"Crap! I wish I hadn't seen Ricky on the sidewalk."

"You will be fine for 31 minutes. You will be dead in 32 minutes."

Monday, September 3, 2012

C is for Collecting

A couple of times a year, a friend and I head east and scout for  books.  It's only a day trip, less than twelve hours from start to finish.  We start early, loading up the truck with a dozen or more boxes we've saved for the occasion. We never spend cash.  Cash is for people who don't know how to trade trash for treasure. 

I shouldn't say trash.  They're perfectly good, these books we're trading, every last one.  Later printings, quality paperbacks, reading copies. Nothing wrong with the books or the stories in them.  They're just not first editions, which is what we're after.  I have a garage filled with books to trade, and a house filled with books for keeping.

Our last trip was in May, and it went pretty much like it always does.  We hit the first store and unloaded half our boxes.  While the employees computed the value of our trade, we shopped.  My friend found something right off, some old French novels on a special display.  I really don't give a shit about Gide, so I started browsing.

How we do it:  I start at one end of the alphabet and he starts at another and we usually meet up around Cormac McCarthy.  That's not true, actually.  I scan a little faster than he does, so we usually meet up around Lawrence, or maybe Ken Kesey.

Once we meet in the middle, we compare the contents of each other's baskets. His was full, mine was not. We've been doing this for ten years without fighting or bad feelings.  We're interested in a lot of the same things, but not always at the same time.

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Once, in Chicago, we switched sides after completing our inital half of the alphabet and I found a first edition of Mario Vargas Llosa's The Time of the Hero. Vargas Llosa had just won the Nobel Prize and the book was published by Grove, a press we both collect.  No gloating, no "look what you missed." Just, "hey, nice find" and "isn't this a nice bookstore?"

As it happened, he found something he wanted: a later printing of Truman Capote's Other Voices, Other Rooms.  I had seen it during my tour of the alphabet, but disregarded because it was an ex-library copy. Even so, neither of us had a copy or had ever seen a copy for sale, and there we were, in Chicago, with per diem money we'd set aside to buy books and records.  For once, we were there to spend cash.  There's never any trade credit when you're on the road, and besides, it's good to support local bookstores.  He bought the Capote and some Henry Miller books from behind the counter and I bought some vintage paperbacks to go along with the $8 Vargas Llosa.

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My half of the alphabet had yielded nothing, and even though his basket was mostly filled with things I had no interest in, I was a little jealous of one book, an American first of The Plague in a handsome jacket.  Camus is a French writer I guess I do give a shit about. 

In the early days of our scouting trips, we were very arbitrary about who took what part of the alphabet.  Given our similar taste in books, who bought what was more about opportunity than skill.  But in the last few years, we've fallen into a routine at the stores we visit.  Had I been standing in front of the Camus, I would've bought it.  He got there first.  C'est la vie.

We each collected a few hundred dollars in credit and headed to our next location.  We unloaded a few more boxes, and began browsing.

And just like that, my luck changed.

There it was, sitting on the shelf.  A perfectly nice copy of Truman Capote's  Other Voices, Other Rooms. I hadn't seen a copy since Chicago, almost two years earlier.

I have a ritual when I find a book like this.  First, I check for the price.  Intact, $2.75. 

Then, I check for a previous owner's signature.  Perfectly clean.

At this point, it's time to confirm the edition.  Surely this was a later printing?

Nope, stated first printing.

I already know I want it, that  I will walk out of the store with it.  But how much are they asking for it, and how hard did they press with the lead pencil when they recorded the number?

$5.  A measly five bucks.

I feel giddy inside.  Giddy because this is a lovely copy of the Capote book.  Giddy because someone has written the price
with a light hand, easily erased.  Giddy because I get a 20% discount and the $4 I do pay will be taken off my store credit. 

But that's not all.  Inside the book, someone has tucked two publicity pictures of Capote, along with a Michiko Kakutani review of Gerald Clarke's Capote biography from 1988.  The clipping has not discolored the book in any way.

Is it worth $400?  $500?  Something like that.  I didn't buy it to resell it, I bought it because I'm a collector and this is what collectors do.  Take a big stack of Stephen King books or a box of Penguin classics and see what you can trade for them.

I got something else that day, a special edition of Twilight signed by Stephenie Meyer that had been badly overpriced at $250.  But the way the price was written in the book, it looked like $2.50.  Again, I'm not here to resell or make a profit.  I try to turn less interesting books into blue chip books. 

I brought the Meyer book up to the register, stuck it in the middle of the stack.  If I'd been charged $250, I would've happily put it back.  No harm, no foul, no skin off my beak. 

The cashier looked at the price, the book, and then the price again.  She started to say something and I shrugged and said, "yeah, I know," and then she charged me $2.50, less my 20% discount.

In all, it was a very good day.

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