Wednesday, July 30, 2008

Guest Post #3: Dave Robinson

[Editor’s Note: Dave, aka oliver_optic, runs a bookshop located in the Hillside area of Anchorage, Alaska. His specialties include Alaskana, Fiber Arts and Erotica. He was kind enough to answer BookSaga’s call for stories from the trade. Thanks, Dave!]

I got my first job in a bookstore in 1975. It was a small not for profit store run by one of the left wing groups in the city. The communist bookstore was up the street from us. I could never keep straight which groups were our friends. The Fourth International in 1939 seemed to have a lot to do with it. I really cared less. All I knew was I got paid in books to sell books. I have been working in bookstores ever since, and selling online since I was able to.

After I retired from my regular bookstore job I wanted to open my own so I had been saving books for years. This was BTN (before the net). Not possible now where I am at.

My best trip was to a thrift store, Light of Life Rescue Mission. I had an arm full of books and was paying for them and the man behind the counter said, “Did you see the books upstairs?” I said, “Upstairs?” So I went upstairs. It seems they had just gotten a huge donation from one of the university libraries. I picked up a 34 volume set of Dickens published by Scribner’s in 1898, a 53 volume set of history books, The Chronicles of America Series published by Yale University Press (many with maps), about 30 old travel books from the early 1900’s, a 1936 edition of Gone With the Wind (a later printing), and a 10 volume set of The History of Religion in America.

So when it came time for me to pay for these I got them in about 15 big boxes and took them down the stairs, figuring in my head 5 dollars a box or so. I asked the clerk how much and he told me to make a offer. I offered $75.00. He said "No," so I was going to raise it and he said, “too much.” We did this several times until the price was $15.00 for the lot. I asked him if he was sure and he told me HE would have to bring any books that did not sell down and the place had no elevator. Unfortunately for me I was leaving town for home in a day and it took me that time to get the books packed and shipped and home.

Though it was a great haul, I have sold most of the books for several hundred dollars and still have some left. My favorite book which I will never sell I have on my desk. It is the lab notebook of a student, Anna Marsh, who went to California Normal School in 1902. In it she describes her experiments in words and with drawings. I have tried to Google her and California Normal School and have not had any real luck. I think the school evolved into California University in Pennsylvania. Sometimes it’s just not about what you are going to find and sell. It’s just about what you find.


Monday, July 28, 2008

The Incredible Shrinking Man

The other morning as my wife and I were enjoying a quiet breakfast, a thunderous crash shook the back end of our Victorian farmhouse; we felt it even in the kitchen. I jumped up from the table with a mouthful of grits and ran down the hallway to investigate.

The library door, when I tried to open it, met resistance, so I drove my shoulder into it and pushed through, into the room. What I saw was not a pretty sight—

Books were scattered everywhere across the floor, piled up in a great big heap.

Apparently, an upper shelf support in one of the pine bookcases had pulled loose and brought down with it all the books and shelves below.

After scratching my head for a moment or two and swallowing the rest of the grits, I realized what was needed: heavy-duty shelf brackets. And since my wife would be driving into town that afternoon to run errands, I figured I’d let her stop by Lowe’s Home Improvement Warehouse, to save myself a trip.

I gave her the instructions, and made sure she understood exactly what kind of brackets to get. The right brackets were essential if the overloaded shelves were to stay put.

“Got it,” she said, walking down the porch steps. “You want the brackets that come in strips about five feet long, that recess into the wood, and that come with adjustable clips.”

“That’s right. Only get that kind.”

“No problem,” she said, and off to town she went.

A few hours later she called on the cell phone.

“They don’t have those shelf brackets here, Honey,” she said. “I’ve looked and a salesperson has looked. Where else would you like me to go?”

“Listen,” I said, “they’re there. I’ve seen them. Let me talk to the salesperson.”

A young fellow came on the phone then and I gave him a description of the brackets.

“Sorry, sir,” he said, “we don’t carry that kind of shelf bracket.”

“Yes you do. I saw them there a few weeks ago. You carry them in two colors, gold and zinc.”

“Sir, we don’t have that kind and, to my knowledge, never have.”

Sometimes when you know something is true, it’s frustrating to listen to someone else tell you that it isn’t.

“I’d like to speak to another salesperson,” I said.

He hesitated. Then his voice delivered a flat, “Wait a minute.”

I waited.

Eventually another salesperson came on, and, again, I went through the whole exchange, him saying, No sir, we don’t stock that kind, and me saying, Listen to me: yes, you, do! and us going back and forth like that for a while.

Finally, he said: “Sir, you might ought to try Lowe’s.”

It hit me broadside, like a shovel.

“…This isn’t Lowe’s?”

“No sir,” he said. “This is Wal-Mart.”

And with that, all I could think to say was, “Um, could you please put my wife on the phone again, please?”

Friday, July 25, 2008

Guest Post #2: R J Keefe of Portico

(Pictured left: even better than Sean Connery: it's R J Keefe)

[Editor’s Note: R J Keefe is a man who knows a thing or two about blogging, as he should; he’s been doing it now for nearly four years and he keeps getting better and better. His website is, and it scintillates with so much intellect, wit, and originality that I can’t help but smile every time I visit. I am humbled that Mr. Keefe has shown an interest in this site and even more so that he has taken the time to send an email regarding my guest post plea about bookshops and booksellers. Here is an excerpt:]

The bookshop in Niles, Michigan (long gone now, I’m sure) that also dealt in gas ranges. The owner had been with the power company, and still kept his hand in.

The bookshop in Marlborough, New Hampshire, that used to do, and perhaps still does, a very nice sideline in fine old linens—beautiful damask tablecloths and the like. Maybe the books are the sideline. I bought a fantastic (and fantastical) cookbook there, Meals for Males. I ought to send it to the guy who writes Mad Men—it’s the same vintage. (Must remember to blog about this when the series resumes this weekend.)

And then of course there is the Traveler Restaurant in Union, Connecticut, where they give away books with meals.

I seem to have a food thing going on here. What’s that about? My aunt and uncle bought a decrepit mansion in Westchester almost fifty years ago. They were required, by the terms of the closing, to take on the “library” (cartons of books) in the house. I have two: Lytton Strachey’s Queen Victoria and the far more priceless (to me, anyway) Secrets of Dethroned Royalty (John Lane, 1920), by Princess Catherine Radziwill. Very high dish.

