Monday, October 31, 2011

Lands of the midnight sun

I scored this trio of Scandinavian travel books from one of the best sales I've been to in San Antonio. A doctor's estate in one of my favorite midcentury hoods, Castle Hills. I was hugely pregnant at the time, which made me more shameless, aggression-wise (this is Texas, where pregnant ladies get their very own special parking spots at the grocery store; not NYC, where you could be dilated 9 cm and no one would dream of offering you a seat on the subway). Doctor estate sales are generally pretty good, but you can't count on it—sometimes you just find more expensive versions of the same old crap everyone else has plus a lot of medical reference books.

But these folks were obviously a cultured, intellectually curious pair—the study was wall-to-wall books, tons of first editions being picked over by the serious antiquarian book dealers (think: leonine hair, interesting glasses, the scent of nicotine and mold). I don't even try to compete with those fellas (and they are always fellas from what I've seen), though I seriously regret not picking up a couple of classics published by the Limited Edition Club in NY. I scored a few vintage interior design books and I got my dance critic pal back in New York two scrapbooks full of ballet clippings mostly from the ’70s—Time magazine, New Yorker articles, local newspapers—incredible stuff. Obviously the doctor's wife was a balletomane, which is not a passion you can indulge very easily in San Antonio. I feel for her!

I also paid 50 bucks for an Eames-style leather swivel chair that is the beloved go-to swivel spot in my family room. Like I said, an all-round excellent sale, but I think my favorite purchase was this set of travel guides published by Vista Books. I am in love with the covers—how gorgeous are these girls? Apparently these books were originally published in France and then translated and revised by Viking in the early 60s. The covers are frame-worthy and the writing is off the hook. Not in Let's Go or Frommer's will you find such cheeky, opinionated, discursive surveys of the history, culture and um, physical attributes of the people. Exhibit A is a passage from the Norway guide. The writer, Silvian Pivot (his real name?), rhapsodizes about some 18-year-old students he encounters on his travels:
What a delicious surprise indeed, for the pupils turned out to be three young beauties who introduced themselves in halting English punctuated by devastating smiles. There was Kari, the fairest one with a pearl-coloured skin, who was wearing a fisherman's oilskin covered with the signatures of her admirers. Berit of the huge, gentle eyes, and Grethe, whose freckles immediately enslaved me.

Whoever thought of having their oilskin signed as if it were a cast or an autograph book? Kari, you must've been some kind of genius! Anyway, Vista travel guides seem to be pretty hard to find. I know I googled them immediately after buying this set and turned up a Belgium guide on Amazon for six bucks—the cover was Audrey Hepburn! Ack, why didn't I buy it? Still kicking myself over that one. The back of the Denmark book lists 28 guides, including Finland. I would definitely pay more than $6 for Finland.

Thursday, October 27, 2011

When Ben met Susan

I'm not a big doll person, never have been. As a kid, I had my obligatory Barbie phase but I was really more about Barbie's flocked palomino Nugget than anything else. Of course, as the mother of two young girls, I keep my eye out for wicked-cool mod retro Barbie stuff and I've made some excellent scores (Barbie's ’70s inflatable furniture? YES!) but frankly, I'm skeeved out by most of the dolls I see on my estate sale adventures. You know that totally-sinister-but-ultimately-just-misunderstood baby-doll villain in Toy Story 3? I see a lot of those guys.

That's one end of the old-doll spectrum; the other end is the limited-edition, new-in-box, never-been-played-with-and-never-will-be collector dolls. Those are even more depressing, somehow, when you contemplate how much money the deceased owner spent in pursuit of these Madame Alexander dolls/Precious Moments figurines/Hummels/Beanie Babies and here they are, getting pawed over by a bunch of bargain-hunting bottom-feeders with price guides sticking out of their pocketbooks, for probably a fraction of what she paid for them.

Right, so what am I doing buying a Susan B. Anthony Collectible Doll from the 1979 Hallmark "Famous Americans" series if I'm so damned judgey about other people's dusty boxed-doll collections? Sigh. It's another one of those nostalgia-driven purchases. See, I've had this Ben Franklin doll since, well, 1979. My mother gave it to me for what must have been my eleventh birthday. I don't recall having any special affinity for Ben but I know I played with this humble Hallmark cloth doll—and that I didn't even bother to save the original box. I'm pretty sure this doll accompanied me to college, along with my Edward Gorey stuffed bat. How I managed to make friends in college, I don't know.

Enter Ms. Susan B. Anthony. I was at an estate sale in San Antonio (with my mother who just happened to be visiting from NJ and has absolutely no memory of giving me the Ben Franklin doll) when I spied the suffragist on a coffee table—right alongside her mint-condition historically accurate townhouse-style box. Two bucks. Was I going to pass that up? Reader, I was not.

