Cash in Books

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Status: Finished  |  Genre: Humor  |  House: Booksie Classic

An aspiring author gives her nephew and nieces copies of her self-published book. A rich surprise waits inside, but will they find it?

June 13, 2021 – Charlotte, North Carolina, USA

After multiple cancellations and attempts at rescheduling, Lilly Bernstein’s adult nieces and nephew finally arrived at her house for a visit.  They drove in separate cars and parked along the shady street in an historic Charlotte neighborhood.  Andrew and Diana were brother and sister.  Kimberly was their cousin.  Before hiking up the brick stairway that led from the sidewalk to Aunt Lilly’s front door, they shared some small talk about how long it had been since they last got together.

“What do you think this is about?” asked Andrew, the oldest of the three.  He was a lawyer and had the busiest schedule.

“Must be important.  She wouldn’t let it go no matter how many times you tried to blow her off,” replied Diana, who spent her days selling real estate and driving around her kids.

“This house still freaks me out,” said Kimberly.  “I’ve never gotten over how creepy it felt when I was little.”

“Well, might as well get this over with,” said Andrew.  He grabbed an iron handrail and led the way up the inclined path.

Grass grew on both sides of the stairway and peeked out of the cracks between the bricks.  The thick branches of magnolia trees created a tunnel that led right to the roomy porch in front of the two-story home.  Aunt Lilly was watching for the trio.  She threw open the door while they were still coming the final steps.

“Oh, don’t you all look wonderful,” cried Aunt Lilly.  “I had a flashback of you three on this very porch when you were still in elementary school.”

Aunt Lilly’s formerly gray hair had turned white.  Her nieces and nephew could tell stories of a younger version of Aunt Lilly who scolded them for wearing dirty shoes and playing too loudly.  She had seemed so intimidating, but now she looked shorter and slower.  Her voice had lost any harshness they remembered.

“You didn’t bring any of your kids?” asked Aunt Lilly.

“Were we supposed to?” replied Diana.

“I would love to see them.  I’m curious how much they look like you and your parents.”

“Maybe another time,” said Andrew.

“Sure, sure.  Another time,” said Aunt Lilly.  “Come on in.”

The three visitors followed Aunt Lilly into a long hallway.  Dark wood paneling covered the walls up to eye-level.  The floorboards creaked under the weight of the visitors, who felt the temperature instantly drop, as if they had entered a cave.  The smell of mint and lemon wood polish triggered flashes of childhood memories.  Andrew could practically taste the rock candy and carrot cake Aunt Lilly would sometimes offer as a treat.

The procession walked past a row of cardboard boxes on their way to the study.  Andrew, Diana, and Kimberly knew the room as the place where Aunt Lilly usually told her stories and listened to the latest family gossip.  She took her usual place on one of the high-backed stuffed chairs next to the piano.  The guests sat on a gold-colored couch.

“What’s with all the boxes, Aunt Lilly?” asked Andrew.

“I’m doing a little cleaning up and rearranging.”

“When you called, you sounded like you had something really important to tell us,” continued Andrew.

“Important to me.  I’m not sure how important it will be to you.  I’m thinking about the end, you know, and thinking about this house full of stuff.  There’s no reason for me to hold on to all of it.”

“You’d consider selling the house?” interjected Diana, her real estate radar activated.  “Let me tell you, the market is hot right now.  People would love a place like this.  There’s so much a new owner could do to spruce it up and give it some modern touches.”

“I wasn’t thinking of the house itself,” said Aunt Lilly.  “More of the things inside.  They could do more good with you than with me.  I want you to pick out anything you want and take it with you.”

“We couldn’t just take your stuff,” replied Kimberly.

“Please.  I want you to have it.  It will be a way to remember me.  A way to keep it in the family.  Look around.  Anything on the shelves you like you can keep.  How about the piano?  Are any of your kids taking lessons?”

Andrew turned awkwardly toward Diana and Kimberly, watching for their reaction.  “Are you sure, Aunt Lilly?” he asked.

“Sure, I’m sure.  And after you pick what you want, we can have some cake.  Now look around.”

Lilly gestured toward her shelves of books and knickknacks which made up an entire wall of the study.  Diana was the first one off the couch.  She shuffled toward a collection of crystalline figurines she had always admired as a child.  Andrew moved toward the piano and tapped one of the keys.