And now that I am beginning my seventh decade, I’m obliged to prune to make room for new acquisitions, most of which tend to be new books. It’s painful, because I long ago disposed of the marginal books. In fact, I have a storage unit here in Manhattan for which I pay an ungodly rent. There’s a sort of library annex there, except that, in ten years, I have withdrawn—or just plain touched—no more than a dozen of the hundreds that are there.

And why do I have them? Because I used to give away all or part of my library when I was young, in the Sixties and Seventies. More aesthetic disgust than anything else: I just wanted not to have so many things. I now know that books are not things. Usually, when you get rid of a thing, you don’t want to see it again. Get rid of a book, and you’ll be paying a fortune for it at Alibris ten years later. There’s no way to tell, sadly, if you’re going to want to have a book back.

To allay this anxiety, it’s useful to give books to people who need them. In theory, you just might be able to wheedle them back. (I have never actually tried.) I had a good thing going with a young writer in Manila. But then the USPS in its infinite wisdom stopped shipping books by ship. So much for that.

[Keefe closes his email with some sage advice regarding my BookSaga dilemma which I have taken to heart and also with a very high compliment that will send me onward. Most apprectiated, Mr. Keefe!—PF]

Sunday, July 20, 2008

Advanced Tactics on the FOL Book Sale Battlefield: #1—Chemical Warfare

[If you’ve spent any amount of time in the used bookselling business you know that one of the biggest sources of contention among buyers at library sales is the use of electronic scanners. Well for those frustrated and scannerless scouters out there who are looking for new ways to fight back, this is for you.]

As much as I’ve used in the past to locate library sales in my region, I’m learning that, due to increased competition and the fact that most of these sales are picked over by “volunteers” and organizers before the doors even open, sometimes the sales that produce the biggest yields for me are the smaller ones that aren’t listed on that website. A sale that I’ve had good luck with in the past is the bi-annual one at the public library in Statesboro, Georgia.

During a recent trip there I stopped at a car wash before the sale began and was in the process of cleaning my truck when out on the road a car pulled over to the curb with smoke billowing from under the hood. I ran over to see if I could help.

The driver, a scared, elderly lady, looked over at me and said: “My car’s on fire! Help me!”

“Step out of the car,” I said. “I’ll be right back.”

As fast as my feet would carry me I made my way over to a nearby business. I bolted in the front door and saw a woman sitting behind the counter. I blurted:

“Do you have a fire extinguisher?”

She looked up. Although she didn’t respond vocally her dry expression seemed to be asking me a pointed question: Is this a joke or are you an idiot?

“Ma’am, please, I need a fire extinguisher. Do you have one?”

“What kind of fire extinguisher do you need?” she said, finally. “We have several to choose from.”

It was then that I looked around me.

Good lord, I thought. I am an idiot.

I was standing in a fire extinguisher store [Hendrix Fire Protection, Inc., to be exact].

“There’s a lady outside and her car may be on fire. Do you have something I can use real quick?”

Moments later, with borrowed extinguisher in hand, I popped the hood on the car. I saw a small electrical fire so I sprayed down the engine compartment. A pungent, chemical smell filled the air.

I leaned over from behind the hood and said to the elderly lady who was still gripping the steering wheel with both hands: “Okay, that’s it. No more fire.”

I carried the fire extinguisher back to the fire extinguisher store, said Thank you to the lady behind the counter, and was soon en route to the book sale.

The Statesboro library sale is interesting because there are two entrances to the book sale room; one is outside and the other is inside. You can never be sure which door will get opened first, although my past experiences seem to indicate that if I stand outside then the inside door gets opened first, and if I wait inside, the outside door gets opened first—I always seem to walk into a room with several people who have a head start on me. On this particular day I decided to stand outside since my clothes were infused with the smell from the fire.

In time people began arriving for the sale. They would walk up, get in line behind me, and then soon relocate inside. I wondered if they knew something I didn’t.

About ten minutes before the appointed hour one of the volunteers approached the outside door. I held up my hand to stop her.

“Excuse me, ma’am. I just wanted to make sure I’m standing at the right door for the book sale,” I said, the subtext being: Hey, don’t forget to open this door too when the sale begins.

She turned to me with a courteous smile which immediately gave way to a taken aback, sour expression. Her eyelids clenched shut, and then began fluttering. She managed a forced smile as she struggled to keep her eyes open.

“Yes, this is the one,” she said with her chin pushed back into her neck. Then she slipped inside.

It didn’t take long to figure it out: Apparently the smell on me was so acrid that it actually burned the eyes of those around me. Needless to say, once the doors opened and I began making my way around the room, I had whole sections to myself; it was like I was surrounded by some kind of force field.

Yes I felt bad for the other people who had to share the room with me, but, as it turned out, I made quite a profitable haul that day.

[Note: there is a variation of this technique which I do not endorse and which many of you may have already experienced—library sale attendees who do not shower or bathe for days (perhaps weeks) before the sale begins. It is a very powerful, repulsive, but effective ploy (especially in the warmer months)—in fact I shuddered just now, thinking about it.]

Next installment: #2—Bazookas, or, Weapons of Mass Distraction

Friday, July 18, 2008

The [sic] Signed Copy, or, Who's Screwing Who?*

[* Apologies to those born in the 19th century who prefer "Who's Screwing Whom?"]

Let’s say for a moment that, while pinging around the internet, you come across an ABE listing for a 1968 signed copy of J.G. Ballard’s Why I Want to Fuck Ronald Reagan. Let’s say the first thing you notice is the bookseller’s rating: one star out of five…. On second thought, let’s back up and say that you didn’t notice that. Let's just say you read the description, which includes:
Spine rubbed, discrete pen mark to upper panel. No. 51 of 50 [sic] signed copies, from a total edition of 250, with Ballard's signature to limitation page.

What would you make of that—No. 51 of 50 [sic] signed copies? Only the first 50 copies of the chapbook are reported as numbered and signed by Ballard. So was this a publisher’s error? Hmm. Makes you wonder.

