I just finished Books by Larry McMurtry. It's his best book in years; the way he tells about how he first started his love affair with books, how he started writing, and then when he started to be a book scout. A book scout finds books, sometimes reads them, and then sells them back to another bookstore for equal or more the money they paid for it.
My dad was the ultimate book scout. He must've started in the fifties or sixties. He was a salesman and stockbroker, and sometimes it was feast or famine. He had to rely on something else to make money. He always knew what books would sell, what was rare. He would buy two of something, and then sell it when things got tight. Sometimes it would cover rent, food, and the extras.
At a young age, I learned about book scouting. On weekends, I went with Dad, most of the time we would go to bookstores. Sometimes this was Heaven. Sometimes I wanted to do something else like the other girls did with their dads. They got to go to the mall and guilt their dads to getting them an album. I was lucky if I could get a Madonna album from my dad.
I soon became acquainted with the darkness of Shakespeare and Company in Berkeley. It was always dark in there, even when it was beautiful outside. Across the street were Cody's and Moe's. If you were lucky, Moe would be there with his cigar, looking at the books coming in, saying yes or no on them. At Cody's, their kid's section always smelled like doughnuts, because it was next door to a doughnut store. Cody's is now gone, and so is Moe. Hard to believe. Shakespeare's is still going strong, so is Moe's without Moe.
At Black Oak, I would study the pictures of the authors on the walls, and I would think someday my picture would be up there. Dad liked going there because if you were lucky, they would have some books that came from England and weren't available over here yet, and that would get some money somewhere else.
He taught me what to look for. "Look for someone who just had a big hit and see if they had any other books before that one," he said. John Irving fell in this category, so did Raymond Carver.
Another thing to look for was a first edition. "Here's how you check," he told me, flipping to the copyright page, "see that? Where it says ten nine eight until it gets to one? It's a first edition. Always hang on to first editions, baby. It can mean money."
You also looked for something unusual with the cover-was it rare? Is there something unusual about the dust jacket? Look for someone who publishes outside his or her genre. John Gardner in the seventies wrote some children's books and Dad bought them right away. Two copies-the ones I could read, the ones to save. They are worth about a hundred dollars now.
Never write in books, Dad taught me. This was probably a good idea for me, because my handwriting is so bad, the last thing a book needed was my illegible handwriting. However, when looking at books, see if the handwriting looks similar to the author's in some way. You could have a reading copy of the author's or a copy where they made changes for the paperback.
He taught me to look at the bestseller list. "Don't always go by the New York Times bestseller list. They're good sometimes, but sometimes you don't want to overwhelm someone with too many Tom Clancys or Danielle Steels." He relied on San Francisco Chronicle's list, or Publishers Weekly. Always keep an eye on if a new book was coming out by an author, because then you could back to their previous writing and say, "Hey, take this one, because she has a new book out in a month."
The absolute fun of it was the hunt. A first edition John Le Clarre? Let's go looking! Aha! Here is one, with Richard Burton on the cover because of the movie The Spy Came in From the Cold. I told Dad I just finished A Tree Grows in Brooklyn, by Betty Smith, and the next week he would show up with a first edition of Joy in the Morning, also written by Betty Smith. Going around bookstores, trying to find what will click, what could sell, what was good. Going to Holmes Bookstore, Books Inc, Serendipity, they all had that book smell. I love that smell, that old musty smell, oh, that smell is home to me.
In 1997, my father woke up and was not able to see. He found out he had macular degeneration, partially blind. He could not read. He could not scout. I thought this would kill him, and it made me scared.
Instead, he asked me to help him get a library card. Signed up with the library for the blind for audio books. At first, he resisted. "I don't get the connection with the writer," he said. "There's something about feeling the page of a book, reading the words."
"Dad, just try going to sleep with the book on. Think of them reading you a story."
Eventually, he got used to it. However, he stopped scouting. No more hunting. He passed it on though, the love of the game.
For a while, I sold books on Ebay, but I stopped doing that a couple of years ago because of too many flaky people, too much hassle with packaging and everything. However, I love to scout. I love the hunt.
What I love is the looking. I always stand back when I look at books, figuring it out, seeing if anything looks familiar or interesting. I scan the shelves, trying to spot anything unusual. Sometimes I can come home with a bag of books. Sometimes nothing.
One day Dad and I were walking by a bookstore where I saw a first edition copy of The Lonely Doll. "God, I would love a copy of that book," I said.
"Get it," Dad said.
"Dad, it's four hundred dollars."
"How do you know?"
"I just know. Watch." I went in and asked how much the book was. Sure enough, four hundred dollars.
Although I wish Dad hadn't lost his sight, I believe he got out of the scouting business in time. Soon Ebay appeared, and people searching for rare books could do it from home. Amazon also ran down the used book trade.
A couple of years ago Ayelet Waldman was on KQED, talking about her new novel. Dad called me. We were supposed to have lunch that day. "Who is this lady?" he asked.
"Ayelet Waldman. She used to write mysteries and now she writes novels."
"Mysteries? She used to write mysteries?" I heard a sudden excitement in his voice I hadn't heard in years. I knew what it meant. We were going scouting.
We went to Mystery Inc in the City to see if they had any books. "They might be sold out," he said, "people might have gone to buy her books."
"Let's take a chance," I said.
We seized a first edition of her first mystery, and then I found a copy of the new novel with a different cover. "Let me look at them," Dad said when we were out of the store. Oh God, it was fun. So much fun. We were in this together, him and me. Now I was his equal. I knew how to check to see if it was a first edition, I knew what to look for.
"You think you can get them signed?" he asked.
"I think so."
I did, months later. I'm hanging on to them, though. Some books just can't be parted with.
Speaking of Ayelet Waldman, I did find a first edition of Michael Chabon's The Mysteries of Pittsburgh. I told about it to Dad and he said "A first edition Michael Chabon?"
"You got lucky."
I sure did.
Causes Jennifer Gibbons Supports
Gilda's Club, Greenpeace, Rosie's Broadway Kids,Westwind Foster Family Agency, Amber Brown Fund, Linda Duncan Fund for Contra Costa Libraries