“Many of the people who came to us were of the kind who would be a nuisance anywhere but have special opportunities in a bookshop.”-George Orwell, “Bookshop Memories”
For ten years I worked in the second-hand book trade. Five of those years were spent at Wayward Books, an antiquarian book shop in Washington, D.C. that was owned by novelist and critic Doris Grumbach and her partner, Sybil Pike. Another five years were spent selling second-hand books out of my truck just down the block from Wayward at historic Eastern Market on Capitol Hill, a move necessitated when Doris and Sybil relocated their shop to coastal Maine.
Though that period of my life ended fifteen years ago, the bookshop trade has left a mark on my soul. Not a day goes by that I don’t think about that time with a mixture of longing and giddy recollection. Entire newsreels scroll through my head as I think about the eclectic and eccentric assortment of customers and habitués—a fancy way of saying “customers” who don’t actually buy anything—who darkened my doorway. As George Orwell put it, “In a town like London [or Washington D.C.] there are always plenty of not quite certifiable lunatics walking the streets, and they tend to gravitate towards bookshops, because a bookshop is one of the few places where you can hang about for a long time without spending any money.”
I had long been meaning to compile a sheaf of my literary “snapshots” from those days, if only for myself and a few old friends in the bookshop trade. However, after rereading Orwell’s essay about his own time in the trade, “Bookshop Memories,” it struck me that an appealing book could be created from the memories of those who’ve done the same. One can’t write about working in a bookshop without confronting the alternately hilarious and existential moments that unfold, moments that seem bound to that setting and yet are somehow universal too.
I have finally, nearly two decades later, gotten around to culling some of these snapshots, as an homage to an era. Here's one of my secondhand stories.
For a city whose only industry is politics, Washington D.C. was, when I lived there, inexplicably blessed with a fine assortment of high-quality used and new bookshops. “Inexplicably,” because the heaviest lifters in this industry—the politicians themselves and their power-tripping staffers—were known for throwing money around at bars, strip joints and whorehouses, but certainly not at bookshops. They were too cheap to even buy the bestsellers they desired. Instead, Congressional lackeys would pester the overworked staff at the Library of Congress to buy extra copies of the latest Grisham or Clancy or Grafton to “loan” them (which they then would never return).
It was during this era (mid-1980s) that Washington D.C.’s dealers in new books began to fall by the wayside. The death knell was sounded by the Haft family, a bickering brood of Babbitts from suburban Maryland who’d made their millions selling drugs (legally, in pharmacies) and used the profits to underwrite the discount retailer Crown Books, outlets for which they opened in malls and on busy corners throughout Northwest Washington, D.C. and all over the suburbs. The ubiquitous television ad, featuring the goofy, good-haired Bob Haft Jr. chirping, “Books cost too much,” had an effect, as did Crown’s equally ubiquitous newspaper ads. The Hafts severely undercut their competition’s prices, a blood sport strategy unknown (or un-admitted to) among the antiquarian/used books crowd. Though Crown Books ultimately cornered a sizable market, the average Crown outlet was a piddling poor excuse for a book shop, seldom having much beyond best sellers and remainders. And the hired help could just as easily have sold shoes or bacon cheeseburgers, for all they knew about books. I once asked a Crown hireling where books by James Baldwin and Ralph Ellison were shelved. The well-meaning but empty-headed lass, obviously having never heard of either author, responded, “What subject do they write about?” I didn’t have the heart to ask where they kept Charles Bukowski.
In such a ruthless atmosphere, the used book dealers became even more important to the true book lovers of the Nation’s Capital. The old adage about “you can’t have too many bookshops” proved true, at least for second-hand venues. The competition was friendly, and most dealers honored the gentleman’s agreement of discounts on purchases by other dealers.
And yet, the less said about other used book dealers may be for the better. With one exception.
Arguably the best-known used book dealer in Washington D.C. at that time was Larry McMurtry, the novelist known for his books about the American West and the Hollywood films adapted from his fiction (The Last Picture Show, Hud, Terms of Endearment, Lonesome Dove). In his post-millennial dotage—after buying the core downtown real estate in his boyhood hometown of Archer City, Texas—McMurtry moved his used book business, and his accumulated 400,000 volumes, to that godforsaken locale. But, during the years our bookshop was in theoretical “competition” with him, McMurtry satisfied his cravings by filling a three-story apartment building at 31st and M streets in Georgetown, as tony a location as existed in the Nation’s Capital. He called this venue Booked Up.
