Martin Hartzold, bookseller

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Negotiating with Scouts and The Great Kanto Earthquake of 1923

Martin HartzoldComment

Bob is a scout, a local, semi-retired book and paper dealer I buy a good amount of material from. Bob’s story of getting into the trade involves being fired from a small Ohio factory in the 1970’s for attempting to organize a union, becoming a painter who specialized in church steeples (because “everyone else was afraid to do it”), and finally stumbling across a $3 wagon load of very good Americana at a farm auction in the early 1980’s which he immediately sold for many hundreds to an established dealer. After this, his interest became focused on making this his job. He pursued books, antiques, paper, etc… but mostly books, full time, studying the country auction listings of NW Ohio like a religion and selling his wares via AB Bookman’s Weekly, local antique malls, and eventually eBay. His story is about typical, in my experience, amid a trade full of unconventional career path tales where many of us wander from points A, B, C, D, etc… until chance, fate, or dumb luck lands us smack dab in the middle of being dealers, whether we knew it was happening or not. In other words, he’s a book scout. He’s my people.

I got a call from Bob about two weeks ago:

“Let’s have breakfast. I’ve got this letter I want to show you. I think it’s pretty good.”

Depending on his mood, this might mean he wants to sell it to me, wants advice on what it’s worth, or just wants to show it off. At this point, I didn’t know quite what he was describing, but I like breakfast, I like old letters, and I like Bob. So, we met up in his favorite diner where he produced a very good letter, written from one Navy man to another, in September of 1923. It was long. Neat. Legible. With excellent content on the sailor’s involvement in rescue missions in Tokyo and Yokohama during the aftermath of the Great Kanto Earthquake:

"We arrived Yokohama while city was still in flames. [...] You know there isn't a damned thing left of Yokohama. There are two fireproof, four story, American built buildings standing. The city looks like the dump of a big city. They have just begun to pick up the dead in Yokohama now. They are all black and greasy and stink like Hell now. Many of the bodies are dismembered and burned all except maybe the skull and a hand. You can’t get at the people under the stones but they stink just the same. I tell you Yokohama is flat."

It’s about 1000 words, mostly of content just like that.

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“I’ll give you $100 for it,” I said plainly.

“No. I don’t think so. There are going to be people who want this. I’m going to take my chances on eBay.”

This, for Bob, who has given up on navigating internet selling himself (long story), now means dealing with his “eBay guy.” An 80-something retired farmer who lists items for a few local antique dealers at a commission of 10% after fees, etc… Bob produces a hand-written description for the guy, has multiple phone calls on the matter, and finally has to drive the 30-some miles to deliver it in person. This process probably takes him an entire day. It seems ludicrous to me, but I’m sitting here writing this right now, so who am I to judge?

About a week later, I see the letter pop up in the seller’s feed and I snipe a bid of about $45 and change. I don’t care enough about the thing to go hard after it, as I really don’t have a customer for it anyway, and I also don’t want to encourage this type of behavior so, “Fine,” I think. If I win it, great. If not, also fine.

I did win it. For $32, shipped.

My gut feeling when I first had it in hand was $200, retail. It’s a very good letter and the $100 offer factored in keeping him coming back, giving me reasons to find a new subject and perhaps a new customer to pursue, etc… Though, once I saw it on eBay, my interest level along with my perception of its value, was just about cut in half.

“What’s this worth?” In one form or another this is the most frequent question I think a lot of us are asked on a daily basis.

“I don’t know.” Is usually my answer. Though in this case, “It depends,” might have been more appropriate.

I started writing this without a tidy moral conclusion in mind, but we are at the end. So, I reckon I want to admit that I am as guilty of making decisions like this as Bob is, as I’m sure a lot of us are. Laboring over pricing material, who’s going to buy it, and if it’s another dealer, who are they going to sell it to, etc… All the while we very well may have $100 staring us right in the face. So, the lesson I’m trying to relay, to myself and all of you is: Make the sale. Move on. Avoid writing the description by hand and driving to the retired farmer’s house 40 minutes away. It probably does not need to be that hard.

In the meantime, long live Bob. Oh, and $150 for the letter (check our site or email for trade discount).