At the Back Fence Issue #246

November 27, 2006

From the Desk of Robin Uncapher:

The Side Effects of Glomming or
Why My House Looks like Antiques Roadshow Gone Awry

In my dream, I stand in a busy city conference center echoing with a thousand private conversations. Excited collectibles fans stand under a banner that reads WELCOME TO ANTIQUES ROADSHOW. They bend with the weight of priceless and not so priceless family treasures. The lady behind me carries a Chatty Kathy doll circa 1964! The man in front carries a turn-of-the-twentieth century Indian blanket. I lug a liquor store carton filled with romance novels. When they see my books, people stop making eye contact.

I am becoming embarrassed when Leigh Keno, one of the blonde antique loving Keno twins (the guys who often go into raptures over authentic 18th century Boston furniture) approaches me, signaling that I should lay my books on a table for the cameras. I try to arrange them attractively. First, come the Mary Balogh trads, then the Carla Kelly trads. I lay out the original In Death series and next to that, my old Loretta Chase followed by original Suzanne Brockmann and old Patricia Gaffney. I pull out hardcover Veryans – which are not ex-Library and a whole set of Jane Ashford trads, Jo Beverley trads and Jean Ross Ewing trads and other miscellaneous books.

Leigh and his brother Leslie Keno, examine my books silently. Meaningful glances pass between them and Leigh raises one eyebrow at the sight of the Veryans.

Leigh Keno: Could you tell us what you have here?

Me: Yes, this is my collection of vintage romance, most of it from the 1990s.

Leslie Keno: And how much do you think you paid for these?

Me: Well, usually .50 or 1.00.

Leigh Keno: And how much do you think they are worth?

Me: Oh I don’t know. I have about 60 books here. I would suspect they are worth about $100. Maybe more. Some of the Veryans are worth more, though I feel silly collecting Veryan since I don’t read her books.

Leigh Keno: Ms. Uncapher – this is the finest set of vintage romance novels I have ever had the privilege to see. On auction they would go for…no I really can’t set a price on them. Those Jean Ross Ewings alone are almost impossible to find and the Jane Ashfords? I honestly did not think there were Jane Ashford trads of this quality in existence today. Your judgment is remarkable. Thank you, so much for showing them to us today. They are a national treasure.

  Yeah that’s my dream and no, I am not holding my breath. But I do love collecting some romance novels just for the heck of it. And I am convinced that they are worth more than they are worth, regardless of the truth. This is because they are worth more, to me, I suppose, and what better measure of value can a person have than that?

I began reading romance relatively late in life. Many of the DIKs listed at AAR were long out of print when I read them in 1998, so I built my romance novel collection from thrift shops and garage sales, in part because there was no place else to look. Nowadays books are far easier to find online, but sometimes the excitement of the chase still gets me up on Saturday mornings.

Here is a description of a collecting spree that I went on a Saturday a few weeks ago:

I charged out of the house early in search of the following: Jennifer Crusie, Ruth Wind, Mary Balogh trad Regencies, additional copies of old Carla Kelly (to give as gifts), vintage Loretta Chase, vintage Judith Ivory…you get the idea. What I have in mind is a collecting glom, not a single author glom.

I have two kinds of gloms. The single author glom is an I-must-have-more-of-this-author now glom. When I do that kind of glomming, the impetus is similar to a food craving. I read what I have and glom to secure my next “fix.” The Internet is a godsend. $20 is much, too much for me to spend on most books, but if there is only one copy of XYZ author and I am on page 150 of my very last book by her – well $20 is not too much. Before the Internet used bookstores really got going, I bought a lot of books just to avoid this kind of glom. In the late 90s I saved books compulsively. What would happen if someday I could not get my hands on a Mary Jo Putney? I had to have all of her books. I hoarded books against the unlikely event that I would someday be completely broke, snowed in or out of books to read.

Eight years of romance reading have reduced my single author gloms. I’ve collected hundreds of books against possible book famine. I still have one or two of my very favorite authors to read – mainly because I can’t face the idea of reading that last Carla Kelly or that last Garwood historical.

Most of my glomming these days falls into another kind of glom. With the second kind of glom I am looking for buried treasure, books I do not need but would like, books I know are valuable, and books I can give as gifts. Lastly I look for books that are really, really cheap. My searching is not confined to romance novels. I buy old dolls, expensive cookware, prints, Rodin reproductions, video games, sofa pillows, dishes and crewel yarn. In my supposed search for romance novels, I have been known to buy window blinds, wall paper border, electric fans, cat beds and a wealth of other stuff.

So on a typical Saturday morning this fall, I head out before nine to find the neighborhood yard and rummage sales advertised in Friday’s Washington Post. The goal is ostensibly romance novels. By 8:30 AM I am sorting through piles of stuff on the manicured lawn of some well-to-do Bethesda residents a few miles from my house. The house is such that it astonishes me that these people have bothered to hold a moving sale – but I’m glad they have. I find stuff I have yearned for, not seriously, but momentarily. They have The Firm – no, not the Grisham bestseller, the exercise program – and for ten dollars I can buy the equipment and all the videos! Or, for the same price, I can buy a bread machine, unused and in the box. Do I want a bread machine? Ah, actually no. I like making bread in a food processor. But I can have one, which gives me a huge kick.