“Very good.  Now you’re welcome to go through any room you like,” said Aunt Lilly.  “Kimberly, why don’t you follow me to the kitchen and we can look at some China plates.”

Kimberly nodded reluctantly and accompanied Aunt Lilly out of the room, leaving Andrew alone with his sister.

“You see anything you can’t resist?” Andrew whispered.

“I used to think these crystal figures were so valuable, but now that I’ve taken a closer look, they’re kind of tacky,” Diana whispered back with a giggle.

“Well keep looking.  I guess you have to take something.  How about the piano?”

“No way.  I’m not trying to move that.  And no one in my house would ever touch it.”

“You think Aunt Lilly has a big entertainment system somewhere?  Big surround sound speakers?”

“Keep looking.”

“How about a hot tub?  That’s what I really want.”

Andrew ran his fingers over the books in Aunt Lilly’s collection until he came to a silver bookend carved in the shape of a lion.  He found a matching piece and weighed them in his hands.

“I think these are real silver,” he said to Diana.  “They’ve got to be worth something.”

“I’ll bet these porcelain dolls are worth something too,” said Diana, holding up two figurines from a shelf.

When Aunt Lilly returned, she was delighted by Andrew and Diana’s selections.  She slowly dragged empty boxes into the room and had them put their treasures inside.  Then she added more silver items to Andrew’s box and porcelain figurines to Diana’s.  Kimberly returned to the room carrying a box filled with place settings.

“All of this is a very good start,” said Aunt Lilly.  “You’ve got some sweet memories in these boxes.  Let’s have some cake and I’ll tell you a little more.”

Everyone strolled into the kitchen where pieces of carrot cake were arranged on a counter.  As her nieces and nephew ate delicately, Aunt Lilly recounted where she had purchased the items now in their boxes.

“I also have some clothes, blankets, and tablecloths I want each of you to take.  I divided them up as best I could,” said Aunt Lilly.

“I’ve got all of that stuff I need,” said Diana.

“These are high quality and expensive,” replied Aunt Lilly.  “I want you to use them instead of letting them go to waste.”

“Okay, if that’s what you want,” replied Diana after realizing she was not going to change Aunt Lilly’s mind.

“And one more thing,” said Aunt Lilly.  “I want you all to take some copies of my book.  You can give them to whomever you want.  Your kids.  Your friends.  What’s inside those pages is valuable.  Lots of lessons to learn.”

Andrew raised his eyebrows and shot a snarky glance toward his sister.  Aunt Lilly had been talking about her book, Selling the World, for years.  It was mostly autobiographical and recounted her life as a travel agent.  She tried hard to sell it to New York publishers before finally going the self-publishing route.  Anyone could buy it on Amazon, but almost all 200 copies from the first printing were still in Aunt Lilly’s house.

“It’s all self-glorification,” Andrew and Diana’s mom had concluded about the book.  “People aren’t interested in books like that.  No one will read it unless they feel obligated.”

Between bites of carrot cake, Andrew’s mouth curled into a sarcastic grin, and he said, “I didn’t think you had any copies of your book left, Aunt Lilly.  Did you get it printed again?”

“Oh, wouldn’t that be wonderful,” said Aunt Lilly dreamily.  “No, I’m afraid I still have plenty from the first printing.  But like I said, what’s inside is really valuable.  Something for your kids to discover.”

“I’m sure we’ll treasure them,” said Diana, trying to sound appreciative.  “Now are you sure you won’t think about selling your house?  I can handle all the details and find you a cute place that’s easier to manage.”

Aunt Lilly dismissed the idea again and soon the nieces and nephew were hauling boxes down the brick walkway to their cars.  They huddled together before heading off in different directions.

“What are you gonna do with all your new stuff?” Diana asked Andrew with a grin.

“I’m not keeping it, that’s for sure,” said Andrew.  “My garage is already overloaded.”

“I wish she would have given us some cash instead,” added Diana.  “I guarantee that’s the best way to make me remember someone.  She can afford it.  She’s sitting on a fortune with her house.”

“I guess I’ll stop by a thrift store on my way home,” added Kimberly.  “Better to drop this stuff off there than sending it to the dump.  Somebody should want it.”