But let’s jump ahead now to the price—US$ 2,058.66. That’s a lot of money. But then we are talking about an authentic, signed copy of Why I Want to Fuck Ronald Reagan by J. G. Ballard.

Aren’t we?

Monday, July 14, 2008

The One "True" Bookstore

I got my start in the book business as a home-based, online bookseller. After about three years I reached a point where almost all the walls in my home were filled with bookcases and the new, incoming books had no place else to go but in stacks on the floor. When it got to the point where the dining room table was so crowded with stacks of books that there wasn’t even room for a single plate I knew the time had come to make other arrangements—arrangements that entailed getting the books out of the house.

And then, quite out of the blue, it happened.

An historic, two-story Federal-style building in town became available—and the price was right. So I went for it. My plan was to use the 1,000 sq. ft. storefront space for my bookstore while renting out the other apartment spaces in the rest of the building to help cover the mortgage. The extensive renovations are mostly done, and I can see the light at the end of the tunnel when I’ll be able to, finally, get back to the business of scanning/listing/uploading books. After several months and a lot of sweat equity I can proudly say that I have created the bookstore of my dreams, complete with 200-year-old heart pine floors, an old bank vault, and even a bookcase that gives way to a secret, book-lined corridor (dubbed “the catacombs”) which contains another hidden door that opens into a 12' x 12' secret room I call “the inner sanctum.” (I can’t tell you what’s in the inner sanctum.)

It’s a funny thing about small towns in the south, though. Start making some public changes and the locals start to talk. An acquaintance of mine who knows the area all too well once told me that if I ever moved my inventory out of the house and into a building in town I could be sure to count on one thing: the first people to pay me a visit would be the local ministers, to check me out. My acquaintance was right.

The other day I was working on getting more books into the shelves when I heard a knock on the front door. I looked through the glass. Oh, great, I thought.

I answered the door.

After several minutes of small talk the minister began making his way into the store, looking around and commenting on titles and authors he was familiar with. Soon his comments began to show traces of fundamentalist bias and condescension, and I found myself in a situation where I could either let him impugn my books on my turf or I could stand my ground.

“But a good bookstore,” I said, after a point (about 30 minutes into it), “shouldn’t cater to just one ideology. A good bookstore should offer a broad spectrum of ideas and perspectives.”

“There is only one truth,” he said. “Everything else is irrelevant. Most of these ‘perspectives,’ as you say, aren’t worth the paper they are written on.”

“You can agree, though, surely, that by reading about and trying to understand other cultures, ideas, and views, that our own world views are broadened, and this can lead us toward, for instance, greater compassion and less bigotry?”

Suddenly his gaze locked on the bookcase behind me. He stepped forward, toward the science books. He made a grand, sweeping gesture with his hand.

“Why have all these egg-headed theories on your shelves when you can have the Truth?”

“The truth,” I said.

“The Bible contains all the science, astronomy, math, history, psychology, philosophy, biography, and cultural studies anyone could ever need, and it is all absolutely, irrefutably infallible.”

I realized the conversation had reached a point where there was nothing left for me to say.

“If you want a true bookstore,” he said, driving it home, “you only need to sell one book.”

“The Bible,” I said.

“The Holy Word of the Creator of the Universe,” he said.

Sensing that he’d won the battle, he turned to go. On his way out, something on the shelves caught his eye.

“Oh! Wait.” He pointed to some books. “What’s this?” The books were from the Left Behind series. “Hey, maybe I was a little too hasty with you,” he said. But then he did a double-take at the overhead subject placard:


His mouth dropped open and he went to protest.

Then something happened that, on hindsight, made me think there may be something to this divine intervention stuff after all:

My cell phone rang.

“I’ll need to get this,” I said, reaching for my phone and turning away from him.

Moments later, upon hearing the door click shut, I slipped over and bolted the lock.

Friday, July 11, 2008

Finding The G-Spot

John Updike said that there are three great mysteries in life: religion, sex, and art. I tend to agree, so much so that those three subjects practically form the cornerstones of my bookstore’s inventory. So it was a given yesterday, while browsing the bookshelves at the local Goodwill, that when I saw a copy of The G-Spot and Other Recent Discoveries about Human Sexuality I would put it in the buggy. On the spine was a white sticker, an added incentive for me since, according to the sign at the door, everything with a white sticker was half price. I mused that the reason this particular book sat on the shelf long enough to achieve half-price status was because no one wanted to face potential embarrassment at the register. I, however, having been in this game long enough to have learned some of its secrets, knew how to avoid such awkward situations: Rather than simply setting the books on the counter at the register and letting the clerk go through them individually to tally up the total, I separate the books in advance—the hardcovers from the softcovers, so that when I arrive at the register I can simply lift up each stack out of the buggy and say, for example, “Hi, I’ve got twelve hardcovers,” and then, “and sixteen softcovers.” It makes it all so easy.

Yesterday, however, as I approached the check-out counter, I was a bit surprised to see an older woman behind the register who I’ve never seen before. She offered me a pleasant smile. I said Hello and lifted the first stack of books out of the buggy. I held them up and gave her the total.

“Oh you can just set everything up here on the counter,” she said. “I’ll need to go through them.”

“Actually,” I said, “I’ve already separated everything. These are all the regular-priced hardcovers.”

“Yes, but the books that have white stickers are half-price, so I’ll need to account for those.”

“Yes, I understand that, and I’ve already separated them accordingly.”

“Sir,” she said, in a tone that sounded more like a police officer asking someone to step away from the vehicle, “I’ll need you to set everything up here on the counter for me.”

“Okay, fine,” I said.

After I’d done that it was as if she hit the refresh button on her disposition. The genial smile was back. She reached for the book on top of the stack and commented:

“I’m always intrigued about the kinds of books people buy because, you know, you can tell so much about people by what they read.”

I could feel something rising up in me, and it wasn’t acid reflux.

She picked up the first book and read the title, Exhibiting Culture: The Poetics and Politics of Museum Display. She gave me a pinched, patronizing smile that seemed to say, Oh, a little artsy-fartsy, are we?

Since I didn’t have a wrist watch to look at I pulled my cell phone out of its case on my belt, gave the displayed time a stern look, and put it back.

She picked up the second book, American Scream: The Bill Hicks Story. She arched an eyebrow.

