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Breaking the Bad News

November 3rd, 2013  |  Published in Serendipity

Anyone who has been a bookseller longer than five minutes has had to find a way to break the bad news that someone’s family heirlooms have no value.

Among Peter Howard’s files at Serendipity Books, I found this priceless letter from Peter to an insurance company. A family in Berkeley had a water leak and claimed $20,000 in damages to their library. Peter was called in to appraise the damaged goods. Since he was working for the insurance company, he could be blunt in the way all booksellers would like to be, but often can’t, out of respect for the feelings of the owner of the books.

Peter writes:

The Smiths [a pseudonym] own a fine and valuable home in a nice part of town. The home is well and expensively furnished (the dining room set alone cost $20,000 or more, apparently). Objects d’art abound, particularly glassware. The Smiths are very nice, agreeable and well-spoken people. They have a daughter at UC Berkeley, entering her sophomore year.

However, their books, basically, are worthless. They may have taste, education, discretion, and character, but they are not bookmen. They did not ever buy fine, valuable or resalable books. Such books as they did buy–almost all from book clubs, subscriptions, or by second-hand acquisition–have insignificant or NO RESALE VALUE (emphasis in the original). In all honesty, I would say they have NO RESALE VALUE AT ALL.

I have attempted to put the kindest interpretation imaginable on this business. Mrs. Smith is very nice and wise and experienced, and her husband, who said nothing, seemed a gentle soul. $1250 would be charity. More would be a distinct disservice to your employers.

Yrs. faithfully,

Peter B. Howard


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