MARGINALIA: Life Along the Borders of Rare Bookselling
Some Choose to Walk As Trolls
by Roger Gozdecki
Aside from Taylor Bowie and Carlos, the only other individual who earns an automatic bye onto my Top Ten List of Most Extraordinary Persons I have met in the rare book trade is Hackney.
On opening day of the shop on Citrus in April 1981, I remember a U-shaped bank of shelves starting in the northwest corner and finishing on the southwest after making two right-angle turns against the east back wall. In the middle was a big pile of books in cartons and Donald Hackney.
He told me he had been driving by the shop every day since the week before when he saw "THE BOOK SHOP" and "WE BUY BOOKS" go up in big brown block letters on the 10' x 15' display windows.
And now here he was, without ever being asked, pitching in with the rest of the team to unpack and sort our stock of 10,000 mostly 1st-class, 2nd-hand books and running them by the armload to their assigned subject areas in the stacks.
He commented non-stop on the books as he sorted them, as if the rest of us weren't present. History books seemed to animate him most, and when it was Military History, which (don't ask me why) we shelved back in those days right next to the Religion section, Hackney shifted into overdrive.
From Assyria v. Babylon to Sparta v. Persia to Normandy v. Saxony to Nelson v. Napoleon to Allies v. Nazis to British Empire v. Zulu Empire, there didn't seem to be any aspect of the subject that escaped his grasp. He put forth a staggeringly detailed account of the rise and fall of civilizations and the clash of mighty armies in one vast extemporaneous sweep. It was astonishing.
It didn't take one long, however, to realize that Hackney was a wee off kilter.
Shortly after I met him, a column one feature in the L.A. Times put a name on what it was: Asperger Syndrome. As a one-time child development major I had a passing acquaintance with the disorder, but never met anyone who had it. Clinical thinking about Asberger's was changing dramatically in the early 80's. Although its cause was unknown, AS was coming to be seen as a disorder aligned on the same spectrum with higher functioning autism. One form of treatment involved coaching persons with AS in the nonverbal aspects of communication in order to help them become more successful in interpersonal relations.
Hans Asberger, the Austrian pediatrician who, in the 1940's, first described the collection of behaviors that characterize the syndrome, believed that their prodigious capacity to absorb and regurgitate information might one day lead AS individuals to serve an invaluable educational and scientific roll in society. What was then the DSM-III reported however that while many of the symptoms of AS attenuated as the "little professor" children grew into adults, they often became lonely and isolated with marked difficulty achieving happy and independent lives.
It didn't help that Hackney looked like something that ate billy goats after they went trip-trap-trip-trap over the bridge under which he lived. A jug head with over-sized ears, a thin weedy patch of gray hair, and a mouthful of peg teeth; all mounted on a short, billowy frame. Picture Charles Laughton as Quasimodo snatching Esmeralda from the scaffold and shouting "Sanctuary!" as he carried her back to the bell tower and you wouldn't be far from the mark.
Most of the time I knew him, Hackney worked at a job where none of these things mattered: telephone solicitation. He was paid to cold-call small business owners and persuade them to schedule an appointment with a sales representative for B of A's payroll processing division. As you might imagine, Donald was rather successful at this because he couldn't take no for an answer. He ranked in the top five for booked appointments on the annual leader board in his district office for years.
Hackney was also a bookseller of sorts. He bought military books and used role playing games and sold them at smaller book fairs, gaming conventions, and military shows. In his eyes, this made us colleagues, co-conspirators, and friends. I would not dispute the characterization, then or now. He had a California Resale Certificate and I gave him less-twenty on the hundreds of books that he bought from me. Once ortwice a year, he sold some of them back, usually when he got hard-up for his monthly car insurance payment. He always called me a pirate when we settled up, but he knew I was being generous and was always appreciative that he could rely on me to help him get by in a scrape.
Back then we were open daily (till 10 p.m. every night but Sunday) and Hackney came in 4 or 5 times a week usually in the last hour before closing. Here is what I learned about him over time.
He was the oldest of three boys. His middle brother had been a star university swimmer but died from cancer as a young man. His youngest brother played football at the University of Arizona, was in senior management for Weyerhauser, and lived in an expensive home in Irvine. In 1966, Hackney graduated from the best Catholic prep school in the San Gabriel Valley. He lived with his mother, a retired L. A. County reference librarian, in a mobile home park. His father, deceased for some time, had been an insurance broker and also an important state Democratic Party official in California. Hackney spoke with great pride about meeting Jack Kennedy at the National Convention in Los Angeles in 1960 when John was 12 years old. He was an unapologetic liberal and it was always entertaining to hear him heap uninterrupted damnation upon country club Republicans and the Reagan administration.
