Saturday, February 19, 2011

The Brief Adventure of Crazy Tom the Bookseller

 Somewhere Between John Brick and James M. Cain, lies Dragon's Ark
I stood with notable and distinguished bookseller Bill Maxwell (not long after his silver-throated wife, Wendi, purchased my bongo drums), looking at the rambling ramparts of book-packed boxes I’d constructed for the yard sales I held as Elizabeth and I at last departed from Emeryville.

“I can’t believe I bought so many books,” I moaned, guilt's tarry stain sinking deep within, “and read so few of them. And now I’m getting rid of them.”

Bill said something about thirty percent and I said, “What?”

“Thirty percent,” Bill repeated. “Among book collectors, about thirty percent of what they buy doesn’t get read.”

“Cigarette smoking used to be popular too,” my thoughts grumbled, dismissing the appeal to common sloth. So much money spent to so little effect. But I may have learned a lesson. When I was a Spartan bachelor, rooming in various warrens, I was particular about what was shelved. When I became a married man in a big house, the restraints melted like hot steaming putty. I rarely asked, Yes, but will I read it?

The luscious cover, the fancy of its spine gleaming from the shelf were what entranced me. As I write this, I recall few of the unread books I sold or donated to the Oakland Public Library’s
Bookmark bookstore, except for a few obscure, arcane reference books; an apparently unsuccessful
vampires-in-the-White-House novel called A Taste for Blood; a novel called Count Dracula, purporting to be about the historic Vlad Tepes, that looked to be poorly written when I glanced through it awhile ago; my lifelong fascination with Dracula failed to save either of those novels from exile; the rest were undigested potboilers.

As the Man from Bookmark, crawled into his station wagon, its rear packed with my books, I joked: "Who knows? I may stop by your store and buy 'em back."

"Yup," he said, "I done that myself."

I have memories for the books I sold or gave away and did read. Farewell Operation Mincemeat. Adios to the fine Loren Estleman westerns as they galloped off into the sunset, though I held back a few to sell on E-Bay (whenever I get that scheme going). Good-bye to Book Club editions of Westlake et
al. Friend Tim Stookey picked up the two volumes of Stephen Ambrose’s Nixon biography. I also forced on him a paperback of the wonderful The Case of the Journeying Boy by Michael Innes. Some books simply deserve good homes. I’m not sure what happened to Because of the Cats by Nicolas Freeling,
another delight. Goodbye to the Rex Stout Nero Wolfe mysteries I read, too. I hope you paint the same smiles on other readers that you did on me.

At some point in those three, long, back-ripping weekends, the idea floated up into consciousness that the most valuable objects—whether it’s Michael Innes or that first edition Hemingway worth $2,000—are the things to be bestowed on friends and loved ones for free.

Three sales over three muddy Saturdays. I sold nowhere what I needed or hoped, but every weekend, at least one person carted away at least one box of books. After the first time, I started making bargains: books fifty cent each when you take a whole box. This didn’t seem to help any, even when I
advertised it on Craigslist. One man, a Berkeley grad from the Ukraine--who I recall, said he actually saw Ennio Morricone perform live in London—came twice, the second time with a friend.

For a brief moment, I pondered advertising myself like a classic L.A.-used car salesman, you used to see at

“Come on Down to Crazy Tom’s Used Bookstore! Signed first editions of Ulysses for FOUR BUCKS! With deals like that, he must CRAZY!”

But I decided to spare you. At least for now.

I maybe got rooked for selling my vinyl LP collection (except for the hundred-plus Morricone scores, which I’m trying to place in the care of Greg in Arizona) at one dollar each. This giveaway included my Beatles collection, but market research indicated that the vinyl collector’s market—indeed the
collectors’ market in general—rests in a marketplace Marianas Trench. Not likely to float to the surface again. Unless it’s signed by the Fabs, you won’t see much coin for that first Capitol pressing of Beatles ’65. Too many goods chasing too little interest.

What’s left? Lots of first editions in our new large garage, books I consider worth some money, if not a lot, including a first of Madonna’s Sex;  signed firsts of Anne Rice and Clive Barker; firsts of various books that are simply good and for which I should get something for, even it’s only four bucks. Maybe they’ll bring in beer money.

Also precious: a large collection of horror anthologies I’ve accumulated over the years, including all 22 volumes of the DAW Year’s Best Horror, all six original paperback editions of Barker’s Books of Blood (signed); a near-complete run of Twilight Zone magazine and quite a few other paperbacks by
little-known authors, including Luke Short and Clifton Adams, two nearly forgotten genre writers who need champions.

Upstairs, in the house, the core collection remains: Eric Ambler, Ramsey Campbell, Alan Furst,
Vladimir Nabokov, illustrated editions of Dracula; Peter Straub, Richard Stark. I’ve recently added the brainy, witty and inventive Mr. Innes.

New rule now: For every book I bring home, at least one has to go. So far, I’ve been pretty good. I’ve actually sent away three books for the two new books I’ve brought in.

We’ll see how well I stick with that.

Photos by Author

Copyright 2011 by Thomas Burchfield

Thomas Burchfield's contemporary Dracula novel Dragon's Ark will be published this Spring by Ambler House Publishing. Other essays and postings can also be read at The Red Room website for writers. He can also be friended on Facebook, tweeted at on Twitter and e-mailed at tbdeluxe [at] sbcglobal [dot] net.

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