Since some of my favorite places in the world are bookstores, particularly used bookstores, over the years I had formed a picture of a used bookstore proprietor as a tweedy, amiable type who was in it for love. Whether it was the proprietor of (long-departed) Old York Books in New Brunswick or current fave the Montclair Book Center (which mixes new and used), the people I knew who ran used bookstores seemed like low key types who just liked being around books and had found a way to make it pay, even if just barely.
Larry McMurtry, author of The Last Picture Show and my beloved Lonesome Dove, has pretty much abandoned fiction to become an antiquarian bookseller. He writes about his new life, and his life as a reader, in Books: A Memoir. This review from my favorite literary magazine uses McMurtry’s memoir to paint a picture of bookselling red in tooth and claw:
People commonly imagine that “bookmen” are shy, harmless folk, absentminded, with thick glasses, sporting tweeds and smoking briar pipes. Not scouts. Go to any big, well-advertised charity or antiquarian book fair just before it opens. If you wander to the front of the immensely long line—full of people with sturdy L.L. Bean canvas bags and carts of various kinds— you will notice men with lean and hungry looks. In buckskin, they might pass for gunslingers out of McMurtry’s own Lonesome Dove. A few might also be built like fullbacks or rugby players, and probably answer to the name Tiny. These are book scouts, men—and they are virtually all men—who roam the world’s estate sales and church bazaars, thrift stores, antique shops, and auction houses, who check out the books for sale in libraries and even those used as accent pieces in furniture departments. They live by their knowledge and their wits and their persistence. It’s as hardscrabble a life as any in a Texas cowtown.
In many cases, scouts will have traveled hundreds of miles for a big sale and then camped out overnight so as to be among the first people in line. When the doors open, they will run, not walk, to the categories where the high-end collectibles might lurk, to the tables marked “Rare,” “Modern Firsts,” “Art and Photography,” “Vintage.” Being at the front of the line may give them only a few seconds’ advantage, but that’s all a professional often needs. Sometimes, though, things can get tense, or even ugly. I once saw a serious fistfight break out over the Olympia Press first edition of Lolita.
At my last yard sale, I became acquainted with this breed of book-pest:
Nowadays at fairs, you see fewer of the old-style scouts, the men with the steel-trap memories for a rare modern high spot, who can tell you—as McMurtry can—that the true first printing of The Sun Also Rises has the word “stoppped,” with that extra p, on page 81, line 26. Instead, you will now notice amateurs and hobbyists typing titles or scanning ISBN numbers into little hand-held computers. Within seconds, they know what any particular book is selling for on the Internet. If it’s underpriced, they buy it for resale. Many of them actually don’t know or care anything about the books themselves. Who needs connoisseurship, who needs the experience of handling and studying and remembering details about thousands of books? Instead of the risk-taking world of scouting, so full of raffish glamor and romance, we now have data-entry.
Doesn’t sound much like 84 Charing Cross Road, now, does it?