Confessions of a Texas Book Dealer

(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.

19 Responses

  1. Thanks.

    This was quite an enjoyable read. Very cinematic as well.

    I had a friend way back in the day who went to garage sales and he’d buy all the books for one low price. He’d stick them in his truck and sort through them later to separate wheat from chaff.

    Then he’d sell them at Moe’s or some other big used book store.

  2. Ah, the good old days of the
    Ah, the good old days of the nineties…. I can’t find a single book store any more. Not on the street anyway. Only on line. And there, so many books for sale that the ones I wanna sell are lost in the madding crowd.

  3. Very engaging article. Loved
    Very engaging article. Loved it, and I say this after thumbing through the most recent (yawn) n + 1 issue.


  4. I’m not a collector. At the
    I’m not a collector. At the last rummage sale I went to, there was an old man in a motorized wheelchair. He was dressed like Truman Capote, and he was holding court to the volunteers he had lugging sack after sack of the books he taken from the tables. Since I’d got there shortly after it opened I gave him a dirty look. I found only one book for myself, an old summary of French lit. It seems such books were outside his criteria too. He positioned himself at the checkout table and blathered while the young volunteers bent and lifted his hardbacks out one by one. The longer the line grew, the more he felt like he won something.

  5. I really enjoyed this article
    I really enjoyed this article! It’s great to read stories from someone who has actually done these things. In the part about the Granta article, you cracked me up when you said, “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.”

    I have a question. When you get autographed books, do you also need to get some kind of authenticating documentation?

    I joined Friends of the Library a few months ago and, yeah, they have great sales. I bought seven hardback books for around $12.00, including Human Smoke, Baudolino, The Ambiguity of Henry James, and others.

  6. (Appreciate all the comments.
    (Appreciate all the comments.)

    Bill, if I wasn’t familiar with a particular autograph, I’d reduce the price and tell any interested customers what I knew and what I didn’t know about the book and autograph. And yes, some type of provenance or authentication was a good thing to have, but not having it generally didn’t prevent lower priced autographed books from selling. Sometimes, when I’d come across a potentially valuable book, I’d bring it to Oscar Graham in Houston. He was (maybe still is) a dealer at Detering Book Gallery and was always generous with sharing information.

  7. Not four grand, but i often
    Not four grand, but i often found books for two dollars and sold them for fifty, and sometimes, several hundred . . . . Here’s a big mistake. Not long after opening the store, i sold the famous pirated edition of Salinger’s short stories for ten dollars. Worth close to a thousand now.

  8. When I started reading this I
    When I started reading this I was hooked by the second paragraph. I didn’t even answer the phone when it rang and I let the answering machine take the message, because I was so into this story. I really enjoyed reading this very well written story. I found it to be engaging, educational and humorous at times. Keep writing, John! You are a fabulous writer. Now, I must go, so I can return the phone call.

  9. ….good read. A lost
    ….good read. A lost occupation as books become relics of the past. Howeve, literature remains….sounds like good times, restoring, scouting, selling books…in Galveston, a great texican city…..

