With enough twists and mysteries to satisfy most readers, the story of how the Lancaster Public Library received a collection of rare books from a famous author’s son would make for amazing reading.
The story started innocently enough. An elderly man interviewed Lancaster Public Library volunteer Pat Ditzler for 90 minutes. Did she know the old books? Could she tell if a volume was a first edition? How would she identify flaws in a tome? Could she estimate the price of a rare book? The questions kept coming, and Ditzler kept answering yes.
After all, the East Hempfield resident and her sister wrote a 2012 guide on how to host a book sale, and Ditzler has volunteered with the Friends of Lancaster Public Library since 1983. Many people call the library, Ditzler said, wanting to speak to an expert about their book collections. The 82-year-old doesn’t usually accept many of these requests, but for some reason she can’t remember, she decided to meet this man and answer his multiple pages of questions in December 2021.
Seemingly satisfied, the frail man and his carer left that meeting. Soon after, 20 boxes full of books arrived at the library’s Lancaster warehouse.
The man, Douglas Dannay, died June 17 in hospice care at Mount Joy. Her father, Frederic Dannay, was one half of the Ellery Queen writing duo. Frederic Dannay and his cousin Manfred Bennington Lee wrote about 30 famous mystery novels between 1929 and 1971. Frederic Dannay died in 1982.
So, one would expect the donated books to contain many Ellery Queen titles, right?
Bad. As Ditzler opened boxes, she and other library volunteers discovered volumes primarily from Arkham House Publishers, which in 1939 began printing the works of American author HP Lovecraft and other writers of that era. what was called at the time “strange fiction”. Think of vampires, werewolves, witches, ghosts, demons and other supernatural creatures.
The volunteers found books by August Derleth and Donald Wandrei, both of whom founded Arkham. They found titles, like “The Abominations of Yondo” by Clark Ashton Smith. This one sold for $935 on eBay, where the library sells the rarest books. Buyers come from as far away as Sweden and England and all over the United States. Volumes listed online can sell for anywhere from $25 to over $1,000 each.
So far, the library group has found a book by Ellery Queen.
Arkham apparently stopped publishing books, with the last titles coming out in 2010. A website lists the publisher as open, but phone calls to a listed phone number went unanswered.
“This is a really unique gift,” Ditzler said. “I have never seen such a collection.” It is also lucrative. Volumes listed on eBay have earned the library over $16,000, which the library can use as it sees fit.
“He’s a man who really loved his books,” Ditzler said. And he apparently collected wisely.
“Arkham House is truly the classic horror publisher,” said Chet Williamson, a nationally acclaimed author from Elizabethtown who has written more than 20 novels. Williamson, who has researched Arkham House and purchased some titles, said collectors constantly seek out these books, particularly because the company has released small print runs of less than 3,000 copies of a title.
The donation “makes all the difference in the world,” said Leigh Kaliss, the library’s community engagement manager. “We were thrilled to get it.”
Lissa Holland, the library’s executive director, agreed. “It is a great honor and privilege that (Douglas Dannay) has entrusted his books to us.”
The volunteers discovered more than books, however. Memories somehow ended up in some of the boxes. For example, Ditzler found, inside a book, a receipt from RH Macy & Co., for his purchase of 60 cents in 1940. Volunteers also discovered written but illegible postcards, flyers and a bookmark that says “I love my dog”.
And the story is not over yet. Library workers are slowly going through Douglas Dannay’s boxes and have several more to open, Ditzler said. Who knows what they will find?
Select titles from the collection will be available at the Library’s Fall Book Sale Oct. 7-9 at the Book Resort at 225 N. Marshall St. in Lancaster. More than 30,000 items will be offered for sale.
Hours will be 9 a.m. to 5 p.m. Friday and Saturday and 9 a.m. to 4 p.m. Sunday. Materials will be half price on Sundays.
Ditzler noted that sales of used books and items bring the library about $200,000 a year.