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What We Leave in Books: Booksellers share memorable items they’ve found

A book—especially a used book—isn’t just the story contained within. It is an artifact, with scent and scars and texture. It wears a coat of accretions from those who have held it before.

I found a ticket stub from a 1985 piano concert stuck in Chapter 5 of The Woman in the Dunes and imagined the book’s previous owner, perhaps a resilient woman with long gray hair. She attends concerts alone, arriving early to give herself an excuse to slide the paperback from her purse. She can sink into a story immediately, the concert hall disappearing into dunes around her, but emerging from it takes longer, so the left-hand ostinato of the opening nocturne sounds to her like the Sisyphean shoveling of sand in a windstorm.

As much as I delight in finding ephemera in used books, I know that most of it is likely pulled out before the books hit the shelves. So to celebrate Book Lovers Day today, I asked a subjective and criminally incomplete list of used-book sellers from across the country about the most memorable items they have discovered in books sold to them, as well as any interesting marginalia or inscriptions. My sincere thanks to those who responded.

What is the most memorable thing you’ve found or seen written in a book? Leave a comment or let us know on Twitter.


The Iliad Bookshop, North Hollywood, California
The most valuable thing we ever found in a used book was an original handwritten letter by J. D. Salinger about The Catcher in the Rye; it fell out of a beat-up paperback of that book that had been donated to us, and even included the original envelope. We had that letter placed in a custom-made leather folio and now offer it for sale at $10,000.

However, my personal favorite item is the postcard pictured below, which was placed in a completely forgettable modern mass-market paperback. The image of that card (What IS the story there?) has kind of haunted me ever since.

—Lisa at The Iliad Bookshop

Eat My Words Bookstore, Minneapolis, Minnesota
On our front counter, we have a cigar box full of stuff we’ve found in boxes. Customers leaf through and occasionally take something home. We don’t put all items in the box. Some items we leave in the books for the next owner to discover—if it’s clearly related to the book.

While mainly we’ve found bookmarks, we’ve also found:
● A boarding pass for the Queen Mary
● Family photos
● An inpatient detox evaluation
● A Crackerjack prize
● Seed packets
● A map of Windsor Castle
● A card reading “Smoking in bed promotes alertness of mind.”
The worst thing I ever found was a handmade bookmark that read “I love you Daddy. I will obey you Daddy.” It was in a porn book. Far too creepy to think about.

—Scott at Eat My Words

The Last Word, Charlotte, North Carolina
The things we find in used books range from disgusting, to delightful, to sad, to beautiful. We have found art, family photos, money, drugs, food, pressed flowers, letters, receipts from the 1960s, plane tickets, ultrasounds, condoms, and so much more. There are two things that stick out the most. The first was $1,000 in cash. The books belonged to the seller’s brother, who had been put in a hospice, and he had no idea that the money was there. The second was a love letter written on a dried leaf:

It was so beautiful and sweet that I gave it back to her, but not before taking a photo.

Author note: Shauna posts finds like these on her Weird Things in Bookstores Tumblr.

—Shauna at The Last Word

Tales of the Lonesome Pine Used Books, Big Stone Gap, Virginia
We’ve found three unusual things, poignant for different reasons:
● In a 1950s book club novel (I think it was a Nevil Shute), I opened to what seemed like a bulky bookmark, but instead found an old newspaper ad for a wig manufacturer wrapped around a black braid, tied at each end with pink thread.
● In a more recent book, a Christian romance from Amish country, I found a letter from an adoptive mom to the child’s biological mom, saying she could not see him: “I would like to let you visit but you’ll tell him how he was born and I can’t have him upset like that. He doesn’t know the whole story yet and he’s too young.” It was incredibly poignant, the more so because we don’t know if the book was from the adoptive mom and the letter wasn’t sent, or from the bio mom who gave up ties. There was no envelope.
● Just about a month ago, we found three letters from a D-Day-landing soldier to his wife, the first saying they were getting ready for some big operation, the second what had happened to him going up the beach, and the third about how the French people hated them and they couldn’t walk around town alone. All three had escaped censorship because, as he explained in the third, he was giving them to friends who were going back home to mail once they arrived. (Read the letters in full here.)
Author note: Bookstore co-owner, Wendy Welch, wrote a book about the store called, The Little Bookstore of Big Stone Gap.

—Jack at Tales of the Lonesome Pine

Strand Book Store, New York City, New York
From the collection of found items, underlined passages, and marginalia notes in used books documented on our Tumblr, these postcards were found inside a used copy of Snow Falling on Cedars by David Guterson:

—Colleen at The Strand

John K. King Used & Rare Books, Detroit, Michigan
Years ago (1987), our store manager, the late Tom Schlientz, was pricing a load of books, when he came across a copy of Albert Bigelow Paine’s three-volume life of Mark Twain. As a habit, he always thumbed through all the books before he priced them; as he thumbed through one of these volumes, three black and white photos fell out: seemingly original photos of Mark Twain riding a little donkey cart with a young girl in Bermuda, with a pencil date of 1908 on the reverse. The Paine biography tells of Twain meeting little Margaret Blackmer in Hamilton, Bermuda, in 1908. A story of the find made the front page of our local paper, The Detroit News, and USA Today; the article quoted a couple of Twain experts who attested to the authenticity and rarity. We ended up quickly selling the photos to an institution for much, much more than the price of the set of books.

