I should make it clear from the beginning that the way we do this isn’t the way real bookscouts do it.
The real ones—the ones who do it for a living—play hardball. For them it’s business. They have a set route of places they go to check for books, they’ve got client lists and handheld barcode scanners and a budget. They’re all about the ‘bread and butter’ book sales, buying a book at a thrift store for three or four dollars that they can turn around and sell online for ten or fifteen dollars, and they usually are walking out of each stop on the daily route with five to fifteen of those. Different routes for each day, because book sections in thrift stores and junk shops don’t turn over their stock very quickly, not even in a big city. Low per-item profit, depending on volume to carry them. Buying low and selling high.
Oh, don’t get me wrong. Professional bookscouts still love books—no one goes into the book business that doesn’t love books, the margins are too low. But it’s a business for the working bookscouts, they have bills to pay.
For me and my wife, it’s just a hobby. Although “hobby” feels a little inadequate— there ought to be a word that feels less trivial. It’s more than that for me, because I’ve been doing this since I was a kid. A passion, maybe.
It started… well, it’s hard to pin down when it started because it’s not just about reading. I’ve been reading books for as long as I can remember—literally, my earliest memories are of the books that I owned. I can’t tell you anything about where we lived or what my daily life was when I was three years old, but I remember getting and reading my hardcover of Barney Beagle like it was yesterday. I learned to read on that one.
But book collecting… that is a slightly different thing. I am not sure when I became so invested not just in being a reader but also in building my own home library. Probably when I got interested in the Hardy Boys and Tom Swift—all those standbys from the Stratemeyer Syndicate were readily available in the local drugstores, and those books, along with comics, are what turned me into a collector as well as a reader. The Stratemeyer juvenile adventures appealed to us collector-minded types because they were numbered on the spine, like encyclopedias… thus subconsciously prompting you to complete the set.
But I can tell you the exact moment when I became an antiquarian collector. That came later; when I was around ten or eleven. And again, my memories of this are far more vivid than anything else from that time.
Three houses over from where we lived when I was a child, there was a lady named Mrs. Seager. A very sweet woman, all the neighbor kids loved her. She was a widow living alone, and she always had time to say hello when kids were passing by—which happened a lot, as she lived next to the woods that we all played in, and was often out in her yard working on the garden. One day I was walking by and she was in her garage, and she called me over.
“I have some books here that my husband had when he was a child,” she said. “He’s gone now and they’re just taking up space. I was going to take them to the Goodwill, but I saw you passing by and I was wondering if you would like them. You like to read, don’t you?”
Yes, even as a child I already had the bookworm reputation (and it was deserved.) What Mrs. Seager was about to unleash in me, though, was slightly different. When I looked in the crate of books she had there in the garage, there was that moment; the one where your heart sings and for a brief second what you are looking at has a golden glow. Every collector knows it, and no matter if your itch is books or rare stamps or carnival glass or whatever. It’s the moment when you stumble across A Real Find and your whole being vibrates with sheer acquisitive glee.
Because in Mrs. Seager’s crate I could see… Oz books.
I loved the Oz books. I’d read the ones at our local library over and over—The Wizard of Oz, The Scarecrow of Oz, Tik-Tok of Oz, and The Gnome King of Oz. And our elementary school library had The Tin Woodman of Oz. Those books had all been pretty beat up, library copies… but these looked new. The Land of Oz, Glinda of Oz, Kabumpo in Oz, a MUCH nicer copy of The Gnome King of Oz than the one at the library, and The Purple Prince of Oz. Except for Gnome King they were new to me, and all five of them looked pristine.
I think that may have been my first real moment of collector lust, looking at that crate. All for free! All mine! Yesssssss!
I agreed instantly to take them off Mrs. Seager’s hands and thanked her profusely. Then I took the box home and started going through it.
There were twelve books in all. Apparently, the late Mr. Seager’s tastes and mine had run pretty much in parallel. We both liked adventure stories, and westerns, and of course, the Land of Oz.
I read all of them, many times, over the next few years. I loved them just as books. But there was an added attraction… I looked at the copyrights on these books and they were… old. Rare. There was something intoxicating about holding a book that had been published in 1898, as General Nelson’s Scout had been.