One of my happiest DC rituals, long before I ever worked in a book shop, was to take the subway from Capitol South station, after a day of work at the Library of Congress, and get off at the Foggy Bottom station, near George Washington University, then walk down Pennsylvania Avenue and M Street into Georgetown. Along the way, I visited my favorite book haunts, as well as a used record venue on M Street run by an openly hostile shop-owner who literally yelled at his browsers.
I only visited Booked Up a few times on these rounds, though it was conveniently located directly en route. The stock was far too expensive—I would say “overpriced,” but much of it was aimed at top-end collectors who apparently paid the high tariff. If there’s one thing I learned in the used book trade, it was that no book is overpriced if some fool will pay for it. The obverse of this, of course, is that when you say a book is “worth $200,” this is true only if someone hands you two greenbacks bearing Benjamin Franklin’s portrait. Otherwise, the book is “worth” nothing.
In addition to the Himalayan prices, the atmosphere in Booked Up was chilly, if not frigid, and certainly off-putting to casual browsers. I got the distinct impression casual browsers were as welcome there as at the used record venue down the street. Not once did anyone who worked at Booked Up acknowledge my existence, except when I reached for a book on an upper shelf and I detected a pained wincing sound at my back. I did find some copies of books I already owned and made mental notes of the outrageous prices being asked for them, using these inflated figures as a sort of invisible book catalog to gauge the value of my own collection. Other than that, there were too many other good—and far more friendly—book havens in Georgetown and elsewhere in the Washington, D.C. area for me, or anyone I knew, to bother with McMurtry’s lair. We were book lovers, not tourists, and we knew where we were not wanted.
My friend Jeff tells a story about a purchase he made at Booked Up. On the day that Jeff—known for spending wads of money he really didn’t have for editions of books he absolutely craved—bought a collector’s edition of English travel literature, The Great Man Himself was manning the counter. Jeff took the volume—overpriced at $150—from the shelf and presented it to McMurtry, who was eating a sandwich at the time and was not about to interrupt his meal for any rabble off the streets. Indeed, he continued munching on his sandwich. As Jeff described it, chunks of mayonnaise-slathered chicken, as well as lettuce and tomato bits, spilled out of McMurtry’s mouth onto the counter, even as he wrote up the invoice for the book. He took Jeff’s proffered Benjamin Franklin and change, and slid the purchase across the counter to him without breaking stride, as it were, in his meal. He did not look at Jeff, did not thank Jeff; he simply went back to chewing his sandwich and studying the reading material on his desk. Here’s a proprietor who just made a $150 sale (in cash!), about as thankful as the bullet-riddled corpse in one of his Western potboilers. If I had made a $150 sale at our shop, I would have shaken the customer’s hand, bade them the best of all possible evenings, maybe even followed them home and offered to cook their dinner.
In 2006, McMurtry published a chronicle of his book-selling career called Books: A Memoir. As I read his account—109 brief, disjointed chapters, the book padded out with lots of white space and blank pages—I got only a few recognizable glimpses of what life was like in the book circles of Washington D.C. Despite the fact that our shop was co-owned by an equally prominent novelist and critic, Doris Grumbach, the twain only seldom met (and, of course, neither Doris nor her shop were mentioned in McMurtry’s account of his 30+ years plying the book trade in DC). We simply did not swim in the same waters as Booked Up.
The part that irked me most about McMurtry’s “memoir” was not the padded-out chapters, the misspellings of names*, the factual errors and the general laziness of the project that reflected both Simon & Schuster’s lack of editorial judgment and McMurtry’s manner on the day of Jeff’s visit—that is, that he would rather be doing anything other than selling or writing books—but the depiction of his shop as a scruffy “street level” venue, the pauper at the regatta, the blue-jeaned cowpoke who sat around saying “aw shucks” at the posh Georgetown soirees. [Footnote * A typical error in McMurtry’s book is his mention of “Leslie Stephens,” whom he identifies as the father of Virginia Woolf. Any bookman, or purveyor of classic literature—as McMurtry takes such great pains to portray himself in his chronicle—would know that her father’s name was Leslie Stephen. And, to those who did not know him, he was Sir Leslie Stephen. A small mistake, perhaps, but for someone who fancied himself such a sophisticate, an unforgivable one.]
McMurtry writes, “We were so humble in those days that we kept a whole wall of books priced at $2 each.”
