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Street Talk : Mrs. Morgan’s Crowded Garage

Jill Morgan had been buying and selling books at garage sales, flea markets, and online for years. When she saw that prices of out-of-print children’s books were soaring, she decided to do something about it. Now she re-publishes children’s favorites out

When a Keller mom discovered out-of-print children’s classics were selling for $300 on eBay, she got angry. Then she got an idea.

When Jill Morgan saw the price of Mr. Pine’s Purple House hit $300 on eBay, she knew she had to do something. A former software engineer at Motorola, she’d been buying and selling books for years at garage sales, flea markets, and online, all the while watching the prices of out-of-print children’s classics soar. Leonard Kessler’s book, about a man who paints his house purple in order to set it apart from the other houses on his street, cost only 59 cents when it was first published in 1965. Fifty nine cents in 1965 would be $3.22 today. That means that Mr. Kessler’s little book was selling on the Internet at nearly 100 times its original value.

Morgan lives in Keller, in a two-story, redbrick house on a street lined with two-story, redbrick houses, every one with a redbrick mailbox—basically, Mr. Pine country. She met me on her walkway in bare feet and with a runny nose. She looked like she needed to curl up with The Wizard of Oz and a box of Kleenex, but she was smiling. “I think I caught a cold last night,” she said.

She welcomed me into her house, which was swept clean of toys, shoes, backpacks, and voices. It was a school day. Morgan is the mother of three young children. “Mr. Pine’s Purple House was one of my favorite books as a child,” Morgan explained as we made our way through the kitchen to the garage. “My dad read it to me when I was 3.”

During Internet searches of children’s books, Morgan began to notice that the online identification numbers of certain buyers and sellers kept popping up. “People were hoarding the market for out-of-print children’s books,” she said. “A handful of buyers were buying up all the books and selling them in ones and twos. The people who tried to corner the market saw an opportunity. And I saw an opportunity based on what they were doing.”

Morgan had a hunch that the regular customers who were bidding against each other for their childhood favorites on eBay and ABE—a web site with 7,300 dealers and more than 25 million books for sale—weren’t interested in expensive first editions. She assumed they only wanted the books to read to their children and were being forced by savvy book hoarders to pay inflated prices. She got the idea to republish the most sought after out-of-print books and sell them at new book prices.

“I wrote a letter to Mr. Kessler and told him that I wanted to republish his book,” Morgan said. “He thought about it for a day. Then he called me and said, ’Jill, I’m going to give you the book. It’s great that a fan wants to bring it back.’” Morgan asked Kessler if she could call her new venture Purple House Press. Kessler not only agreed, but he also designed Morgan’s logo, a purple turtle with a green head and glasses, reading a book. For now, the business operates out of Morgan’s house.

She pushed open the door to the garage. I wanted to see her inventory. We were greeted by her dog. He’s a barker. And a sniffer. He circled me for a few minutes before resuming his patrol. Pallets of books have crowded out the cars. The bicycles are the next to go. To get a hammer from the workshop in the corner requires squeezing between boxes stamped “Printed in Malaysia.” “I’ve got four shipments of books coming,” Morgan said. “We are going to have to get a place to store them somewhere.”

Including Mr. Pine’s Purple House, Morgan has 11 titles in her catalog, five of which are available online at Amazon and at Barnes and Noble, and locally, at The Enchanted Forest. The others will be published over the course of the coming year. Her current list includes: The Shy Stegosaurus of Cricket Creek, by Evelyn Sibley Lampman; David and the Phoenix, by Edward Ormondroyd; Tal, His Marvelous Adventures, written by the great-grandson of James Fenimore Cooper; and Mr. Bear Squash-You-All-Flat, by Morrell Gibson, the price of which got as high as $800 on the Internet. In the fall, Morgan will bring out another Mr. Pine book, Mr. Pine’s Mixed-Up Signs. Author Leonard Kessler is so excited about Morgan’s venture that he’s promising a brand-new Mr. Pine book.

“Jill’s remarkable,” Kessler later told me over the phone from his home in Sarasota. He’s the author of more than 200 books and is emblematic of Morgan’s growing stable of authors: they are generally retired and eager to see their books return to print. “Mr. Pine was getting harder and harder to find,” he explained. “I got a letter the other day about a grandmother who used to read the book to her grandkids. When she died, the grandkids decided to give the book to the youngest grandchild. When it came out in print again, they each got a copy.”

