Many years ago, I was book hunting at a used bookstore in Detroit. After buying several volumes, I inquired if the owner knew anywhere else I could purchase used Nancy Drew. He told me that he knew of a man who lived outside of Detroit who had been a collector of series books for decades. He believed the man had extra series of books for sale and gave me his phone number.
When I returned home, I called the man and learned that he had several Nancy Drews in dust jackets that he would sell. I set up an appointment and a couple of days later I was on the road to a rural area northeast of Detroit.
Michigan, like all five states set up under the Northwest Ordinance of 1789, was laid out on a grid system with each grid square being 1-mile east-west by 1-mile north-south. Two-lane asphalt roads were built on the borders separating the grid squares even if the roads led nowhere. In rural Michigan, the corner lots of these grid squares were generally the first properties developed.
The man with the books lived in a house with his wife and adult son on the northwest corner property at one of the intersections of the asphalt roads defining the grid squares. As I drove up to the address I noted that no other property seemed developed as far as the eye could see in any direction. In reality, his property wasn't really that developed either. It was just dirt with an odd house on it, odd because Michigan houses were generally built over a basement. There must've been something about the lot, because the basement of his house was on the ground level and his house proper was raised above the ground level as if it had been built on a flood plain even though Michigan didn't have a flood plain. I had never seen a house like it. Further, neither a garage nor a driveway of any kind seemed associated with the property, a problem considering Michigan winters. His old car sat on bare ground that had been packed down from many years of being used as a parking space.
I drove onto his lot and parked next to his car. In typical Midwest fashion, the man and his wife saw me drive up as the dust cloud reached the second level of their house and they ran out to greet me. Both were at least in their seventies, possibly older, and they had been clearly married for so long that they now looked alike. They invited me in and we climbed the staircase on the outside of the house past the basement to the door of the kitchen which served as the front door of the house. As I entered the living room from the kitchen, I saw that it was quite large and looked as if it had been furnished in 1910 and nothing had changed since. Tightly closed heavy drapes covered each window rendering the room quite dark even in the middle of the day.
The man had laid out the books he had for sale on a folding card table and opened one of the drapes covering the window right next to the card table slightly so that I could get a better view of the books. He wanted one dollar apiece for each of the Nancy Drews in dust jacket and fifty cents apiece for each of the Judy Boltons in dust jacket (which eventually went to Margaret Sutton). I had come a long way and the books were in good condition so I bought everything he had for sale, placed them in a bag and made ready to leave. The man and his wife asked me if I would like to sit down for a while and have a chat. Clearly they were lonely. I gather that they didn't get away from the house very much, and in no particular rush, I sat down and spent a pleasant twenty minutes talking with them about general topics and the weather.
Then, the man asked me out of the blue if I would like to view his collection. I replied that I would like that very much and without another word he got up, turned and walked down a hallway to the back of the house to a room obviously serving as his and his wife's bedroom. I remember that I could barely see in the bedroom but as we walked in, on the right-hand side there was a door, presumably the closet where he kept his book collection. The man opened the door, but instead of books there appeared a roughly constructed, plywood staircase, very steep and covered with dust, and illuminated by a small window half way up. Obviously, the stairway had been constructed at some time later than the original construction of the house for some unknown purpose. He ascended the staircase continuing his silence as I followed him. To fit the limited space, the staircase was constructed nearly as steep as a ladder.
As the man reached the top of the staircase, he opened another door and went inside but I stopped at the top because I could not see inside. I heard the click of a pull cord and saw that he had turned on a single light bulb dangling from the center of the room. Though not large, the room was completely packed with the clutter of many decades strewn about in no particular order in keeping with the habits of people at that time who had lived through the Great Depression and did not throw away things that could be potentially used in the future. I looked around trying to find some books but I didn't see any. The man didn't say a word but just shook his head and motioned to another door at the end of this room that I hadn't seen previously. He made his way to the next door deftly while I carefully stepped here and there trying not to walk on anything.
The man opened the next door and walked into the new room and I heard another click of a pull cord from another single light bulb dangling from the center of the room that illuminated this new space. The second room, also cluttered, appeared to have some organization to the clutter as things were in boxes and bags. In the very center of the room under the light bulb rested a threadbare orange chair that had been sat in so often the center of the cushion had a permanent depression in it. I went to the chair and started looking through some of the nearby bags and found that they contained boys' magazines from the early twentieth century. I didn't get much time to look, however, because the man shook his head again and beckoned me to yet another door at the far side of the this room. I followed him from the second room into a third. This new room made up the far side of the house flanked by a large window covered with decades of dirt, never apparently having been cleaned from the outside, but it gave enough light along with another overhead light bulb to view the contents of the third room.
As I entered this third room I saw things...wonderful things. This room was completely outfitted with bookshelves all around the perimeter and bookshelves occupying the entire center of the floor midway up to the ceiling, obviously custom made for the room and of a quality that contrasted markedly with the rest of the house. The room contained not one other thing but the shelves and books. And, every single space on every single bookshelf was occupied by a series book.
