Saturday, 18 May 2013

Bookhounds of London: The House Sale

A man died to bring you this blog post. His name was Ralph.

I never really knew him, though I probably met him at some point, as he was a friend of the family. He had a very nice old house with water views, the sort of well-built 1930s design that stands up very well to the test of time, unlike many modern builds. Like most of us, he filled his house with stuff, things that his family neither wanted or needed but had to get rid of, if they were to sell the place or live in it themselves. The word went out: house sale! Time to get some bargains!

Living on an island, you get very used to the concept of trawling round leaving sales and the like, looking for a good deal. If you buy new, you're paying the importer's premium - often a very high mark-up - for the kind of cheap(ish) tat that, you know in your heart, you could pick up for half the price in any larger, more well-stocked market. A house sale, particularly one like Ralph's, is a good way of buying quality stuff at knock-down rates. On the other hand, from the seller's point of view, you just want rid of all that junk as quickly as possible, and what a load of tat it often is! Dog-eared cookery books and old algebra texts used by young Ralph, aged 15, still gathering dust all these decades later. Sofas and chairs, rotten with age, that wanted new covers and restuffing ten years ago and now need putting out of their misery. Chipped novelty jugs from a long-forgotten vacation, bedside tables, prints probably worth more for the frame than the content, and pretty much every other tchatchke you can imagine, plus more besides.

For those thinking this sort of thing is unique to my situation, I can assure you it isn't, and I have proof from an expert authority: J.R.R. Tolkein. Mild Hobbit spoilers ahoy!

And so they crossed the bridge and passed the mill by the river and came right back to Bilbo's own door.

"Bless me! What's going on?" he cried. There was a great commotion, and people of all sorts, respectable and unrespectable, were thick round the door, and many were going in and out - not even wiping their feet, as Bilbo noticed with annoyance.

If he was surprised, they were more surprised still. He had arrived back in the middle of an auction! There was a large notice in black and red hung on the gate, stating that on June the Twenty-second Messrs. Grubb, Grubb and Burrowes would sell by auction the effects of the late Bilbo Baggins Esquire, of Bag-End, Underhill, Hobbiton. Sale to commence at ten o'clock sharp. It was now nearly lunchtime, and most of the things had already been sold, for various prices from next to nothing to old songs (as is not unusual at auctions). Bilbo's cousins the Sackville-Bagginses were, in fact, busy measuring his rooms to see if their own furniture would fit. In short, Bilbo was 'Presumed Dead,' and not everybody that said so was sorry to find the presumption wrong.

Which just goes to show that Tolkein must have been to one or two auctions in his time. The pattern remains broadly the same today. As with any sale, those who get there first get the good stuff, and many of those present aren't there to buy at all, but to poke their noses round the place and gather - or spread - good gossip. Prices are uniformly low, even for the so-called valuable items, because the priority is to get the stuff out the door and the higher the price, the more likely it is it will go unsold. Particularly in a family sale you will often find the family on site, more or less melancholy, depending on the situation. It's worth bearing in mind, as many of you may know from personal experience, that these situations seldom bring out the best in people. The potential for reawakening old quarrels is very high, and it is not uncommon to find cousins squabbling in the parlor or spouses in tears because they've been denied the whatever-it-may-have-been that their hearts had been set on. And that's just the family; the bargain hunters can easily spark off their own to-do, over some forgettable bit of rubbish that they wouldn't look twice at if it wasn't on sale.

From a Bookhounds of London perspective, this situation is a potential gold mine for the Keeper. Some points you might want to bear in mind:

First, remember that the objective, from the seller's perspective, is to clear the house. That means everything, from curtains to carpets, has a price tag. The protagonists may only be interested in books, but that doesn't mean everyone else there is. Depending on the scale of the sale, there may be scores of people crowding round, or just a few neighbors and family members. This is a time for Interpersonal Abilities to shine. Gathering information can be as important as getting hold of that valuable first edition, particularly if the protagonists want to know where all the really good stuff is, or went.

Second, the protagonists will need to dig if they really want to find anything. The seller certainly won't have done anything more than some very basic organizing. A lot of items may have been left exactly where they were found, particularly the furniture and heavy stuff. Other, smaller pieces will have been taken out and put on display, so the kitchen counter - for example - is bound to be covered with pots, knives, china, and everything else that, until the sale, rested quietly in a kitchen drawer. Bulk items, like the books, may have been gathered up into boxes and will be sold by box. Or perhaps not; they might still be on a shelf somewhere. If you want to find something interesting, you need to search the whole house.