Oh for Pete’s sake, I thought. Just get on with it.

Then it occurred to me. About three books down was The G-Spot, its hot-pink dust jacket blaring away from out of the stack like a siren.

I cast my gaze through the nearby window into the parking lot. She had me; there was no way around it.

When she got down to it she said, “Well, now…” in an exaggerated tone, as if she’d just found out more about me than she wanted to know.

“That one’s not for me,” I said, trying to dodge the unsolicited and unwelcomed psychoanalysis.

She opened the book and began flipping through it, then stopped at a full-page clinical illustration of the external female genitalia. Immediately she shut the book and gave me an arch, wry look.

“Of course not,” she said.

I gave up. "Let me know when you're done,” I sighed.

Wednesday, July 9, 2008

The Luxury of a Negative Thought

Found in my inbox this morning—an overnight book buyer’s response to Amazon’s automated order confirmation email which was automatically forwarded to me:
Re: Your Amazon Marketplace Purchase


-----Original Message-----
From: Payments <“”>

Subject: Your Amazon Marketplace Purchase


We're writing to confirm your purchase of the following Amazon Marketplace item from "":

1 of You Can't Afford the Luxury of a Negative Thought


Monday, July 7, 2008

The Accidental, Passive-Aggressive Redneck

Sometimes when I’m book scouting in the thrift stores I have to remind myself to give a cursory glance to the often overwhelming population of mass market paperback books, because you never know what little nuggets of gold you might find in all the dross. I was reminded of this a few weeks ago when I spied a pulp Western that would soon fetch well over $100—a 1938 copy of Jack O’Conner’s Boom Town. And had I not taken the time to look I would have missed Jack Thomas’s Turn Me On!, the story of a sixteen year old girl who “organized a pot party at Joan Henderson's house and then turned it into an orgy of sex and violence.” Usually it’s the sensational or lurid cover art that I go for on these vintage books, however in the case of a recent Erskine Caldwell find it was the first two sentences on the back cover—“She was a slut. A woman of no worth and few morals.”—that made me immediately drop the book into the buggy.

When I got to the register I was glad to see the recently hired store manager, a tall, genial black man who would often check the stock room when he saw me in the store to see if there were any recent book arrivals priced and ready to bring out. Either he hadn’t yet picked up on the fact that I was selling books online or he didn’t care; regardless, he was very friendly and we often shared a laugh.

We said our hellos and I began placing the books on the counter.

“Find anything interesting today?” he asked.

I handed him the Caldwell title. “Well, there was this.”

He looked at the photo on the front cover, that of a redhead with exposed cleavage and a come-hither look.

“Ooh, Mama,” he said, grinning and nodding his head. “She looks tight.”

“Read the back,” I said.

He turned it over.

I reached for my wallet. When I looked up his smile was gone, and his whole demeanor had changed. He set the book back down on the counter and began totaling my purchases. After he’d taken the money and put the books into a bag, he regarded me with a cold, heavy look. I wasn’t sure what to make of it.

"Thank you very much,” I said, taking the bag, but he was already turning to walk away.

When I got out to the truck I fished the Caldwell title out of the bag and read the back cover:

She was a slut. A woman of no worth and few morals. But she said she had been raped and the tradition of the land was that a Negro who laid hands upon a white woman had to die. At the hands of a lynch mob....
Oh for crying out loud, I thought.

And that was all it took. Never again would I get special treatment in that place; not from him.

Friday, July 4, 2008

Finally (for me and you both), the Last Word on Unusual Book Find

The more time I spend with this collection of hollow books and Polaroids, the more I am drawn into its mystery. However at the same time I feel like I am diluting the mystery by making it so widely known. Hence my dilemma: I want to keep and enjoy this curious find for myself while at the same time share it with folks who can and will appreciate it beyond simple prurience.

Therefore I've decided that I'm going to shut up about it. I am going to keep this collection for myself until I feel that the time has come to pass it along.

> When that time comes I will sell it to the highest bidder.

Here’s how it will work: for anyone who is interested, email me at (serious interests only, please). I will add your email address to my contact list. When I get ready to sell I will send out a mass email to let everyone know. In that email I will include all the details I can as to titles, numbers, et cetera, and I will attach more photos of the photos to give you a better idea of what you’ll be bidding on. I will probably use eBay as the auction venue though I’m not sure at this point whether or not I can sell the books through the regular, public channel or if it will have to be done in the “Adults Only” channel, but that’s for me to figure out.

When/if you send your email, please do not ask me if I live in your Georgia “boro.” As bad as I may want to tell you, I think for now it is best for me to retain as much anonymity as I can (although for the attentive reader I am surely leaving a pile of clues in my posts as to exactly where I am). This anonymity gives me the freedom to post some of the posts that I post.

Thursday, July 3, 2008

Unusual Book Find Update

Believe me when I say that it is a tad overwhelming to have this little, newborn blog go from ten hits a day to, well, about 30,000 in the last three days courtesy of the various links to the unusual book find post. Thanks to everyone for your input and suggestions about what I should do with the stuff. Your comments have been extremely helpful. At this point I doubt that I will scan and upload the photos to Flickr, at least not the hardcore ones, because that would make me, in a roundabout way, a pornographer, right? and I’m supposed to be a decent, mild-mannered bookseller (although my anonymity does give me some leverage…). I’m still trying to decide what to do and will keep you posted. I apologize for not coming to a swift decision and sincerely thank you for your patience.

Updated Update:

Okay. I am narrowing down my options. Thanks to the good advice of anonymous commenter #1 from this post, I’ve decided it would be wise to avoid any legal issues that might arise from posting any more of the pictures online. I will, however, leave the current one up. So to all the good people out there who keep coming back for more boobs and sausage, it’s officially not going to happen (although, on second thought, I can pretty much guarantee that there will be unrelated posts/pics in the near future involving boobs…). Plus, if these books do wind up in the hands of a serious collector, I’m sure he or she would appreciate knowing the images have not been widely broadcast across the internet.

