Gag Orders

“Why have you got pictures of Hitler on your bulletin board?”

I explained to the deliveryman that I do not have pictures of Hitler on my bulletin board.  He was, in fact, looking at someone else of the same generation.  I don’t think I  convinced him, but he shrugged and went away, leaving me with two melancholy thoughts.

One of these is perennial, and has been written about extensively over the past, oh, three thousand years.  “They don’t look alike: the mustaches aren’t even close to being alike,” I thought.  “What ARE they teaching in the schools these days?”

The other thought, more specific to the time and place, was “Running gags die after a while, don’t they?”

See, the reason I have these two portraits of Thomas Mann on the bulletin board is that, once upon a time, the Book Fair was always getting first editions of his books, especially his later books.  We would set these aside to check their current market value.  In those days, this was a matter of sitting down with a list or a stack of books and reading through reference books and dealer catalogs, a rather more cumbersome affair than going to the computer and punching in titles at a website.

And the Thomas Mann first editions we were being given were never the valuable ones.  Thomas Mann, in fact, was such a bad investment of time that he became a running joke.  “And here’s a first edition of Thomas Mann!” someone would cry.

And someone else would shout, “Good!  YOU look it up!”

So when we found these pages torn from magazines with his picture on them, we tacked them up.  It was funny at the time.  I’m the last one around who remembers the gag, and Thomas Mann first editions have been moving up in market value, making the joke even harder to explain.  But Thomas Mann seems to me a reasonable pin-up for a Book Fair, so he retains his space on the board.

Once upon another time, we had a very hardworking volunteer who was a joy to be around except when she got on the subject of Books You Shouldn’t Sell.  She was adamant that we were wasting our space on outmoded fiction.  “No yuppie buys a novel over five years old,” she’d say.  “Throw those away and make room for new books!”

I would explain my theory of the three Franks: that there has to be a place where a nostalgic soul could buy bygone bestsellers like Frank Slaughter, Frank Schoonover, and Frank Yerby.  (I was confusing artist Frank Schoonover with bestselling author Lawrence Schoonover, but she didn’t know that.)

And she would wrinkle her nose—she wrinkled her nose beautifully—and tell me, “For fifty cents, the hell with Frank Yerby.”

I cannot to this day price a fine old bodice-ripper without thinking of her, and of the customer who confounded her at the Book Fair by asking where the Frank Yerby novels were, as he was writing his dissertation on the author.  “Ha!” I say, “Here’s a Frank Yerby for the yuppies”, even though the yuppies have all become grumpies (GRownUp Middleaged People) and the volunteer herself long ago went where she wrinkles her nose at little angels swinging on the pearly gates.

In fact, for quite some time now, I have been putting Frank Yerby into Hardback Literature M-Z, where he rubs elbows with Thomas Mann.  This allows you to pick up two ancient running gags at one stop.  (You do still need to go to Hardback Fiction M-Z for The Divine Secrets of the Ya-Ya Sisterhood.)

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