(Please welcome a new Litkicks author. John Kemmerly grew up in South Louisiana, worked in bars and restaurants, sold real estate, worked on a tugboat, and in the 90s, owned a bookstore in Galveston, Texas. After selling his business, he spent two years working at a no-kill dog shelter and now lives and writes near Port Aransas, Texas. His work has been published in newspapers, literary journals, and a national magazine. — Levi)
The library book sale took place on a small island off the coast of Texas in a town called Port Aransas. A line of people waiting to enter the sale looped around the tarpon statue, across the lawn, and out into the sunny parking lot. When the doors opened, the Community Center quickly filled with people bumping into each other, looking over shoulders, reaching for books.
I hurried past old VHS tapes and started scanning a table of quality paperbacks. Reaching in front of the lady standing beside me, I picked up a copy of Where I’m Calling From by Raymond Carver. “Hey,” the lady said, “I was just about to take that one.” Well, I doubt it. Where I’m Calling From is not a book most people have heard of, and anyway, she’d had her chance.
“You’re too late and too slow,” I told her, and then went back to work scanning for more gems. After twelve years, it felt good to be back in the game.
In the nineties, I owned a secondhand bookstore in Galveston, Texas, and drove my truck to sales all over the state. Most were sponsored by churches, universities, and libraries. I’d see the same book dealers and book scouts at each sale, standing in line waiting for the doors to open. We were a competitive, hardcore group of literaries out for blood. Most of us were friends, but still, we sometimes screwed each other over (more on this later).
Here’s how a dealer works a sale: Show up early, at least an hour before the doors open, and bring a couple large canvas bags, something that can handle a lot of weight. Also bring a half dozen index cards with “SOLD” written in large black letters. Then, when the sale opens, the plan is to haul ass to the Texana category as quickly as possible. Be prepared to sling elbows and trip anyone who tries to pass, but not if they’re old. Never trip old people. Also, before going inside, you should already know where the Texana category is located, either by craning your neck each time a worker/volunteer enters or by casually pulling one of the workers off to the side to ask.
Once you’re at the Texana table, start grabbing the titles that sell, regardless of whether or not they’re first editions (at the start of a sale, you won’t have time to check). After depleting Texana, rush to War History and scan the table for titles about the Civil War. There are a lot of Civil War buffs out there obsessed with the subject, and bookstores can never have too many. After War History, your canvas bag should be close to full, so go hide it behind the check-out table and put a “SOLD” sign on top. Grab your other bag or an empty box and go back to work.
For history books, the reader is generally looking for reading copies rather than first editions. Also, titles with a narrow focus usually sell best. A history of France won’t sell as well as a history of the French Revolution, and a history of the French Revolution won’t sell as well as a biography of Robespierre.
After non-fiction, head to the fiction category to search for popular authors whose books have clean dust jackets. These mainstream fiction books that cost a dollar and sell for ten are the ones that keep secondhand bookstores open. Also, this category is where you’ll find the most collectibles: maybe a fist edition of Catch 22 worth $4,000, or an early James Lee Burke, or a rare copy from Kerouac, Salinger, or Steinbeck.
The pace will have slowed down by now, so start checking for first editions. Finding “Firsts” is sometimes tricky and more involved than simply looking for “First Edition” on the copyright page. Each publishing company has their own way of identifying them. For instance, many use a number row that ends with the number 1 like this: 10 9 8 7 6 5 4 3 2 1. For Random house the lowest number has to be a 2. For Scribners, from 1930 to the 1970’s, they used an “A” on the copyright page. In other words, identifying a first edition is a complicated mess.
To complicate things further, collectors don’t just want a first edition; it has to be a true first. To identify a true first, you need to know what the points are for each specific title. For instance, the point on Ernest Hemingway’s For Whom the Bell Tolls is the lack of a photographer’s credit on the dust jacket. Later editions of the first edition have the photographer’s name under Hemingway’s picture. In John Steinbeck’s Grapes of Wrath, page 281, line 28, has to say “bite” rather than “bight.”
Collectors also look for signatures. Steinbeck would occasionally doodle a picture while signing a fan’s book. There’s a rumor in the trade that he sketched a picture of a well-endowed naked man inside someone’s Grapes of Wrath, and below the sketch wrote, “On the road with Tom Joad.” Find this book and you can retire—almost.