Wednesday, July 2, 2008

Long-Distance Book Sales

A while back I was down in Gainesville, Florida at the big Friends of the Library book sale, which is the largest in the southeast (they advertise more than 300,000 items). Just to give you an idea, this is a sale where the first few people in line are set up in tents, having spent the night. I usually get there about three hours or so before the doors open to find at least fifty people in line. While this may sound like a lot, it gets worse. Those fifty people, you come to find, are apparently place-holders for their friends, family and neighbors, because once 9 a.m. rolls around you realize there are now at least 200 people between you and the door. This is also the kind of sale that gets so packed inside that every time I go I vow never to do it again. But of course I do.

At any rate, while I was checking out with my books, I struck up a conversation with a woman who flew in from Arizona to attend the sale. I was curious as to how that worked, and I asked her. Apparently, even after flying across the country, renting a car, staying in a hotel, taking the boxes of books from the book sale to the post office and shipping them back to Arizona, then flying back home herself, she nevertheless manages to turn a profit. Of course I’m sure she is writing off all the expenses on her taxes, but still…. I do my own taxes and generally write off very little. Maybe it’s time to step up my game.

Friday, June 27, 2008

Watermelon Annihilators, or, Flavor of the South

[Please note: BookSaga’s content editor has the day off.]

For the past several weeks I’ve been involved in a lot of construction and remodeling—getting the apartments ready for tenants above and behind my bookstore, which means rather than spending lots of time with books I’ve been spending lots of time with electricians, plumbers, drywallers, paint rollers, and almost daily trips to Lowe’s Home Improvement Warehouse. The good thing, though, about my local Lowe’s is that it is located right next to a Goodwill thrift store, and of course I try to make every trip to town count. Today I was making a quick run back to the book section when I saw an unusual sight. Standing in the adjacent furniture department and engaged in conversation was a bona-fide good ‘ole boy in full trucker garb and a certain Goodwill employee: a buxom young African-American woman. As I approached the books I heard the good ‘ole boy say:

“Ain’t nothing better for acid reflux.” He gestured at his esophagus. “The candy eats the acid right up.”

“Interesting,” the young woman said. “I’ll have to try that.”

Since I’d had a doughnut for breakfast and was already feeling a tinge of heartburn myself I couldn’t resist asking: “I beg your pardon. What is good for heartburn?”

“Watermelon annihilators,” he turned and said.

“Never heard of it. It’s a candy?”

“Yep. But get the watermelon flavor. The othern’s won’t do.”

“Generally though,” I said, “don’t sweets tend to make heartburn worse?”

“Look here, watermelon annihilators work,” he said, “like nothing else. In fact I was just out recently with a buddy of mine on pool night and he was bent over the table when all of a sudden he reared up complaining about his heartburn. I went to give him a watermelon annihilator—and he don’t even like watermelon!—but he took it and, heck, it wasn’t ten minutes later his heartburn was completely gone.”

“Watermelon annihilators,” I said, enunciating the syllables, searching my memory. “Is this a new product?”

“Oh hell no. Annihilators been around a long time.”

“Hmm,” I said. “Where would I find them?”

“Just about anywhere sweets are sold.” Then, looking at his wrist watch, he said: “Hey, gotta go. See ya’ll.”

I turned to the young woman. “You get heartburn, too?”

“When I drink those sweet-flavored alcoholic beverages I do,” she said with a wink and a smile.

“And have you ever heard of these annihilators?”

“Oh yes. But I haven't tried the watermelon.”

“Strange,” I said. “I’ve never heard of them. What do they look like?”

“Well, they’re square, they're chewy, they come in different flavors, and it says Now and Later right there on the package.”

Suddenly it hit me—

Oh good grief. Welcome to the South.

Wednesday, June 25, 2008

The "Private Book Club" Scout

Not so long ago I used to make a semi-weekly drive to Augusta, Georgia to hit the Goodwill stores in the area. At the time paperbacks were $0.49, hardbacks were $0.99, and children’s books were a quarter. This was also at a time when just about all the other Goodwill stores around, from Savannah to Atlanta and beyond, were selling books at twice that price or more. At one particular Augusta store (located in the more affluent area) with a comparatively large book section, it was not uncommon for me to roll up to the cash register with a buggy filled to the brim with surprisingly good stuff, books that often fetched $15 to $50 and more, sometimes much more. In the beginning the clerks were friendly and curious as to why I was buying so many books, and I would try to be creative in my answers, falling back of course on the standard “I just love to read” response whenever I drew a blank. In time the clerks grew more reserved with me at the check-out, and a couple of them began to regard me with a suspicious eye. Then, a few weeks later, things changed. I arrived one Friday morning as usual and was fairly shocked to see that the prices had, at the least, tripled, and many books were individually marked with prices of $7.50 or higher—at a thrift store, mind you, where books are donated. So I was standing there, looking at the spines and the new price stickers, when an employee who I’d never seen before came by.

“I see you folks have had a price increase on your books,” I said.

She gave me a sour look. “Would you believe that we actually had people coming in here buying up the books to sell on the internet? They were buying our books to re-sell…. Can you believe that?” She said it like it was a crime and she had a strong sense of justice.

“Amazing,” I said, and left it at that.

Before that day I’d always been a little wary of telling people that I had an online bookstore, but now I knew: Keep quiet about it.

But still, people were going to ask, and when they did, you had to say something (and, more importantly, it needed to sound convincing). But what?

It was soon thereafter that I got the answer. I was at the book section in another thrift store, going through the books, when a woman came up and began searching as well. After about ten minutes it became clear to me, judging from the number of books she was collecting in her buggy, that she and I were in the same business. Something was said between us and soon we were engaged in a friendly chat. She noted the books I had stacked up in my buggy and asked if I sold them online. Since I felt some camaraderie with her I slipped and said, “Yes, and you?”

“Oh, no,” she said.

I was taken aback slightly. “No?”

“No, I’m getting these for my husband.”

“Oh, so he sells books.”

“Um, no,” she said.

I was taken aback slightly more. “No?”

“Well, see, he’s in a private book club,” she said. “It’s between him and several of his friends that he went to the University with who now live all over the country. They’re all doctors and lawyers and such. They’ve got this big list, you see, of all the books that everyone has, and a big list of all the books that everyone wants, and right now I’m looking for some of the books that they want. See, all these books get traded and mailed back and forth. And there is some really amazing, rare stuff that gets passed around. But there’s no money involved, you see. And it’s a private club. It’s just between them.”

