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Adventures in Book Scouting
Part II: Take The Old Car

by Catherine Petruccione

#52, 26 September 2005

Sometimes bad luck is good. A few summers ago, Ron and I had to drive from New York to Minnesota due to an unexpected family emergency. On the thruway, our much-loved-and-used 1987 Beamer kept choking up, lurching mysteriously whenever we exceeded 50 mph. Each of the three or four BMW specialists we consulted with en route came up with a different diagnosis. Each one saw us off with their blessing, and then, a hundred miles down the road, the same thing happened. Finally we simply abandoned the high-speed routes and took to the back roads. Our car seemed much more content, but she needed to rest every 200 miles or so. She always landed us in good book-scouting territory, and we scouted while she cooled down. We also took a side trip to Des Moines, Iowa, where a gigantic book sale was under way. Just a slight detour, you understand--it wasn't that much of a family emergency!

The Planned Parenthood Association's annual sales are held at the Iowa State Fairgrounds on two floors of the huge Agriculture Building--lots of space between the tables, high ceilings, plenty of breathing room. This year's sale, September 24 to October 2, promises 600,000 books, all donated. We arrived several days into the sale, and there was no crush of people--just the way we like it! A week and a half later, we arrived back home with a trunk load of great books, many of them found in little towns across the country. (About the car: Our own small-town mechanic found the culprit--a faulty air-flow sensor.)

Although we do travel to some distant library sales, the best of the best for us have always been in Ithaca, New York. Twice a year, a great team of people put on well-organized sales with excellent books. The Friends of Tompkins County Public Library maintain a huge warehouse of books and offer several hundred thousand books for two weeks each spring and fall (this year: October 8-17 and 22-24). People line up very early for this sale. Some may even camp out overnight, but I haven't noticed this is recent years. A limited number of people are allowed in at any given time, and each person may buy as many as 50 books before checking out (re-entry is permitted). This works out well and keeps scouting conditions extremely tolerable. During the fall sale at Ithaca, more-desirable books are displayed in a "specials" room at somewhat higher prices. This is one specials area worth exploring! I have also found special-enough books on the regular shelves, both spring and fall.

(By the way, Ithaca is great town to visit. Home of Cornell University, Ithaca College and other schools, it has a young, active and ethnically diverse feel to it, like a little NYC nestled between beautiful hills at the foot of gorgeous Cayuga Lake. With great restaurants, shopping, and bookstores, many of which are on a traffic-free commons, what more could you ask for?)

A few months ago we drove 100 miles or so to a small-town FOL sale we had never before attended. When we arrived, I thought we must have come on the wrong day. What we found was a quaint but decrepit old brick library on a side street. A sign on the boarded-up front door directed us to an alley entrance, and the girl behind the desk assured us that we had the right place and date. She proudly pointed to two rickety bookcases leaning back to back in the lobby. Oh, my sinking heart! Every book was ex-library except for a few battered paperbacks.

Ever the optimists, we spent a few minutes perusing the shelves. There was a time I wouldn't give ex-library books a second glance, but I have learned something since then: Some librarians actually do not deface dustjackets. They put the label on the outside of the Mylar, and refrain from just picking the handiest plastic cover and trimming the jacket to fit. Pay attention: Most discarded library books are first editions. Although the dog-eared, ink-stamped, stated first edition of M.A.S.H. in your hot little hand may be destined for the junk heap, that undamaged jacket is of considerable value by itself. It can be sold quite profitably in a divorced state or filed away for a future marriage to a nice unjacketed first edition you acquire later.

Alas, at this particular library all books and jackets had been diligently defaced. But never mind--librarians are still our friends. I can't imagine a world without libraries. They are sacred places, and like brick and mortar book shops, I hope they never disappear or turn completely into media centers. When we are away for short trips, we often visit a library to check our e-mail and book sale sites. If they have an ongoing book sale, we check that too.

As we were leaving the sale. we remembered passing a garage-sale sign in the alley. Turned out the garage owner was parting with far better books than the library, and at very reasonable prices. Day rescued!

On our way home, we meandered along quiet roads. Sometimes the best part of the day is the road trip: sunny day, top down, shades on, smiling all the way. To our dismay, we began to hear a squealing noise coming from the right front wheel of our vehicle. Remember rule number 2 from Part I? (Take the old car.) To our delight, we rolled right into a little crossroads town with all of four houses, an old stone church building, and a rambling, closed-up-looking building with a hand-painted sign that read "Automotive Repair Shop."

