An inveterate reader of old paperback fiction in several genres, Kevin Mims is a regular visitor to used bookstores. An innocent enough avocation, one would think, but it turns out that currents of suspected mischief and deception run through even the used-book trade, thanks to changes wrought by the Internet. In this post the California author recounts some unexpected exchanges with such a bookseller. The well-known essayist and award-nominated short-story writer has posted on this site several times before, including last Wednesday.—Janet Hutchings
I never thought of myself as all that unusual among avid readers, but lately I’ve begun to wonder if I am not somewhat unique. My passion is fiction, and I read in every genre. I discovered long ago that a lot of what has been marketed as romance fiction is stuff that, had it been written by a man and aimed at a masculine consumer, would have been marketed as historical adventure. Zemindar, by Valerie Fitzgerald, is a thrilling adventure story set in India during the Sepoy uprising. The author is a woman and her story focuses primarily on its female characters, so the book has always been marketed as a romance novel. Likewise, Pat Barr’s Jade, which is a thrilling adventure tale set in nineteenth-century China, and Diane Pearson’s The Summer of the Barshinskeys, which is a tale of derring-do set during the Russian Revolution. If you are a macho man who wouldn’t dream of roaming the romance aisles of your local bookstore, you are going to miss out on some fantastic adventure novels. The same will happen if you never peruse the LGBTQ section of your local store. Boy Wonder, if you can find it, will probably be shelved in that section, even though it isn’t a “gay” novel. Its author, James Robert Baker, was gay, as are some of the characters in the novel, but the book is simply a flat-out, hilarious spoof of the film industry. The story moves like a speeding bullet and it contains some outrageously over-the-top scenes of sex (mostly heterosexual) and violence. It’s got more mayhem in it than all five Dirty Harry movies combined.
As a teenager, I sneered at the Gothic romance novels my mother seemed to purchase by the metric ton. All of them had cover art featuring a frightened young woman running away from a gloomy-looking manor house where only one light shone. When my mother drifted into dementia a few years ago and I could no longer communicate with her, I began shopping for old Gothic romance novels of the 1960s and 70s and reading them for insights into her character. I realized that these books were formulaic in the way that sonnets and villanelles and haikus are formulaic. That is, the formula works like the lines on a basketball court: it may constrain the performance, but it doesn’t dictate it. Although almost every one of the Gothic romances my mother favored were remixes of Jane Eyre and Rebecca, good authors were able to make these formulas seem fresh and new by working surprising changes upon the main theme. Diane Pearson’s novel Bride of Tancred was heavily indebted to both Jane Eyre and Rebecca, but it also included a fascinating portrait of Quaker life in nineteenth-century England, as well as of the relative powerlessness of women of the lower classes. The women who read these novels in the middle of the twentieth century were probably mostly smart and curious people who, like my mother, were constrained by the demands of both motherhood and wifehood. These novels generally took their readers to far off places—Cornwall, Scandinavia, Austria, Brazil, China. They also frequently took the reader to some distant historical era. They aren’t drecky sex novels like Fifty Shades of Gray. The best of them are intelligent and deftly plotted and chock-full of fascinating details about distant eras and exotic places. What’s more, they are almost always mystery novels, which may account for the fact that one of America’s most famous practitioners of the Gothic romance, Phyllis A. Whitney, won two Edgar Awards over the course of her long career and was given lifetime achievement awards from both the Mystery Writers of America and the Romance Writers of America. I love mysteries, and almost every heroine of a Gothic romance must solve one before she can find happiness.
Alas, my fondness for nearly every genre of fiction is apparently very rare. And recently it caused me a bit of grief. An acquaintance told me about a bookstore located in a town about thirty miles from my home. She said that the store was a real hole-in-the-wall. No signage out front. Located down a side street. And inside, she said, it was just a mess, a total jumble of mostly paperback books from the last four decades of the twentieth century. In other words, Shangri-La for a book-junkie like me. Naturally, I had to check it out. The first time I went there, I spent two hours in the store and never made it out of the classics section. I went up to the counter with a stack of about ten books and the proprietor treated me like a king. I told her I was a first-time visitor and that the store had been recommended by a friend. She took down my e-mail address, and said she would send me recommendations if she came across other books like the ones in my stack. I told her she would be seeing a lot of me because I buy a lot of books.
The very next time I showed up at the store, I spent hours perusing the shelves and finally took a stack of about fifteen paperbacks up to the counter. My stack included romance novels, Westerns, crime novels, horror novels, and other popular fictions. Most of them had been published in the 1960s, ’70s, or ’80s, decades whose fiction (and films and television) I have a nostalgic fondness for. I smiled at the proprietor and tried to engage her in chitchat, but she was much cooler to me this time. I couldn’t figure out why. Perhaps she’d had a fight with her husband that morning. I didn’t give it much thought.
