“The Priest and the Acolyte”

by

07/27/2004

1020 park ave ny 10028

Neighborhood: Manhattan

Bill Licht (not his real name) was an obese bookish fellow who had impeccable taste. He would come into our shop choosing first editions of Graham Greene and E. M. Forster, Paul Bowles and Eric Ambler, inscribed Somerset Maugham and Gore Vidal, twentieth century British poets of varying stripes, the odd contemporary American writer. He did not seem to have a profession. It is hard to judge precisely how many such men the American socio-economic structure can sustain — far easier to judge how many square miles of undisturbed jungle a Bengal tiger requires to exist in its natural state.

Bill always asked if we had any of “my kind of books.” He bought consistently. I had always been out at the warehouse or on the road when he came in, so I came to know him through the stories my colleagues told, and after a while it felt like I had met him though I never had. One day we received a call from his recently arrived expatriate brother informing us that Bill had died, and could we please come look at the library? Bill’s brother was a stern humorless man, a pea from the same pod as Bill in his wheezing heaviness but of markedly different temperament, or so my colleague informed me. The address was not a dozen blocks from the shop, a doorman building on a fashionable Avenue on the Upper East Side. I have looked at books in dusty attics and damp basements, in narrow brownstones, suburban homes, and country mansions. With my two colleagues, Mick and Freddy, I took the elevator up to a clean apartment hallway. Bill’s brother admitted us to a moderate size studio with small dressing room alcove, bathroom, and a large kitchen (as New York apartments go) with a separate servant’s entrance. We were told that there had already been three offers on the apartment from inside the building. The studio apartment was impossibly crowded with books on shelves and towers of books on the floor, in boxes and cupboards and dressers and desks. Bill’s brother had meticulously listed hundreds of books in two composition notebooks. We settled down to work, looking at books and the ones behind the books on the shelves and under the tables and in the high kitchen cabinets. Bill Licht had an extensive library on espionage in fact and fiction, and on one or two other subjects.

In due course we made a substantial offer for the library, which was accepted. We ordered boxes; I rented a van, and showed up to collect the library. Three boxes of really good books and fifteen boxes of good books. I delivered these and my senior colleague Mick back to the shop and returned to help with packing. Toward the end of the hot afternoon, we had seventy boxes ready to go and learned that the service elevator was out of order. Half an hour passed in which we found five more boxes of books in other kitchen cabinets, and still the elevator was not working. I slipped a twenty to the doorman and we began using the front elevator, but carting the books through the service door, down two steps, and out to my dubious parking space on the Avenue.

With thirty boxes still to load, the skies opened in one of those torrential summer thunderstorms. I shed my shirtsleeves and dashed back and forth in the rain while Freddy the packer ferried the books down the elevator. Before long we had loaded up more than ninety boxes of book from a New York studio apartment. I made the run out to the warehouse. And then the real work of cataloguing and selling the books began. One always learns about the character of a collector from the books one carries and shelves. While sorting through a run of boxes that Freddy must have packed, I came across stacks of paperback gay pornography and large format photography books of male nudes and scientific studies of homosexuals in society, and older titles such as “The Priest and the Acolyte” or “A Problem in Modern Ethics.” Some of the titles seemed to be on the borderline of legality under present conditions. It became clear to me that we had never quite understood precisely what Bill Licht meant by “my kind of books.”

**

Peter Cooper is a pseudonym for an antiquarian bookseller in New York.

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