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Adventures in Book Scouting
Part I: The Running of the Books

by Catherine Petruccione

#48, 25 July 2005

Ahhh, summer! Early morning coffee, grab the hats and book bags, and out the door we go - on our way to another Friends of the Library (FOL) book sale. Not all booksellers feel this way, but I happen to love FOL book sales. Large or small, a library sale is always suspenseful and full of possibilities, and each sale is different in its own way. It's a crazy way to get out and see the countryside and meet people. Granted, you'll see some people at their worst, from the bewildered and un-showered all the way to the pushy and downright rude. But there are always some friendly, thoughtful and interesting individuals, and all are intriguing to watch. The whole scene usually reminds me of crazed children at an Easter Egg Hunt or Pamplona's running of the bulls. Ron has dubbed a certain sale in our area "The Running of the Books," and believe me, a person could get trampled there.

I have learned that it pays to stay calm at a book sale, and often it is the turtle who wins the race. I have observed wild eyed book gatherers who sprint into a room, plucking up stacks of books without examining them, stepping on toes, reaching around in front of people and casting all protocol to the wind. At the end of the day, what do they have? I suspect it's a considerable load of books with missing ffeps, cracked hinges, soiled pages, remainder marks, not to mention loutish reputations. I am constantly surprised at what these treasure seekers pass over on their mad dash through the stacks.

My favorite part of a book sale is a few hours (or in some cases, days) into it, when the frenzy has died down. Inexplicably, I have found real gems that have been passed over, and this only adds to my delight.

Recent examples:

  1. A first edition Work of Art by Sinclair Lewis in a near-fine, unclipped dustjacket (under a table three hours into a small sale, after nearly everyone else had left - listed for $250).

  2. First Edition Tarzan and the Ant Men in very clean, solid condition (just before closing: under a table, but on top of a stack in plain sight - listed for $200).

  3. Inscribed and signed third printing of The Man-Eating Leopard of Rudraprayag (after-lunch browsing - sold for $100 within a week).

  4. First American Edition The Baker's Daughter - (second day of sale - sold for $100 two days after listing).

  5. First Edition A Winter of Content - (picked up after another book dealer picked it up and put it back - sold for $120 within 2 weeks).

  6. First Edition, Second printing of Seven Years in Tibet - Signed by author in English and Tibetan, with unclipped clean dust jacket (listed for $900 - hundreds of people had swarmed the area before Ron casually picked up this book).

Everyone has their own method of scouting for books and tackling FOL sales, but here is how we do it.

First, be flexible.

Second, take the old car (you'll see).

Third, be early or be late, but be there.

Some luck is involved in finding marketable books, but 95% of my success is due to being there and being knowledgeable about what to pick up. The majority of books we sell for $100 and up are titles which are not familiar to most people. They are, however, sought after by enough people to make reselling them very profitable.

If you arrive early at a sale, strike up conversations with others while you are standing in line. It is informative and always interesting to learn what other people in attendance are up to, from rank beginners to old salts. Bring business cards just in case, not only for other booksellers you may meet but also for the occasional person who mentions they are looking for a particular book. You may have one sitting on your shelf!

If there is a map provided of the layout, study it while waiting. Make a decision as to what areas you want to scan first but be ready and willing to change your mind. If a particular area is absolutely overrun with people, I'll opt for just about any quieter area until the frenzy dies down.

I leave the "special books" area for last unless something really catches my eye. I've found that it is usually a conglomeration of recent, big & heavy, or old & wrecked - in other words, just a distraction from where the really good finds are hidden. But if they have a free pile, check it out before you leave. I have found some great ephemera and other goodies in the giveaway zone of library sales. Once, to my amazement, I found a clean and solid first edition of Fitzgerald's All the Sad Young Men in a free box. That is the kind of luck that will keep a person going to book sales.

If you have a partner or friend, you are ahead of the game. Ron is always terrific about exchanging my full book bag for an empty one, bringing me books I may have overlooked, and setting our finds aside in a safe place and marking them sold. Often as not, he finds the pick of the day. Wearing our hats help us find each other, not to mention that we like having our thinking caps on. We take a break partway through to sharpen the senses. No need to panic. There are millions of books out there.

We never bring a cart, just one book bag apiece, and one of the bags has a third, smaller book bag folded inside and a checkbook tucked in the pocket. Think quality, not quantity. Traveling light works best for us and allows one to crawl under tables when necessary (see rule one).

When we feel satisfied that we have harvested the best of the types of books we want, we pack up and explore the town, ask about a good place for breakfast or lunch, and relax for a little while. After a particularly challenging sale, I'll order a Minnesota Breakfast - a Bloody-Mary with a beer chaser. It's a wondrous prescription for calming the nerves and helping you recall what you actually bought.

One of our favorite FOL sales is held in Cazenovia, New York, a pretty little college town (this year it will be held on the weekend of July 30). The selection is wonderful, and the books are spread out enough between library yard, basement and barn to allow everyone a little elbow room. We always have a late lunch at the old Lincklaen Inn across from the library, where they serve exquisite homemade popovers with any meal ordered, just like my Danish grandmother used to make. The hotel offers dining indoors, outdoors on the flagstone patio, or in the cozy pub downstairs, with nice rooms also available in case the sale completely wears you out.

Sometimes bad luck turns out to be good luck, but we'll save that for next time, along with some adventures off the beaten track and some library sales you won't want to miss!

Questions or comments?
Contact the editor, Craig Stark

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