Family Matters | Newberry

Family Matters

A reporter for the Sun-Times had called to ask me all about the Book Fair, and, as usual, I was trying to remember the answers to the usual questions. Where does the money go? How many people buy books? How many people donate books? What do you do with the leftover books?

And she hit me with one of the difficult questions I always get. What are some of the interesting donations you’ve had lately? I usually have a list of these at hand, and it is almost always the case that some of the things I think are really interesting don’t trip their trigger at all, and some things that I just added for filler are the things they want to hear every possible detail about.

This time I mentioned some of the great books and oddities we’d received, and mentioned in passing a donation of an estimated four thousand to six thousand paperback romance novels. What was really interesting, I noted, was that the children of the donor had actually brought the books over. While their mother was out of the country on a cruise, they had cleaned out her basement and emptied all the bookshelves.

“Oh!” she said, in the voice you hear on movies when the intrepid reporter has stumbled across a vital clue to the mystery. “How did that work out? What did Mom say when she got home?”

I told her I understood that she had actually enjoyed finding empty bookshelves, since this meant she could now buy six thousand new paperback romances. The reporter asked if I could give her the lady’s name. I called up the man and woman who had brought their mom’s books in, got permission, and called the reporter back with the phone number.

I’m not complaining, you understand, that the Sun-Times never printed the interview with me. I get it. The interview with the lady who had six thousand books donated behind her back made a far more interesting story. And it had a happy ending.

That isn’t always the case, you understand. I have had more than one mother arrive with all the books and records she’d cleaned out of her adult children’s bedrooms while the kids were otherwise occupied (raising their own children in homes in a different city, usually.) And I have had more than one dejected mother call me up later in the week with a list of the things her children had told her in no uncertain terms they had to have back.

One mother came in and collected twelve boxes of LPs of classic and not-so-classic rock she’d cheerfully brought in three days before. She was philosophical about it. “At least they’re all boxed,” she said. “I can ship them to my daughter’s place.”

Once we had books from a celebrity. Actually, we have had that happen more than once. I charged extra for those books of Bertrand Goldberg (architect of, among other things, the Marina City buildings) because he’d written his name in them. I have done the same for the books of Roger Ebert (who wrote not only his name, but the date and where he was living when he bought the book.) I tried to charge extra for books in which Theodore Schultz, winner of the Nobel Prize for Economics had written his name, but this is Chicago, which probably has more Nobel Economics Laureates per capita than any other city on this blue-green globe.

But those were from people who were cleaning out their own books, or who had died and were done with the books. Once we had books from a celebrity who was still alive but didn’t know he had donated the books. His sister had cleaned them out while he was off making a movie, and this presented a real problem. He had just been in a really popular movie (especially among the Newberry crowd) and his autograph would have made for some extra money. But the fact that he didn’t know we HAD his autograph made it difficult to promote.

I wound up telling volunteers to spread the word that Mr. X had written his name in some of our books, and if any interested party said, “Is that THE Mr.X?” they were to say, “Oh, yes. Those books belonged to Mr. X himself.”) This isn’t the ideal way to do things, but if you’re dealing with a celebrity and his sister, either of whom MIGHT write a nice check to the Annual Fund if they are treated correctly, one learns to dance across the tops of eggshells.

So far as I know, Mr. X and Ms. X have since had no communication with our Annual Fund at all. But they’re both still living, which is why you’ll have to wait until my autobiography is in the Bookshop for further details. Unless you had the brains to buy one of his books, of course. (Let me know if he asks to buy it back.)