Adventures in
Book Scouting

by Catherine Petruccione

#52, 26 July 2005

Part II: Take The Old Car

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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.

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