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.]

THE CRUEL BOOK

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."

"But….”

"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: http://www.camerado.com/nypress3_2000.html

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

Meathead

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:
"YOU ARE A GODDAMN FRAUD AND A BLACKMAILER! THIS IS AN OUTRAGE! YOU WANTED THE BOOK FOR LESS AND WE REFUSED! HOW DARE YOU GIVE
US A NEGATIVE RATING! THIS IS GROSSLY UNFAIR FEEDBACK!"
How grossly, indeed.