“Oh, how perfect,” I said. “How absolutely perfect.”

Saturday, June 21, 2008

A Hot Summer Hunt

Thrift stores are probably my least favorite source for books, especially thrift stores like the one on Peach Orchard Road in Augusta, Georgia, the inside of which smells like an outdoor wedding in July between a septic tank and a dumpster. Then there’s the local thrift store I was in the other day which, as far as thrift stores go, is one the most well-organized and cleanest I’ve been in; but on this particular hot, muggy day the air conditioner wasn't working and, since there are several racks of used shoes you have to walk past to get back to the books, the smell that hit me as I went by just about knocked me over. My face puckered and reeled away, toward the clothing racks where a teenager averted her eyes from me and snickered. Of course when I got back to the book section it only disgusted me more to see the same dogs that had been on the shelves all week. But then, right as I was about to steel myself against the shoe stench and make my exit, I heard an old familiar bang: one of the thrift store workers was wheeling a loaded buggy through the stock room’s double doors. And she was headed my way with books.

“You must be an angel from heaven,” I called out.

As she got closer she gave the buggy a final push so that it rolled to a stop against my leg. “And you must be the feller who’s in here all the time buying books so he can sell 'em on the internet.”

I feigned surprise. “Now why on earth would you make that assumption? I could well be a really fast reader.”

Walking away she said over her shoulder, “Just because I work here, Sweetie, don’t mean I fell off the turnip truck yesterday.”

No you didn't, I thought after digging through the buggy, but these books you just brought out apparently did.

Tuesday, June 17, 2008

The Big Sleep (1946) - bookshop scene

Monday, June 16, 2008

Apologies in Advance

(with additional apologies to Steve Martin and Eric Hoffer)

[The following post is a result of an admixture of cranberry juice, vodka, and blogging. It won’t happen again.]


Anna knew she needed a new book today, and Carlo had tried to help as she browsed every shelf in the store.

Carlo spoke wearily, "Well, that's it. That’s every book in the place."

"Oh, you must have one more book…."

"No, not one more…. Well, we have: the cruel book. But no one would want to read—"

"Yes, let me see the cruel book."

"No, you don't understand, you see, the cruel book is—"

"Get it."

Carlo disappeared into the back room for a moment, and then reappeared carrying a black leather-bound book with gilt page edges. But this was not an ordinary black leather-bound book with gilt page edges; this one contained Scripture.

It spoke of Original Sin, fallen nature, and redemption. It appealed to feelings of uncertainty and insecurity, and tried not to convince with intelligibility but to convert through blind faith, amplifying in the poor, the misfit and the thwarted a sense of frustration and a desire to be rid of an unwanted and flawed self. It spoke of a new, reborn self, offered an imaginary friend as help-mate, and encouraged absorption into a collective, meek, obedient whole with the promise of a glorious, posthumous future. It created a fact proof screen between the faithful and the realities of the world and claimed that the ultimate and absolute truth is already embodied in its doctrine, that there can be no truth or certitude outside of it, and that conclusions drawn from personal experience or observation are therefore not to be trusted. Thusly, it insulated the faithful from logic, reason, and common sense, subjugating their self-confidence, self-reliance, and personal freedom to the authority of its doctrine.

Carlo spoke hesitantly, "You must understand.... It's not fit for rational minds…."

"Let me read it."


"Let me read it."

Carlo knew all arguments were useless. He placed the book into Anna's hands.

Anna opened the book to a random page, and fell silent.

Minutes later, Anna turned to Carlo and, with tears in her eyes, exclaimed:

“My God, I am a pathetic sinner! But this book… this book can show me the way!”

She paid Carlo and shuffled humbly out of the store into the street.

Later that day, Carlo was overheard saying to a new customer, "Well, that's it. That’s every book in the place. Unless, of course, you'd like to see: the cruel book."

Sunday, June 15, 2008

BookWars DVD

In case you haven’t heard about or seen it yet, there is an interesting documentary about bookselling on the streets of NYC called BookWars. You can get it from Amazon for $13.

From a NY Press review:
Rosette, a former street bookseller, makes the point that while his brethren tend to be more educated than the average Joe, and much more aggressive in extolling the virtues of reading, when you get down to it, they’re basically junkies chasing a rush. The specific type of rush varies from bookseller to bookseller: some of Rosette’s subjects get off on the idea of spreading self-empowering knowledge, or belief systems that terrify the establishment; others seem to get a charge out of interacting with customers, whose eccentric ranks include a surprisingly high number of repeat clients; still others sell books because they’ve been doing it for years and can’t imagine any other life. They’re dealers who are hooked on their own merchandise. "When (people) get hold of a good book, they get intoxicated, they get high," one bookseller tells Rosette.
Read the whole review here:

Wednesday, June 11, 2008

Lucky Guy

If you spend enough time rummaging through the book sections at thrift stores you will eventually run across a book that was signed by the author. It probably won’t be a common occurrence but it happens. When it does, you feel lucky.

Well not too long ago I was standing in line at a Friends of the Library sale in Atlanta, talking with the folks gathered there and passing the time until the doors opened. It was then that I met a real Lucky Guy, someone who’s turned luckiness into a lucrative business.

The Lucky Guy lives in the mountains of North Georgia and has a bookstore that only carries signed books. Every Friday the Lucky Guy drives down into the Atlanta area where he hits a string of Goodwill and Salvation Army stores. He then spends the night, gets up Saturday morning, and hits some more before traveling back home. The Lucky Guy does this every weekend and, again, he only sells signed books.

"Really?" I said, after hearing his routine. "That’s fantastic." (—though I was using the word in its "challenging belief" sense.) "How do you find that many signed books?"

He broke into a grin. "I'm just really lucky." He said it like it was a gift. "Really, I am."

He was also a really smooth talker (and he was the only one around wearing sunglasses).

I started to ask him about how difficult it must be for him to bypass all the other great finds, those unsigned but nevertheless valuable books he undoubtedly comes across in his searches. I started to, but decided against it.

Later that night when I got home I couldn’t resist looking up his store online. And sure enough, there they were, almost three thousand books, all flat-signed.