A few days later I returned with my wife. After an hour or two I took another motley stack of old paperbacks up to the check-out counter. The proprietor—let’s call her Mary—looked through them and wrote down all the titles, something she hadn’t done before. Although she chatted with me a bit, she wasn’t especially friendly.
When I am visiting a used bookstore, I often take photos of some of the books with my iPhone. I can’t buy every book that looks intriguing to me, so I take photos of titles that I can’t quite bring myself to commit to yet. Then I go home and spend hours investigating these books online. I visit Amazon.com, Goodreads, Kirkus Reviews, and similar websites to find out what other people have said about these books. This, in fact, is one of my most enjoyable book-buying rituals. I love trying to figure out if a book is worth taking a chance on. Sometimes, the negative reviews will be what convince me to buy a particular book. If all of the naysayers write like semiliterate buffoons, I might find myself endeared to the poor beleaguered book. If someone gives a book a one-star review and writes, “This would have been a great book if not for all the graphic sex and foul language,” I’m definitely going to have to grab a copy. Sometimes just a total lack of reviews will be enough to convince me to give a book a try. That happened recently with Barry Jay Kaplan’s 1982 historical novel That Wilder Woman. When I went online I found no reviews of it on Goodreads, nothing at Kirkus, and nothing at Amazon. I bought it and read it and loved it. It now has a long glowing review at Amazon written under my nom de plumazon, Slade Allenbury.
But Mary didn’t take kindly to my photographing her books. She asked me what I was up to, and I explained it to her as I just explained it to you. Surely other people do this too? Well, Mary didn’t like it. She said, “Are you sure you aren’t going online to check out the prices?” I told her, “Don’t worry, I’d rather buy a book from you than from Amazon.”
She said, “Don’t treat me like some kind of fool. I know that you’re a book dealer. After you left last time, I looked up one of those books you bought and it sells for thousands of dollars on Amazon.”
This was news to me, since everything I had ever purchased from her had been a paperback in the $4 price range. “Which book was that?” I asked her.
“A book called Boy Wonder,” she snapped.
I accessed Amazon via my smartphone and, sure enough, there are some third-party vendors (private individuals using Amazon’s platform to sell books) asking crazy prices for used copies of Boy Wonder. The first one listed on Amazon was a trade paperback priced at $6,120! Another vendor listed a mass-market paperback copy at $121. Someone was asking $480 for a hardcopy. Of course, private vendors will sometimes ask outrageous prices for books on Amazon. That doesn’t mean that the book is worth the asking price. Often, if you look hard enough, you can find a copy elsewhere online at a reasonable price. While Mary stood there and glared at me, I accessed the website of the American Book Exchange (which is owned by Amazon) and found a used copy of the mass-market edition of Boy Wonder I had purchased from her listed for sale at $26.62. I showed it to her, but it didn’t seem to mollify her. That figure was still $22.62 more than I had paid her for it. I thought of just offering to give my copy back to her so she could list it at $6,120 if she wanted. But I had just read and loved that book and didn’t want to give it up. So I assured her that I had no idea that the book was valuable. “I just bought it to read,” I told her. “I have no intention of reselling it. I couldn’t even if I wanted to. I don’t have a resellers permit” (a necessity in California if you want to engage in the rare-book trade).
“Don’t lie to me,” she said. “You don’t buy books like a reader, you buy like a dealer. I’ve been selling books a long time. Nobody buys Westerns and romances and mysteries and horror novels like you do. Only a dealer buys like that.”