After staring at that sentence for a while, two thoughts bubbled to the surface: one, many second-hand dealers in Washington D.C. had entire walls (if not entire rooms!) with stock priced at $1 and they would never have patted themselves on the back for their “humility”; they were bloody glad to make a sale, any sale, and were as friendly to the $2 purchaser as they were to the $20 or $200 purchaser, bidding them the happiest of days and assuring them they were welcome back anytime. Two, Booked Up was never, ever “humble.”
The truth is that Booked Up was a high-end dealer likely bankrolled in part by McMurtry’s Hollywood paychecks, allowing him to purchase en masse private collections as well as the stock of failed bookshops at his leisure. One got the distinct impression back then, given that his sales space was limited to three floors in Georgetown, that McMurtry simply Hoovered up book collections just to keep them from falling into the hands of other dealers. Preemptive buying, as it were. Where he kept his prodigious backlog was a mystery, but it had to have cost a pretty penny to properly warehouse this back stock. In Books: A Memoir, he blithely notes, “Buying books in bulk…is a special skill, near to alchemy.” This is utter hogwash. It’s only akin to alchemy if your livelihood depends on it, if a major screw up on one of these bulk purchases would find you evicted by your landlord. If you’re Larry McMurtry, however, it’s a romp in the park. It’s playtime. All the time.
He also disingenuously writes, “One of the skills an urban bookseller—or any antiquarian book seller—needs to cultivate is how to deal with rich people.” He then outlined his technique for “dealing” with the rich: Shamelessly sucking up to them, especially prominent widows and diplomats.
The one part of McMurtry’s book that did ring true for me was his statement: “In our thirty-two years in Georgetown we sold only one real book to a member of Congress.” Our shop, located a mere seven blocks from the U.S. Capitol—and not all the way across town like McMurtry’s shop—never sold a book, “real” or imaginary, to a member of Congress.
I had an unpleasant encounter of my own with another vaunted member of the Washington D.C. antiquarian inner circle, one of McMurtry’s “real” competitors. Just weeks after I’d secured the job at the bookshop, a tall, dark and total stranger walked swiftly past the front desk toward the back of the shop. He soon began piling books on the counter in front of me. He did not indicate he wanted to buy these volumes but I had to assume that he planned to do so. He did not so much as acknowledge my presence; it was as if he were padding about in smoking jacket and velour slippers in his own private home library moving some of his personal volumes around. I began carefully and neatly entering the titles, sales codes and prices on the invoice pad—a requirement of the job, so that the owners could keep track of inventory—scribbling furiously away as the piles grew higher. By the time the man had completed his shifting around, I had filled three long invoice sheets—one of the largest single sales I brokered in my ten years of book selling in Washington D.C.
The end result was about 40 volumes purchased for a total cost of around $600. The only time the man spoke to me was to demand a 20 percent “dealer discount” after I had only discounted his purchase 10 percent. He was clearly miffed at my refusal; my orders were 10 percent, no exceptions.
Impatient to be on his way, the man pulled out an impressive-looking portfolio of checks, wrote the amount down on one and signed it. His signature was illegible. It was not so much a signature as a crooked line, the absolute minimum effort required to drag an ink pen across a piece of paper. No phone number or address was indicated on the check, and just the name of the book dealer was embossed on it, as if this alone was sufficient enough in the circles in which he traveled. Since I did not know this man from Adam—having not yet been sufficiently versed in the royalty of Washington D.C. bookmen—I asked to see some form of photo identification, preferably a driver’s license, as instructed by the shop owners. He, however, had already grabbed one of the grocery bags and was toting it out the door when I asked this. Again clearly miffed to be treated like any other customer, the guy all but said what he was thinking, “Do you know who I am?!” Meanwhile, I was thinking, “If this guy puts that bag in his car before giving me some form of identification, I’m calling the police and having him arrested and charged with shoplifting.”
He flung his driver’s license on the counter. I recognized the name as that of a distinguished local bookseller and was relieved that he wasn’t a con artist pulling a scam. Just to yank his chain a bit, though, I made a prolonged order of business of carefully scrutinizing his driver’s license and slowly jotting the number on the check.
Even as he was leaving in a huff with the bags, I made a point of politely thanking him.
Being involved in the book world, I quickly learned, did not automatically make one a nice person. In fact, it must have embittered many dealers, which makes the ones who were genuinely civil and pleasant all the more rare, like their books.