An Unhappy Story: a deal gone bad
The book couldn't be opened flat
By Bruce McKinney
Recently I purchased on eBay a copy of Ruttenber's History of Orange County [New York], the 1875 edition, for $70 plus shipping. Ruttenber was an exceptional man, a printer, writer and historian who combined his personal interests and business to create a lasting printed legacy of Hudson Valley history. I didn't have a copy and saw, as interesting, the opportunity to purchase a reasonably good one for around $75. On Abe other copies are offered for about $200 but this is a book that is common enough to periodically show up on eBay. In late December it did.
I have eBay experience. In fact, I'm a regular buyer. I've purchased more than 300 items in my current account and two hundred more in a previous. I know from experience that Ebay is not a perfect marketplace but nevertheless is very good, even exciting, and I follow their auctions throughout the year. Again, from experience I know that every lot isn't going to be as expected. For me, about 85% turn out to be as good and in some cases much better than described. For a portion of the other 15% I bear some responsibility. I on occasion fail to notice a material disclaimer. You have to read the listings carefully and I haven't always done so, in part because I'm busy and the prices are often low. If a material fact is stated and I miss it it's my responsibility. If the fact is present but difficult to find [i.e. hidden] I'll remember the seller and be inclined not to bid again. Once-in-a-while a seller fails to disclose material defects. When this happens I'm inclined to return the material and such was the case recently with the Ruttenber's History of Orange that I bought, with a single bid, at the $70 asking price just as the auction was closing.
When books, more than with pamphlets and ephemera, are posted for sale the risk of problems and the possibility of undisclosed faults increases. The material is simply more complex. Many sellers protect themselves and their reputations by describing uncertain material as "poor," "needs to be carefully evaluated," or "sold not subject to return." Every seller does it differently but most do it. Many provide images of faults.
What's missing is of course more difficult to know. Most sellers endeavor to provide accurate description but when an item arrives and it's quite different than expected, many many sellers simply say "send it back." They accept returns without explanation or complaint. I rarely return items however. If it's my error it's my responsibility. I rely on the AED, frequently ask questions and am rarely sorry to win. Net net, I understand the process.
So when I recently encountered Rutterber's 1875 History of Orange on eBay I knew the book, and saw several indications the seller knew his business. By his name I saw he was experienced with more than 6,000 feed backs and a 99.6% rating. And the description, and image, was plausible.
"From 1875, a very rare first edition, History of the County of Orange, with a history of the Town and City of Newburgh: General, Analytical and Biographical. By E. M. Ruttenber, published in Newburgh, New York, printed by E. M. Ruttenber & Son, Printers, 1875. With dozens of full page prints and maps, including one showing the location of Indian tribes in the region, Minnisinks, Waoranecks, Warranawonkongs, Papagoncks, Tappans. 425, 9x6 inches. Bound with the original purple cloth boards, spine replaced with black cloth.
Quite rare, only a handful of copies available, and ALL three we have seen are being offered at $200 and up. This copy shows wear, but then they all do. This one has an interesting penciled inscription, John S. Clark, 558 La Salle Av. Chicago. Samuel Clark, page 295, my grandfather.
An Unhappy Story: a deal gone bad
Copiously illustrated, with some great steel engraved portraits and homes pictured, poignant if you think of Newburgh today. Not one of the garden spots of the East."
A single image of the cover was provided [link] and it looked interesting: both original and different from other Ruttenber bindings I've encountered. No warp was detectable or mentioned, no side view or title page scan provided.
It arrived wrapped in a single sheet of paper tucked into a Priority Mail envelope [link]. Most pamphlets are secured between cardboard leaves. This book had none of that but nevertheless appeared to arrive in the same condition consigned. Unfortunately, it apparently wasn't very good going into the envelope and didn't improve in transit. Or to quote the song "what a condition my condition was in." I put the book and packing aside to evaluate later and a few days later contacted the seller to return the book. To which he replied:
You will note I do not have a return policy. What precisely are you referring to? What faults?
Seller [name withheld]
No return policy? What am I referring to? I prepared this note.
The seller is very generous to himself to call this "spine replaced with black cloth." Some sort of tape was crudely applied a long time ago. The single illustration provided in the listing minimizes the poor condition by showing only a front view from a distance. Had an image of the spine or the back cover been provided the scale and nature of the defect would have been apparent. The seller chose the best view.
