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Big game hunting

November 12, 2010
Adirondack Daily Enterprise

I've always been a hunter - a bargain hunter, that is.

I embarked on this career in childhood, when I first discovered rummage sales. I don't know how much I actually bought, having a serious cash-flow problem caused by a powerful candy addiction. But I certainly went to them every chance I got.

It was all about The Promise. Maybe the only things I ever saw were piles of musty clothes, old kitchen appliances, scratched records, rusty tools and so on, but deep in my tender Dopey heart, I knew eventually I was gong to hit the Mother Lode of dreck.

I didn't have any specific objects in mind; I just knew they'd be there, sometime - wherever "there" was.

Gradually, by fits and starts, my patience and persistence were rewarded.

I got my first killer deal in 1957 at the Friends of the Library sale. It was the complete eight-volume set of The Children's Encyclopedia, which I copped for $1.25.

The set was special for several reasons.

First, it was British, and second, it was published in 1922. Thus it was quaint in both concept and language, both of which fascinated me. So there I was, sitting in the middle of the Adirondacks of the mid-1950s, reading such exotic fare as Hindu widows leaping on their husbands' funeral pyres, African witch doctors and their curses, Antarctic explorers (the first one of whom had gotten to the South Pole barely 10 years before my encyclopedia was printed), head hunters, Greek mythology, imperial ontology and Lord knows what else. They also had stuff on English nobility and even English country life, both of which were as exotic to me as the Hindu widows and the head hunters.

I only remember a few other things from it. One was fairy tales, both charmingly told and illustrated. Another was chemical experiments. There were quite a lot of them, all of which fascinated me, mostly because I thought they could result in every kid's dream - huge explosions. Luckily for my limbs, organs and appendages (not to mention the family home), all the necessary ingredients, readily available in any "chemist's shoppe" back then, were completely unavailable in My Home Town.

The final thing I remember learning from the encyclopedia was a magic trick - how to tie a knot in a rope without ever letting go of the ends. It was described only in writing, with no illustrations. Ultimately, this is the best way to learn a trick because without illustrations, you have to figure it out completely on your own. So you read the directions, then try it, then reread them, then try it again over and over and over till you either figure it out or give up.

If you persist and figure it out, you've thought about it so much and done it so much, you've got it nailed down - forever. As for that little rope trick? Not only have I done it thousands of times over the last 50 years, but I still do it, and it's just as mystifying and as much fun as it ever was.

Something else about my Children's Encyclopedia: Since it hadn't been stored under archival conditions, its leather bindings were in various states of detachment and disintegration. So even the most casual perusal was an adventure, what with bits of desiccated leather and glue flaking off this way and that, accompanied by occasional hits of dust and mold that'd been trapped in the pages since the realm of George V.


Comic relief

My greatest bargain-hunting coup also involved books, but it took place long after than and much farther away from my Children's Encyclopedia score.

About 10 years ago, I visited New Orleans for the fourth time, and as with all my other visits, had a blast.

And how can you not?

The food is unbelievable (and unbelievably cheap), the people are friendly, the weather's comfortable, the sights are fascinating, the entertainment nonstop (even if it's just people watching in the French Quarter).

And there's one other thing in the Big Easy I've always loved - the accent. It's called the "Yat" accent, from the greeting "Where y'at?" - their equivalent of "How ya doin?" It's distinctive, and one of the things that most struck me was how much it sounded like the old-time Brooklyn accent.

In case you're interested, the novel, "A Confederacy of Dunces" by John Kennedy Toole, in addition to being one of the funniest books I've read, is also the best example of the Yat accent.

I'd always wanted to find out the origins of the Yat accent, and one day, while wandering around the French Quarter, I passed a building that had a small sign on its door saying it was a research facility and the public was welcome. I had no idea what it was, but just for giggles decided to go in and see if there was any literature about the Yat accent.

The staff were gracious and helpful, but they couldn't find a lot of material for me. In fact, they had only a few magazine articles and a comic book. And here's the kicker: Not only was the comic book about characters with classic Yat accents, it was one of the best comics I've ever seen. It was drawn fabulously, and every bit was hysterically funny.

The artist was Bunny Matthews, someone I'd never heard of and someone everybody in New Orleans knew and adored. After I went over the material in the center, I immediately high-tailed it to one of the Quarter's used bookstores, in search of Bunny Matthews' comics.

When I told the owner what I wanted, he said, "Well, you're in luck. I've got one copy of his stuff."

"That's all?" I asked.

"Let me tell you," he said, "Bunny Matthew's work is really hard to find."

"Really?" I said.

"Oh yes," he said. "Very few copies were printed, so we almost never run across any."

As I was thinking about that, he got the comic for me, which was the same one I'd seen in the research place.

"Is this the only comic he did?" I asked.

"No," the man said. "I think he did three in all. But as I said, we just don't run across them."

Of course I bought it, happy with its 10-dollar price.

Then I checked out the other Quarter bookstores. As luck would have it, in another store I found a copy of his second comic, which I got for $15.

After that, the supply ran out.

But when I got home, still on my Bunny Matthews hunt, I checked Internet bookstores, and lo and behold, I found on copy of his third comic. This one was priced at $25, which seemed on the high side for a comic no one heard of but wasn't too high for me, since I now had the complete set.

For several months I read the comics quite a lot; after that, I only read them now and again, but they never lost their appeal.

Then, after a few years, I decided to check the Internet again to see if any more copies had surfaced. They had but with a huge difference: There was only one comic - his first one, priced at $250!

How did that happen?

Simple economics of supply and demand: Since the comics were softbound and few were printed, far fewer were still around. So even if the demand was small for his stuff, the supply was even smaller.

The trend continued, and yesterday when I looked on the Internet for his comics, there were none to found.

So that means my initial $50 investment is now worth a whole lot more.

And does it also mean I'm willing to sell my comics and make a huge profit? Not now and probably not ever.

Don't get me wrong. Having a pocketful of dead presidents might make me feel good and sometimes might even make me smile but a Bunny Matthews comic book will always make me laugh out loud.



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