Early in my writing career I attended a Golden Gloves championship on assignment for a general magazine. Focus was a young fighter. My fighter lost, effectively killing the assignment, but I was impressed by the winner of another division. The following year, that second fighter won the gold medal at the Olympic Games.
I wrote the fighter, who responded politely by pencil on lined notebook paper. Yes, happy to talk to me. I queried Sport Magazine. No, responded editor Al Silverman. The fighter was not yet famous enough to justify a profile.
A few years later, everybody knew the fighter, who had signed his letter Cassius Clay, a.k.a. Mohammed Ali. Upstairs in our attic are the files for all my articles, a career’s achievement. I have searched those files numerous times yet have been unable to find that hand-written and signed letter, probably discarded long ago. Who knows how much it might fetch now at auction?
Recently my wife and I have begun to downsize, recognizing that old age may someday force us into smaller quarters. While one son has expressed an interest in my files, I fear many documents and books may land in a dumpster. The Cassius Clay letter is gone, but we have begun to discover other treasures in the attic.
Dipping into my files, I found a booklet that brought $412 on eBay. Titled Jogging, it was signed by Bill Bowerman, one of the co-founders of Nike. A poem autographed by Australian coach Percy Cerutty, along with supporting notes for an article I wrote for Coronet Magazine, earned $124. An autobiography (in French) by Jacqueline Gareau, 1980 Boston Marathon champion, provided a modest $70 payment. But a letter from Dick Schaap, author of Instant Replay failed to attract a bid, not even starting at 99 cents.
If you are a writer in my age category, you might want to consider what exists in your attic. Can you convert old letters and files into profit? If a young writer, what should you save now?
- Nobody knows future technologies. Books signed by the next generation’s celebrities may not exist. Notes and interviews may be worth preserving.
- Don’t expect to get rich. I have long since abandoned hope for that Cassius Clay letter. Jacqueline Gareau’s book at least earned us a night out.
- Determine how and where to sell. We use eBay. For the Cassis Clay letter, I would have gone to a major auction house like Christie’s or Sotheby’s.
- Keep it fun. You probably will earn more selling tea cups (which my wife has started to do). Still, converting treasures in the attic to cash beats the dumpster.
Librarians, meanwhile, are wrestling with challenges caused by new technologies, where electronic records are not forever. A librarian friend says: “The printed word won’t go away for a while.” Save what you value on paper as well as in your computer. You may not get rich, but preserving your files is something writers owe future generations.