It was no coincidence when rival book dealers from the Bay Area bumped into each other recently in Oregon.
They were out scouting --roaming over wide areas looking for used books that can be sold at a profit.
"I was following them through the Northwest," says Bob Brown of Berkeley, who caught up with two other buyers at Powell's Books in Portland.
Alan Milkerit and Richard McLaughlin, who rent selling space at Tall Stories bookstore in San Francisco, says they weren't surprised to see Brown, part owner of Black Oak Books and a widely known scout.
"He seems to be everywhere," Milkerit says admiringly.
Book scouts do seem to be everywhere in a marketplace that is getting more and more crowded.
In Sacramento, Steve Adamovich, the owner of Cobblestone Books, decided to do a little scouting at a local Goodwill store. Arriving early, he was stunned when he spotted three or four scouts he knew, including the owner of a rival bookshop, waiting for the store to open.
Craig Graham, part owner of Vagabond Books in West Los Angeles, says Los Angeles' scouts are some of the most eccentric people he knows.
"A lot of them have no life outside books. They are completely obsessed with books, working 14 to 18 hours a day, seven days a week, and they never quit."
Some book scouts own bookstores; others are free-lancers who sell their finds to dealers.
Rare and out-of-print books are objects of the hunt, but so are contemporary first editions of novels that have suddenly gotten hot, like Amy Tan's "The Joy Luck Club," which is priced at $100 some places because it is the first printing of the author's first book.
Specialty books are also coveted: one edition of Marc Chagall's "The Jerusalem Windows" contains two rare lithographs that alone are said to be worth $1,500. The first Australian edition of "Parrots of the World" is on the shelves of some used bookstores for $550 or more because of the remarkable quality of its illustrations.
The idea is to buy low, sell high and avoid books that no one wants. "If you don't have good eyes for it, you don't last in the business very long," says Black Oaks' Brown.
For instance, a first edition of Larry McMurtry's 1985 Pulitzer Prize-winning novel "Lonesome Dove" can fetch up to $200. But a secondhand copy from the first printing of a more recent Pulitzer-winning novel, "Breathing Lessons" by Anne Tyler, can be purchased for $4. Anne Rice's "Interview With the Vampire" was put in bargain book bins after it came out in 1976, but now first editions fetch $400 and up. (To be worth anything, first editions must be in good condition with original dust jackets.)
With the prices being pushed up by increasing numbers of collectors, dealers like Milkerit, McLaughlin and Brown say they've never seen this much competition.
"We have to go farther and farther away for books that we used to be able to find in the Bay Area," Milkerit says. "Until a few years ago, good books were so plentiful you could go out and find boxes and boxes of saleable books without much trouble. But these days, it seems like the shelf life of a good book is about 20 minutes."
Adamovich, whose store specializes in science fiction, horror and dark fantasy, says he collected books for 10 years, mostly in Southern California, before opening his Sacramento shop. "I didn't realize until I got serious in this business how many other people are out there looking for the same books," he says.
Some book scouts stay close to home. Operating out of the trunks of their cars, small armies of scouts comb library fund-raisers, thrift shops, garage sales, flea markets, public auctions and antique shops looking for bargains with profit potential.
"It's brutal," says Michael DeHaven, a veteran Bay Area scout. He is one of more than a dozen scouts who rent space at Tall Stories to sell their books. With a full-time job in the furniture business, DeHaven says, he buys and sells on the side to "support my own book buying habit."
He says library sales, where books can be had for as little as 25 cents, are the worst. "(Buyers) are drooling, snarling, elbowing other people out of the way. Their fangs are really showing."
Considered by some in the trade to be junkmen or hustlers, book scouts are throwbacks to the 19th-Century peddlers who sold their goods from the beds of horse-drawn wagons or push carts. They are modern-day heirs to the legacy of "runners," traders who made their living during the pre-television heyday of bookselling in London and New York by dashing from store to store with their wares.
Just how many scouts there are is unknown. They pursue secrecy with a passion and, with the exception of dealers like Brown and Milkerit, keep few records. Many want to be paid in cash and don't leave their last names. You won't find these jobs in any career guides.
But hundreds, perhaps thousands, of scouts are said to exist. Perhaps the best-known scout is Larry McMurtry, who is still remembered in the Bay Area for scouting done when he studied writing with Wallace Stegner at Stanford University about 30 years ago. McMurtry is said to still keep his hand in, rounding up books for his store in Washington, D.C.
California is known nationally for its scouting action, and dealers say interest in used books is high around the state, with Los Angeles, San Diego, Orange County, Santa Barbara and the Bay Area hot spots.