In the book section I find expensive bestsellers The Red Tent, The Zone, The Zone Diet, A Week in the Zone, The Atkins Cookbook (this seller was surprisingly slim for someone with so much diet and exercise stuff). There are brand new looking autobiographies of Katherine Graham and Ben Bradley. Alas, there is no romance, but I choose some spanking new hardcover bestsellers I have been lusting for and move on.

Next on the agenda is the local church rummage sale. On asking about books I am told that no, there are no books. They are saved for the November book sale. Disappointed, I wander through the household goods until my eyes spy a gorgeous print of 1649 Annapolis, Maryland. “How much is it?”, I ask. “Would five dollars be too much?” is the tentative reply.

Five dollars is less than the frame is worth, so I grab the print, which will look great in my den. Wow…I am glad I went looking for romance novels today. I am ready to go, but at the last minute, decide to glance at the children’s things. I am in luck. Someone has donated six Game Cube video games, none of which my son owns. They are like new and one has never been opened. They are a dollar apiece. Should I take them all? I feel like a hog. There are wonderful videos too, and a DVD of the animated movie Ice Age, still sealed and perfect for my nephew’s Christmas gift. I take the games and DVD and leave the videos knowing someone else should have at least as good a morning as mine.

Leaving the rummage sale I notice that my backpack is getting heavy, and I still have no romance novels. I walk down the street to the Montgomery County Thrift shop. This shop is a boon to book glommers. Just a few days ago I found a brand new copy of Mary Balogh’s Simply Unforgettable for fifty cents. Today there are no new romances, but…ah, yes…I see a new copy of He’s Not That Into You, perfect for a newly single old friend, two new YA Chick Lit books for my daughter, and a 2006 gardening book so beautiful I can give it as a Christmas gift. Browsing I pick up a paperback about South Africa called A Witness for Ever by Michael Cassidy. On the first page I read a gift inscription, dated September 2000, from one friend to another. It begins “Knowing your love for Africa,” and goes on to thank the recipient for her great help and contributions. The inscription is written in distinctive hand with the name “Hillary,” at the bottom. Is it “that Hillary?” I hand the book wordlessly to the two people at the thrift store check-out and ask them to read it.

When they get to the signature, their mouths drop open, stunned. Uh yes, I guess it is. We are, after all, only a few miles from the White House. I buy the book for 75¢ so I can show it to everyone I know.

Still no romance novels.

My backpack is becoming very heavy. I have a department store shopping bag on my elbow and my Annapolis print tucked under my arm. It’s really time to head for the bus stop but I can’t go home without seeing what the library book sale has to offer. Our library provides three book trucks filled with sale books donated by patrons. I do not really need to go to the library. Nothing is due and my reading for the next week is already planned. But I can’t help but walk over and see if there are some old romances for sale.

I’ve had most of my best finds at my library. It was there that Patricia Veryan’s Poor Splendid Wings showed up for $1. It is there that I found a pristine first edition of William Manchester’s The Death of a President. Today also seems to be a good day. Though I am not a huge fan of Catherine Coulter, the idea of her early trad Regencies intrigues me. And here they are, battered and bruised for 50¢ apiece! I snap up An Intimate Deception and An Honorable Offer, both old copies from the early 80s. The covers delight me far more than reprints would have. For one thing An Intimate Deception sports a fabulous making-love-on-the-cliffs kind of scene that no one familiar with later Signet trads could believe. I should leave but now but of Donna Simpson’s Lord St. Clair’s Angel calls me from the cart. I can’t let it sit there all by itself, so I take it as a gift for…somebody. How could anyone give that away? Deborah Simmons’ A Man of Many Talents also calls to me. It’s one of the few Deborah Simmons books I don’t have and I am thrilled to find it to round out my collection.

I stuff a few singles and some coins into the donation box for the library books and waddle toward the door. People on the local bus will think I am a bag lady. But I look like a happy bag lady with my four romance novels and um…other treasures.

That was just one day, but it’s been a great autumn. Buried in piles of Danielle Steel and James Patterson, I have found dozens of rare books, just dying for someone to read them. If I have one regret it is this: contrary to my Antiques Road Show fantasy, my neighbors and family find it hard to get excited about my finds. While they laugh with delight over the Mohamed Ali Life Magazine I bring home, nobody seems even slightly impressed with my perfect copy of Miss Billings Treads the Boards.

So I am telling you.

Questions To Consider:

  • Do you collect vintage romance novels, even ones you might not read?
  • What books are the most fun to collect?
  • What was your best find ever?
  • Are you frustrated when family and friends don’t seem very excited by your finds?
  • Where do you go to look for books?

Robin Uncapher

Post your comments and/or questions to our Potpourri Message Board

 (AAR uses BYRON for its romance reference needs)

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