Hackney played Risk on Friday nights twice a month with the same group of cohorts for over 15 years. He painted legions of military miniatures in accurate regimental colors and assembled entire model armies, navies, and air forces of military machinery, reciting the technical specifications for each ad infinitum. During the year of the Texas sesquicentennial, Donald flew to San Antonio on vacation and built a 1:48 scale model of the Alamo when he came home.
He was both loyal and honest to a fault, and possessed one of the sweetest and unspoiled natures of any man I have ever met. He adored cats.
He did wear you down though.
At the new book store up the street Hackney wasn't permitted to stay any longer than 10 minutes a day. In my case when he began to get on my nerves, I simply put my arm around him and escorted him out the door. If he liked you, Hackney was wonderfully impossible to offend.
"Don, it's time to go."
"Okay, okay," he'd always say, "I know when to take a hint."
It all began to unravel for Don when his Mom passed away in 1998. He lost his job, and the only work he could find was part-time with a security company. He fell behind in the rent on the mobile home space and eventually, in order to be free of the whole damn mess, Hackney signed the title over to the company that managed the park. Just like that, Hackney was homeless, living out of his van.
He turned up at the shop one morning in 2001. His arms were covered with mosquito bites that he had scratched into open sores. He had abandoned his cat on an elementary school playground because he couldn't afford to feed her. He was frightened that he might get arrested for indecent exposure if he was caught urinating in public.
I was in a position then to make some difference. I connected him with Social Services and he got a physical, some medical care, a psychiatric evaluation and a prescription for Paxil. It seemed appropriate, so for the first and only time I asked him about Asberger Syndrome. Hackney said he didn't want to talk about it.
I bought him a cell phone so he could take calls, and soon he was working temporary assignments a few nights a week.
Best of all, we were able to get him into Section 8 housing in a really nice 1-bedroom at a brand new apartment complex for seniors on Towne Avenue in Pomona. Donald Hackney was back on track.
But things change.
When I sold the shop in 2006 and began working from home on the west side 40 miles away, we saw much less of one another. He called me once from a Chevron station in Upland because he needed a new tire and I was able to pay for it over the phone with my debit card. 18 months ago I received notice from a collection agency that Hackney had left a $219 cell phone bill unpaid for nearly a year and I was getting dunned for it. I thought about calling the brother in Irvine to inquire if Donald was okay, but didn't know what I could do if he weren't, so I just cleared the debt myself and whispered a prayer on Hackney's behalf.
I prefer to remember him as he was among the last times I saw him. There was a gaming convention in San Louis Obispo on that late summer weekend in 2006, and Hackney hoped to raise enough cash to get there by selling me something first from the nine cartons of books he had in the back of his van. I walked outside with him, to give the stuff the once over. Two butterscotch tabby kittens were in there, too, along with a litter box on the passenger seat.
The kittens played tag across the box tops and pounced on my fingers as I poked among the books. I only found one, but it seemed pretty good. A rare piece of Custeriana the limited edition 1982 first printing of the previously unknown memoir by Charles A. Varnum, the General's chief scout. I thought I might sell it for $250, and offered Don 100 bucks for it, plus 10% for old time's sake.
Funny thing...I still have that copy for sale. Check it out yourself on abaa.org. If you think I'm overly ambitious at two-fifty, what would you call the guy who's asking seven-fifty for the same thing on ABE?
It was the best book Hackney ever sold me, and he was in high spirits. He cracked wise with me on the way back in and called me a pirate like old times, but after I counted out five 20's and a 10 from the till and he signed the cash receipt, he choked up a bit while thanking me.
And then he walked out of the shop and north up Citrus, squinting in the bright afternoon sunlight. Life again was glorious. $110 would buy him a motel room near Cal Poly on Saturday night, a couple of meals, and who knew? Potentially, if he sold enough to the gamers he might come home this time with more than when he started.
I remember thinking as I watched him go, arms pumping rhythmically in time with that peculiar hunched rollicking gait of his, that when the angels move among us some choose to walk as trolls.