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Collecting Info: In the Reader's Eye

Silver Crown Adventures

Before I had heard of Robert C. O'Brien, I bought The Silver Crown, his first book, because I liked the dedication: 'For my children, and, someday, their children'. Later, when I was well aware that Robert C. O'Brien (pseudonym for Robert Lesley Conley) is a collectible author, and when I was actively trying to buy his books, I missed out on an even nicer first edition of Newberry Award winner Mrs. Frisby and the Rats of NIMH, missed it by just minutes. Go figure.

There is absolutely no excuse for this, because I had every opportunity to buy Mrs. Frisby.

Here's what happened.

In one of my favorite browsing haunts, Saltmarsh's, I follow a certain ritual, ambling through the aisles in a predetermined route. It doesn't matter that I may have done the same thing over and over again or that I may have worn my own personal groove in the floor. I enjoy it every time. The last stop is always at the marked down books, 3/$1.00 or 4/$1.00.

Although it is my personal belief that a book should always cost at least as much as a can of soda, or maybe even a sandwich, I love these inexpensive offerings. The Silver Crown had arrived on the 4/$1.00 shelf with an impressive number of markdown stickers on the outside of the dust jacket. It had apparently been in the store for a long time without selling. Since the author's dedication showed confidence in the book's future, I bought it. It wasn't ex-library, and it had a decent dust jacket which wasn't price clipped. It turned out to be a scarce first edition. But it was sentiment, not collectibility that prompted the purchase.

Checking it out later on ABE and other sites, I found no listings for this book. I found listings for various editions of O'Brien's other books, Z is for Zachariah, Mrs. Frisby and the Rats of NIMH, and A Report From Group 17 but nothing for The Silver Crown.. That made me more curious, and I kept on looking, picking up a first edition of Z is for Zachariah in the process. I discovered the Robert C. O'Brien tribute site (perhaps no longer available) and read other biographical information. I asked a few questions on the Bookfinder Insider list.

I learned the most about The Silver Crown from an unexpected source, though, the book reviews at Amazon.com. Here I discovered The Silver Crown had many fans who had been searching for it, sometimes for years. They didn't want it to collect it, but because they remembered the story from childhood and wanted to read it again and share it with their children. The dedication had been right. The book was for the children and the children's children. There were (at this point) over 40 reader reviews on Amazon.com. That seemed like a lot of reviews for an out of print book that was (as I discovered) almost impossible to find in any edition.

Here's a typical review, posted on January 11, 1999, "I had this book read to me by my third class teacher when I was eight years old. I then borrowed it from the school library and read it and re-read it during the school holidays. Not only is it an adventure to keep young minds captivated, but it's a true story of friendship, one that stays with you throughout your life. I'm now 26 years old and haven't read the book since, but it had such an impact that after all these years, and hundreds of other books later, I can still remember the story, Ellen and Otto and their adventures. I am now trying desperately to find a copy of this book so I can read it to my nephews and nieces. Who knows? Maybe I'll get lucky and find a copy. It really is quite sad that such a book is out of print..."

Now I was struck with a case of 'book owner's guilt.' Its one thing to score an inexpensive find of first edition prized by collectors but commonly available in other forms for everyone to read. You can be a little smug about that. It's quite another thing to own a book that people have searched for just to share with their own children. I had bought the book for sentiment, not financial gain, and I should have been willing to pass it on to another for the same reason. But I didn't. In spite of the guilt, I kept the book and started to read it, hoping to find the magic. But it just wasn't there for me. I kept watch for The Silver Crown on line, and every so often a paperback would show up and be sold quickly for $70 or so.

I liked Mrs. Frisby and the Rats of NIMH, which I had picked up in paperback, better. I had done some bragging about The Silver Crown in another bookshop, whose owner has asked me not to use his name. He has an interesting shop, and he likes to talk books. I talked about my book so much that when he went to a book sale and spotted a first edition of Mrs. Frisby, he bought it. If it hadn't been for my bragging, he would never have heard of Robert C. O'Brien either.

Let all the readers understand that he told me on a Friday afternoon that he had Mrs. Frisby, although he hadn't bought it into the shop yet. Let all the readers also understand that I didn't respond to him in any way except, maybe, to say 'hmm'. I knew the book was still in print and assumed he didn't have any kind of special copy, but I didn't ask any questions. I just kept on with my browsing, bought my books and left. Big mistake.

The next morning I decided to look his book up on ABE and had an 'oh no' feeling when I figured out exactly what he had been talking about. Others might express that feeling with different words.

I already had plans with my husband, but of course I was now seized with an insatiable desire to go back to the bookshop and buy Mrs. Frisby. I was already quite proud of myself, anticipating that I would have first editions of all three of O'Brien's children's books. My ever-patient husband agreed to the detour, and we sped off to the bookshop, ran up the stairs when we got there and saw the book sitting out on the desk. I said, "You know that book you were telling me about yesterday. I want it." I babbled on about how I wanted to try to collect all of his books.

Oops. I had run up the stairs right into the middle of a negotiation. Dealers were visiting. The book was out because they were examining it, negotiating the price and looking a little critically at its condition. To them I must have seemed like a plant, bursting into the middle of everything the way I did. Nothing quite like that had ever happened to the bookseller before. Two things occurred as soon as I got there. The price haggling ended. The bookseller got his price. And suddenly the book's condition seemed much more acceptable. The whole transaction was finalized quite swiftly.

I asked the new owners if I could buy it from them. They said 'maybe' and took my information, but I never heard from them. I didn't expect to. I think the book changed hands again very quickly after they bought it and possibly at a price that would have been out of my range. I have no argument with them. They certainly did nothing wrong.

At least there is a happy ending for all the people who were looking for The Silver Crown to read it to their children. Atheneum brought it out in new hardcover and paperback editions last summer. It still has the same dedication: "For my children, and, someday, their children." It has turned out to be very fitting.

And I have had a comeuppance of sorts for keeping a book because I was unduly influenced by momentary monetary value. My edition, while still commanding a price far higher than 25 cents, isn't quite as sky high in the listings as it used to be. Maybe another Mrs. Frisby is still out there, waiting for me.
Content provided by By Sally Spooner.

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