THE FIND (hereafter simply called “the find”) is one of the major events that drives book collectors. The pleasures of book collecting can mostly be grouped into either the “actual” or the “prospective” – owning books I love, reading them from time to time, and looking at them on my shelves are all actual pleasures, while researching what to buy next, dreaming about owning a full run of a particular series, or getting excited about upcoming constitute prospective pleasures. In a way, those pleasures are about looking forward to what I will own, although it is more than that, as well: mostly, prospective enjoyment is about discovering what is out there, seeing books I’ve never seen before, learning about new presses, and the like. Many people characterize the desire to collect anything (but especially books) as a drive to create order in the world, but I see it a little differently – I am interested in this giant, chaotic subject, with a million different tangents and strands all swirling around, and my collection isn’t designed to institute any order; rather, what I own is my little piece of that morass, my physical attachment to it. And so the prospective pleasure of book collecting is the pleasure I get out of exploring further, discovering new things, and maybe pulling one or two items into my own space rather than leaving them floating in the ether.
The ether? Man, I must be stoned (just kidding – this blog is a drug free zone). But I do wax a little stoneriffic when I start thinking about why I like book collecting. Which brings me to the find, otherwise known as the ultimate prospective pleasure. The find happens when a book collector finds a rare item, often at an incredible price. Simple enough, but experiencing the find is rarer than any book in anyone’s collection – take me, for instance, who had my second find in almost 15 years of collecting books earlier today at Moe’s. I’ll get to the book I found a little later, but first, some unnecessary digression on what makes the find so rare. With the internet being what it is, it’s usually not very difficult to find a particular book (take the Codex Seraphinianus, for instance: while considered by some to be a “rare” or “lost” treasure, anyone with a credit card can have one in their hands by next week). And because the internet is such an efficient pricing tool, the prospect of the bookseller not knowing what he has and pricing it way below market is next to nothing. Thirty years ago, a bookseller might buy an entire collection and price some exceedingly rare books at a few bucks a piece, simply because none of his colleagues had ever heard of it, and it wasn’t in anyone’s printed catalog. Now, however, he will just type the title into one of the many search tools, realize that it is a valuable property, and price it accordingly.
So, it takes a lot more for a book to be literally rare in the first place, and when in possession of a rare book, a bookseller will know it, and the book won’t be priced cheaply. There are still places you can go for finds – book scouts know about them, and they line up at 4AM to get entry to the giant parking lot book sales, but once they’ve flipped their books to the rare book trade, the rare books will no longer be finds, because they’ll be cataloged online, searchable through Abebooks, and probably pretty pricey. So to have a find, you basically need to be in the right place at the right time, and the needle has to cast a glint at your eye serendipitously, and then you MAY notice that a find is right in front of your face.
My first find was at Powell’s bookstore in Chicago – I wrote about it in an earlier blog post – where I found the special edition of Atlas Press’s Oulipo Compendium. Now, this wasn’t a true find, because the book was available from Atlas, and I knew that (although there were no copies on Abe, and none that I could find in the US (Atlas is a UK publisher)), but it came pretty close, since I had always hesitated about spending the $300 or so that it would cost without ever seeing the book first (their pictures online don’t really do it justice). I was looking at a shelf of rare books, and for some reason this book jumped out at me, even though there is no marking on the spine to identify it. I was sufficiently curious to pull it out, remove it from the slipcase, and only then did I realize that I had made a find.
Today was similar in that I had that sudden lightning bolt moment where I picked up a book off the shelf, opened it, and realized I had made a find. I was browsing the used comics section at Moe’s Books in Berkeley, and one of the books I looked at happened to have a signature in it. There wasn’t anything there that I particularly wanted, but as I was walking away, I saw a copy of Kim Deitch’s Pictorama, incorrectly shelved in the humor section. Kim Deitch is one of, if not my favorite, cartoonists, and I don’t have many signed items from him. Living in New York, he doesn’t do west coast signings very often, and the only signature I have of his is on the Kramers Ergot 7 bookplate, which I mailed to him, and he graciously signed and mailed back. Obviously a stand-up guy… but signed books of his aren’t very common either in bookstores or online. There’s an eBay seller with a few, although his prices are pretty high, and even he doesn’t have Pictorama, which contains possibly my favorite Deitch story – the one about “crown caps” and LSD. So, even though I didn’t expect to find anything significant, I picked the copy up off the shelf on the extreme outside chance that it had a signature, and my heart skipped a beat when I opened it. Not only was it signed, but it also had a sketch of Deitch’s “Waldo” character saying, “Ya know, Alvin, it’s fucking aggrivating! I looked through this fucking thing, and the big question I have is why ain’t i in this cockamamie thing?” Too cool! And it was priced to sell at $11.00 – a price so low that I’m wondering if the person that priced it even noticed that the caption was written by the author, and not by the owner of the book.
This was a true find – it’s not that I found a $1000 book at the bottom of a box in antique shop or anything, but this is a book that you can’t just go buy somewhere, and it was priced way below something like this is worth (I would price it at around $50, based on the sketch + the caption + the actual signature). And once you have a find, you realize that it’s actually real, and that just energizes you to keep pursuing it. What a great hobby this is.