I assured her that I was just a reader who happened to love pretty much all genres of fiction. But she didn’t believe it. She always treated me coolly after that, despite the fact that I was dropping about forty or fifty bucks every time I visited the store. When I got home that day, I accessed Amazon’s website and looked up every book I had bought from her during the course of our brief relationship. Among the more than 100 books I had bought, a few were indeed fairly pricey. The forty-year-old Signet paperback of Tom Murphy’s Lily Cigar that I bought from Mary for $4 can’t be purchased on Amazon for less than $114, and one crazy fool was asking $1,099.99. But I didn’t buy the book as an investment. I bought it because it checked a lot of my literary boxes: it was a Western, a historical novel, an adventure novel, and a novel of California, all of which are favorite genres of mine. I bought a paperback copy of Raggedy Man, by William D. Wittliff and Sara Clark, because I vaguely remembered enjoying the film version of the story when I saw it several decades ago. If you look the book up on Amazon, the first copy you’ll see listed is priced at $705.41. But only a fool would pay that kind of money for it. Other sellers at Amazon have listed it for as low as $5, which is approximately what I paid for it at Mary’s store. Elsewhere among the dozens of books I’d bought from Mary were three or four that couldn’t be purchased for less than $25 or so. But just because some seller in Juneau, Alaska, is asking that price for a used book doesn’t mean he’s going to get it. Any halfway sophisticated book-lover with an Internet connection can probably track down a decent reading copy of Boy Wonder or Lily Cigar for twenty bucks or less if they try hard enough. No one in his right mind would pay $6,000 for a paperback copy of Boy Wonder when ABE lists a first edition of the hardback, signed by the author, for a mere $285. Mary was delusional if she thought the paperback copy she sold me was worth anywhere close to six grand. And in any case, Mary and her husband have been in the used-book business for decades. They ought to know how book pricing works. She is free to go through her entire inventory and fish out the valuable rarities if she wants. If she’s going to offer a book for sale at $4, why get mad when someone buys it at that price?
I figured that, in time, Mary would realize that I was just an avid reader of old paperbacks, nothing more, and that our relationship would once again become amiable. But after the Boy Wonder incident, Mary always treated me like a guy who had intentionally cheated her out of $6,120. Often she would follow me around the store. One time I snapped a pic of an old Gothic romance that she was asking $3 for. When I got home I found some enthusiastic reviews of the book online. I returned to the store a few days later to buy the novel but now it had been marked up to ten dollars. Mary told me, “I saw you looking at it, so I marked it up.” Fine, I thought, I’ll buy it on Amazon.
Early in my tenure as a customer at her store I had purchased several Diane Pearson titles from her. Mary’s was the only local bookstore I’d ever seen a Diane Pearson book in, and she had a lot of them. Pearson published only seven novels, but they’ve been printed in a bunch of different paperback editions with a variety of different covers and sometimes even different titles. My favorite is the novel Sarah, which is also sometimes published under the title Sarah Whitman. I bought copies of both editions from Mary just because I am a Diane Pearson completist. The next time I returned to the store, all of the Diane Pearson books had been removed from the shelves, leaving a large gap in the romance section. No doubt Mary was convinced I’d discovered some secret online black market where Pearson’s work was gathering vast sums of money.
After books, my greatest passion is for baking. I bake far more goodies than my wife and I can possibly eat, so I am forever taking baked goods to friends and acquaintances. In mid-December I baked some Christmas cookies, put them in a decorative bag, and decided to drive over to Mary’s shop and give them to her. By this time, my wife wanted nothing to do with Mary. “Every time you tell her you’re not a dealer and she refuses to believe you, she is essentially calling you a liar to your face,” Julie told me. I urged her to give Mary one more chance. “Come along with me,” I said. “I’ll bet these cookies will help convince her that I’m not a bad person.”
Reluctantly Julie agreed to come along. When we entered the store, I wished Mary a Merry Christmas (despite being an atheist) and handed her the bag of cookies. She took them from me but didn’t say anything. Mary’s shop had no public bathroom. When the need arose, I would walk to a restaurant across the street and use the bathroom there. On this particular day, the need arose and I told Mary, “Be right back. Gotta use the restroom across the street.”
“Gotta look up book prices in secret you mean,” she snapped at me.
Clearly the cookies hadn’t done the trick. Fortunately Julie hadn’t heard this exchange or she might have come unglued.
I returned to the bookstore a few minutes later and continued browsing. When I was finally ready to go, I had accumulated a stack of about ten paperback books. Julie had never before purchased a book from Mary. But, in an apparent show of goodwill, she handed me two books that had caught her fancy. I set all the books down on the checkout counter in front of Mary. She grabbed the books and began looking them over as if inspecting them for secret treasure maps or coded messages. Very ostentatiously she wrote down every title and author. During this display, another customer, apparently a regular, came up to the counter with a single mystery novel in hand. Mary looked him over and said, “Just leave three dollars on the counter, Joe. I can’t help you right now. These people are dealers and I’ve got to make sure they’re not ripping me off.”
Well, that was it for Julie. She glared at me and marched out of the store. I hung around another few minutes and then I paid for my books. As I was about to leave, Mary handed me back the bag of cookies. “I don’t want these,” she said.
I suspect that I’ll never return to Mary’s store again. Which is a shame, because I loved browsing her inventory. But with every visit I made, Mary became more and more hostile towards me. I considered us fellow travelers united by the fact that we are both lovers of old books. I was sure that we would eventually bond. But it never happened. To Mary, I will always be the guy who stole six thousand dollars from her.