The Book Scout

No job? No personal hygiene? No permanent address? No problem. Today's rare-book trade is the sort of wild treasure hunt that can transform an ordinary hobbyist into a full-time bottom feeder.

I am in the Book Scout's apartment. The blinds are drawn and the ramps of sunlight that are sneaking around the blinds are loaded with swirling dust motes. There is a game show on the television in the corner, the volume turned down low. Dirty laundry is much in evidence, strewn about, along with rumpled cellophane, plastic silverware, wax fast-food cups stuffed with candy wrappers and cigarette butts, Styrofoam containers, dirty dishes, and ashtrays overflowing with more cigarette butts. An untended cigarette is burning in an empty Vienna-sausage tin on a coffee table piled high with magazines, books, newspapers, and dealer catalogs. And there are books everywhere: arranged in tottering heaps and jammed along the shelves of industrial metal racks lining the walls, with first editions in the several-hundred-dollar range lumped in with well-read paperback Westerns and old volumes of the Guinness Book of World Records. I notice a lush continent of mold stretching across the ceiling.

I find myself suddenly thinking of the grim, evidentiary photographs in a paperback true-crime narrative.

I have no intention of looking in the Book Scout's kitchen.

Sean Smuda

The Book Scout is in the next room, dressed in ragged long underwear and drooping socks, moving massive piles of books around, looking for a particular title, and he keeps jerking his head in the direction of the television in the next room, blurting out answers to the game-show questions. Every single answer out of the Book Scout's mouth is correct.

This Book Scout, although clearly already an archetype and a work in progress, is nonetheless not yet The Book Scout, the eccentric and lone-wolf urban legend whose numbers are reportedly dwindling by the year. He's got a real job for one thing, a regular gig, and the books, though clearly an obsession, are still only a sideline--although from the looks of things it's only a matter of time until he falls from the world of the truly living into the underworld ranks of the true book scout. Because they're still out there, though few if any of them are the sorts of people who are going to let a prying stranger nose around in their trade secrets and handle their books. Unless of course the stranger has a checkbook--or, preferably, cash--and intends to part with some serious money.

The stories regarding these characters are the stuff of urban legend going back hundreds of years--think of the book stalls along the Seine in Paris, or the cramped and dusty London bookstores and rag-and-bone shops of Dickens's day--and the milieu in which they operate is the intensely competitive, guarded, and vagabond world of rare and collectible books. The true book scout--and that is their own preferred designation, a weird vestigial frontier identification--spends his days scrounging: scouring thrift stores, estate and rummage sales, new- and used-book stores, library sales, every cast-off cranny of the city and countryside where discarded books might be accumulating, hidden among them some impossibly rare and valuable gem.

Many of the true scouting legends spend long and lonely hours on the road, trying to stay one step ahead of the competition. They poke around in out-of-the-way places and camp out in front of estate sales or auctions where in the morning the library of a deceased professor of, say, lepidopterology, is to be peddled. They will think nothing of driving all night to be the first person in the door at a Barnes and Noble in Des Moines where it has been alleged a few copies of a coveted modern title are still on the shelves. You will see them standing in front of the locked doors of a public library in the bruised predawn darkness, smoking and awaiting the first rush of a book sale still hours away.

I was working in a used-book store a couple years ago when one local book scout came up to the cash register with a few fine-condition hardcover Cormac McCarthy novels dating from before the All the Pretty Horses splash that had made McCarthy a huge literary star and one of the hottest commodities in the modern collectible market. Each of the books bore our store sticker price of $7.98. I couldn't resist a peak inside at the copyright pages. They were both first editions, worth at the time close to $1,000 apiece. I realized that my hands were shaking as I punched the numbers into the cash register.

"Wow," I said to the scout. "That's quite a find."

The scout fixed me with a sleepy-eyed glare and shrugged. And then he snatched the books from the counter.

Make no mistake: There's money to be made in book scouting. Everybody pretty much agrees that these days it would be mighty tough to make a good living off scouting full-time, but this doesn't stop some people from trying, and the notion of a "good living" often means something entirely different to the sorts of characters attracted to the lifestyle.

A first edition of Ken Kesey's 1962 novel One Flew Over the Cuckoo's Nest can sell for well more than $1,000. Jack Kerouac's On the Road could bring a scout over two grand. The original four-volume London edition of Audubon's Birds of America with its 435 hand-colored plates fetches several million dollars, with the first American edition, in seven volumes, worth somewhere in the range of $25,000. First editions of Dr. Seuss's early books show up in catalogs at up to $1,000 apiece. It's a strange and fickle market, and such prices, of course, are wholly contingent on factors such as condition and the presence of a dust jacket.

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