“Good idea.  I’m gonna do the same thing,” said Andrew.

With the donation plan in mine, Andrew, Diana, and Kimberly drove in different directions and to three different thrift stores.  They each kept a few of Aunt Lilly’s mementos.  Andrew kept the silver lions while Diana and Kimberly kept some dolls and plates.  All the clothes and blankets went into the donation pile.  So did Aunt Lilly’s books.  In total, ninety-four copies of Selling the World were left behind for potential readers to discover.

After arriving at the various thrift stores, all the loot from Aunt Lilly’s house sat for a while, waiting to be sorted, priced, and put out for sale.  Donated books took an especially long time before they saw any shelves.  The books dropped off by Andrew were thrown into a bin for distribution to thrift stores throughout North Carolina.  One of them ended up in Raleigh, stacked in a used book pile priced at fifty cents each.

Evan Naperski was a frequent customer at that Raleigh thrift store because it was right across the street from his apartment.  He liked shopping for size twelve shoes, vinyl records, and books he could not find at his branch of the city library.  When he picked up the copy of Aunt Lilly’s book, he liked the post card pictures on the cover and he liked the title.  Evan did not like to ruin any surprises by thumbing through a book, so he bought his fifty-cent copy based on the cover alone.  He began reading it that very afternoon after popping a bag of popcorn.

Selling the World began with Aunt Lilly landing a job and quickly taking a first scouting trip for her travel agency.  Evan flipped pages at a good pace until he got to Page 19.  When he turned to Page 20, a crisp hundred-dollar bill was tucked in the fold.  Evan pulled it out and held it up to the light.  It was real.  He flipped through the rest of the pages and collected another $2100 in cash.  Five minutes later, he was back at the thrift store asking if they had any more copies of Selling the World.

“I can check in the back,” said the salesclerk.  “We’ve got a huge box of books.”

“Can I help?” asked Evan.

“Yeah, you can rummage through it yourself if you want,” said the clerk.

Evan dug through a refrigerator-sized box and unearthed a second copy of Selling the World.  He paid another fifty cents and harvested $2000 more dollars.  When he asked the manager where the books might have come from, the manager explained the book distribution system.

Evan scoured all the thrift stores in Raleigh and called his relatives across the state, encouraging them to do the same.  Word got around.  Soon hundreds of people were asking store managers about the book.  As more copies popped up and more money discovered, the search did not stop at thrift stores.  Customers asked for it at the few remaining physical bookstores in their hometowns.  They also sent messages to online sellers asking for copies.  The rush for Selling the World accelerated when a Charlotte newspaper did a story on the phenomenon of an obscure self-published book that contained hundred-dollar bills.

Andrew was the first of Aunt Lilly’s relatives to read the Charlotte news story.  He forwarded it to Diana and Kimberly along with the message, “Please tell me you kept some of your copies!”

“What?!  No!” replied Diana.

“Ahhh!  If only we could ask Aunt Lilly for more of them!” replied Kimberly.

The three of them had been together only a week earlier for Aunt Lilly’s funeral.  It was now too late to return to her house and pretend to be interested in more copies of Selling the World or hint to her that she should slip more cash between the pages of the books she had lying around.  In fact, it was too late to go over to the house at all.  Aunt Lilly had donated the house and her possessions to her favorite charity, a library foundation.  Estate appraisers and liquidators were already in charge.

Aunt Lilly’s death sparked another news story about her book.  Interest continued to grow, despite the fact very few copies existed.  The story finally reached the New York publishing houses which had rejected the book in the first place.  One of them paid the library foundation, which now owned the book’s copyright, for the rights to publish a second edition.

Copies of Selling the World were eagerly scooped up.  Most people who ordered it were hoping to find a couple thousand dollars inside.  When they did not, some purchasers bothered to read the text and discovered the book was not bad.  In fact, Aunt Lilly was a pretty good writer with a pretty good story to tell. 

Thanks to the generosity of her nieces and nephew, Lilly Bernstein became a best-selling author, posthumously.  One of the original, self-published copies of her book now sits below her picture in the Lilly Bernstein wing of the library closest to her old house.


For more stories like this one, including audio versions, please visit

Submitted: June 18, 2022

© Copyright 2022 Aaron Hawkins. All rights reserved.

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