How I Spent $8 at the BMW Book Sale and Came Home Happy

By Stuart Mitchner

OHe was once a regular player at the Bryn Mawr Book Sale casino. This was before Wellesley took part in the annual event where booksellers come to play and pay, but not to sell.

Around this time, early risers would start lining up at dawn, ready to shoot the most desirable items as soon as the doors opened. It’s about getting there first when you know that a volume marked $10 can be worth anywhere from $100 to $500 or more. Or so it seemed until various digital devices took most of the guesswork out of the game. By then I had moved on, covering sales as a member of the press, which allowed me to see the pristine stock before it was ravaged by encroaching hordes of collectors and book hawks.

Imagine the castle

From time to time, I regret the adrenaline rush of those who wait early in the morning outside the entrance, caught up in the mystique of the quest for books, a traveler at the door of a vast imaginary camp divided into markets covered with literature, art, history, science, mystery, fantasy and rare, old and unusual volumes.

At this moment in my life as a reader, the image of the traveler at the door is derived from the first chapter of Franz Kafka The castle, where K., the land surveyor, first sees the castle hill “veiled in mist and darkness”. A clearer view shows “a rambling heap of countless small, tightly packed, one- or two-story buildings; if K. had not known it was a castle, he could have taken it for a small town. As K. approaches, “thinking of nothing else”, he is “disappointed with the Castle”, which is, “after all, just a miserable town, a cluster of village houses”.

Recalling images of his distant hometown, K. feels an uneasy fascination with the tower of the Castle, “pierced with small windows which shone in the sun – with a rather maniacal brilliance – and surmounted by what looked like an attic, with jagged, broken, groping crenellations, as if drawn by a child’s trembling or careless hand, clearly outlined against blue. It was as if a mad, melancholy tenant who should have been locked in the highest room of his house had burst through the roof and risen up into the sight of the world.

I penciled three exclamation points in the margin next to this passage in my copy of the novel. Reading it again, I think what impressed me was how much the ‘manic flickers’ poke fun at the mystique of the quest, the savagery of the writing that jumps out at you after a relatively restrained approach .

The first find

Speaking of tenants “mad with melancholy”, what about Edgar Allan Poe? No player trying their luck in the BMW casino expects to find Poe’s Tamerlane and other poems, sold at auction in 2009 for $662,500. Online retailers are asking up to $8,500 for a first edition of Kafka’s Die Verwandlung (Metamorphosis) and $15,000 for the first English translation of The castle. I bought a fine copy of the “Definitive Edition” (Knopf 1954) for $35 plus shipping from a California bookstore. What I liked was George Salter’s cover art (no sign of the castle, just a snowy storybook landscape of tangled paths leading nowhere), and Thomas Mann’s homage, which places The castle in “the world treasure of literature”. Even better, Mann’s piece is dated “Princeton, June 1940”.

The dust from the opening day hustle and bustle had cleared when I arrived at Stuart Country Day School last Wednesday. In a few minutes I found Franz Kafka today, edited by Angel Flores and Homer Swander (University of Wisconsin Press 1962). Next door, in the wild jumble of the literary classics table, was Franz Kafka: An Anthology of Marxist Criticism, which I did not buy. I needed Kafka today, in the moment, even if the “today” was more than half a century in the past. And it only cost me $1. Also, I was traveling light, well aware of the steep hill leading up to the parking lot; I guess the two Kafkas had been swept up and thrown away by weary merchants with heaps of books to keep “and miles to go before sleeping”.

The poet’s table

Covering my first BMW book sale for the newspaper 18 years ago (“Billy Collins and the Homeless Poets of Bryn Mawr”), I focused on the poetry tables. By “homeless” I meant the cheap, lesser-known poets who remained when the sale ended. It’s safe to say that in terms of readership over the years, Robert Frost, whose 148th birthday is this Friday, has always found a home somewhere. It showed up at last week’s sale thanks to Richard Poirier’s landmark study from 1977, Robert Frost: The Work of Knowledgewhich begins with a quote from Frost that is worth repeating in the context of homeless poets: “There should be in everything you write a sign that you come from almost anywhere.”

