If you’re one of our beloved locals, you probably don’t see me much behind the counter at Underground Books and might be surprised to find out that I work full time (and, quite happily, beyond) for the bookstore. That’s because, away from charming, historic Adamson Square, out on busy Bankhead Highway, amid the gas stations, used car lots, and family owned buffets, there’s another Underground Books–the UndergroundBooks.Net office/warehouse/annex (we’ve never really settled on a name). This is my dominion.
The office is where we store large collections we buy while we put on our Sorting Hats and research the books to decide whether they will go to the bookstore, to one of our dollar sales, or to my “to be cataloged.” These fateful decisions are based on a lot of quantitative information–market price, whether a book is signed or a first printing, whether we have a lot of copies in stock already–but it’s often also an intuition-driven decision as well–do we think you’ll walk into our bookshop and be surprised and delighted to find it there? If not, it might be better suited for our online inventory, which I catalog, photograph, list for sale on UndergroundBooks.Net and other online platforms, and eventually pack and ship all over the country and the world.
The books that end up on UndergroundBooks.Net are usually niche in one way or another. Here are two examples of books that never glimpsed the inside of 102 Alabama Street: 1) Goethe’s Chinesisch-Deutsche Jahres-Und Tageszeiten bound by design and fine art binder Edwin Heim of the Centro del Bel Libro in Ascona, Switzerland with illustrations by Swiss-Hungarian printmaker, painter, and type designer Imre Reiner and 2) Trade and Conflict in Angola: The Mbundu and Their Neighbours Under the Influence of the Portuguese 1483-1790. Though very different books, the former being the most beautiful binding we have ever handled, the latter a scholarly study of economics in Sub-Saharan Africa, they were both online for the same reason–their target audiences were people on the other side of the world from us. On a side note, we’re not always right about where a book should be. For instance, we just sold The Spanish Republic: A Survey of Two Years of Progress, a book from our online inventory, to a local patron who came in the bookstore looking for it.
When I have a book in front of me, I don’t always know how much time it will require. If it’s like Trade and Conflict in Angola, and there are many copies available online, and it’s not signed by the author or it doesn’t contain the bookplate of some famous economist, I catalog it quickly and put it aside. Some books, however, require significant research. Perhaps the book is inscribed by the author to someone I’ve never heard of but research might turn up was the author’s lover or their writing partner who later accused them of stealing credit. That could potentially add a lot of value to what would otherwise be a common book. Take the handwritten Jack London letter we wrote about previously on the blog, it’s of course valuable in that it is a letter penned and signed by Jack London, but the fact that it is written to Charmian Kittredge, his mistress at the time, and that it contains some scandalous content, adds further value. Sometimes booksellers spend years researching books. Such was the case of George Koppelman and Daniel Wechsler who, after buying a copy of John Baret’s An Alvearie, or, Quadruple Dictionarie, published in London in 1580, from Ebay, came to believe it was Shakespeare’s own, annotated copy of the Elizabethan dictionary, a fascinating scholarly process which you can read more about in their book, Shakespeare’s Beehive: An Annotated Elizabethan Dictionary Comes to Light.
I spent a considerable amount of time researching the Edwin Heim binding, in part because I needed to find out who Edwin Heim and Imre Reiner were and what this work by Goethe was all about, but particularly because almost all of the information I could get from the book and from online resources was in German. I often had to type directly into Word, carefully finding the German letters, just to paste into Google Translate and get a rough idea of what a webpage said. It was painstaking and really very fun. When my own resources weren’t enough to satisfy my need to do justice to this book, we sought the consulting services of Abby Schoolman, an expert who represents many contemporary fine art bookbinders (like Christine Giard, a former student of Edwin Heim’s) and who writes American Bound, an excellent blog on the subject. I didn’t spend much time on Trade and Conflict in Angola, simply quoting from the front flap in my catalog. The time I spent on each book was proportionate to its value (and its mystery), at the end of the day.
That said, I sometimes go a little overboard…I’m a scholar at heart, and I chose professional bookselling in part as a way to fulfill my need to learn continuously. Learning weird new things is what makes the long nights worth it for me. Recently, we purchased the estate collection of an Atlanta-based author of women’s military history and metaphysics. Among her large, diverse, and constantly surprising collection of books, she had several on the subject of Frances E. Willard (1839–1898), the women’s suffragist and prohibitionist who was instrumental in the passing of the Eighteenth and Nineteenth Amendments to the U.S. Constitution. One of these books was inscribed by Willard, quite warmly, to a Mrs. Bishop Eastburn. Who was this Mrs. Bishop Eastburn? Why did Willard call her sister, inscribe a book for her “with warm love,” and refer, oh so obliquely, to a “happy meeting by the sea”? I had to know.
I googled away for a few hours, trying to find some connection. After finding more and more about Bishop Manton Eastburn, diocesan bishop of Massachusetts, her husband, I became determined to find Mrs. Eastburn’s first name. I even found a digitized copy of The Eastburn Family, Being a Geneological [sic] and Historical Record (1903), which alas was able to tell me a whole lot about Bishop Eastburn, but only “There is no account of his marriage…” when it came to Mrs. Eastburn. I did find many references to “Mrs. Bishop Eastburn” or “Mrs. M. J. Eastburn” in Our Dumb Animals. You read that title right; it was a magazine founded in 1868 by the Massachusetts Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals (MSPCA). Though mostly mentioned as a subscriber, Mrs. Eastburn does make an appearance in the July 1887 issue, which credits her as playing an influential role in the founding of the Maine State Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals. Frances E. Willard comes up in several volumes of Our Dumb Animals, as well. She was a member of the MSPCA. Though I never found any further connection between the two women, I did eventually find Mrs. Eastburn’s name, through Vital Records of Cambridge, Massachusetts to the Year 1850, Volume I. Births. Mrs. Bishop Eastburn was born Mary J. Glover in 1804. You can see the eight volume collection of books by and about Frances E. Willard, including the rare inscribed volume, here on UndergroundBooks.Net.
I don’t know how much value I added to this book by hunting down Mary Eastburn’s name, but I do know how much the search for it added value to my day. Every day, I handle some book that has a title I’ve never heard of and an author I’m crossing my fingers has a Wikipedia page, and every day, I handle some book that has something to teach me, even if it’s just that Frances E. Willard had a shepherd collie named Prohibition, or “Hibbie,” for short, or that she was the first woman represented in Statuary Hall, or that Lady Henry Somerset (a British suffragist and temperance advocate who wrote introductions to several of Willard’s books) was voted the woman readers of the London Evening News would most like to see as the first female prime minister of the United Kingdom.
Yours in curiosity,
Co-Owner, Online Inventory Manager, & Ravenclaw