Embracing the Unexpected – Joe Perlman


The following article was originally published in the Summer 2008 issue of The Standard.

Joe Perlman

Joe Perlman

One of the best things about being in the used book business is that you never know what to expect. When you get up in the morning, you can never predict what the day will bring. Usually, the first thing I do when I get out of bed is check my e-mail for orders that came in overnight. Earlier this year I noticed a pattern that most of the orders were coming in at the beginning of the week. By Thursday, the orders slowed down to a trickle, and the weekends were pretty quiet. Now that I am used to this pattern, it has begun to shift, and lately the opposite has been true. The early part of the week is slow, and the bulk of my sales are Thursday through Sunday. I know that as soon as I adjust to this it will change again.

The same holds true for book scouting while traveling. The one thing I have learned in all of my travels is that I never know what to expect from a day on the road. Here, then, are a few examples of Great Unexpectations.   Sometimes good things happen when I have no expectations whatsoever.

A few weeks ago I was on vacation with my wife in rural Texas. We were driving from El Paso to Big Bend for a river trip, and my expectation was that this would be a bookless holiday. We stayed overnight in Fort Davis so we could go to the “star party” at the McDonald Observatory, and the next morning we stopped for late breakfast in town before heading on to Big Bend. As we drove up and down the small main street looking for a place to eat, I saw a sign that said “BOOK SALE.” I instantly learned two things that morning about rural Texas. First, you can’t get breakfast anywhere after 11 A.M., and second, sometimes you find books where you least expect them. My first meal that day consisted of barbequed brisket and biscuits, which I ate quickly so I could head over to the bookshop.

The shop, Bookfeller, was small, and all hardcover books were $3 each. I did not have as much time as I would have liked to peruse the stock, but I did manage to find half a dozen nice books to bring back for re-sale. The owner told me he had been in the book business in larger cities, and when he retired back to his home town, the community persuaded him to open a shop.

Naturally, on the river trip through Santa Elena Canyon, there were no bookshops in sight. I did not even bring any reading materials with me, which turned out to be a good thing since they would have been soaked along with the rest of our things when the canoe we were in overturned during that long, last mile before we reached the end of our journey.

En route from Big Bend to Austin we stopped in Fredericksburg, at what looked to me like a tourist information center that turned out to be the local historical society. We had a long chat with the docent, and left with a lot more information than expected, along with some of the local histories that were for sale in the rather extensive bookstall.

The Bookfeller of Fort Davis

The Bookfeller of Fort Davis

Unfortunately, not all unexpected events are positive.

When I was in Cleveland last month, I organized an evening around a visit to Half Price Books, a used book chain that I had visited with much success in Austin last fall. My first disappointment was the size of the shop. In Texas, the stores are as big as supermarkets. In Ohio, they are more the size of a drug store. I found quite a few books I wanted, but when I asked to have the items shipped, I was told that the store did not offer shipping. When I mentioned to the manager that the Austin stores shipped books for me, he replied, “You have seen the size of the Texas stores. We are a much smaller operation.” I was traveling all carry-on and my bags were already stuffed, so I sifted through my selections and left about half of them on the counter.

“I guess sometimes bigger really is better” I told him as he rang up my purchases.

Cleveland may bill itself as the capital of rock ‘n roll, but when it comes to books, it does not rock ‘n roll like Austin does.

At other times, things happen that are just as good but totally different from what I am anticipating.

On President’s Day we were driving back to New York from Vermont, and I wanted to stop at a bookshop I had been to a few years before in Western Massachusetts. It was in an old New England building off I-91 with a lady proprietor and it contained stock from multiple dealers. I had remembered buying some really good books there. I had the MARIAB booklet, and looked up the name of the shop. I saw Meeting House Books, it was in the right area based upon a rather rudimentary map, and the proprietor had a female name. The shop was normally closed on Monday, so I e-mailed her earlier in the week to see if I could stop by, and she graciously offered to open the store for me. I printed off the directions from the internet, but as soon as we got off the highway and my wife began directing me, they did not seem correct. The place I remembered was right off the highway in the midst of farmland. I was being directed to a small New England town. When we arrived, I realized that this was the wrong shop. I had to go in because I had an appointment.

The shop was aptly named since it is located in a former church, and when I told the owner I was interested in literature, she guided me upstairs. I think this room had originally been the main sanctuary, and it was filled with wonderful, well-priced books. I bought quite a few items, and sold a number of them the following week at the Greenwich Village Book Fair. I now know two interesting shops well worth a stop in that part of Massachusetts.

Fredericksburg doyen

Fredericksburg doyen

Last but not least, sometimes I expect good things will happen and something even better happens.

his past year I have spent a lot of time in Minneapolis. On my first few visits, I spent most of my free time at the bookshops within easy reach of downtown. Eventually, I began venturing further out, and into St. Paul. I found a wonderful shop—Midway Books. It was a half hour bus ride, but its three floors crammed with books made it well worth the trip. I always managed to find at least a carton of books to ship back home. I usually went there on Sundays because that was the one day that I had the time to book scout. The last time I was in the Twin Cities, the only free time I had was Saturday evening. The shop was open, and when I introduced myself to the “new” man at the register he told me that he was not new, but the actual owner of the store. I systematically went through each floor, stopping periodically to bring him stacks of books to set aside for me. As I handed him the last stack and pulled out my checkbook, he said to me, “Has anyone ever showed you where the better books are?”

“Better books?” I replied. “Not that I know of.” He guided me through some narrow corridors, then up a back stairway, and pointed to a long hallway I had never been in before filled with bookcases of modern first editions. “Take your time, Ill be downstairs,” he said. I spent quite a long time going through the shelves until I had selected another armful of books and found my way back to the main floor after only a few wrong turns.

After I handed him the pile he led me through another corridor, this time leading to an immense basement, again filled with books. This was the stock used for the internet and book fairs. Again, I returned to the counter with more books. While I had been to this store several times before, unknowingly, I had only scratched the surface of its inventory.

In short, book scouting is not for those who relish the tried and true. I have a Wall Street colleague who spends his vacation every year in the same hotel in Disney World. A week before he leaves he makes restaurant reservations and pre-orders his meals. He leaves nothing to chance. He could never be a used book dealer.

There is an old Yiddish expression that translates as “Man plans, God laughs.” While some may find this troubling, for me, it is part of the fun and excitement of the hunt. One of the things you quickly learn when you become a book dealer is to embrace the unexpected.

Joe Perlman
Mostly Useful Fictions
East Northport, NY

The Standard: The Journal of the Independent Online Booksellers Association

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