The Day Harper Lee Came To See Me
by Richard Chalfin
My great-grandfather was an itinerant book peddler in Odessa, who sold out of a backpack; my grandfather owned used book stores in Williamsburg and on South Street. These he held mainly to support gambling and drinking habits; his sons managed the businesses and he collected revenues. When my father returned from World War II, he found his lovingly maintained store run into the ground by his father. He then began building what became an East Coast empire in used and rare comics. If he read at all, it was James Michener, and while he was on the toilet.
My father and I were born into the trade, but most rare-book dealers are more literate. We are all artful traffickers with good visual memories. In badly lit stacks, we are diamond miners. Many of us are obsessive; we’re cursed—we love the books. No dealer wouldn’t get a major electrostatic charge handling a first-edition Gatsby with its dust jacket intact. I’d hold it high above my head like a newborn, sniff it, diaper it in Mylar and call all my friends. A collector would do the same, for they are similar creatures, every bit as crazy. One who frequents the Strand strokes the books and talks to them.
We dealers would, by impulse, check a first edition of The Enormous Room by E.E. Cummings for the word "shit" on page 29 (it was crossed out in later editions). Over the years we develop extensive mental catalogs of errors, of dust jackets and the prices on them, of printings that are surprisingly worthy (a second edition of Call It Sleep will fetch hundreds; in Stephen Ambrose’s Nixon trilogy, the first and third volumes are common, the second ridiculously scarce). In a few minutes in your library, we can end decades of self-delusion, spotting jackets married to non-matching editions, a phony Truman Capote signature or (the kiss of death) discreet leaf-shaped imprints near the spine that mark a book-club printing, rendering an otherwise identical, treasured "first edition" nearly worthless. (Many illustrious hearts have been broken this way.) But the obscure items you’ve been meaning to dump—Paul Sorvino’s weird How to Become a Former Asthmatic, the 1981 Master Crossword Puzzle Dictionary, an Alcoholics Anonymous manual from 1954—could get you a decent wristwatch.
I came to book-finding in the 1970’s, after attempting to delay the inevitable by becoming a dancer, when I injured my knee. Today, The Better Book Getter is one of maybe three general-interest book search firms in Manhattan. I search used bookstores in Jersey, upstate New York, Connecticut, Washington, D.C. I developed an important ally working in the basement of the Strand, who would hold and hide things for me. I took on Albert, my very gifted associate and a book pervert of the noblest order. And even after the Internet transformed the book-finding trade, allowing us to stay in my office much of the day, I dedicated a few nights a week to the Strand and spent my weekends scouring stores in Albany or Easton, Penn.
There are thousands of plums in this trade, and then there are Holy Grails to make a book searcher pass out from joy, then burden his family and friends for years with the telling and re-telling of the discovery. I fantasized constantly about finding one; I never expected one to find me.
In 1997, an elderly woman called. She had a delightful Southern accent and was looking for a novel called When Rain Clouds Gather. I found it on the Internet and had them pack and send it. When I called to tell her it had been shipped, I noticed the name on her credit card.
"Any relation to Harper Lee?" I asked.
"That’s my best friend," she said, and laughed.
"Oh, God," I said, "what an honor. I love your book." This was true. To Kill a Mockingbird was one of the Big Seven, my favorite among them, and I had seen the movie for about the 20th time the night before. "You never know a man till you walk in his shoes," I added, like a slobbering imbecile.
"Bless your heart," she said.
"How come you never wrote another?"
"I said what I had to say." She paused. "You are so sweet. If you ever need me to sign a copy of my book, I’ll be glad to."
It was a gesture of uncalled-for charity. I thanked her again and again.
"My book must be going for quite a price nowadays," she said.
This was just plain coy. She almost never signs books; her signature would multiply by 10 the worth of a Mockingbird first edition, and she knew this well. I began to sweat when I remembered a signed copy had just been sold for $12,000 at auction. Now I only had to find an unsigned one. I high-fived Albert.
Almost immediately I found a first British edition for $400, and picked it up. But the first Americans were seldom listed, and expensive. It was another year before a Georgia dealer, for reasons known only to him, listed one for $10. I assumed it was the charred remains of a first edition, until it arrived—jacketless but in good condition, and real. A bizarre quirk of fate. I now had two first editions—an O.K. if not great first American and a fine first British, with a nice watercolor on the jacket and Harper Lee’s 1960 photograph on the back (it is a lovely picture; her hand on her hip, short hair, an adorable thin-lipped smile). But I had lost her address. I didn’t find it for another year.
I thought I had missed my chance, even after I’d found, when cleaning my apartment, the scrap of paper with her name and a P.O. box in Alabama. I sent the books anyway—by now it was late 1999. I had sent two rare books to a P.O. box in Alabama. After two weeks, I was resigned to a like-minded postal worker having had the books signed by "Miss Lee" himself. I thought of him driving around in his new truck. Then spring came and she called.
"I’m in New York but the books are in Alabama with my sister," she said. "When she sends them up, I’ll sign them," she said.
"I’ll pick them up," I said. "I’ll take care of it," she said. Another week went by. Then the call. "What’s your address?" she asked.
I told her.
"I’ll see ya!" she said.
The intercom buzzed. She was waiting in the lobby—maybe 5-foot-2, in sneakers and a pantsuit, in her 70’s but still with the same bright, present smile of her photograph. My assistants and I lined up at attention.
"It’s an honor to meet …" I said. It was becoming like Tourette’s.
"Here’s your books signed." She put them in my hands, then put her arms around me and hugged me as I hugged them.
She had taken a bus over from the East Side. She said she was about to walk up to Columbia.
"You know, I’m a fourth-generation bookseller," I said.
"I guess I found the right person," she answered.
"If you ever need a book, it’s on me."
"I know," she said.
Of course, I sold the American first edition, to Bauman’s. That was a given, was it not? I made four figures on it. Had there been a jacket, God only knows.
I keep the British on the shelf above my desk, turned around. I love her picture, the smile. Her signature is also surprisingly youthful and unpretentious, like her. Later in the spring she wrote me a letter; I have that staring down at me too. It’s a windowless office. I need the light.