At the book sale in Port Aransas, since I’m no longer in the business, I took my time thumbing through a book of food pornography. Anthony Bourdain’s A Cook’s Tour is some of the best food porn out there. The guy has it all figured out, traveling the globe eating and drinking, enjoying life to the fullest. On a random page, the first sentence I read was about Mexican style doughnuts called Churros. “The combination of sugar, chocolate, hot dough and grease is the perfect breakfast for the borderline alcoholic.” Sold! And for only one dollar.
On the mystery table I found The Last Good Kiss by James Crumley. It’s about a half-broken detective running from his past who will do just about anything to find a young woman missing from Haight-Ashbury. Somewhere I read that in a great hard-boiled mystery, the detective will shag four women, and with empathy, refuse to shag a fifth—not because he’s tired but because it’s the right thing to do. I don’t remember exactly how much shagging goes on in this book, but I do know The Last Good Kiss is not easily forgotten.
After that I picked up a Granta book of stories and essays. Granta is a British publication that comes out four times a year and is known for the quality of its writers. I’ve read them before and most of the essays don’t hold my attention, but occasionally one will resonate, like the one about an unemployed guy in Los Angeles who put an ad in the personals looking for retro women to model for him—and if they use drugs, he said, no problem. The women who responded to his ad were invited to his apartment for an interview and studio session. They may have taken off their clothes, done drugs and had sex with the author, but the reader isn’t sure because the author doesn’t tell us about that, but he does tell us about their lives. The essay is titled “L.A. Women”. Along with each story is a black and white photograph of an interesting young female. Most have piercings, tattoos, and extreme makeup. The author suggests that some of them may be on the decline and headed for a fall. At the end of the essay, a perceptive reader comes to recognize that the author may also be on the decline and headed for a fall.
Dealers don’t buy book club editions, readers digest condensed books, encyclopedias, or text books. Scouts don’t buy these either, nor do they load up the back of a truck with general inventory. Scouts are only looking for unique copies they can re-sell to store owners for half of retail. When I had my business in Galveston, I drove to Houston every Saturday to meet with three scouts. They would spend their weekdays searching for rare editions at garage sales, estate sales, and the dusty corners at Goodwill and Salvation Army. The scouts I knew were very smart, but in some ways, also very odd. One of them, a man in his fifties who still lived with his parents, always had his shirt pocket overstuffed with pencils, bus schedules, and a greasy comb. He specialized in Star Trek and Texana. Not always, but usually, he talked in rhyme. I’d ask, “George, how was your week?”
He’d pace while nodding his head. “My week started with a tweak. Some expected it to be bleak, but in the end, I’d say it was quite unique.”
And then, even though it felt totally silly, sometimes I couldn’t help it. “Well George, that was sweet. But now that I’ve seen your book bag, mind if I take a peek?”
There was also a woman scout who pulled off a massive coup involving Harper Lee. The famous author is notorious for refusing to sign her book, To Kill a Mockingbird. She didn’t even want people to mention it, yet this shy Houston book scout somehow managed to get Ms. Lee to sign a dozen copies of the thirty-fifth anniversary edition. The scout fooled her by sending a nice letter explaining that the signed books were to be sold to support a woman’s shelter. (Or at least that’s the story I heard.) It was a lousy thing to do, but I couldn’t resist buying five signed copies for a hundred dollars each. I then sold them for three hundred each. These same books now sell for about a thousand.
All this was back in the nineties, and for the most part, there aren’t many book scouts left today. With the internet, and its easily available information, a scout’s specialized knowledge is no longer as prized. And now, rather than selling to store owners for half retail, scouts have become dealers, selling their wares over the internet for full retail. In the past ten years, these bedroom book dealers have weeded out the collectibles, and it’s tough to find something rare. In Port Aransas, the only valuable book I found was a signed copy of Fly Fishing in the Texas Hill Country. It cost a dollar. It’s worth about fifty.