And that was where the habit started, of looking for “old books.”
I found a bunch more in Grandma Hatcher’s attic—nothing as awesome as in the original Seager stash, but quite a few that were fun, cool books to have. Grandma Jennings had a couple more in the glass bookcase in her front room. Both grandmothers were happy to indulge their nerd grandson and gave those finds to me to take home when I asked about them.
From junior high school on, I was always interested in antiquarian book collecting, though my income from mowing lawns didn’t allow me to indulge it much. Nevertheless, I’d put together a pretty fair collection of twenty-five or thirty rarities— vintage juveniles, mostly—by the time I was nineteen.
Without question, looking back over the last thirty years, my biggest collector’s regret was selling off those books, one by one, when I was in college. (To be honest, I did a lot of other stupid things in the eighties too, but that’s the book-related one.) In recent years, one of the collector quests I pick at is replacing the books in the Seager box and it’s been quite an education to discover how rare and valuable those actually were. Many of them were first editions and today they go for hundreds of dollars – not just the Oz books, all of them.
Back in 1982 when I was at Portland State, though, I didn’t know that. I unloaded them at the local used bookstore for quick cash, and I daresay that dealer was as gleeful about my ignorance as I had been about Mrs. Seager’s a decade earlier. Karma’s a bitch, baby.
There’s no real school for book collecting, no official certifications or anything. Like any hobby, though, there are experts and dilettantes. After some thirty-five years of just wallowing in books and book collecting and spending a great deal of my leisure time hanging around in one used bookshop or another, I think I’ve gotten to be a pretty fair bookscout. I don’t rate myself as a true expert, I don’t think I could do it well enough to live on it… but I’ve got some game.
I didn’t actually become aware of this, though, until I started collecting books again. What reawakened my collector’s itch for me was a gift from my friend Monika, back in the early 1990s.
We have a wonderful bookstore here in Seattle, the Seattle Mystery Bookshop. (Downtown on Cherry Street, between First and Second Avenue.)
They often host author signings, and one day in 1995, they were hosting John Dunning. I was grousing about not being able to make it to the event and Monika mentioned to me that she was an old friend of Mr. Dunning; they had known one another back when Monika was living in Denver. I asked Monika if she would mind getting him to sign a copy of his novel Booked to Die for my friend Sena, whose birthday was coming up, and she assured me she would be happy to do it.
I was only vaguely familiar with John Dunning, but I knew Bill Farley down at the Seattle Mystery Bookshop had good taste; he wouldn’t host a signing by some lame-o. And Dunning was a friend of Monika’s so that made him cool. Anyway, autographed books are always a nice gift. So I figured getting Sena a signed Dunning novel would be a nice birthday present.
This was back when I was still fairly new in my career as a professional writer, just barely starting to crack magazine markets here and there. Monika knew this and she told me that I reminded her a great deal of Dunning back when she had first met him. “He was like you, always making time to write,” she said. “He would get up incredibly early, four or five A.M., and write for a couple of hours before he went to work.”
Well, that was very flattering, certainly. But that was nothing compared to when Monika brought back Sena’s signed copy of the paperback Booked to Die that I’d given her… and also Dunning’s new hardcover, The Bookman’s Wake, signed to me. Monika must have given him an earful, because it was inscribed: Greg– for God’s sake keep writing! Best, John Dunning.
So that by itself was pretty awesome, but then I read the books themselves (I decided I needed my own copy of Booked to Die, as well) and I was completely hooked. Dunning’s stories of Cliff Janeway, the cop-turned-bookseller, are terrific just on their own. They’re great mysteries, tough and cool and character-driven. But—and here’s the key point—they are also loaded with antiquarian and small-press book lore, and I recognized it. I knew this stuff. A lot of it, anyway. I’d been reading books and collecting them since I was a sprout, and I’d worked in small-press publishing. When Dunning wrote about how Cliff Janeway came through Seattle and stopped at different bookstores looking for good stuff, those were the same bookstores I shopped at for my used books. The delight of that recognition was almost as much fun for me as the story itself.
I was aware that I knew a lot about books and publishing and the used-bookstore scene, I had a good working grasp of how to grade a book and which editions were which and all that kind of thing. But I wasn’t aware there was a name for it, or that there were other folks who did what I did… for a living, even. But now I knew. I was a bookscout.