Kessler did most of his writing and illustrating in Rockland County, N.Y., 50 miles northwest of New York City. He had a studio in his house. Neighborhood kids wandered in and out. One day a kid wandered in and said to him, “Mr. Kessler, you need to get a job or come out and play with us.” Kessler laughs at the memory of it. He told the boy that he was making books. The boy shrugged and said, “Well, I guess that’s a job.”

Morgan’s job consists largely of listening to dealers and friends talk about their favorite childhood books. If it is, I’m afraid I added to her daily burden.  I blurted out the name of my favorite children’s book twice: once on the phone and again on our walk from the garage to the dining room—the corporate office of Purple House. “Have you ever heard of We Were Tired of Living in a House?” I asked Morgan. She hadn’t. “I loved that book,” I told her. “It’s about these kids who run away from home, and….”

Morgan is patient in such moments. They come at her with increasing frequency these days. As for her office, there are children’s books on every flat surface, color proofs of dust jackets laying on the floor, and a computer in the middle of a bookcase. Above the computer are the books that Morgan is working to obtain the rights to republish.

When she republishes a book, she tweaks it. For instance, Morgan learned that Gary Larson, creator of The Far Side empire, was a fan of Mr. Bear Squash-You-All-Flat, a story about a bear that sits on the houses of other animals before finally receiving his comeuppance and a knot on the head. So she contacted Larson. He wrote the foreword to the new Purple House edition of Mr. Bear.  With The Mad Scientists’ Club, Morgan is set to publish a “director’s cut” of the original book. The author, Bertrand Brinley, who has since died, was unhappy with the published version of his story. Morgan will republish the book based on Brinley’s original draft and with a new foreword written by the author’s son.

After an hour or so, Morgan walked me back outside into sunshine and redbrick. Her nose seemed better.

“I just want to keep doing this,” she said. “Every book I get in print I will keep printing as long as I can. I’m fortunate. I have very knowledgeable bookseller friends telling me what I should buy.”

The Enchanted Forest Book Store, the largest independent bookstore for children in Texas, operates on the second floor of a shopping center at the northwest corner of Mockingbird and Abrams. On the afternoon I visited, to see Purple House books in action, a tiny girl, who introduced herself as Princess Claire, marched out of a hallway between a gingerbread cottage and a raised platform that serves as a stage. She was wearing a pink Cinderella costume and yellow sandals. She needed only a wand or a mean sister for the full effect. Her retinue consisted of a babysitter and the store’s owner, Jennifer Anglin, who happens to be Princess Claire’s mother.

Anglin is the national president of the Association of Booksellers for Children and was the American representative to the International Booksellers Congress. She is a children’s book reviewer and once was the national manager of promotions and advertising for the children’s book division of Harcourt Brace. I won’t belabor the point: Anglin knows her way around the genre.

“I thought I was just opening a store,” she said, walking me back to her office deep inside the maze of stockrooms and nooks, some outfitted with knee-high tables and small green chairs. Anglin was on her way out of town to a bookseller’s conference. When we reached her office, she cleared a place for me to sit.

Anglin recently put together her Christmas book list. Purple House books are on it. “I remember Mr. Bear Squash-You-All-Flat from my childhood,” Anglin said. “Today the shelf life of a children’s book is 36 months unless it’s a runaway best seller.”

“So what makes a children’s book a classic?” I asked.

“Generally there is a cohesive package of words and illustrations that still leave something to the imagination that makes the child want to read it again and again,” she said. “There’s no one formula, but there’s usually some sort of fantasy, like talking animals.

“Customers buying Purple House books remember them from their childhoods,” she continued. “The books have an old-fashioned, non-commercial feel. It’s just a book; there’s no lunchbox or TV show.”

Princess Claire walked in. She addressed her mother, who was checking e-mails. “Can you read to me?” the princess asked.

“Not right now, honey,” Anglin answered. I asked the princess if she had read Mr. Bear Squash-You-All-Flat. Before she could answer, her mother told her to run out into the store and get a copy.

“Not only do I want to promote a Texas publishing company like Purple House,” Anglin said during the wait, “but I also want to promote the books that people ask us about. For instance, David and the Phoenix is a good, complicated book, probably for pre-Harry Potter readers or younger readers.”

“Is there any end to books that can be brought back?” I asked.

“I don’t think so,” Anglin responded. “There are Newberry medal winners that are out of print.”

Princess Claire returned with the familiar yellow book with a brown bear on the cover.

“What’s your favorite part?” I asked her.

 “I like the part where the bear squashes the houses of the animals,” she said.

“What about the part about the bear hitting his head on the tree after squashing the houses?” I asked. It seemed like an important part of the story.

But the princess didn’t stay around to answer. She had already left the room giggling, in a swirl of pink.

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