It was then that I reluctantly took a second look at some of the signed books I've collected over the years. After meeting this guy (and imagining there are probably more out there like him) I can’t help but feel that, on those rare occasions when I do happen to stumble across a "signed" book, perchance I'm not so lucky after all.

Saturday, June 7, 2008

Unusual Book Find

I was at a local Goodwill thrift store today with a shopping buggy half full of books when a lady who I’ve seen in the store many times came over and commented that I must really love to read. I hear this line so many times, usually from suspicious store managers or the na├»ve ladies who work the small-town library sales. “Yes, ma’am,” I’ll say, yuk-yuk style, “I-I-I sure do!” Today however I was less disingenuous. I admitted that yes I do love to read but I also have an online bookstore. I said this because, even though I see her often in the Goodwill, I rarely see her in the book section and I didn’t think there would be a conflict of interest. We ended up talking for twenty or thirty minutes about all kinds of things and towards the end of it when we came back around to the subject of books she said that her husband, recently deceased, had a collection that she hadn’t been able to decide what to do with. She must have felt a rapport with me because she said that I should come take a look. She lives only a few miles from the store and we were both pretty much done with our shopping so I ended up following her home.

As it happens so often, the books she had to offer weren’t worth a damn. But seeing as how she seemed so relieved that they would be going to a worthy cause I said I would take them, about 100 books in all. From what I could tell at the time without unpacking all the boxes, most of the books were book club editions, hardbacks without jackets at that. I knew exactly what they were good for, but, again, I said I’d take them. I gave her $15 for the bunch (actually for her open, generous spirit), loaded the boxes in my truck, and left.

I have just unpacked the first box to see if it contained anything remotely interesting. Toward the bottom, one of the books, when I picked it up, had an unusual, top-heavy heft to it which, when I tilted it toward me, slid downward with an audible click. I opened the cover. This is what I found inside:

Update: I've now gone through all the boxes and looked at all the books and a surprising number of them have been hollowed out with Polaroids stashed inside. The women depicted are varied (ethnically and size-wise) and the pictures range from softcore to extreme hardcore. Some of the images are very bizarre, at times grotesque.

At this point I'm at a loss as to what I should do with this stuff.

More updates here

and, especially, here

Wednesday, June 4, 2008


A few nights ago at 1:30 a.m. I got a phone call from one of the tenants behind the bookstore telling me that my burglar alarm (recently installed) was going off like crazy. When I got there my front door was still shut and locked and the plate glass was intact. Once inside, I found everything to be as it should. I called the local alarm company who called the Sheriff’s department who called off the patrol car that was en route from a town twenty miles away.

What I suspect: it was a false alarm.

The next day I called the alarm company again and asked if they could send some guys over to check out the alarm system to see if we needed to make any adjustments to the system. “I’ll put in a work order for you,” the nice lady said.

Today some good ‘ole boys from the company came out and, after taking a look at things, seemed puzzled as to what could have set it off.

“The glass break sensor could have gone off if there was a loud enough noise,” one of them said, and, before I could react, he grabbed a valuable new hardcover near him, raised it high above his head, and then slammed it down hard on the wooden floor. He picked it up and raised it back over his head to do it again.

“That is a very expensive book,” I said pointedly, and way too politely. “Please don’t do that.”

“Well do you have a book that I can throw down on the floor?” he asked.

A few minutes later they were out of there and, after discovering that the book is now damaged, I got on the phone with the alarm company to file a complaint.

What I learned: Not everyone feels the same way about books that I do, and even more so, some people, when you least expect it, can be downright disrespectful, real jackasses, for no apparent reason.

Sunday, June 1, 2008

More Fun with Feedback

It’s a generalization to say it, of course, but people who sell books online can be divided roughly into two groups: first there is the broad majority of us who are your everyday, average, ordinary booksellers selling your everyday, average, ordinary books with a few lucky gems in our catalogs here and there; the second group is the Elite, the Cream of the Cropthose who sell only the finest editions and those whose very listings, to read them, make you sit up straighter in your chair, envious, as you witness the specialized terminology, the high diction, the measured gravitas, the arcane knowledge, and the absolutely impeccable professionalism which is all laid out before you like a Members Only buffet. You don’t often see these folks at book sales, but when you do, their very presence shines above the crowd like little gleaming jewels. They are the ones you’ll see leisurely standing at the "Special Editions" table (in the midst of all the rabid hoarding around them), holding out on delicate fingertips various and particular over-sized hardcover volumes as they, poised with elevated chins, inspect down their noses the flatness of the boards. In the end they’ll leave the sale with about five choice books while the rest of us leave with at least five boxes full of the usual fodder. If you spend enough time reading their online descriptions, you can’t help but admire the equanimity, sophisication, and class with which they conduct their businesses.

So how jarring it was for me then, while perusing the Amazon feedback for one particular seller I admire, to come across the following response which was provoked by a certain two-star rating:
Buyer: "Seller canceled order, wanted another [$$$] to release the book."

Seller Response:
How grossly, indeed.

Friday, May 30, 2008

A Case of Ms.-Fakin' Identity

I arrived at the Friends of the Library sale in Greenville, South Carolina 3-½ hours before the sale began and secured a place in line. There were about 20-25 people between me and the entrance door. A few minutes later a petite, attractive (though bookish) woman joined me in line. I turned and said “Hi,” she said “Hello,” and we assumed our positions. Time passed. The sky was clear and bright and the warm Spring air was getting warmer. I had on my baseball cap but could feel the sun working on my forearms and the back of my neck. Eventually something was said between us and a conversation began. For the next two or three hours we talked actively about books and bookselling. We got to know each other better. It’s always nice when you find someone interesting to talk to while you’re standing in line, waiting for the door to open. When it did, we all charged in and began filling up our boxes. A couple times during the sale the petite, bookish woman and I crossed paths. I’d say, “Going pretty good?” and she’d say, “Going pretty good.”