    Chapter 15: Galveston Coast

    Almost drowned down there, on the Galveston coast, had to go deeper and deeper to make sure a big one was rode. Passed on a few, got oily saltwater in my mouth, sunglasses aflutter. Purchased a boogieboard that morning, a day after constructing massive and precise castles and underestimating the sun’s capability to turn me bright pink. Wore a longsleeve shirt and tight hat from then on. Spent the morning getting the hang of it and instructing my daughters as they caught wave after wave. Then went out deeper to find a wave of my own. My youngest daughter stuck with me for awhile, but halted with great concern as she saw me heading for the big breakers. Wanted to ride one all the way in. Had two concealed Modelos iced down on the beach. A huge umbrella covered our possessions. Finally got out to where the big waves broke, having to jump as the waves passed to prevent a face shot. Learned this the hard way. Then it came. saw it from way back. Had a rythym so my confidence was high. took the final plunge and leaped on, my elbows tucked ridgedly on the board. Whipped by my youngest, who looked astonished and proud, and felt the speed. Riding an uncontrollable wave, with complete control. Came to a complete and exhausted stop at the ankle water. Turned over and laid flat in the shallow water. Wife, friend, and lover of our soul, saw the whole thing. Perched on the beach with a golden tan and floppy hat. She smilingly motioned approval and reached for the camera. Youngest came running over, the most excited of all. Oldest missed it, distracted by the loss of her shades, but heard the story, in detail, later that night over fish dinners and shrimp. Those Modelos went down in a rush, drank from a hotel cup. Think of that wave. It’s creation, it’s maturing, it’s final service. Indifferent to the seemingly important tasks of our daily actions and uncaring of my ride. This life ain’t hard and this life ain’t easy. Spend your time finding waves, just the right ones, the uncaring ones. Ride them all, take drink breaks, and control the uncontrollable

  10. Kemmerly – I knew a few book
    Kemmerly – I knew a few book scouts in Chicago during the 90s – they were all invariably weird. One guy had a specially rigged out bike to hold his purchases, and was absolutely obsessed with anything related to the 13th Floor Elevators. He scouted books, records and volunteered at Facets Mutimedia, a well known film house in Chi-town.Apparently he was able to make a sort of living doing this.

    By the way, did you ever visit Larry McMurtry’s book shop in Archer City?

  11. Yeah, Michael, drove up to
    Yeah, Michael, drove up to Archer City once, a really long haul from Galveston. Bought a few dozen books but mostly wanted to see the town where the Last Picture Show was filmed. I was in McMurtry’s store (one of four buildings) and heard some people yelling outside. looked out the window and saw two young women trying to catch a dog. The dog had slipped out of his collar and was running free, wild and happy, as if he’d been chained in a backyard his entire life. I rushed out to help, along with some other people, and after thirty minutes, we finally caught him. Was thinking about it later, and although this dog didn’t have rabies, it sort of reminded me of the dog scene from the movie, the way a single dog can create a lot of excitement in a small town.

  12. I have to confess that I’ve
    I have to confess that I’ve been more frequently going digital as I run out of space for books but your fine memoir makes me realize what is being lost in the process. I hope you’ll be writing and sharing more of your experiences.

  13. John,

    Loved the article!

    We’ve been friends about 35 years and Galveston has a special place in my memories and times in the 1990’s. From Mardi Gras to Murphy’s, Miss Pearl, Mr Mardi Gras, roof-top crawfish boils and back ally turkey fry’s and throwing darts with bottomless beers to double dating, horrible Mexican food and no less than $1,000 in quarters dropped in juke boxes playing country music…I never once heard you mention how you bought books for your store.

    Fascinating story!

  14. john
    —just read the story of PEARL, and independant dog in modern dog magazine—great poignant story—-does pearl exist or was it a story—if she does exist would you please elaborate on her—-
    windsor ontario

  15. John, its Craig Quinilty,
    John, its Craig Quinilty, where you living at now, I am in Cypress TX.

  16. My mother and I used to live
    My mother and I used to live in a rundown apartment on postoffice street in Galveston. Some of my fondest memories are of cheap lunches in a overflowing used bookstore. I still remember the smell of decaying paper. We didn’t have much money, but I’d always get to pick a book of my very own, that and being regular visitors of the public library made me an avid reader. I believe all of that affordable literature allowed me to grow into the woman I am and take a path much different than my Mother’s. Albeit hardworking she struggled with addiction, mental health issues, and a morally degrading profession. I wonder if the store I can only vaguely picture was your place of business.

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Litkicks will turn 30 years old in the summer of 2024! We can’t believe it ourselves. We don’t run as many blog posts about books and writers as we used to, but founder Marc Eliot Stein aka Levi Asher is busy running two podcasts. Please check out our latest work!