UP AT AN absurdly early hour in order to be at Weschler's by 9 to bundle up books for Tuesday's auction. Although there is little bidding competition for books, he who "bundles" -- ie., ties together those books which he wished to bid on as a lot -- is almost assured of getting what he wants. Hence the race to make bundles. Pickings are somewhat slim, but I manage to assemble about 70 books, which should go for about $2 to $3 apiece wholesale.
After lunch, I drive to an apartment on upper Wisconsin Avenue, where a buy which sounded marginal over the phone turns out to be a solid collection of art, philosophy and history, too much for me to take in my Datsun. I tell the lady I will be back tomorrow with a check and the store van to pick them up. The only disconcerting note is that every time I express particular admiration for a title, she says, "Oh, that's a really good book, eh? I guess I'd better keep it!" After losing two Morris Raphael Cohens that way, I clam up. Tuesday
Weschler's goes smoothly, except that someone has broken two of my better bundles, scattering the various books among two moth-eaten sets of Elbert Hubbard's "Little Journeys." I regroup them, throw them into a box and sit on them until the bidding begins. The person who broke the bundles never returns to the scene of the crime.
I get back to our Georgetown store, where two messages promising buys await me. Such phone calls must be carefully screened, especially when the caller lives five miles beyond the Beltway, and says he has, "Oh, a whole lot of things -- a little bit of fiction, a little bit of nonfiction, hardbacks, paperbacks, it's all kinds of books!" Both calls being of this nature, I get in the van and go back to pick up the books I bought -- or thought I had bought -- on Wisconsin Avenue yesterday.
I say "thought," because overnight the woman's grown daughter has had hysterical crying fits over the idea of her mother's selling books that had belonged to her late father. Seeing a $500 buy flying out the window, I ask her if perhaps her husband hadn't left a nice charm bracelet for dear daughter to remember him my instead. She laughs but says it's no use trying to argue with daughter -- she's a lawyer. No comeback here. No books either.
From this total downer, I risk getting my car towed at 19th and L in order to make a 20-minute investigation of three bookcases full of 1940s Book-of-the-Month Club novels. Somehow, amid the clutter, stands an absolutely mint copy of the first trade edition of "Intruder in the Dust." I tell the lady of her good fortune with the Faulkner, direct her Book Club editions toward the Vassar Book Sale, and get back to my car just in time to avoid having the profit on the book wiped out with a vengeance by one of Douglas Schneider's madmen. Wednesday
Three days' outgoing mail has piled up in the stockroom, and since I'm the only one at the Georgetown store with a car, it's half an hour of waiting in line at the 31st Street post office, the local equivalent of the rice-and-beans queue in Cuba. Carter should do this about once a month.
An early afternoon tip from a real estate agent who had just sold a book-filled house yesterday turns me on to perhaps my best find in a month -- over 200 near-mint editions of important fiction, criticism and other literature from about 1935 to 1955. Woody Guthrie's "Bound for Glory," Cyril Connolly's "Enemies of Promise," dozens of early New Directions titles. Even the tiny number of book club editions are exceptional. Within an hour of their arrival at our Dupont Circle store, Bill Hale (one of D.C.'s leading rare book dealers) has bought three large boxes' worth. No check has ever gone out faster than our 10 percent finder's fee to that real estate dealer. Thursday
Again the Georgetown PO, then over to the apartment of an old-timer near Sheridan Circle wo sells us about three boxes of current review copies every few weeks. We have an arrangement where he gets 25 percent of list for most of the nonfiction and better fiction, a dollar or two for the pop psych/self-help books and 50 cents apiece for the inevitable stack of first novels, which we use to decorate the dollar book shelf at Dupont Circle.
