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A Real Page-Turner : Maurice Neville Had a Passion for Books, and Impulsively Bought a $200,000 Collection. Eleven Years Later, His Gamble Has Paid Off.

November 15, 1987|JEAN VALLELY | Jean Vallely is a Los Angeles Times Magazine contributing editor.

THEY SURE DON'T HAVE mornings like this in Indiana, thought Maurie Nevilleas he maneuvered his light brown Mercedes sedan onto the 101 Freeway and headed south. He watched the hot rays of the yellow sun glint on the blue of the Pacific. As he pulled into the right-hand lane, Neville also thought about how he really should be back in his office in Santa Barbara selling real estate. Instead, on this glorious day, Maurie and his wife, Marcia, were driving to Los Angeles and the Heritage Book Shop, which had just acquired the 9,000-volume collection of the late Norman Unger.

Although real estate was Neville's bread and butter, books were his passion and had been since he was a small child. There were about 200 books that Neville wanted out of the Unger collection, including signed limited editions of "The Magic Mountain" by Thomas Mann,"Finnegans Wake" by James Joyce and "A Farewell to Arms" by Ernest Hemingway.

As Neville drove through Ventura, Camarillo and Thousand Oaks, he thought about Norman Unger. Now there was a man who had been truly able to indulge his passion. Unger's bread and butter was the rag trade, but he collected books obsessively for more than 30 years.In New York book-dealing circles, Unger was known for his generosity, good taste and persistence.

Long before anyone took Tennessee Williams seriously, Unger was a devotee. Included in the collection was a copy of "A Streetcar Named Desire" signed by the entire Broadway cast: Marlon Brando, Kim Hunter, Karl Malden; and an inscription from Williams himself: "To Norman Unger, my first collector."

Long before anyone had ever heard of Dylan Thomas, Norman Unger was not only at his poetry readings, but also waiting, book in hand, for an inscription. In the collection was a copy of "Twenty-five Poems," inscribed, "To Norman Unger, my only collector, Dylan Thomas."

Unger also befriended writers such as W. Somerset Maugham, who had written him a note telling him his shirt size, and Thomas Mann, who wrote him a letter thanking him for a pair of gloves, and Welsh author James Hanley ("Men in Darkness," "Boy"), to whom, during World War II, Unger sent "care" packages, including a typewriter. Hanley was so grateful that he dedicated a book to Unger.

As Neville exited the 101 in Los Angeles he thought about how eccentric Unger was. As the story goes, Unger hired a carpenter to build bookcases for his burgeoning collection. Unger claimed that the shelves weren't to his specifications, sued, and while he awaited the outcome of the litigation, he carefully wrapped all his books in tissue paper, put them in boxes and sealed them.

The litigation was eventually settled, but Unger never used the bookcases. He kept acquiring books, carefully wrapping them in tissue paper, putting them in boxes and sealing them. By the time he died, no one was quite sure what he had, except that they were in mint condition and numbered about 9,000. To get some sense of what the collection was worth, a few boxes were opened, and in addition to the above mentioned, the books ranged from 40 signed limited editions by William Faulkner to 40 copies of "The Wall" by John Hersey.

As Neville pulled up in front of the Heritage Book Shop and parked next to the huge van that had transported the 9,000 books from Unger's home in New York City, his pulse beat faster. Bookstore employees, like excited 5-year-olds gone amok on some Christmas morning, tore through the boxes, pulling out the books and ripping off paper. "Look," squealed one, "10 signed copies of 'From Here to Eternity.' " "Look," yelped another, "10 signed copies of 'The Naked and the Dead.' "

Neville tried to buy the books that he wanted, but Heritage was reluctant to sell. Its No. 1 collector was due in the next day, and they had already heard from a library that wanted to buy the whole lot.

"What price did you quote the library?" Neville heard himself ask.

"$200,000."

"You'd give a dealer's discount off that?" he heard this same voice inquire.

"Sure, 10%."

Neville started calculating: 9,000 books into $180,000--that's $20 a book. There were sure to be books that no one would pay two cents for, but Neville knew that the 40 signed Faulkner limited editions would go for close to $300 each, and he could probably get that for "From Here to Eternity," and there were the 200 books he wanted anyway.

Neville thought about how he was spending more and more time in the rare-book world, traveling to book fairs and auctions, studying catalogues, trading books with friends--dealing, really--albeit on a very moderate level, but dealing nonetheless. He thought about how bored he was selling real estate. And he thought about how he envied Norman Unger.

"$180,000," he heard the voice inside him say to his wife, who by this time was watching her husband as if he had just stepped off the moon.

"$180,000," he heard her reply. "Well, OK."

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