Sometimes you get lucky. Other times — not so much.
Not long ago I was this close to acquiring a particularly special book. Oh, I’ve bought and sold any number of precious items, wonderful books, some of which might even have been unique, but this specific book would have put me in rarified air. I would have purchased (and then hopefully sold) a book that I might never acquire again in my career — at least at my age. It was truly a once-in-a-lifetime book. If I was 25 instead of 65, I might have another shot at one, but I can’t change my age and when this book slipped through my fingers, I felt a body blow that still hurts. If you think I am being evasive about the particulars, you are correct.
And then I got lucky. And on this occasion I can be specific. Followers of this blog (you know who you are, and I thank you) may remember a post a few months ago where I married together two books that had been separated by decades. To recap, a New York bookseller sold one of my customers a book titled Nuit Sans Lune, a French translation of John Steinbeck’s The Moon Is Down. This was in 1971. This is a book that was dropped by airplane by resistance forces over German-occupied territories during World War II. Why this book? It tells a tale in which a country can be over-run by an evil regime, but wherein its people can never be truly conquered. This same bookseller also sold a signed galley proof of the American edition of The Moon Is Down, complete with a clamshell case, to another bookseller in Southern California at the same time. Fast forward a few decades when I acquired that galley proof from the Southern California bookseller, and then sold it and its clamshell case, which had a special section created for Nuit Sans Lune — then empty — to my customer. This was a fun transaction and made for a good story. If you like, check my blog archive for Oct. 14, 2013, a piece titled A Literary Mystery, for the full story.
Nuit Sans Lune is one of these once-in-a-lifetime books. I was aware of it when I first became acquainted with the customer who owned the book. This was back in the very early 1980s. I had never seen one. I knew of no one who had one. It wasn’t listed in the Goldstone & Payne Steinbeck bibliography. It was not part of the historic Bradford Morrow catalogue. The only printed information on the book just came to the marketplace when my customer, Ken Holmes, published his John Steinbeck A Descriptive Catalogue of the Holmes Collection. See his D105 entry on page 219. This very tiny book, which doesn’t name the author, doesn’t name the translator, doesn’t give a place of publication, the name of the publisher, or even the date of publication, sold at auction in 1945 for $65. In that same sale you could have purchased an immaculate copy of The Grapes of Wrath in like jacket for $8. Does that give you some perspective as to its value and gravitas? It should.
I was sure I would never encounter a copy, but then the skies parted, light shone down upon me, and someone took pity on me and my previous bad experience. The handsome and brilliant (he made me say that) Michael Hollander, also an ABAA member, had read my blog entry, A Literary Mystery, and managed to acquire a copy of Nuit Sans Lune from a German dealer. Would I like to buy it? Damn right! It’s a tiny little thing. It can fit into the palm of your hand, and yet it packs a wallop as to its dollar value. It also packs a wallop as to its historic value. It also packs a wallop as propaganda that helped marshal resistance forces that ultimately helped defeat Hitler and helped save liberty for our democracy. I feel blessed in acquiring a copy. It stayed with me only two days before I sold it to an overjoyed customer who has a title collection for The Moon Is Down and now has some serious bragging rights. I’ll probably never see another copy, but for a short time I owned it. I held it. I enjoyed it. It spoke to me in ways that I can describe only as spiritual. It’s truly been a mystical experience. As a bookseller, you live for days like these. Some days are pedestrian. Some are like a religious experience. I like the latter.