The books aside, these tri-weekly visits are definitely occasions to look forward to. For half an hour, I am treated to a silver streak of 1930s pressroom slang -- "yuks," "monikers," "gams," "bozos," "palookas" -- Hildy Johnson without Pat O'Brien. I also get a lesson in the art of obtaining review copies: Keep a fine balance, always review at least one book per publisher a month. "Swell racket -- keeps me in hooch!" he says.
Comes the afternoon, and one of the cashiers at the Georgetown store bags special permission to get out of the shop for a few hours to ride out to Vienna with me to look at an alleged collection of first editions. Although only a small percentage of these gold rushed ever pan out, the few that do more than make up for the many that don't.
Unfortunately, this turns out to be one of the many that don't; of over 300 books, not more than perhaps 50 are true firsts, and of these, no more than half a dozen have any value beyond that of an ordinary reading copy. Happily, this particular couple, unlike many, does not interpret this Breaking of the Bad News as a plot to cheat them out of their nest egg, and they seem glad to get $150 for the box or two of books that we actually do take. Meanwhile, the entire street layout of Vienna has been changed in the past hour, and we get hopelessly lost trying to wind our way back to good old Route 123. You win some and you lose some.
After dinner, a promised 45-minute drive to Winchester, Va., turns into two hours plus, but it's well worth it, as a local book scout lets me pick through his lastest haul from West Virginia, asking $3 a book. At 2 a.m., many hundred books heavier and over a thousand dollars lighter, I park the van in a crosswalk in front of my Adams-Morgan apartment building and collapse in bed. Friday
I find the owner already at the store when I get to Georgetown with last night's haul, and four of us spend the morning breaking down the boxes of books, looking up catalogue prices and shelving the better titles.
As this week's reminder of the law of averages' eternal vigilance, my entire afternoon is spent in Landover going through nearly a thousand political books owned by a friendly fellow who keeps raising such pertinent points as Ronald Reagan's tell-tale membership on the Council of Foreign Relations. This is actually lots of fun -- nobody enjoys political arguments more than I do -- but the bottom line is fewer than 50 books bought after more than three hours of sifting through boxes piled up to the ceiling. He throws in two years' worth of early '60s White Citizens' Council magazines for my personal black history library, and we part whith crossed-fingered vows to do business again. Saturday
One church sale, where I wait nearly an hour in line in order to buy maybe two boxes of books at an average of a dollar apiece. Church book sales attract pretty much the same group of dealers and collectors every week. The key is knowing exactly what you're looking for; hesitation usually means losing out. Since the books are priced by volunteers, wild discrepancies in value are inevitable. Today I see a copy of "America and Alfred Stieglitz," priced at a dollar (and worth $20), lying next to a book club edition of a Kennedy biography, priced at $3 (and nort worth half that). A rule of thumb is that biographies, especially political ones, and "old" books -- decaying subscription sets of Dickens or Twain, for example -- are always overpriced, while scholarly works and good modern fiction are practically given away. Remember, you read it here first. Sunday
After spending a perfect Sunday morning doing nothing but reading the papers and looking up every .300 hitting rookie in the Baseball Register, I realize that I have to be at two remainder-house showrooms in New York early tomorrow, appointments I made two weeks ago and forgotten about until now. The positive side of this is getting an expenses-paid trip to New York, where I'll get to see a good friend of mine for the first time in over a year. wBut who wants to waste a Sunday afternoon riding on the Metroliner?
While stopping by the Georgetown store to pick up expense money for the trip, I find a letter waiting for me from a woman in Reading, Pa., with a barn full of books she wants to sell. Her reputation with us is good, based on some travel books she sold us a while back, so I call her up and arrange to drive up next Thursday to check her out. A sobering thought is that the last time I drove up to Pennsylvania, the seller wanted approximately five times the retail value for his books -- the old free appraisal gambit. But then, I once drove up to a deserted New Jersey beach town on the Saturday before Christmas, and bought over 300 books at a fixed price of $2 apiece which sold within a month for about $5,000. The rain and the inconvenience of it all had kept the other hundred invited dealers away.