The man didn't say anything. He didn't show me anything. He just went to the other end of the room and started looking at his own books, I was free to sit on the floor and look. I saw sets by Oliver Optic, Horatio Alger, Jr., Henty, Ellis, all of the best boys books from the 19th Century. I saw runs of early Tom Swift. I saw a set of The Boy Fortune Hunters which was the most highly sought-after series book set in the 1970s. I saw sets of The Motorcycle Boys, The Motorcycle Chums, The Motor Boys, The Rover Boys; virtually everything of significance from 1930 and before. The man had spent a lifetime amassing the most perfect collection of 19th Century and early 20th Century series books I had ever seen or have ever seen since. It was clear to me that he allowed very few people into this room--his sanctuary. And all of these books were in the third room of the hidden closet on a dusty lot in the middle of nowhere in a rural area of Michigan.
I looked through the collection for about two hours. Eventually, with the afternoon wearing on, I told him that I had to get back on the road before it got dark. I thanked him for showing me his books, picked up the bag of books I had purchased, stowed them in the car and backed off their property onto the road as the couple stood outside their house waving goodbye until obscured by another cloud of dust. Though I never saw the man or his wife again, the story didn't end there.
About fifteen years later, I was studying law at the University of Michigan in Ann Arbor. Besides the University, the town was noted far and wide for it’s many used book stores, some with huge inventories. Each of these stores had a distinct personality. One only sold paperbacks. Another, mostly art and coffee table books.
One, however, was particularly clean and well organized. As you walked in, there were glass cases on either side with shelves behind the cases, both cases and shelves having nothing but first editions, and most of them signed. A well-dressed employee maned each display. You asked to see a book, you didn’t browse. There was also an upstairs and a basement containing thousands of expensive tomes, fiction upstairs, non-fiction down. In the back of the main floor, however, were children’s books, to the extent they had any–usually there weren’t any. But on this one particular day, I stopped in just on a whim. To my surprise, since my prior visit, they had an entire bookshelf crammed with absolutely beautiful volumes of series books, complete sets, every one priced the same $6.00. I remember being confused. This was a library, not something usually seen in a used bookstore, no matter how classy. Then I took a closer look. I had seen these books before, many years before. I knew whose they were and what had happened. The man in house with the hidden library had died and some heir had remaindered the collection, probably the same price for each book regardless.
I felt sick to my stomach. I could not bring myself to buy any of them. It was the man’s life’s work. His pride. Something unique. Never to be enjoyed again as a collection. Destruction. Waste. Ignorance.
It was the first time I experienced this personally. I had known many collectors who had died before then, but had never seen a collection dispersed. It was the first of many such in the following years.
In 1989, I received a letter, or rather a large envelope stuffed with paper from one Phyllis Butters containing xeroxs of page after page of my current Guide with corrections carefully noted in neat handwriting. Phyllis, an editor by profession, had taken it upon herself to offer me the fruits of hours of pouring over the hundreds of single spaced lines in my latest creation. From this, a long-distance friendship developed. I only met Phyllis once when I was laid over in Boston. Each book I produced would go to Phyllis in duplicate, one for her and one for her to edit and return. She had finished the first 200 pages of Call Me Dave in 2016 and sent it to me. We talked on the phone. She suggested that we meet up in 2017 at the upcoming Sleuth convention for a particular reason not relevant to this blog but highly intriguing. She also assured me that the remaining edits would be ready in a month or two. When I did not hear from her, I assumed that she was too busy to work on them, and in any case, there was no rush–she always came through. Then I heard that she had died. A particularly deep sadness. Phyllis was passionate about Nancy Drew, as passionate as any collector I had known. She spent thousands on her books and she was not wealthy. The money was taken from other uses that would have made her life more comfortable.
Then, about a year later, I received a call from a good friend telling me this story. She had been visiting her family in Boston when she got an urge to check out the local bookstores to see if any Nancy Drews were for sale. At one, she found the most spectacular group of near perfect thick editions, many firsts, all $50 each regardless. The store owner told my friend that a man had come in with all of them and sold them for $25 each and that he had many more, but the store owner could not buy the remainder because the man would only sell a certain number to each bookstore. My friend bought them all. They were part of Phyllis’ collection. My friend searched the other bookstores in Boston but could not locate even one more from the collection. Phyllis’ most prized possessions–now dispersed.
That brings me to the purpose of this blog. I am getting older, read that elderly. Over the years, I have sold perhaps 70% of my original collection of Nancy Drews, the collection on which I based my first Guide. But I still have, not only books, but probably the largest collection of important items related to the series in private hands. I expect to die with most of it.
Yes, I have a will. Yes, I have specified in the will many of the most valuable items. But I don’t expect any executor, no matter how well intentioned, to really care about any of it, the boxes, the shelves full, the various notebooks and containers.
I had hoped that a series book museum would be established. No go so far. The “Special Collections” libraries, such as at Lansing and Tampa I believe are well intentioned but few people have access.
So I leave this question for consideration; what should be done with collections, our life’s works, our accumulations, the documents, photos, signed firsts, rare but worthless relics of historical significance to this hobby or passion? Are they all doomed like the man’s with the hidden library, like my friend Phyllis’....or is there another way?
It’s a mystery.... I don’t have a clue....
Puzzled in Pasadena