I live in an old neighborhood filled with old people who are dying at a reliable rate, which means that there are frequent estate sales in the neighborhood. I walk the neighborhood pretty much every day, and if I see an estate sale sign, I’ll walk toward it and go through the house, looking at the items of the recently deceased, or recently relocated, or what have you, not so much interested in purchasing anything as I am trying to piece together a little bit of a life from objects, colors, totems. Sometimes the interiors of these houses remind me of being in my own grandparents’ homes back in 1985—homes built in the 1950s with few updates, some tasteful furniture, maybe a bit of fanciful wallpaper, a pink-tiled bathroom. Sometimes I might buy a knife or a tool or a mirror, or even get lucky with an old print or painting. And of course I always look through the books.
The books you might find in the homes in the estate sales in my neighborhood are generally predictable. There are bibles, a small selection of “great books,” classics, what have you, a few books that indicate the removed persons’ hobbies, old cookbooks with few or no color pictures. Often you might find the books of the eldest or middle child, selections from their freshman English course. Westerns, mysteries, a few art books.
Today I came across an estate sale not even a block from my house and meandered in. The man running the estate sale had sold me a large signed Alexander Calder print a few years ago, not realizing its full value; he had then called me repeatedly trying to sell me three more Calder prints which he had repriced and overpriced. He didn’t recognize me. The house was much smaller inside than I had expected, but beautifully furnished. There was a large framed photograph of Winston Churchill on the fireplace mantel along with a leather-bound collection of his memoirs. On the other side was an incomplete selection of Shakespeare plays, also bound in leather. Outside was a small shallow swimming pool, clearly original to the house.
The layout of the house—a brick midcentury ranch home, like almost all of the homes in the neighborhood—was very similar to my own house’s layout, and I could even see the use of the some of the same materials (particularly in the guest bathroom, which had not been updated). The first and second bedrooms suggested a couple who at some point had had two children, a boy and a girl, probably five or ten years older than I am. The last bedroom was being used as an office or study, and it was filled with books. There was a large electric Olivetti typewriter on the desk in this room, as well as a beautiful early 1980’s Bose sound system with a strange control box.
The first row of books I saw soured my hopes of finding anything worthwhile. It was mostly conservative stuff, including stuff by Charles Murray and David Brooks. Nothing fringe exactly, but still. There were also lots of books about travel and France in particular, including several plays in French (one by Moliere). This book case also held several books about writing—style manuals, thesauruses, etc., but also a book about selling one’s writing and a book on the publishing industry. The next book case was filled with paperbacks. Someone before me had fished out A Clockwork Orange and left it unshelved; it was the same edition I had read myself almost thirty years ago. The case held lots of sci-fi paperback—at least a dozen books by John Brunner and Robert Heinlein.
Near the bottom shelf was an oddity—a poorly-printed Clarice Lispector book, An Apprenticeship; or, The Book of Delights, published by the University of Texas in 1986. I have a matching copy of Lispector’s Family Ties.
The last shelf held mostly hardbacks, including lots of Steinbeck, Hemingway, and other twentieth-century American novelists. I picked up the first-edition hardback copy of Padgett Powell’s first collection of stories, opened it, and was surprised to find that it was signed by the author.
I wondered if I was in Cliff’s old study. Once I’d committed to taking the Lispector and Powell with me, it was easy to take the Library of America’s Collected Works of Flannery O’Connor.
I didn’t buy the beautiful deer antler knife from the kitchen, and I didn’t buy the Emory University Alumni coffee cup, although I wanted both, but I think that they are waiting for someone else.