That’s the book-collector part of the equation. The back-roads part happened like this: I married a girl who loves thrift-shopping and antiques. Julie’s idea of a great afternoon is to hit every Goodwill and Salvation Army store she can get to. She rarely will buy things, but she loves ‘shopping.’ She’ll spend hours going through racks of stuff, and then talk herself out of spending the money. (Unfortunately for our bank balance, I don’t have that kind of restraint when it comes to books.)
Moreover, we both love taking long drives, and we both hate interstates. Something we realized we had in common early on, when we were first dating, was that when we were children we had both looked at all the different back-roads exits along Interstate 5 and wondered where they went. And we’ve spent many entertaining weekends over the last decade finding out.
It quickly turned into our standard vacation, picking a rural area we hadn’t visited and seeing what sort of things we could find there. It’s enormous fun and you meet the most interesting people.
What we discovered is that most of the small towns in the Pacific Northwest have at least one really good thrift store or antique shop, and most have several. Even more surprising and delightful is how many of them also have really first-class bookstores. For example, both Langley, Washington and Lincoln City, Oregon – neither one of which is a bustling urban center by any stretch of the imagination— each have at least five astonishingly good bookstores run by proprietors with some serious antiquarian bookscouting chops. For that matter, if you’re a book person, the Oregon coast is just not to be missed, period.
Best of all? The cost is mostly just gas, meals, and a room for the night. Julie and I have found that once you’re away from the city, prices drop to as low as forty percent of what you pay downtown.
Just to take the handiest example, my wife and I spent Memorial Day weekend at the Tokeland Hotel. It’s Washington’s oldest resort on the coast (and reputedly haunted); a lovingly restored gothic mansion of a place with a lobby full of antiques and stunning hardwood floors, with a restaurant that serves the best home-cooked steak and seafood in the western hemisphere… and it runs you forty dollars a night. (Fifty during tourist season.) Yeah, it’s in the middle of nowhere, but for Julie and me, that’s part of the charm.
So there you go. That’s how it happened for us. If that sounds entertaining to you, here’s a couple of tips we’ve picked up on our travels….
You Can Ignore the Word ‘Vintage.’ First of all, when a book section in a thrift store is labeled ‘vintage’ that is usually code for ‘old and musty-smelling.’ As likely as not that’s where they’ve decided to park someone’s tattered copy of an aging elementary-school primer from 1941. There are some collectors that like that sort of thing, but not enough for any bookscouts to be prowling for them. On the other hand, a genuine rarity like the first hardcover edition of Stephen King’s Salem’s Lot (with the misprint of “Father Cody” on the jacket flap) is going to be out in the general population with the other King hardcovers.
Probably Safe To Skip the Paperbacks… EXCEPT For the Juveniles. Thrift store paperbacks tend to be pretty beat up—split spines, torn covers, that kind of thing. If you just want a reading copy for your bus commute, that’s fine… but if you’re bookscouting for a collector’s item, it’s not really worth the bother. However, the juvenile section often will yield some interesting finds because a great many thrift-store volunteer types won’t distinguish between a Goosebumps paperback (worthless) and Alfred Hitchcock and the Three Investigators (highly sought-after.) (But only if it includes the late Mr. Hitchcock.)
And finally… Don’t Get So Caught Up in the Collector Part That You Forget the READING Part. We have some really nice rare books here in our home… including some super-rare adventure novels from the early part of the 20th Century, first edition Oz books, signed editions of famous mysteries, things like that…. But they’re all meant to be read. We don’t keep them under glass or anything. Remember to enjoy yourself. It’s supposed to be fun.
…Or the TRAVEL Part Either. A huge part of the appeal of this hobby for us is appreciating the towns we visit and the people who live there. Lots of the out-of-the-way bookstore proprietors we’ve met have great stories to tell, and the stores themselves are as interesting as the books they hold. Like Robert’s Books in Oregon’s Lincoln City with all the framed original art from vintage paperback covers, or the Haunted Bookstore in Sydney, British Columbia with its museum displays of rare old Dickens memorabilia.
Good luck and good hunting!