By Frank Werner
Always in these days when the antiquarian book fairs in Boston, Chelsea, Sydney, Toronto or in California, New York, Paris, Milan and London open their doors to visitors I remember the day when I lost my books. Have you ever made this experience? Have you ever attended an antiquarian book fair without your books? Empty shelves for sale? I’m a retired antiquarian bookseller of over 40 years standing. I think I have seen most of what this curious profession has to offer: the interesting and the boring, the delightful and the dreadful, the amusing and the saddening. Most of all, I have seen a lot of strange and curious events, and I am about to relate one of the most curious here.
Many years ago, when my back was still straight and my beard black and bushy, I regularly exhibited at the London International Antiquarian Book Fair at Olympia. As my shop was based in the south of Germany, I had my books transported there by shipper. I packed them in boxes, put the boxes on a palette, put another, huge box around the whole kaboodle and wrapped it with liberal amounts of some sort of gigantic clingy foil. The address I pasted onto it was that of the shipper who was to take the whole thing to Olympia from somewhere on the outskirts of London. Not a single mention of books, rare or otherwise. I describe this procedure at length because it pertains to what follows.
I followed the steps recounted above in the year 2002. Boxes, cling foil, everything. A man in a van picked up the palette, stuck some bar code labels onto it, scanned them and departed.
Several days later, a few days before my flight to London, the fair shipper called me up to ask when my books would be arriving. I told him they should there by now. They weren’t.
So, slightly nervous, I got on the phone. The palette had been moved from van to lorry, gone via France to Calais and thence to Dover. All this could be checked by bar code scannings. But, somewhere between Dover and London, the palette disappeared. No amount of phoning, pleading, swearing and downright threatening made it re-appear. 500,000 Euros worth of books and photographs had evaporated without a trace.
So, with a heavy heart, I flew to London to preside over an empty stand. I pinned a letter at the shelf saying:
This stand should be full of beautiful and desirable books. However, our carrier has let us down badly, and they got lost in transit.
We do hope that the books will eventually turn up again …”
A strange feeling indeed, even though I got any amount of attention, lots of very kind people consoling me with stories of how they themselves had lost things and got them back.
My books never came back. I reported the loss to a bewildered police officer, who made me fill out a form “Lost in the street” and I still remember his look of surprise when I put 500,000.- in the little box marked “Value”. Thankfully I’d insured the books. The insurance tried everything, they even hired a detective. But not even Sherlock Holmes found a trace. Then they insinuated that I had somehow made the books disappear to cash in on the insurance. That was patently silly, and they dropped that line. Then they tried to find prices on the internet, but couldn’t. So they said the books weren’t valuable or rare at all. I told them they were, that’s why they weren’t on the net. The whole thing took ages, but in the end, muttering darkly to themselves, they paid up.
And that was the end of that. Except, sometimes I still wonder where my books are. Perhaps the box was unloaded in a warehouse somewhere, pushed into a corner and forgotten. Or did it end up in a container bound to Novosibirsk, where bewildered but delighted fishermen are now wrapping their catch into old prints and Curtis photographs?
I don’t think I’ll ever find out.
Text and pictures courtesy of Frank Werner.