The book can not be opened flat as the first gathering of pages are somehow in the intimate embrace of the front cover and tape. When the book was described the seller obviously didn't open the book flat. Had he, the early pages would probably have been damaged. Between pages 34 and 35 a separation if not outright divorce, is imminent. He left me the opportunity to do so and I respectfully decline.
The book is also badly twisted. Books that are not flat are routinely so described to alert would-be buyers to this problem. This defect apparently escaped the seller's eye but it's obvious. The term of art is "warp" and in the hands of a linguist it might reach toward "corkscrew." The book does not sit flat, its front and back covers determined to go in different directions.
Finally, there is foxing. This is a book of text and images and some pages, certainly not all, are foxed. For many buyers foxing is paramount. The seller did not disclose this either.
An Unhappy Story: a deal gone bad
A warped copy
To my way of thinking the seller is responsible for accurate description but, as this seller has made clear, I'm to do the work – apparently to try to convince him that I have a case for returning the book. I trusted the seller, paid promptly, and then, upon receipt, notified him of its defects.
I emailed a somewhat shortened version of this memo [subject to the maximum number of characters allowed] via eBay. Now he's deciding if my claim has merit. We'll see.
A few days later I received a grumpy message via eBay.
"You will get a refund 1) when the book is returned safely and 2) after I have determined you have not removed prints or otherwise damaged the book."
I immediately packed the book in a Priority Mail shipping box and mailed it with a proof of delivery receipt attached [link]. In the box, with the book, I included the following letter:
Dear Mr. --------,
With this letter is the copy of Ruttenber's 1875 History of the County of Orange I purchased from you on eBay January 3rd and paid via PayPal on the 7th. The amount paid was $77 including shipping. The cost to return it via the same method you employed, Priority Mail, is not yet known but can be established from the postage shown on the shipping box.
I note your gracious statement to me, received this morning, "You will get a refund 1) when the book is returned safely and 2) after I have determined you have not removed prints or otherwise damaged the book."
I have not removed anything and it is in the same condition found upon arrival. Your packing was close to non-existent but I think all faults existed before shipping and noticed no damage to the envelope you tucked it into with a single wrap of paper.
I was unwilling to bend the cover back as I know you too were. It's apparent from the lack of title page scan in your description. You could tell the pages would probably tear.
In the future, if you can't open a book you might think to make this fact public as its material.
Upon receipt, please conduct your due diligence and issue me a refund as promptly as I have acted with respect to you.
Very truly yours,
An Unhappy Story: a deal gone bad
Within a few days my PayPal account was credited $77.00, my only cash expense the $8.64 spent to return the book [via Priority Mail] and track the package. The seller apparently felt I should pay the extra $8.64.
In later writing this article I found another buyer had recently posted negative feedback to this seller:
"Book not as described. Seller took no responsibility. Beware"
To which the seller posted his rebuttal:
Reply by Seller
Buyer wanted to keep book and get refund, a shakedown. Avoid!
This buyer's experience sounded similar to mine and I contacted them by email to ask about it. They both emailed and called soon after. They expressed concern at the negative rating the seller gave them but expressed determination to pursue their complaint through PayPal and eBay. The seller offered to remove his negative rating of them if they removed theirs of him. They declined and are pursuing this issue through appropriate channels.
So where does this leave me? I'm a committed and continuing eBay buyer who encountered a mis-described book and an unpleasant seller. I feel an obligation to write about this misadventure and post neutral feedback to him. The experience was negative but he made it good. It just took too much time and effort.
My feedback: "Item incorrectly described. Seller reluctant to accept responsibility. Resolved."
I took the time to press my claim. How many others just give up? As to what will happen next? Who knows? A seller with a grudge seems to hold the high cards.
Post script. The book I bought, and then returned, is back on eBay! It's up-for-sale.
The description appears to be the same. The faults go unremarked. Perhaps the next buyer will like it better. We may never know.
For me the real casualty of this episode is lost confidence in the eBay rating system. Both my experience and that of the other unhappy buyer suggest the current feedback system is yet imperfect and so I look forward to some fresh thinking by eBay. Fear and intimidation should be banned or neutralized.
As for my online bidding I'm mostly unaffected. Because I've bought so many interesting things, run across books, pamphlets and ephemera otherwise unobtainable, spent little and learned a lot; I'm almost immune to cranky sellers. I'll avoid this character and look ahead to the many lots I'm following, the next of which is closing in 21 minutes.
Editor's Note: This article has generated many Letters to the Editor, which can be seen by clicking here.