husband is a cross between Roy Kent and Coach Beard on the hit series Ted Lasso that just began a new season on AppleTV+. Don’t let the implications of “massage therapist” mislead you about this possible descendant of Elizabeth Shipp. You can tell she’s worthy of her sister in time by the first image on her Instagram page, where she’s hunkered down in a sweatshirt and jeans, head propped on hand, as if pondering “what’s past, or passing, or to come.”
The book sale is located in two gymnasiums at the Stuart Country Day School, 1200 Stuart Road, Princeton. Hours are Thursday, 10 a.m. to 8 p.m.; Friday, 10 a.m. to 5 p.m.; Saturday, 10 a.m. to 5 p.m., Collector’s Corner closes; and Sunday, $10 Box Day, from 10 a.m. to noon (standard “wine box” size only).