Your Signatures, My Saviors: Inside the Shadowy World of Autographed Books

Some things are done out of desperation.

People go to meetings. People find Jesus. Some people dig up a bottle or a pistol. Their fingers hold onto the ledge.

I didn’t go to meetings. I didn’t put change in an offering plate. I didn’t find a bar or a coffin. My fingers held on to the ledge too. But if you’re not going to die, after a while the body gets restless. The fingers pull you up.

So I walked into a thrift store. Typical shit was there. Outdated clothes and shoes. Sandwich baggied action figures. Old blankets. Mirrors. Someone’s golf clubs. Someone’s microwave.

And then: a book section.

I didn’t think about alcohol or commandments or suicide once. The focus was momentarily on finding a signed book. Any signed book.

Which caused me to remember something. See, I’d been to this thrift store before. And during that before I found a signed first edition of Midnight in the Garden of Good and Evil by John Berendt. For $2.98.

On a return visit I found the printed version of Mail Call from the History Channel. Signed in black marker by R. Lee Ermey. Semper Fi! And also: for $2.98.

Stress affects the memory. So does alcohol. Head injuries. Things get misplaced. But I lifted a book from the shelf. Then I did it again. My hands tingled like sleep wearing off.

The next half hour I spent forming a mechanism. Like hitting a speedbag. Shifting weight from right to left. I didn’t think about alcohol or commandments or suicide once. The focus was momentarily on finding a signed book. Any signed book.

I didn’t find one that day. Didn’t matter. I started to go after work. To local thrifts the last half hour they were open. Anything of interest I’d pull from the shelf.

Often there was nothing inside. Sometimes a note from a relative. A bookmark. A business card. A boarding pass.

Or a 2015 ticket stub from a Rainn Wilson show at the Pabst Theatre in Milwaukee inside a signed copy of his book, The Bassoon King. For $3.

The more I went looking, the less I thought about anything else. A few days without a drink turned into six months. Then a year. I thought about being sad less. My .38 Special less. I no longer needed porn. The same feeling people experience when they exercise or absorb natural sunlight or meditate. I felt that way.

A few copies turned into three full bookcases. Friends said I looked well rested. I spent evenings scrolling the internet for books I couldn’t afford. Mylar protected and for sale. A niche market at best but safer than peddling dope. Fuck it.

I began flipping inexpensive signed books. And here the math worked. If you can keep up with me here: x + y = n. See? That is, sometimes two or three integers are combined in order to equal the value of a lone integer.

So assuming that x, y, z, and n are signed books: x + y + z = n.

Or put another way: Debt of Honor by Tom Clancy (x) + The Wright Brothers by David McCullough (y) + The Painted House by John Grisham (z) = Salvador by Joan Didion (n). I could resell all. And never have to wear a name tag again ever, outside of reunions or hospital visits. Or I could keep them.

My signed books by authors, politicians, actors, and athletes were bubble wrapped and shipped via U.S. Mail over invisible lines. So much so that books I’d never had the means to afford suddenly became available to me.

The 500 Hats of Bartholomew Cubbins by the recently suspect Dr. Seuss. The Last Night of the Earth Poems by Charles Bukowski. The Death of Bunny Munro by Nick Cave. All signed.

I tell people about this and watch their eyes glaze over. Like narcolepsy. Like cataracts.

Finding a signed copy of The Last Samurai by Helen DeWitt for $2 and three books signed by Richard Nixon (The Real War, 1999, Seize the Moment) for $9 in the same week, barely interests people.

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And it’s a find!

Archeologists must feel like this. So must sound engineers and physics professors. And they say smelling salts will wake a fighter.

But I met Sissy Spacek while perusing books at a roadside antique store in Gordonsville, Virginia.

I was looking through the books. Found one signed by Richard Ford, and I look up and make eye contact with this woman. She’s around my mom’s age, but something in me immediately knew her. Like she’d been a swim team or baseball mom of one of the kids on the team I played on/swam for.

So we stood for three or four seconds looking at each other. I’m holding the Richard Ford book and I think she’s got some kinda canvas bag or a purse or a satchel. Suddenly she gives me a bright smile, waves to me and walks casually down another aisle. We were 20 feet from each other and I still had no clue who she was.

I turned around with my book and BOOM, “That was fucking Sissy Spacek”. Then my heart beat for a minute or two because I had just had a friendly, wordless exchange with a screen icon.

I continued walking around the shop not really seeing anything of interest I could realistically afford. Went to the counter to pay $4 for Richard Ford, and I leave. Suddenly I hear a voice behind me.

“Sir. Excuse me, Sir?” I turn around and it’s this older guy. He asks if I have a few minutes to give him a hand moving a big armoire.

“Sure,” because that’s what you say to someone’s grandfather if they need a favor.

I walk in and Sissy and her daughter are walking out. I asked the guy to hang on just a moment. I walked out and explained that I was a fan and something about In the Bedroom and Carrie and that the likelihood of all of this happening again is absurd.

I asked if she wouldn’t mind taking a photo with me. She was absolutely lovely. And that’s probably the best picture I’ve ever had taken. Which makes that book store visit worth a hundred million dollars.

“Hi. Welcome back.”

You know, this is the only match in town where winning is guaranteed. You don’t get those odds in Vegas or Johns Hopkins or mass on Sunday, and you don’t have to pay to get in.

I walk in the door and I’ve won. I don’t have to find anything and I’ve won.

But my father once told me success isn’t measured in wealth. It’s whether or not you can stomach being alone. The fingers pulled me up and I didn’t die.

Some things are done out of desperation.

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