The protagonists should be aware that what they buy may not be all they take away. We found, quite by accident. Ralph's wallet in a drawer of a side table we took away, complete with credit cards. One of the books I picked up has all sorts of old newspaper clippings and other ephemera tucked between its leaves. Look at your own house, or apartment, and imagine what's hidden in some bag, or box, or drawer. Anything could turn up anywhere, and while most of it is undoubtedly not worth the trouble of collection - sorry to say it, but it's true, and no less true of my stuff than it is of yours - every so often a gem will surface. The people running the auction will go through the collection looking for that sort of thing but, particularly in a large sale, they can't be expected to find it all.

The protagonists should remember that not everything has to be in their specialty in order to be valuable to them. Back in 2012 I wrote about Orwell's Bookshop, and it's worth referring to again now. Remember what he said about his lending library:  

Probably our library subscribers were a fair cross-section of London's reading public. It is therefore worth noting that of all the authors in our library the one who ‘went out’ the best was — Priestley? Hemingway? Walpole? Wodehouse? No, Ethel M. Dell, with Warwick Deeping a good second and Jeffrey Farnol, I should say, third. Dell's novels, of course, are read solely by women, but by women of all kinds and ages and not, as one might expect, merely by wistful spinsters and the fat wives of tobacconists. It is not true that men don't read novels, but it is true that there are whole branches of fiction that they avoid. Roughly speaking, what one might call the average novel — the ordinary, good-bad, Galsworthy-and-water stuff which is the norm of the English novel — seems to exist only for women. Men read either the novels it is possible to respect, or detective stories. But their consumption of detective stories is terrific.         

Bear in mind, the protagonists are in business to make money. They might live for the day they finally discover the grimoire of their dreams, sell it, and retire to some blissful Pacific atoll on the proceeds; but in the meantime, they need to pay bills, and that means supplying what the customers want. Moreover I don't doubt for a minute that the buying public's consumption patterns have remained unchanged since Orwell's day. The Ethel M. Dells of this world still make a pretty good living, and while the critics may adore a literary phenomenon, that doesn't mean the phenomenon's books fly off the shelves. Finding a collection of some romance author's works can be a good way of keeping the shop afloat, and a useful reward for a protagonist determined to put the effort in to find it.

But what kind of property has a house sale? Broadly speaking, it's a middle class occupation, but that's a very all-inclusive term. A governess who spent all her life looking after other people's children, and who retired to a little cottage or flat, is as much middle class as the stockbroker who earned a very good living in the City and who owned a country house, even though each would have understood the subtle differences in their own social station. The smaller sales won't attract as much attention as the larger ones, of course, but that doesn't mean they're not worth paying any attention to. After all, governesses spend a lot of time in other people's houses, and often pick up things given them by their more well-to-do employers.

Not every house sale is, by definition, an auction, as not every decedent is a Bilbo. There are very many businesses that make their living out of going through a place and carting away the rubbish. Enterprising Bookhounds ought to be on very good terms with people in that line of work, but it's also worth their time poking through the items that don't get collected. You hear, every so often, about the incredibly valuable painting or other antique found in the skip after the house clearers have been. That could as easily be your players, if they're sharp about it.

Is this limited to Bookhounds of London? Not necessarily, though for obvious reasons it's most applicable to them. There's scope for Night's Black Agents, for example, in a house sale, but protagonists in that sort of game are probably going to be involved in more high-end auctions. There's limited interest in a James Bond type poking his nose in some granny's bloomer drawer, seeking bargains. Yet clearances aren't limited to grannies and the like; government archives are often throwing away valuable stuff, sometimes by accident. Or perhaps it's kept well beyond its sell-by. It's well known in London, for example, to those interested in such things, that lurking underground in forgotten tube stations and bomb shelters, there are still old records dating back to the war. The government had all kinds of blitz-proof hiding places and offices scattered over the city, and when the war ended, often the shelters and storage facilities were locked up and forgotten about. Imagine an old Nazi bunker in Berlin, not touched since the war, suddenly rediscovered during building works. Or imagine the sudden interest there might be in, say, hard drives from Russian computers, sold on by enterprising bandits or ex-internal security people, if people realized what kind of data was stored on them. That sort of thing can happen in many different circumstances; there's been interest, recently, in Silicon Knights' sale of office supplies and computers to Precursor Games, and Silicon had to prove that the hard drives were wiped before sale, as part of its dispute resolution with Epic Games. Tech companies go under all the time, and only those with the appropriate Abilities will be able to work out where all their - potentially valuable - stuff went. Or say an old Cold Warrior with unusual connections cashes in his chips unexpectedly. There's bound to be an interest in his belongings, and the only question is, can the protagonists beat all the other interested parties to the punch? 

This is intended as food for thought for the Keeper. There's plenty of mileage to be had from a house sale, whether as a one-off event or as the kicker for a more in-depth series of scenarios. Just bear in mind, someone's treasure is another person's trifle ... unless it turns out, as happened with Ralph's wallet, that trifles hide treasures after all. 


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