—Tom at John K. King Books

Third Place Books, Lake Forest Park, Washington
I have an enormous amount of found ephemera and... detritus... that I have collected over the years, including:

—Wes at Third Place Books


Sixth Chamber Used Books, St. Paul, Minnesota
My favorite story regarding marginalia is one that happened not long after we opened, around 1997 or so. A man asked us to hold a beat-up old copy of a Greek Interlinear New Testament. It was priced to sell as it was quite worn and had a significant amount of marginal notations. A day or so later, the customer brought his wife into the store. “They have a book on hold for you here,” he said nonchalantly. She told us her name, and when we presented her with the book she said, “What am I going to do with this?” Then she opened the book and the tears just flooded down her face. The book had previously been owned by her father who had died some years ago. She had been in Europe when her siblings had sold off his library and, so, did not have a chance to select anything to remind her of her dad.

—James at Sixth Chamber

The Last Word
My favorite thing I’ve found written in a book was a letter in the front of Till We Have Faces by C. S. Lewis, which is a retelling of the love story of Cupid and Psyche:

What is cooler than two ladies writing love letters to each other in books? Nothing, I say.

—Shauna at The Last Word

The Iliad Bookshop
[We found] an amazing inscription that told the whole story of a relationship. It was in a hardback of a Michael Crichton novel, on the front endpapers. On the left (the pastedown), the inscription read, “Dear Jess—I hope you love this book as much as I love you. Love, Rich.” On the right (the front free endpaper), the inscription read, “Dear Rich—You’re a dick. I’m selling this book to a used bookstore. Jess.”

—Lisa at The Iliad Bookshop

The Bookery, Ithaca, New York
The book is Cabala Sive Scrinia Sacra Mysteries of the State in Letters of The Great Ministers of King James and King Charles Wherein Much of the Publique manage of Affaires is Related. It was published in 1654.

The unique marginalia is noted in our description: A rebound copy of the first edition with a two-page handwritten letter bound in—“The King’s Reasons (with Some Reflections Upon Them) For Withdrawing Himself from Rochester written with his own Hand, (Or rather Copied from his own Speech after the Bawdy Affidavit.) and ordered by him to be published December 1688.”

The handwritten speech was either written by King James II or someone who transcribed it. Either way, it’s a very unique book with some interesting history bound in.

—Gina at The Bookery

Housing Works Bookstore Café, Brooklyn, New York
We found this book in a donation box, and the inscription sparked a lot of conversation among our staff about the nature of the relationship described here! Our main disagreement was whether or not this was a romantic relationship—split us about 50/50. What do you think?

Inscribed in The Butch Manual by Clark Henley:


Dearest, dearest M.

You know that trying to get up each morning is made a lot easier knowing that you, too, are trying to get up somewhere else on the planet; and, with a little luck, we’ll get to run into each other. My absolutely favorite times are when we are laughing so hard we can’t take one more step.

I love it when we talk out loud in the movies (except, of course, when you insist on namedropping during the credits. Do you honestly expect me to believe the entire film industry went to Yale with you?).

I love it when we go to a restaurant and know everyone there. I love it when we stand on street corners late at night and give speeches to no one in particular. You make me laugh, I make you laugh, and boy, that is love. I couldn’t have written one word of this book if I couldn’t pretend I was telling you jokes. Thanks for your terrific editing and additions to this book. It never would have made it without you. And neither would I.

I love you.
—Amy at Housing Works

Strand Book Store
Inscription found in Leaving the Atocha Station by Ben Lerner:

—Colleen at The Strand

John K. King Used & Rare Books
Not too long ago, while going through a box of old magazines, we came across a copy of Scribner’s Magazine from August 1930. On the cover, it lists a short story, “Wine of Wyoming” by Ernest Hemingway on page 195. When we turned to that page, we saw that Hemingway had signed his name at the top of the page and had added, “Blah Blah Blah,” over the little, six-line introduction that praises Hemingway as “...a master of the short story.”
—Tom at John K. King Books

JESSICA FRANKEN writes essays and fiction in Minneapolis, Minnesota. If she had the money, she’d be an eternal grad student, but school is expensive, so she recently gave in and finished her master’s thesis on Margaret Atwood’s MaddAddam trilogy. Distract her on Twitter at @jes3ica.

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1 comment:

Anonymous said...

I give away most of my books. Now I'm going to start putting things in them - all positive - for someone to find.