The Book Scout

Sean Smuda

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.

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.

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.

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.

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.

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.

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.

Anyway, so he's dashing up the block, and he spies this little pile of books on a card table, surrounded by T-shirts and children's clothes. He goes over and rifles through them quickly. The usual shit, a bunch of book-club fiction, a couple lousy recent best sellers, a miscellany of run-of-the-mill '50s stuff. And a fine first-edition copy of Flannery O'Connor's Wise Blood in a very nice dust jacket. This was a thousand-dollar book.

There's a little sign on the table where it sits, black magic marker on cardboard, ALL BOOKS $2. So the book scout has the Wise Blood in his hands, he's going to get the book, but he says to the woman anyway, just for the hell of it, "Would you be willing to take a dollar for this book?"

And the woman, of course, says yes.

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