History You Can Hold in Your Hand
Somewhere in the attic, I have a box with the Starr Report in it, the version printed in The Washington Post. Somewhere else is a "Nixon Resigns." I don't have "Kennedy Shot in Dallas" or "Man Walks on Moon," but if you've ever been to a flea market, you've seen those headlines screaming at you from behind fogged plastic.
As artifacts go, old newspapers are not all that impressive. The newsprint is yellow and crumbly. The stories they relate -- the wars, the coups, the triumphs, the tragedies -- are quite literally yesterday's news. And yet, if I'd had a stack of "Obama Makes History" papers Wednesday, I could have made a tidy profit selling them on downtown street corners.
We might turn to the Web or CNN when news is breaking, but when we want to remember that news -- save it, commemorate it, prove that, yes, we were there when it actually happened -- we don't want pixels on glass. We want ink on paper. So many people wanted to get their hands on yesterday's Post that when copies ran out at our building, the crowd was not happy. In the afternoon, we printed 350,000 copies of a special commemorative edition just to try to satisfy demand.
Maybe the newspaper isn't quite dead yet. Of course, there isn't much of a business model in staking your product's future on occasional collectibility. As nice as it might be for us to elect our nation's first African American president every day, then sell the paper for $20 (a "Buy it now" price on eBay), that's probably not going to happen.
But some people make money from old papers. Kensington's Jack Waugaman retired 15 years ago from a career in data processing and started A Rare View Books and Prints, dealing in what's known in the trade as "ephemera."
Said Jack, 65: "Basically, if you look up the definition, it means something fragile that's printed for that moment and can be tossed."
The first definition in my dictionary for "ephemera" is actually "mayfly," the insect that hatches, mates and dies in a single day. That pretty much describes the life cycle of a newspaper, except normally there's not as much mating.
But some newspapers survive beyond a day. Jack has more than a thousand of them, which he sells at the Kensington Row Bookshop and at an antiques mall in Frederick.
"World War II, Korea, Vietnam, Dillinger shot, Huey Long shot -- anything dramatic, like the Kennedy assassination," he said. "They're big on that. Probably the biggest paper is the sinking of the Titanic. I could sell that newspaper over and over and over. People just never get tired of it."
Why? If a newspaper is the first rough draft of history, wouldn't the second or third draft -- a book, say -- be better? Didn't the history happen whether you possess a sheet of cheap paper covered in some hack's imperfect prose?
"There's something so special about holding a newspaper," Jack said. "It's something that existed at that moment in time. . . . You put it away like any treasure, and as years pass, you take it out."
Not all newspapers are treasures. The moon landing, Nixon's resignation, the Kennedy assassination -- these editions are commonplace, saved by so many people that they have almost no value. So, too, the final edition of the Washington Star from 1981. Jack said the Star flooded the city with thousands of extra copies. Last year someone gave him 20 just to be rid of them.