Reading independently published books seems to me a lot like vintage and curio shopping (and I do a good bit of both). If you’re like me, that means spending countless hours closely examining things that don't always strike your fancy, but you continue to do it because you know that somewhere hidden under that cover or lid is some truly astounding treasure awaiting your discovery. Selling Dead People’s Things by Duane Scott Cerny is that rare gem, it’s the original Highway Men painting tucked away in some bin at the back of a St. Petersburg garage sale. Really, it’s that good.
Collectors are a curious lot, all of whom, for reasons each their own, compulsively return time and time again to that place where obsessions and possessions intersect. Quite possibly no one knows this better than Cerny, who has built an extraordinary career on his keen attunement to such ordinary madness – those (often weirdly) specific needs and desires of his mentors, neighbors, classmates, colleagues and customers. Given his unique window into what motivates his buyers and sellers, maybe its not entirely surprising that what emerges from the pages of his book is hard-earned wisdom, a straight-razor-sharp wit, and a cast of characters more memorably peculiar than any ever assembled in a David Lynch film.
A brief list of those individuals includes the inimitable Hy Roth (an illustrator who rather than telling former bosses what to go do with themselves drew them detailed diagrams) and his Goth goddess wife Marilyn, an elderly collector in the market for muscle magazines and dentures, an octogenarian ventriloquist and his foul-mouthed, disgruntled dummy, and two very large sisters who may or may not have been the descendants of Mussolini’s gardener.
Then there are the objects themselves, every bit as fascinating as the people connected to them. From part of an iconic jet plane under a porch, to a menagerie of stuffed, two-headed animals, a haunted desk, and what might be the only surviving program from the Iroquois Theater the day it burned down.
Really though, this is a book about more than just things and their people. While Cerny never lets us lose sight of the fact that vintage is a business, beneath the clatter of cold, hard cash, he offers us glimpses of something far softer. Tender, actually. Even as he presents us with a seemingly endless variety of reinventions and resurrections, he reminds us that the prerequisite of each of these is a death. Virtually all of the stories in the book begin where some other person, place or thing has ended. In light of this it would be hard not to reach the conclusion that after all the countless transactions have been conducted, all the many lives altered for what they’ve gained or lost, what remains is the single greatest collection of all – the stories they leave behind.