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Geeks With Books
by Rick Klaw

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Another Person's Treasure

Not far from my house there is a used bookstore. I'm not sure how it is elsewhere, but in Texas we have a plethora of these used paperback exchange stores, all individually owned. They are typically small shops and sell only mass market paperbacks (the smaller paperbacks). I love 'em because they never use collectable prices. Everything is half the original cover price with a very reasonable minimum of 75 cents. (or there abouts. I've seen it as low as a quarter and as high as a dollar.) In the best case scenario, you can find what you are looking for at very affordable prices.

In Austin, there are two such stores that showcase the extremes: one is lousy and pretty much everything that I despise in a used bookstore while the other often has everything I am looking for and often what I didn't know that I wanted. Sadly, the former is the closest to me. The store's inventory is a bit sparse. Unlike many bookstores, when first entering, you are not hit with lots of sidelines (that is book jargon for anything that isn't a book such as cards, candles, videos, toys, etc.) which then give way to books. The shelves are just barren, with nothing to distract from the fact that there just aren't that many books in the store. I have more books in my house! The few books are divided into sections, with an almost no respect for the alphabet. That makes it difficult to find a title when Jonathan Carroll comes after Michael Moorcock, especially when, some of the time Carroll and Moorcock are exactly where they belong. Perhaps I am not creative enough to understand their shelving scheme, but I never thought navigating the alphabet required creativity. Often these conditions are a sign of economic hard times (no money to buy stock or pay for enough employees to keep things in order), but, in this case, I saw something that lead me to believe that another factor may be in the problem.

All Trade-Ins Must Be In-Demand, Recent Titles

A two foot by two foot sign hangs in the store with these words, complete with the poor punctuation, plastered across it. It shows great ignorance on the part of the store owner(s).

What exactly does "In-Demand" mean? How can the person selling books to the store know what is in-demand? They can't, nor should they. It's the responsibility of the store owner (or staff) to make that determination. At Half Price Books, we confront this problem on a daily basis. Sellers often try to tell us which books are worthless and which are valuable. They are usually wrong. Months ago, a woman brought in eight boxes of crafting books. I dread this kind of buy since... well, "how to" books are boring. I struggled through the boxes seeing little of interest, then in the bottom of box number eight were five comic books. I scanned through the comics. Junk... Junk... Junk... Junk... WHOA! In my hands was X-Men #10! This rarity from 1964, written by Stan "the Man" Lee and drawn by Jack "The King" Kirby, would be a prize in any comic fan's collection. Through the mylar bag, it appeared to be in good condition, but I had to pull it out for closer inspection. I carefully eased the comic from it's sheath and gently opened it up. I rarely "geek" when doing buys, but this one actually struck me speechless. Not much really gets to me. The comic was signed by BOTH Lee and Kirby. Jack Kirby, one of my favorite creators and arguably one of the most important artists of the 20th century, and Stan Lee, co-creator of Spider-man, Hulk, Fantastic Four and the father of Marvel Comics had signed this beauty. And a beauty it was -- a little wear, but, overall, in gorgeous shape. Soon, several of us were standing around in awe. When we showed the seller the comic, she roughly flipped through the pages and eyed us dubiously. We convinced her of the comic's value and paid her handsomely for the prize: easily five times what she received for all the other books combined! If we'd had that sign up, this would have never have happened. The customer and the store would both have been out hundreds of dollars. (The comic sold a short while later. I don't know who bought it, but I am sure they were thrilled to find such a rare prize.)

One of the primary functions of a used bookstore is to be a source for out-of-print and hard-to-find books. If a store buys only recent books, then the purpose is defeated. Crichton can be had anywhere. Stephen King? How hard is that? I want a store that has the Barrington Bayleys, M. John Harrisons, Lewis Shiners, Robert E. Howards, Leigh Bracketts of the world. A place where I can pick up Great Tales of Fantasy and Imagination (1954, Doubleday) or Ellen Datlow's Omni anthologies or Michael Moorcock's New Worlds collections.

Darwinia Not only does it help readers flesh out their libraries, but the availability of these books is essential to the continued success of publishing. Yes, I realize that writers and publishers receive no money from the sales of used books, but those used sales (along with remaindered books) are a major factor in the future success of a writer. How many times have you heard of a writer, but were unwilling or unable to pay full price for their books? It happens to me all the time. Let's take Richard Matheson. In a previous column, I discussed how I discovered his works through The Twilight Zone. I was unable to find his books anywhere -- they were completely out of print. Luckily, I found them used and I became a fan. Now I am willing to pay full price for one of his new books. Robert Charles Wilson is one of my new favorite writers. How did I discover him? I picked up Darwinia at a used book shop after hearing some good buzz. I plowed through the book, and eventually read almost everything he wrote. For many of the books I paid full price.

Dr. Adder Publishers should pay more attention to used book stores, especially outside of New York. Robert Silverberg is legend, but his Thorns and Lord of Darkness need never be reprinted again. Go into any used bookstore and you'll see plenty of copies. Kim Newman's Anno Dracula is the inverse. The fact that this book is out of print is criminal. A used bookstore will sell this title within 24 hours of getting it. Not is it only one of the best vampire tales of the 90s, but it's also an intelligent alternative literary history to boot. If publishers checked in with used booksellers, Robert E. Howard's Conan, John Norman's Gor (which I despise, but this isn't necessarily about what Rick likes), Edgar Rice Burroughs's Tarzan and Martian series, and K.W. Jeter's Dr. Adder would all be available. These writers and many others sell quickly when they appear on the shelves. I could go on and on, but I won't. (Catch me at a convention. I'm sure you'll hear me go on and on about many topics.) Tor's Orb line is attempting to fix this problem, but there is so much great stuff that is still not available.

The other store is across town and so I rarely get there but when I do, I always leave with a stack. At one time, they had so many DAW paperbacks that you felt you were swimming in a sea of yellow. The staff is helpful and the store is usually in order (as much as a used bookstore can be). A majority of my Neal Barrett, Jr. collection came from that place as well as many things I didn't know I was looking for.

In a perfect world there would good independent used and new booksellers on every corner. Since there's not, we really need to support the ones that exist.

Before I take my leave, a bit of personal news. As of December 31, I will no longer be the fiction editor of RevolutionSF. Although I thoroughly enjoyed my time there and am very proud of the fiction I published, it is time to devote myself to writing. This is not to say I won't edit again. It's just a little respite.

On that note, I am pleased to announce the forthcoming publication of my first book of essays Geek Confidential: Echoes From The 21st Century from Monkey Brains, Inc. This collection of columns, reviews, and other observations has two all new pieces, a never-before-seen comic script adaptation of a Joe R. Lansdale story, and an introduction by science fiction grandmaster Michael Moorcock. The cover will be produced by award-winning (and one of my personal favorites) illustrator John Picacio. Watch for it in September!

Thanks for reading. Without y'all I wouldn't have a book. I'd still have a lot to say, but no one besides my wife to read it. (Have mercy on the woman and keep reading.) Happy holidays to everyone out there, and remember when the jolly man comes down your chimney, don't shoot until after he gives you the presents.

Copyright © 2002 Rick Klaw

Not content with just being a regular columnist for SF Site, Rick Klaw is also the fiction editor for RevolutionSF. As a freelance editor, former book buyer, managing editor, and bookstore manager, Rick has experience with most aspects of the book business. He loves nothing better than hanging out in used bookstores. Luckily, Rick gets paid to do just that.


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