We wandered into the cool darkness of the church-turned-antique-shop. Not much exciting here, but the architecture was interesting and we did purchase a couple of worthwhile books. We also learned that the car repair shop was open for business. But there was something more: it was an antique shop too. (A nice little virus, an antiquing bug, seems to be infecting small-town buildings more and more.)

While Ron explained our problem and imitated car noises for a big man in red suspenders, I wandered the aisles of the building. I had it all to myself, and once my eyes adjusted to the low light, I wound past tables full of porcelain, glass dust collectors and bric-a-brac and sniffed out the books: four cases of them way off in a secluded corner. Nice selection on exploration and travel, older first edition novels with dustjackets intact, some unusual antiquarian poetry books. I was sitting on the floor sifting through my pile of treasures when I blinked up and saw a pair of red suspenders towering over me. "Haw, haw ... I see you found some books!" I was lost in my element, and he knew it, clucking and chuckling at me. Ron appeared from behind him. "Can he fix the car?" I asked.

"It's already fixed," Ron said, holding up five fingers. The repair had cost five dollars (a loose brake caliper spring had been rubbing the wheel rim). The books were reasonable too. I happily bought fifteen books there, two of which quickly paid for the whole lot and the car repair. Red Suspenders' wife cashed me out and told us about a barn up the road that was having a sale.

We didn't find much there, but that reminds me of another summer when we stopped at an antique shop about 50 miles from home in the middle of nowhere. Though it was a very small shop, I found two or three nice books that were both collectible and affordable. As I was checking out, I handed the woman my business card. She asked me if I'd be interested in seeing some really nice books. "Okay, I'll bite," I said. She brought out several very nice first edition Oz books by Frank Baum, which she had duly priced at full market value. I cooed over them, but explained that as much as I wanted to buy the books, booksellers can't afford to pay collectors' prices; we have to find books the same way she probably did.

She glanced at her husband, who was hovering nearby. "Should we tell them?" He shrugged, then nodded. She whipped out a map from under the counter. "This guy probably isn't going to be in business much longer," she said in a low voice. "He's got a real mess of books, all in a jumble. It's a kind of crummy warehouse-type affair."

We were all ears. We thanked them for the tip and headed for our new goal some twenty miles away. "Bill," this book fellow, was apparently in some kind of rehabilitation program, and his brother had set him up with a book business in a big empty building out behind the brother's antique shop. We found Bill and his little dog Rags watching a small black-and-white TV in a makeshift room: the walls were stacks of books in the center of the concrete-block warehouse. He wasn't much interested in books, but he was friendly enough, smoking and scratching and chatting, but leaving us pretty much on our own to comb through the crooked shelves and boxes. He told us he had gaylords (huge, six-foot boxes) of books coming in, but we never learned his source. I noticed that no prices were marked. He explained that all the books were either $2 or $1, depending on whether they were thick or thin.

We'd been in there about twenty minutes when Ron popped up from behind some boxes. Sometimes when he tries to get my attention, I'm guilty of waving him off with one hand and mumbling "Yeah, just give me a minute." But when he starts dancing the Macarena backward down the aisle singing "We're Going to the Islands" it tends to draw my attention. Normally he's a bit more subtle. "Hmmm, I wonder if this is a thin one," he said. With a little swoop of his arm he produced a fine, first edition, early printing of The Catcher in the Rye in a near-perfect unclipped dustjacket. He had found the book in a corner you couldn't possibly get to unless you were, well, flexible. We felt we had to check with the guy on this one. "Yup," he said as he turned it from side to side, "I'd say that's a thin one." Well now, it hasn't gotten us to the islands (at least not the ones Ron had in mind), but it was definitely a boost.

We bought several boxes of excellent books that day, both thick and thin, and came back a few weeks later for more. We loved Bill's hours. He was open until 10 p.m., or later if he was suffering from insomnia. (This was our idea of a fun evening out.) Sadly, when we returned the next year, the warehouse was dark and empty. When we checked next door, we were told simply that he "got bored with the book business." Good fishin' holes do come and go.

Wherever you go on your book scouting expeditions, enjoy the trip! Strike up a conversation with the people you meet. They often will lead you to the next remarkable discovery. At the very least, they will certainly make your journey more memorable. Take advantage of serendipitous events. As Craig says, "Books are everywhere" . . . and so must you be! Hope you'll be dancing in the aisles soon.

Questions or comments?
Contact the editor, Craig Stark

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