Having studied with Poirier at Rutgers, I already own the Frost book as well as copies of The performing self and all his others. Looking for poets from Princeton, I found CK Williams smiling at me from the cover of his collected poems and, nearby, Edmund Keeley’s translation of The selected poems of CP Cavafy. I got to know Williams on the bounce of the Homeless Poets column, where I gave him the wrong last name (the dumbest, luckiest journalistic blunder I’ve ever made). Mike Keeley, who passed away last month, helped me fill in some amusing details about his Princeton schoolmate, WS Merwin, whose book The sound of the river appeared at the 2019 BMW sale with a few lines referencing Keeley (“we’ve been friends since the two of us / started shaving”). With Poirier, Williams and Keeley all at home in my library, the one the book I picked up was The Poetry of Solitude: A Tribute to Edward Hopperwhich I left behind an hour later during my long wait at checkout.

Kerouac for 50 Cents

In Collector’s Corner, I saw a familiar face on the ephemeral table: Jack Kerouac in the photo taken by Allen Ginsberg in Tangier, 1957. The accompanying brochure was Lowell Places by Kerouac, a guide, published by the Lowell, Mass. City Library, with an “appreciation” from Charles Gargiulo, who grew up in the Little Canada section of Lowell 30 years before Kerouac. Given the Kerouaciana market, this beautifully produced document, with photographs of the town and streets that Kerouac talked about and a detailed map, was a bargain at 50 cents. It’s also a reminder that 1922 is the centennial of the American writer least likely to be left alone at any book sale, anywhere.

Finding Orson Welles

On another ephemera table, I discovered a facsimile of a Universal Studios package from December 5, 1957 containing a stapled 58-page copy of a typed note from Orson Welles suggesting sound and editing changes. for his 1958 film. touch evil. If you’re a vintage movie buff like me (and my wife, who started the Films In Print series at Rutgers University Press that included touch evil), this piece, priced at $1, would be worth the $25 admission, which I was spared because all I needed to show the guard at the door was a printout of my column on the Pandemic abbreviated event held at Princeton Day School in March 2020.

The Dreaming Saxophone

The most expensive purchase I made ($5), also at Collector’s Corner, was Leon Kochnitsky Adolphe Sax and his saxophone, a 49-page illustrated booklet published in 1964 by the Belgian Information Center at Rockefeller Plaza. The fact that it’s an old library copy with the release card and envelope still intact makes it generally undesirable at all costs. But I couldn’t resist the dynamic cover art by Jan Cox and the witty written life of the instrument’s creator who, a century later, sang along with the poetry of Lester Young, Charlie Parker, Wardell Gray and Sonny Rollins. Fervent and “unfailing defender of the invention of Sax”, the composer Hector Berlioz praises his “incomparable expressive qualities”, such as “he can, in slow movements, rival the best singers. The saxophone sighs, moans and dreams.

Bryn Mawr 1976

My last purchase on sale, for 50 cents, was the score for the 1934 film, The Merry Widow, directed by Ernst Lubitsch, with music by Franz Lehar and “new lyrics” by Lorenz Hart. Although the cover shows a uniformed Maurice Chevalier waltzing with a white-dressed Jeanette MacDonald, that’s not why I bought it. I was making a sentimental connection to the day in late April 1976 when I wandered from the old medical center to a book sale in a building behind what was then the town hall. I was in a daze, fresh from the birth of a son; my book Indian action: An American Trip to the Great Eastern Fair had just been released and was on sale in the U-Store, and I had no interest in bargains or rarities. The only thing that caught my attention were the sheet music of Hindustan, the silhouette of an Indian scene, an elephant with black temples and minarets on an orange sky. Still there, tacked to the side of the bookcase just behind me, is a tattered and slightly faded memento of my first Bryn Mawr sale and my very first purchase there. I forgot how much it cost, but I’m sure it was a bargain.

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Today, Wednesday, March 23, from 8-9 p.m., PBS Books and their partner libraries will host a virtual event featuring former Poet Laureate and former President of the Lewis Center at Princeton, Tracy K. Smith, in conversation with Elisa New on Robert Frost Wall’s ‘Mending’, in honor of her upcoming birthday.

Laura J. Boyer