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.

It is generally agreed that all of the good scouts have served a sort of apprenticeship with one dealer or another. "There's a strong tradition of mentoring that's gone on in the used-book business for decades," Dingman says. "The information gets passed down, and it's good for both parties. The problem with scouts is that you have to train them, and then once you teach them the ropes and they know what they're doing they get the idea that they can sell their books themselves. They start putting out their own catalogs or post them on the Internet, and then I don't see them much anymore."

Dingman's been in business in Dinkytown for many years now, but like virtually every other used-book dealer in town, he started out as just another scout. "My fantasy all those years was to be an NHL defenseman, spending my mornings and afternoons on the road scrounging books," he says. In actuality he was a successful commercial artist, and would spend his free time making the rounds of the Goodwills and Salvation Armies. "It got to where I knew what time the trucks showed up at the big Goodwill and I'd volunteer to unload it," he says. "That eventually evolved into a job sorting books for a bunch of the Goodwills around town, and I'd get to cherry-pick the good stuff before it went out on the floor. Books started out as a sideline, but before too long I was making more money off the book catalog I was putting out than I was at my real job, and I just plunged into the books full time."

These days Dingman's Dinkytown Antiquarian Book Store is open by appointment only, which leaves him plenty of time to hit the road. "In the winter and spring I like to get the hell out of Minnesota and go booking," he says. He recently returned from a five-week trip that took him to book fairs in several cities out West, with stops in virtually every city along the way to scour the used-book stores. "I give 40 percent of my gross income back to the trade," he says. "You gotta love this business. In the scheme of things in America today I'm lower than whale shit, but this is an honorable trade. In 30 years I've never taken a bad check, and every time I walk in a bookstore or go to another book fair I'll still see books I've never seen before. That's the most wonderful part of the book world, the community at those fairs, and the opportunity to show your wares and see what everyone else has. That's how you keep learning."

The Silver Fox has been scouting books since back in the days when he was known as "The Slipcase Kid." That's been about 50 years, and somewhere back there the Kid gave way to the Fox, but Dave Robeck is still a regular fixture in used-book stores all over the Twin Cities. He says he became a book scout in 1946, when he took 400 Ace Doubles into a local dealer and got two cents apiece. "Eight schmucks," he says. "I thought, shoot, you can make a little money selling books."

These days Robeck plays for what he calls the "money books." "I don't waste my time on anything worth less than a hundred bucks," he says. "I'm looking for sleepers, and I usually find 'em."

Having said that, Robeck will admit that these are tough times for a dinosaur like himself. There's too much competition, and many dealers are doing their own scouting now, either through hitting the book-fair circuit or shopping for bargains via the Internet. "I don't play with computers," Robeck says. "Those things are taking the sport out of it. Why should a dealer pay me $400 for an $800 book when he can find a $150 copy on the Internet? And I could tell you why: because I'm on a first-name basis with all the dealers in town and they know with me they're dealing with a pro. But that doesn't make any difference. Money talks."

These days, Robeck's once-impressive personal collection has dwindled to a couple hundred volumes, and he says that roadwork would hardly pay for the price of his gas anymore. "It's still a fun racket, though," he says, "and I still love the hunt, but the big-money books anymore are few and far between. There are just too many people out there hunting, and the sad thing is that most of these people are scroungers, not pros. They haven't done their research. The way it's been lately, when I need a few bucks, well, there go my own books."

Here's one more book-scout story, possibly apocryphal: A local book scout was out making the rounds one day, knocking off his circuit of thrift stores and rummage sales and used-book haunts, when he came upon one of those giant neighborhood yard sales where everybody up and down the block hauls stuff out on their front lawn or sets up shop in the garage. The book scout decided to make a run around the block, taking a quick poke in each of the yards and garages to see if anybody had any books. He had gotten very good at zeroing in on the books. He could stick his head in a garage and determine if there were any books in there in seconds. He loved to talk about the feel he had for this, his instinct for sniffing out the books. He swore he was born with this instinct.

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