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.

He waited nervously, smoking his generic cigarettes, through what seemed like hours of the auctioneer's stuttering shtick, waited while folks bid on the clusters of rakes and hoes and the baskets of yarn and the old picture frames. And then, finally, the auctioneer gestured indifferently at the boxes of books and started the bidding at $10. The book scout raised his number. The other bidders craned their necks in the scout's direction and stood there waiting. Did anyone hear $20, the auctioneer asked? No one budged. The auctioneer cried, Once? Twice? Sold.

The book scout loaded the four boxes of books in the back of his already-packed station wagon and headed for Sioux Falls. He placed a phone call to a dealer in St. Paul and was informed that the Forbes book might bring him somewhere in the range of $1,000.

The book scout then drove to a liquor store in Sioux Falls and discovered that the store's wine selection did not suit his desires. He was directed to a steak house in town, where the proprietor sold him a $130 bottle of 1994 Chateau Mouton-Rothschild, which the book scout then drank in his $25 motel room, while sitting in his boxer shorts and working a crossword puzzle.

Sean Smuda

For many weeks I tried in vain to track down several of the minor legends of the local book-scouting fraternity: making inquiries with local used-book dealers, sending out queries on the Internet, leaving messages at various dead-end phone numbers all over town, sending letters. I suspected going in that mine was a doomed pursuit. I figured that the true underworld book scout would avoid me like a narc, for reasons that were both obvious and unknown.

Interestingly enough, when I finally managed to round up phone numbers for two notoriously furtive area scouts, they belonged to their mothers' homes. Draw your own conclusions. Not surprisingly, every one of my queries, throughout the entire local community of scouts, went unanswered. When I stumbled upon one local scout in a used-book store and made my pitch, his response was unequivocal. "I'm not the slightest bit interested in educating anyone as to who I am or what I do," he told me, and shuffled off into the stacks. The rest of the time I spent browsing in the store I saw him ducking in and out of alcoves, throwing suspicious glances in my direction, avoiding me.

Let me get an uncomfortable admission out of the way right here: At various times in my adult life I have myself veered precariously close to becoming one of these people. I have worked in various new- and used-book stores for almost 15 years, and any reasonably competent psychologist--even an incompetent psychologist, actually--would need only the briefest look around my house to diagnose a full-blown case of bibliomania.

For many years I picked the brains of local scouts and dealers, and regularly made the rounds of all the usual places--the thrifts, rummage and estate sales, used-book stores, and remainder bins of the chain and independent stores around town--hauling books home by the bag- and boxful, hoarding them in an apartment that was rapidly becoming unlivable. Road trips generally amounted to little more than excuses to scrounge books in other cities. I spent a good part of my honeymoon ducking in and out of bookstores all over the Pacific Northwest. I considered many of these people--the local scouts and dealers--to be mentors, and I still do. Having said that, it has been many years now since I slept in my car, and I have long since sworn off the clamor and largely unscrubbed rabble of the typical library book sale.

Among the scouts there is a certain persistent and recurring type which I find mildly offensive. The majority of them are not what you would call fully integrated people. There is a suspicion that they--like me--have not aced a lot of job interviews in their lives. Would it be fair to say that they tend to be unkempt? Did Jeremiah Johnson need a bath? They can be churlish, aggressive, aloof; many of them would not look at all out of place in a lineup with Ted Kaczynski. There is a hunched, almost scoliotic posture common among them, a sartorial indifference that borders on the comical, and the worst of them carry about an unmistakable whiff of the fecal.

They also tend to share the crackpot, reactionary opinions of the genuinely apolitical outsider. Staring at them in line at a book sale--jostling for position with their cardboard boxes, some accompanied by their crews of creepily underaged apprentices--I was reminded of a sort of grunge protozoa, and it was difficult not to conclude that this is what becomes of ragamuffins when they grow up. The more time I spent among them the more drastically I could sense my social skills eroding. There is something about such a fine-tuned and concentrated obsession that makes pathetically moot the opinions of the normal world. Even among the tweedier and more amiable book hunters you will find a disturbing tendency to aloofness and distraction that borders on the sociopathic.

"A lot of people in this business aren't joiners," Larry Dingman says. "You've got those who will share their information, and those who won't. A lot of these scouts like to keep a low profile and play things pretty close to the vest." Dingman is one of the good guys on the local book scene, and over his 30 years in business he has mentored countless aspiring scouts and has done business at one time or another with virtually every scout in town.

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