Tuesday, August 6, 2013

The Failed Book Scout

by Alastair M. Johnston

   I'll never be a good book scout. Obviously you have to know the market, and you have to buy low and sell high. My problems are that I am generally only looking for books for myself and even if I find something not in my fields of interest, and it's a bargain, I will end up keeping it.

   My friend Shecky Vogel, the "Birdman of the Bronx," is a good book scout. Ever since he quit his job at the post office 40 years ago he has made his living as a "picker": he knows books, and he also knows paintings, carpets, ceramics, and where to sell them.

   I've tried to learn from him, and gone along on his scouting adventures, but rarely do I profit (though there are a couple of art speculation tales I will save for another time). We were at the Santa Barbara swap meet, this was decades ago, when we stopped by a stand where someone had spread out books on a tarpaulin. I went straight for an old orange cloth-covered hardback: it was a book of photogravures by the famed German fashion photographer Horst P. Horst. I asked the seller, How much is this? $100, was the reply. Hmmm, not a bad price, but not a bargain either. Will you take $40? I asked tentatively, hoping to get it for $50. No! End of discussion. Shecky was busy with something else. He started haggling with the seller. At some point the deal was made, and the seller threw in the Horst for $40.

A Horst P. Horst, of course of course

   We went to a Friends of the Library sale in upscale Montecito, bound to be some good pickings, but there was a long line to get in. The doors opened and everyone charged the tables of books. I shouldered an elderly gent out of the way: he stepped back in dismay and I saw it was Herbert Bayer. Jeeze, I almost creamed an icon of modern design, I thought, as I apologetically turned away, muttering "Entschuldigen!" (I always speak German when I am embarrassed). I found a Riverside Press book designed and signed by Bruce Rogers, for $10, which I later sold to Brick Row for $50, but where was Shecky? He strolled nonchalantly over to a rack of clothes and bent down. Underneath were two framed pictures: Audubon lithographs, no less. He had noticed the glint of the frames and figured one of the workers had stashed them, either for an accomplice or to collect personally. You gotta watch out for those "volunteers"!
   Shecky has the knack, and a way with people too. We were at a yard sale and there were some old faded Japanese woodblock prints, obviously they had been hanging in the sun for half a century. In this state they were not valuable. He chatted to the old lady, assessing the situation. You don't have any old kimono do you? Why, yes, I do, she said, my late husband brought me some back from Japan when he was stationed over there. She went inside and soon returned. It was unreal: here were the goods, which had lain in a chest for the same fifty years and were in perfect condition.

   Even in adversity Shecky comes up trumps, as in the tale of the missed sale. A lot of times people will announce their yard sale in the paper and add "no early birds" because they hate getting woken up at 6 a.m. by eager beaver buyers. We went to one such sale at the appointed time, 8 a.m., only to see some other pickers he knew gloating as they walked away, with their arms full of treasures. The card tables were decimated, everything was gone. Shecky felt bad. He decided he would buy something worthless as a reminder, and picked up an ugly mis-shapen little black pot. How much is this? he asked. Oh, you can have that for fifty cents, said the seller. Perfect, a hideous reminder, because we always remember our failures more than our successes.

   Later he was looking at the vase when he saw a name stamped on the bottom, Grueby. He looked it up. It was produced by a famous (& highly collectible) Boston potter in the 1900s, and when he sent it to auction the ugly squat pot fetched a very pretty $800.

  But the book-scouting world is dead, even according to Shecky. I can't bear to deal with those Pasadena dealers, he says. They wont haggle, they offer you $75 for a book, and if you say, How about $80? they turn their back.

  He remembers the glory days of Bart's Books in Ojai. I called it his "401K run." Once a month he'd fill up four or five boxes with all his rejects: stuff he'd found that turned out to be duds. I'd hang out in the patio, in the sunshine, browsing the sagging poetry shelves of Don Blandings and Rod McKuen, while Shecky made the deal. Bart puffed on a cigarette while working the adding machine. (This technology held sway before the internet, children).

