Here are another five tales from our buy areas, slices of the buying life at Half Price Books during the past forty years. You never know what you’re gonna come across, in between the Danielle Steel book clubs and the Jane Fonda workout tapes!
1. Charles Whitman, the UT Sniper
Back in early 2005, a fellow walked in to one of our stores in Austin with some boxes of files he wanted to sell. The buyer on duty that morning was taken aback by what he discovered in the boxes. The files were those of former University of Texas at Austin Security Chief Allen Hamilton, covering the period of time he was there at UT, mostly the sixties. Right in the middle of that period, on August 1, 1966, student Charles Whitman killed his mother and his wife, then ascended to the observation deck of the UT Tower and opened fire on students and others below, killing a total of 15 and wounding 31 more, before being shot dead by Austin police officers. It was the worst mass killing up to that time, and it immediately monopolized Americans’ attention for weeks afterward.
The files sold to HPB contained dozens of original documents related to UT officers’ involvement in the tragedy and its aftermath, including several handwritten accounts and drawings recorded that day. There were also copies made in 1966 of the key documents related to the case: Whitman’s “suicide note,” his psychiatric evaluation at UT, his diary, and others.
We knew when we had the opportunity to purchase this historic material that we should pay enough to get it, but then turn it back over to UT, where it belongs. And that’s what happened on August 1, 2006—forty years to the day after the murders. A team from our corporate offices went down to Austin and together with our Austin store staff, they welcomed representatives from the UT American History Center, the organization determined to be the most appropriate recipient of the papers, along with reporters and cameras from many TV and radio stations, newspapers, and the Associated Press. In a low-key event, the files were presented to the History Center, where they remain.
2. Museum Piece
Not all of the treasures to cross our buy areas are old: a 1988 publication bought recently in California is described by California District Manager Matt Dalton as possibly “the coolest book I have ever bought. It should be in a museum!” The book is The Life and Opinions of Tristram Shandy, Gentleman by Laurence Sterne, with art by John Baldessari. Baldessari, who signed the limited edition, one of 400 issued, created 39 photo-collage illustrations for the three-volume edition.
3. One Good Turn…
Brian Millican in Austin let us know about one that got away a couple of years ago. Brian was sorting through some history books bound for his store’s Clearance section when he noticed a Robert McNamara book called In Retrospect, about the Vietnam War. He knew he didn’t have a copy in the History section, so he decided to send it to the section rather than to Clearance. He happened to open the book and, lo and behold, he saw that it was inscribed from Robert McNamara to Ladybird Johnson.
They managed to track down the seller, who said he had worked for Ladybird but had no idea he had that book with the inscription. Brian says, “They decided to keep the book rather than have us make an offer on it. Too bad, because I really would have liked to see what that inscription could have brought.”
We lost the book, but Brian did a good deed by letting the seller know the book had something special about it.
4. “A lion to a lion.”
Employee Philip Lefebvre in Irving, TX, was involved in a buy brought in by a regular seller. The book, An Apologie Or Declaration Of The Power And Providence Of God In The Government Of The World …, had been re-bound in maroon leather. It was printed by William Turner, “Printer to the famous University, Anno Dom. 1630.”
Sometimes we get items that require a little bit of research, which is what Philip did. Here’s what he learned:
“The book’s author, George Hakewill, was appointed in 1612 to preserve Prince Charles ‘from the inroads of popery,’ a task at which he seemingly failed because Charles I married a Catholic wife. (He, the king, was also then executed in 1649 for treason, paving the way for Oliver Cromwell.) So Hakewill was more than a historical footnote, having been at court and a player with big people. This work is described as a rebuttal to the idea that all creation, including mankind, is decaying. Which makes it a rare work for a theologian 400 years ago, or even now. It is also credited with heavily influencing Samuel Johnson, which makes Hakewill a lion to a lion. So this book is a historical artifact, written by a genuine historical figure.”
5. Judging Books by Their Covers
Sometimes we get books in that are just a pleasure to look at—regardless what the contents may be. Our main store, for example, bought about twenty excellent bookbinding projects from a student in an upper-level bookbinding course.
The books in this buy were beautiful, oversize art and calligraphy books. The materials used included multiple types of wood, handmade paper, silk, and many varieties of cloth, board, and paper.
— Steve, aka The Buy Guy