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After Work: The Book Expert And His Dog Killer

…At that moment a mildew-y, sour stench stole into the room. The smell was doggy and then some, and around the shelves came an 80-pound string mop. It was canine to be sure but it looked like a sheepskin rug that an unfortunate homeless guy had dragged out of the trash, through the streets and under a bridge…

The very last thing you would expect to find in a second-hand book store is a Komondor dog called Killer.

Dona Gibbs tells a tale of new New York.

‘Can I help you?” asked the somewhat disheveled man, wearing a Jimmy Buffet parrot printed rayon shirt, cargo shorts and flip-flops.

“I’d just like to browse, “ I replied. It looked like numerous other second-hand bookstores that dot Manhattan. Oh, maybe a bit more grimy than most. With dusty shelves, a dead cactus in the window, old art auction catalogues teetering in piles on the sidewalk—all in all the kind of place I was drawn to.

“You can’t browse,” the proprietor sputtered. “It’s not that kind of place. You tell me what you want and I’ll tell you if I got it.”

My relationship with books, especially of the second-hand variety, is “I’ll know what I want when I see it.” It works out well for me and usually doubly so for the seller.

“Well,” I backed away, almost ready to leave “ What do you specialize in?”

“Now you’re talking. We rebind books in embossed leather. Real classy,” he grinned, showing me spaces where a tooth or two once had been.

“Can you show me an example?”

If I had opened the lock system of the Panama Canal I couldn’t have gotten more of response.

“You bet!”

With that he rushed to the shelves and began pulling out volume after volume and then piling them up on an already cluttered desk. He motioned me to sit in an old-fashioned oak swivel chair and then pulled up a folding chair for himself.

He pushed a book towards me. It was Herman Melville’s Moby Dick. There on the cover was the white whale breaking the surface, all beautifully hand-embossed and on the back cover was an intricate compass rose. There was a tasteful use of gold leaf and sensitive selection of marbled paper. The interior pages were simply someone’s much loved old copy. Not first edition, just an old copy.

“Naw, you wouldn’t want to mess with the integrity of a first edition, he explained.

At that moment a mildew-y, sour stench stole into the room. The smell was doggy and then some, and around the shelves came an 80-pound string mop. It was canine to be sure but it looked like a sheepskin rug that an unfortunate homeless guy had dragged out of the trash, through the streets and under a bridge.

“That’s Killer. He’s a Komondor, They used them in Hungary to guard sheep from wolves,” he patted the dirty rug on what I supposed was its head.

Don’t pet him. He doesn’t like sudden movements from strangers. He’ll go right for
you.”

The proprietor turned back to his books. “Now take a look at this,” he pointed with a grubby finger to another artistic swirling marvel of embossing.

“I wasn’t always in the book business. I used to own cocktail lounges, manage a couple of clubs.”

He got up out of folding chair and scrounged around in a file cabinet, pulling out some photos.

“See, here’s me back in the 70s.”

It certainly was—sideburns, longish hair, wide tie and bellbottoms.

“I got tired of the club business—got too old to party like that. One day I went to an auction and I saw this terrific set of antique book embossing tools, all these beautiful stamps and dies—and I fell in love. “

The dog stirred and sighed heavily.

“Don’t touch Killer,” he warned again. “He’ll go right for you.”

“I’ve got a celebrity clientele. Every script D________H__________ (Here he named an actor) has ever done; he’s brought it in and I’ve bound and embossed it for him. Then there’s the Upper East Side. Mommies and Daddies, you know, nothing’s too good for their children. So I’ve done The Little Prince, The Wizard of Oz—you know kiddy books. Okay by me if they want to pay five hundred bucks and up a pop.

“Anyway. I got the tools and I read up on book binding and embossing. Now I’m an expert. I get invited to lecture. All these fancy places. Even got invited to Newport, Rhode Island once by one of the grande dames to give my talk. I got a story about that!

“So I’m walking down the street in my lecture clothes. I figure it’s Newport. Yachts and The Establishment so I better dress the part. So I’m walking along in my blue blazer, white shirt, tie with the little boats, boat shoes, Breton red pants and I’m feeling great.

“Down the street I see somebody I hadn’t seen in twenty years. He's from my lounge owning days. I get closer and his jaw is hanging open.

“Herbie, Herbie. You all right? What happened to ya?"

He laughed at his transformation from questionable lounge owner to erudite book expert.

A couple of stories later I thanked him for his time and left in a little eddy of dust motes.

“Don’t step on Killer,” he warned in farewell.

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