Is this the start of yet another collection? Hopefully not, though on ebay you can find the whole pantheon of Famous Americans, so anointed by the 70s-era bigwigs at Hallmark: Annie Oakley, Amelia Earhart, Chief Joseph (whodat?), Mark Twain, Babe Ruth, George Washington Carver, Clara Barton, P.T. Barnum, Martha Washington and the always-mysterious Molly Pitcher. I've never been clear on the origin of Molly's fame though there is a rest stop on the Jersey turnpike named for her so she must have done something awesome.

Wednesday, October 26, 2011

How to draw the well-accessorized nude

One of the things I've learned about San Antonio since I started rifling through the things its dead have left behind (morbid but accurate) is that this town is (or was) chock full of Sunday painters. Seriously. Maybe it's not the town so much as the midcentury era when folks would take up art as a hobby. Or do people still do that? I mean, apart from Adam Gopnik, of course. (I enjoyed his New Yorker piece but it only confirmed what I already knew—drawing is motherfreaking hard.) So it's no surprise that I come across a lot of Walter T. Foster's big floppy art-instruction manuals and that I tend to snap them up because I find the colors, the type, the (false) promise of being able to render a sad clown or adorable kitten portrait as adroitly as the one on the cover just so...irresistible.

I also had a small collection as a kid—all on the subject of horses, perhaps not coincidentally the only thing I can draw with any confidence now—which makes this another one of my nostalagia-fueled pursuits, for the most part. I mean, they're also total eye candy, right? Walter died back in 1981, but the company continues to publish new manuals in his name as well as reprint some of the old ones in a Walter T. Foster Collectible Series. I was bummed to find that the company is not immune to merchandising tie-ins; most of the offerings for kids instruct them on the finer points of drawing characters from Disney, Pixar, Nickelodeon et al. Bleh. They may no longer publish a book devoted to painting clown portraits but they do have a manual devoted to drawing zombies. Never thought of looking to old Walt for the zeitgeist but there ya go.

One of the volumes in the Collectibles series is How to Draw Pin-ups and Glamour Girls; back in the day, there were several devoted to sad-eyed babes striking awkward poses in their boudoirs, including this one, The Nude by Fritz Willis. I love the models' supercomplicated hairdos, and the props. Half-drunk Chianti bottles are a recurring theme...

And there's nothing quite like an artfully placed Spanish guitar to preserve a girl's modesty, but you knew that already.

The best thing is finding old sketches stuck between the pages of these manuals. A total estate-sale bonus that sets one's mind a-wandering... Who was this amateur Vargas living in a ’60s tract house in a drab, colorless San Antonio subdivision? We'll never know.

Monday, October 24, 2011

The lure of lore

I'm not nearly as outdoorsy as I aspire to be because (a) it's really hot here in San Antonio and (b) when it's not hot, the air is just thick with allergens and quarry dust. Oh, and (c) the chiggers. Did I mention the chiggers? Nevertheless, I find this little tome, which turns up at a lot of book sales and estate sales (right alongside those Reader's Digest Condensed sets), super-appealing. I bought my first copy of the Complete Book of Outdoor Lore at a library sale in Boerne, TX, and the nice Friends of the Library volunteer exclaimed "Oooh... I would've gotten this one if I'd seen it. I love any title with the word lore in it, don't you?"

Why, yes, my fellow kindred spirit senior citizen library volunteer lady. And thank you for confirming that I should really volunteer at library sales so I can get first crack at all the books with lore in the title!
Seriously—try it. Everything sounds better with a little lore chaser:

tax lore
math lore
kettlebell lore
microwave oven lore

Sunday, October 23, 2011

Hickory dickory

Having a child in elementary school has a way of jogging memories—of the heady scent of ditto machines and brand-new Buster Browns, of academic triumphs and trials. Though they mostly came later (algebra was my undoing), I tend to dwell on the trials. One was tying shoes. With the help of my saintly kindergarten teacher, I managed to finally nail that one by year's end. The other was telling time. I completely sucked at it and I always blamed my parents. They took me out of second grade for three weeks to go on a family trip to Finland—just as the unit on telling time was getting underway. It's funny how I've held that against them for all these decades—but they recently informed me that I only missed one week of school because we went over winter break (if you have a penchant for total darkness and arctic temperatures, might I suggest spending the holidays in Finland?).

Anyway, when I saw this box of teaching clocks at Bussey's flea market, naturally the first thing that flashed through my mind was an image of Mrs. Voget holding a similar teaching aid in the front of the class and calling on me to tell the time while I sat, slackjawed and clueless, when I usually had an answer for everything. Time stood still, as it were. So why would I instantly fork over six bucks for something with such unpleasant associations? Well, look at Mrs. Higgenbotham's clocks—they're so ding-dang cute! And this is at least one grudge my kids won't be able to nurse through their adult life cuz I'm totally facilitating their time-telling skills by prominently displaying these on the windowsill in my dining room.

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