In Galveston there were a number of people who tried their hand at scouting. One guy, deciding to take a huge shortcut, stole books from me and then sold them to the other dealers in town. He also stole books from them and sold to me. He didn’t do it often enough to get caught, but one afternoon, as part of a Twelve Step program, he came in and apologized. The guy was upset, and since he had a major crush on Drew Barrymore, I gave him her autobiography. He had turned his life around and learned his lesson, so that was enough for me.
About a month later, I looked out the window and saw the same guy trying to lock up his bicycle while holding an arm-load of books. He then came inside with several rare, fore-edge octavos. Fore-edge painted books have artwork on the edge of the pages opposite the spine. You can’t see the image until the book is slightly twisted open or fanned. People can own these rare hand-painted editions without ever knowing that a tiny work of art is hidden inside. Until he walked in with these treasures, I had never seen a fore-edge octavo. He sat down grinning, feeling very proud of himself, and probably expected to come out on top in a serious negotiation. He was wrong.
There was another scout, a woman named Downtown Annie, who spent her days sorting through trash left in alleys. She saw the “We Buy Books” sign in my store window and came inside. We talked about the types of books that sell, and I explained what to look for. Occasionally she’d stop by with an old children’s book that had some value, but usually she’d barge in and spread out a bunch of moldy titles on my desk. After giving her a few dollars, and waiting for her to leave, I’d rake the worthless books into the trashcan.
When customers came in with something rare, maybe a book worth a hundred dollars retail, I’d pay them about thirty, sometimes more if I expected to sell it quickly. Most of my customers were pleased with thirty percent, while others would get indignant and expect full retail. If I was in a bad mood, I’d tell them to quit their job, open a bookstore, pay rent, utilities, advertising, fire insurance and flood insurance, and then they could sell it for retail.
People often had no idea what their books were worth, so early on I realized the need to come up with a set of ethical rules. After some thought, I decided that all transactions inside my store would be conducted fairly and all transactions outside my store, e.g. garage sales and library sales, would be exploited to the fullest. Here’s how book dealers sometimes screw over both libraries and other dealers:
First you sign up to be a Friend of the Library, then you volunteer to help set up the sale. In the auditorium, while separating boxes of books into various categories, you befriend the person in charge. Later, after working all day, wiping your brow often, you ask if it would be all right to buy a few.
“This stack here, in case I’m not able to make it to the sale,” you tell him/her (obviously you don’t tell anyone you’re a professional.)
The person in charge will probably not mind at all. “Sure, go ahead. Pick out whatever you want.”
So that’s what you do. You take the most valuable books you can find without pumping your fist and yelling, “Hell Yeah!”
There will be other gems you’ll want to take, but don’t worry, because when no one is paying attention, you’ll hide them, usually under a table or in the drama section that nobody looks at. And then, on the day of the sale, instead of waiting in line for two hours, you show up with a smug look on your face fifteen minutes before the doors open. The other dealers will know you’ve been on the inside and know they’ve been screwed. One of them, who’d been waiting in line for two hours, will flip you off. This is a good thing, because when you first opened your store, and you didn’t have a clue how to price a book, he drove down from Houston to clean you out.
At the Port Aransas sale, the next book that found its way under my arm was about singlehanded sailing, taking off alone to see the world. But the thing is, I don’t own a sailboat and can no longer afford one.
My next pick was The Glass Castle by Jeannette Walls. I’ve already read it. It’s in my list of top ten favorites. I probably won’t read it again anytime soon, but it only cost fifty cents, so if someone asks me for a great book, I’ll give it to them. It’s a memoir about the author’s childhood with a father who was equal parts good and bad. In the opening chapter the author is an adult riding in a taxi wondering if she’s overdressed for a party in Manhattan . . . . Now that I think about it, the book doesn’t sound too good. But it is. As with all things, there’s more to it.
I sold my business in 1999 and also sold the building that I renovated. Above the store was a two thousand square foot loft where I lived. It was a good gig, and when Jeff, a friend and customer heard that I sold everything, he told me, “Man, I can’t believe you did that after working your ass off to create all this.”
Then he jokingly said, “I have this image of you years from now selling books from a grocery cart.” We had a good laugh on that one, and then Jeff pushed the image to the absurd. “Yeah,” he said, “one day you’ll be living on the streets telling everyone how great it was when you had a bookstore in Galveston, Texas.” I haven’t seen Jeff in twelve years and don’t want to.