And this month’s themed feature on vintage Whitman girls’ series books trundles on another week…
Background: I sort of hate to keep bringing up the Trixie Belden series, since its enduring popularity hardly makes it a Lost Classic, but if Donna Parker shares some striking similarities to Whitman’s most famous mystery series, then Ginny Gordon was cloned from the same DNA.
Authored by the prolific Julie Campbell Tatham (who in addition to creating the Trixie Belden series, wrote a number of volumes in both the Cherry Ames and Vicki Barr series), Ginny and Trixie share a location (Westchester County), many of the characters are interchangeable, and the pieces of the plot of this one will be recycled in Trixie’s future mysteries. Both series made their debut in 1948, and Ginny and the gang are just as prone to exclaiming “Gleeps!” in times of excitement or crisis.
The Plot: 14 year old Ginny, along with her best friend Lucy Tryon , her kinda-boyfriend John Blaketon, and John’s 12 year old twin cousins Babs and Whiz Reilly have formed a club called The Hustlers. Unlike those do-gooding Bob Whites of the Glen, always raising money for UNICEF or Mexican orphans, The Hustlers are out supplement their meager allowances and make a profit.
Excelling at her high school math and business courses, Ginny smooth-talks her fellow club members into opening a thrift shop on the main street of their small town of Harristown. Ginny will manage the shop and keep the books, Whiz will use his electrical acumen to repair small appliances for resale, cabinet-crazy John will be in charge of refurbishing furniture, and Lucy will use her sewing and needlepoint skills to fix up the softlines. See, isn’t that a great idea, everyone can pitch in and use their talents…. Wait, Babs doesn’t have a talent except for getting locked inside of old wardrobes and eating hamburgers? Well, Babs can push the wheelbarrow around town looking for old junk to resell. Isn’t this idea simply the greatest?
Luckily it is, because Ginny has already arranged to rent a small storefront from the owner of Shoemaker’s, the big downtown department store: the first month is rent-free, but they better sell $15 worth of merchandise to pay the rent on month number two. The Hustlers now just have to come up with the five bucks to get the electric company to turn on the lights in the dilapidated old store. Ginny is pretty happy that everyone is distracted enough trying to earn the money that they forget about how her last great scheme almost got them all arrested on account of her sleuthing to uncover the head of a local German spy ring planning on dynamiting the bank, who turned out to merely be a Certified Public Accountant. But that totally was back in grade school, so don’t worry, no intrigue will be involved in running The Swap Shop!
First stop in canvassing the town with Babs and her trusty wheelbarrow is Ginny’s eccentric Great Aunt Betsy, who stubbornly refuses to sell her Victorian mansion, which now stands in the middle of Main Street between a movie theater and a 24 hour diner. Living alone with her servants, Aunt Betsy is known to be a prolific hoarder of antiques, and Ginny hopes to sweet-talk her out of a few. Unsurprisingly, she disapproves of Ginny’s venture, but finally agrees to give them a box of knick-knacks to sell in the shop and orders her coachman to fetch it from the rafters of her coach-house.
Franklin, Aunt Betsy’s loyal coachman of many years, retrieves the box and expresses his disapproval of Ginny’s unladylike foray into the business world:
“If you’d stayed home and helped your mother with the canning and mending as nice girls should, ye wouldn’t have got into trouble.”
Ginny is a little disappointed when she gets back to the shop to find that the box contains only four tarnished candlesticks.
And trouble soon follows the acquisition of the candlesticks. Ginny and Lucy hear mysterious noises emanating from the shop’s office and some of their merchandise, including two of the candlesticks, go missing from the locked shop. Ginny also finds evidence that somebody is accessing the shop after hours, leaving behind a slip of paper with mysterious numbers written on it and a package of instant soup. Could it be the ghost of Old Mr. Shoemaker, who dropped dead in that very office?
The shop also attracts the attention of both locals and visiting strangers, who immediately fall under Ginny and Lucy’s suspicion. Could it be Mike the Janitor, who is still kind of mad about Ginny stealing his keys during the German Spy caper? Does Franklin The Coachman have something to hide? That Gypsy organ-grinder passing through town seems awfully interested in the radio Whiz has fixed up for sale. Why is the old Hermit who lives on the outskirts of town suddenly so sociable? And finally, what is the deal with Mr. Ginsler, the gay antiques dealer that keeps coming around the shop and pestering Ginny?
Do I really need to tell you who the villain turns out to be? Does anyone who looks like John Waters in these books ever come to a good end?
Nicknamed “Lispy-Whispy” (subtle, Ginny), Mr. Ginsler seems to always be turning up at the shop when Ginny is working there alone. While he claims to represent a prestigious New York antiques firm, he doesn’t seem to be able to tell a spinning wheel from a spool bed. But Ginny seems mostly suspicious of the fact that he’s renting an office in the building across the street, where he does all of his own cooking on a hot plate:
“I can’t stand that frozen-faced type,” Ginny said. “And what a sissy, doing his own cooking! It would do him good to go out and get a square meal every now and then. He’s as pale as a ghost.”
Well, I do have to give Ginny credit- when she realizes that the Swap Shop shares a basement with the main Shoemaker’s Department store and that the thief has been accessing the shop through a trap door in the office, she stakes out the shop herself. When Mr. Ginsler emerges from the trap door, she doesn’t wait for John to come rescue her, instead tackling and knocking him out herself.
As Mr. Ginsler was also planning on knocking off Shoemaker’s jewelry vault, Junior Shoemaker rewards The Hustlers with free rent on the shop in perpetuity.
Like many of Campbell’s other works, this volume is notable for the number of injuries sustained by the teenaged protagonists: amateur sleuthing is dangerous work! Whiz falls into one of The Hermit’s many large holes and sprains his wrist; Lucy twists her ankle when her father angrily comes to retrieve her from Ginny’s stakeout of Mr. Ginsler’s office; and (of course) Babs almost suffocates when she locks herself inside a wardrobe while trying to spy on Franklin.
Also, The Hermit turns out to be Mr. Blaketon’s old Philosophy professor. So, something-something anti-intellectualism, something-something Cold War.
Good Name for a Restaurant Department: The All-Nite Grill
Unsolved Mystery Department: We never learn Whiz Reilly’s given name. I’m guessing Warren.
Sign It Was Written in 1948 Department:
“Now what can that mean?” she wondered out loud “It couldn’t be a phone number because they all have four numbers.”