   Bart went through the books one by one while Shecky narrated, You can get $25 for that, easy, he'd say, and Bart would punch $8 and pull the handle. This would go on until the total came out at $300 or $400. One time I recall, the credit was only $150 or so. Shecky was leaning on Bart's glass case in which he displayed the most valuable books in the place. How about a straight trade for that Frank Lloyd Wright book? asked Shecky. Sure, said Bart, and out came the prized edition and home we flew, laughing all the way.

Davies' Collected Poems, American first edition with William Rothenstein's portrait frontispiece

   But I don't do yard sales very often, and good used bookstores are dying out. The other day I was browsing a survivor in the City I will call Caveat's Emptorium (a dingy thrift store that has lots of books and videos), because I had fifteen minutes to kill. There in the poetry section I saw an old book by W. H. Davies, the Supertramp guy. Okay, hang on. I do not mean the wretched ponderous rock band of that name. Shirley you know the peg-legged Welsh hobo and poet (1871-1940), whose picaresque adventures were turned into the Autobiography of a Super-Tramp (1908). Here was his Collected Poems (New York, Knopf, 1916), lacking the jacket and priced well below market rate (which is $15 to $45, according to Addall). What grabbed me was the inside front board. There is the bookplate of American poet Hart Crane (1899-1932). Also, facing the bookplate is an inscription: "Alas Katherine / Christmas and New Year's / affectionate wishes! / 1916 / Hart"

   Wait a second, an inscribed book from Hart Crane with his own bookplate, Shirl, this has to be a con!? The book came out in 1916. Crane was 17. Why would he put his bookplate into it, then give it away the same year? Was he that broke? Also given its condition (corners bumped, generally worn cover), you'd think Katherine, whoever she was, would have taken better care of such a gift.

   I bought it anyway. Once I got it home, a few things became more apparent. The original dedicator's name had been erased beneath the inscription and "Hart" added in different ink (and in a much heavier hand as a careful look at the impression shows; it also appears to be ballpoint -- the Biró pen was not in wide use until after the Second World War). So it's a bogus association copy, but then doesn't it have Hart Crane's bookplate in it? Perhaps Crane bought it used in the next dozen years, after Katherine had dumped it, and affixed his plate? Suddenly the bookplate looked like it didn't really belong in there: it looks so new, and the gluing is lumpy, smeared, hasty -- well not everyone is a neat gluer.

Dubious inscription; smeared glue on bookplate

  Thanks to the internet I was able to quickly check two things: Crane's bookplate and his handwriting. The Kelvin Smith Library blog has an image of a dedication from Crane which shows wild differences in the handwriting from my copy. No surprise. An envelope (no letter, just the envelope) addressed by Crane is online for the modest price of $1250. Now I wish this inscription were genuine!

   But there's still the bookplate, no? Our old blogspot pal, Lew Jaffe the Bookplate Junkie, does indeed show the Crane plate that is in my new acquisition, and adds: "If you search the Internet, you can probably find several 'association copies' with Hart Crane's bookplate. A word of caution: After his death in 1932 Hart Crane's mother gave (or sold) some of his personal papers including a pile of Crane's bookplates to a bookseller in New York City. The dealer then pasted the bookplates in books chosen at random from his stock and misrepresented them as being from Crane's library. Not only was the dealer a crook, he was not too swift, as some of the bookplates were pasted in books published after Crane's death."

  Another source identifies the dealer as Samuel Loveman (Loveman almost sounds like a pseudonym), "a forgotten poet, better known as a forger, who claimed to have been Hart Crane's lover. While a bookseller in New York, he sold books from Crane's library with a forged bookplate, as well as forging pencil signatures of Hawthorne, Melville and Twain." A [T. J.] Wise-guy eh? So now I have a double forgery. Any offers?


  1. Looks like"dear Katherine," not "alas," to me. Fun stories, though.

  2. I love reading stories of book scouts and their past experiences and associations with the 'older crowd' of booksellers in the days gone. It sure is getting harder and harder to find the gems out there now everyone seems to be into bookselling either as a weekend seller or professional trying to get by on their latest discoveries. It makes finding rare books even more elusive. The hunt is now more intense and more rewarding when they do appear and with the internet now available to reach out to worldwide clients, it also adds a whole new world of potential book buyers for booksellers. So that has to one tick for the positive side of rare bookselling!


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