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.

Still, there are a lot of angles that allow the knowledgeable and rounded book scout to make a lot of money, quickly. Many of the part-time scouts and hobbyists specialize in a subject or a genre, and may be handicapped in their hunting by huge blind spots. The true scout has witnessed fanatical and well-heeled collectors looking for all sorts of different subjects and types of books besides literature--there are boom markets in books on golf, fishing, military or religious history, Western fiction, older children's books, folios on botany or birds, art and photography--and he'll go over everything with a fine-tooth comb. A first edition of Henri Cartier-Bresson's photo collection The Decisive Moment (with a dust wrapper by Matisse) was purchased recently at one used-book store in town for $150 and offered for sale at a show a few days later for $750.

These days, even what are called hyper-modern novels--books published in the last decade or so--can command astonishing prices. Sue Grafton's first alphabet mystery, published barely 15 years ago, sells for more than a thousand dollars, and the collector's demand for her early books is fierce. John Dunning's Booked to Die, a mystery published in 1992 about a book scout and the rare-book business, lists in some price guides for as much as $750.

These days every scout and dealer seems to have a Cold Mountain story. Local dealer and scout Larry Dingman recalls running all over Denver with Dunning, trying to scare up a few copies of Cold Mountain author Charles Frazier's first novel. "Every bookstore we went into would have this big gaping hole on the F shelf where Frazier would have been," Dingman remembers. "Eventually we found a couple copies in a Waldenbooks store." Shortly after its release, Frazier's Cold Mountain swept unexpectedly to the top of the best-seller lists and garnered the National Book Award, driving the price of the $24 first edition up into the $200 range. The book was published nine months ago.

Sean Smuda

The line between bibliophile and bibliomaniac is a very, very fine line, a filament of floss, really, and many is the mild-mannered and cultured bibliophile who has found him- or herself unwittingly sucked into the full-fledged world of mania, with all of its madness for hoarding and accumulation, and the snow-balling obsession with the rush of the hunt and the score. There are plenty of weekenders and sideliners out there, doctors and lawyers and bankers, with basements and garages filling up with books that their spouses keep nagging them about.

These are the sorts of characters--part-time hobbyists and voracious amateurs--who provide increasing competition for the scouts. The distinction tends to break down over money. A bibliophile might get into the business of collecting, or even dealing, for the sheer love of books; he initially collects a particular author, for instance, or a genre, though eventually, almost inevitably, the love of books gives way to an obsession with a book's value. But the real book scouts, however ingrained might be their love of books and their preservationist instinct, are after the books as pure commodity--a more lucrative and easily handled kind of scrap metal.

But it's never that simple, of course. Most of the book scouts seem to have a real and visceral attachment to the books they seek. The books, in fact, almost seem to provide them with a link to the antiquarian world of literature's past--a connection to a lost realm where, oddly, the mores of Victoriana and the rough individuality of the American frontier West coexist.

Scratch a book scout and chances are pretty good you'll turn up a full-blown walking anachronism. These are not people who are likely to turn up on the census books or tax rolls. There is a suspicion that more than a few of them have no real permanent address, traveling as they do from town to town on the book-fair circuit, or following the flea markets, haunting the thrift and book stores in every stop along the way.

Here's a favorite book-scout story, perhaps apocryphal. A local book scout was on a scrounging junket in the Dakotas when he ran across a farm-auction advertisement in the back of a tiny local newspaper. Books were featured prominently in the list of items to be auctioned. It was a gray day and the book scout was in the middle of nowhere. He stopped along the road and obtained instructions to the farm, and after driving for quite some time along a gravel path he came to a farm yard where there were fewer than 100 people milling about, surveying miscellaneous stands of farm equipment and boxes of assorted housewares.

On the flatbed truck that was the auctioneer's platform there were four or five boxes of 19th-century books in surprisingly good condition. Most of them were the usual sorts of useless old books you'll find at auctions and estate sales--old schoolbooks, popular novels, agricultural tracts--but in one box the book scout found a beautiful copy of Edwin Forbes's Life Studies of the Great Army, with all 40 plates intact. The scout had never seen the book before, but he knew he had something special on his hands.

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