Six months later:

I arrived at the Friends of the Library sale in Savannah, Georgia one hour before the sale began. It was my first time at this sale. I located what should have been the entrance door to the sale but there was no line. An older lady (sixties) with amazingly red hair who seemed to be affiliated with the book sale walked up to the door, knocked, and was let in. Time passed. After a while, and for the heck of it, I knocked on the door, too. Then I opened it far enough to stick my head in. There was a stout, silver-haired lady standing behind an upright folding table with a cash box on it. She was using her index finger as a pointer and was telling someone else how to do something. She stopped for a sec and looked at me. I said, “This is the place for the book sale today, isn’t it?” “Yes it is,” she said, and then, looking at her watch, she followed with: “You can come on in.” Quickly I did, filling my boxes, making it around the room. At one point I looked up from the books. There were other people all around. I saw the older lady with the amazingly red hair. I saw the stout, silver-haired lady with the pointy finger. And then I saw her, standing next to the silver-haired lady. It was the attractive, bookish woman from a few months back. I went up to her. I said Hello.

She looked at me like I was a stranger. “Can I help you find something, sir?” she said, flatly.

“No,” I said. “Just wanted to come over and say Hi again.”

Her eyes darted to the silver-haired lady standing next to her and then back to me.

“You remember me, don’t you?” I asked. “We stood in line together at the FOL sale in Greenville a few months ago and talked for a couple of hours.”

She swallowed hard. “You must be confused,” she said.

“No, no!” I said. “It was us! Remember? You were telling me about how you were in the business—“

“—No, I don’t know you,” she said, cutting in with a tone that said Drop it!

—which caught me completely off guard. I wasn't sure how to respond.

She went back to straightening the books on the table in front on her.

The silver-haired lady had an eyebrow arched. She was watching, listening. Then she blew a burst of air through her nostrils, turned, and walked away.

Something was going on between them, I could tell.

The woman who didn't know me shot me a look to kill. “She's not supposed to know," she said, like I might have just ruined her inside job. Then she turned and surreptitiously applied a handful of books to a box in a stack she had tucked away in the corner.

“Oh,” I said, getting it. “Sorry.”

Monday, May 26, 2008

Leaving Feedback: The New Rocket Science

Besides being a bookseller I am also an avid online book buyer, and for me there are few things as disappointing as receiving a book described as "new" or "mint condition" that has serious flaws. A few years ago I received a book from a "book closeouts" company that made my jaw drop. Here is an excerpt of the email I sent to the bookseller:
Hello. I received my order today. Thank you very much. The books were well packaged and are all in fine condition—except for one, which seems to have been crushed (judging from the tire track) by a forklift. The front cover, spine, and back cover are heavily wrinkled with serious scuffing to the back cover as if the forklift driver hit the brakes hard and skidded while on the book. Also, across the front cover there is a four inch long blue pen mark, and, diagonally across the back, a soiled shoe print. I have not attached a picture with this email as some folks do not open emails with attachments. But you've really got to see this to believe it. May I send a picture?
The company was gracious and did send a replacement copy without asking to see any pictures or asking me to return the damaged product.

While this was my most extreme case to date, there have been many, many more instances where I’ve received damaged books. Some of these, I assume, left the stores/warehouses in fine condition but, due to being poorly packaged, didn’t survive the transit. For me, it’s hard to image someone (or, more precisely, a major online bookselling corporation) shipping out a $150 book in an extra-large, roomy box with only a couple of "air pillows" on top of the book for protection. These books often arrive with heavy corner damage after being thrown around by the postal service.

So then, what am I getting at?

Well, due to all the bad experiences I’ve had as a book buyer, I, as a bookseller, make a very special effort to ensure that the books I ship out are received in the described condition. As a result, my feedback rating on Amazon has always been 100%.

But then, a couple of days ago, I get a ding to my score followed by this email:
Oops! I intended to give you FIVE stars!
Thanks for the book! Very nice!
No need to reply.

And, last week, while looking at the feedback for another Amazon seller, I saw a two star rating (out of five) with this explanation:
Great seller! Terrible book! My bad! :-D
Lord have mercy...

Thursday, May 22, 2008

Bad Customers

The paper sign taped to the counter at the discount bookstore check-out register read:


While the cashier rang up my purchase I gestured at the sign and commented about how folks with book scanners seem to be everywhere these days. I asked what kind of problems the store had had to warrant the notice.

"One of our biggest customers" the cashier said, "was a guy who used to come in once a week with his scanner and buy gobs of books at a time."

"And that was perceived as a bad thing?" I asked. "Did he buy too many?"

The cashier paused, looking slightly confused. Then: "Well…"

I picked up my purchase. I paused myself with an expectant expression, waiting for her answer. But she had already broken eye contact, done with me, and was busying herself with something else behind the counter.

Monday, May 19, 2008

Books That Go Way Up

Obviously, the name of the game in the book-selling business is to find good books at the lowest possible prices. Like many book-dealers, I have my standard, everyday sources for cheap books. But how sweet it is when you find yourself in conversation with someone who, when they find out you are in the business of books, says: “Oh, I’ve got lots of books at home that you can have for free. If you want them, come and get them.” I found myself in this situation just the other day, talking with the manager of a music store at the local mall that also sells discount books. Apparently, the chain had been bought out by a larger corporation and would no longer be selling discount books. I had just expressed a casual lament while checking out about the disappearing books when I heard the words that made my ears prick up.

"Really?" I said. "Wow, that’s great. About how many books would you say you have at home?"

"Oh gosh," she said, "I have no idea." Then she looked up over my head and seemed to be mentally picturing tall bookcases full of books.

I could hardly believe my luck. I found out she lived about an hour away, and, later that evening, I arrived at the scheduled time in my truck, the bed of which was filled with empty cardboard boxes. I hoped I'd brought enough.

Walking toward her front door I was giddy with anticipation. I knocked. She invited me in. I surveyed the modest interior, looking for tall bookcases full of books. There weren’t any to be seen.

Standing there in her living room she said, “I apologize, but I haven’t had a chance to get them down yet.”

“Get them down?”

She looked up over my head. “From the attic. The box is in the attic.”

“The box?”

“Yes, it's not that heavy. It’ll just take a minute.”

A few minutes later I was driving back with exactly one box of books in the seat next to me. Several of the books were mass market romance novels. There were three hardback books: 1) The Joy of Sex, 2) a book on how to cope with an alcoholic husband, and 3) a book on how to cope with depression.

I made only one stop on the long drive back at a roadside dumpster. Then I went home.

Sunday, May 18, 2008

First Post

Coming soon: Last post!