Dealers count on scouts to keep them supplied with books. "A good scout can be a bookseller's best friend," says Fred Grossbard, co-owner of Sacramento's River City Books. On any given day, Grossbard can be found digging his way through piles of books brought to his door by scouts who help keep the shelves of his fast-growing store stocked.
For scouts, there's always the hope of a special find. Not long ago in a Mission District thrift shop, an alert scout found a first edition of Vladimir Nabokov's novel "The Real Life of Sebastian Knight," a rare book made even more valuable by the fact that it was signed by the author and members of his immediate family. A dealer who was in on the transaction says the scout paid a couple of dollars for the book and immediately sold it to a dealer for $1,000, who in turn reportedly got $1,500 for it.
Book dealers and scouts say finds like that are rare. Most often, they say, they make money by dealing in volume.
Carl Ashford, who works at Valencia Books, another Mission District bookstore, recently returned from a trip to the Midwest. Ashford says he bought 500 books, sending them back to San Francisco 10 boxes at a time.
On an earlier scouting mission, he says he found a sex novel co-authored by the popular horror writer Dean R. Koontz and his wife, Gerda. "I bought it for $1 and knowing it was good, but not how good, sold it for $40 to a dealer. He turned around and sold it for $200. I probably could have gotten $100. You learn something every day."
Ashford says he tried to make a living as an independent scout but had to take a job at a bookstore to draw a regular check.
Part of the charm of life on the road for scouts is the chance of running into the kind of luck that Ken Starosciak experienced in the late 1970s. Starosciak, a former English professor at the University of Minnesota, has been buying and selling books for about 20 years and works out of his home in San Francisco, specializing in sales to libraries and collectors of books on architecture, crafts and antiques.
Starosciak hit pay dirt in Iowa, where he says he ran into "an old book salesman who had been selling books to public schools all his life. In his chicken coop, he had about 2,000 children's picture books, Mother Goose, things like that, from the '20s and '30s, all brand new, all still in their original brown paper wrappings." Starosciak says he bought hundreds of books for about 75 cents each and sold them for about $7.50 each.
Scouts say they don't go out looking for one or two titles. They carry the names of thousands of rare books around in their heads--fiction, nonfiction, art books and specialty books in any number of fields from mathematics to architecture, fly fishing to snakes.
"After you've been at it for a long time, you've seen 80% or 90% of the books in any given bookstore thousands of times," says Berkeley dealer Brown. "The ones that are rare just kind of leap out at you. Sometimes your hand is on the book before your eyes have even seen it. Your unconscious is telling you to buy that book because it's never seen it before."
Brown got his start book scouting, like a number of other booksellers in the Bay Area, while studying at UC Berkeley. Most of them sold to Moe Moscowitz, owner of Moe's, a landmark Telegraph Avenue bookstore and a favorite market for scouts.
Probably the most successful scout in the Bay Area is Peter B. Howard, the owner of Serendipity Books in Berkeley. Last year, Howard says his store, stacked to the rafters with books, grossed $2.3 million. Howard says he has nearly 300,000 volumes for sale, with prices ranging from $10 to $10,000. "We all started out as students with very little money," he says.
Howard, the president-elect of the 400-member Antiquarian Booksellers Assn. of America, echoes other dealers and scouts in saying that few people make big money in the used-book market, despite the high prices that some books bring. "Statistics show that our profession does not make large sums of money. Very, very few people make over $100,000 a year, and many make far less," he says.
To hunt books is a career for the dedicated. Another Berkeley alum, John Wong, co-manager of the rare book section at Moe's, says he had to cut down on scouting because of the strain on his marriage.
Scouting "is best for single guys who are obsessed with books," he says. "I took my wife to Los Angeles for our honeymoon. I spent half my time in bookstores. She is still reminding me of that 10 years later."
Still, Wong likes to keep his hand in. Not long ago, during his lunch hour, he went to a discount bookstore across the street from Moe's and found a rare signed first edition in Italian by educator Maria Montessori. He says he bought the book for $10 and sold it right away for $900 to another dealer. He figures the other dealer probably got $1,500 for it.
These Books Are Money in the Bank
Every city has them, those often run-down bookstores with the beckoning sign in the front window: "We buy books. Top prices paid." Naturally, store owners get top prices when they sell books that they buy at 10 cents to 50 cents on the dollar. Dealers say that something like 90% of books have little or no resale value. But expect to pay dearly for those that do. Here are some prices being asked for primo, hardcover first editions of books of relatively recent vintage.
Anne Rice, Interview With the Vampire: $400 to $700
Larry McMurtry, Lonesome Dove: $150 to $200
Sue Grafton, 'A' Is for Alibi: $300 to $350
Marc Chagall, The Jerusalem Windows: $1,500
Truman Capote, Breakfast at Tiffany's: $80
Jack Kerouac, On the Road: $650
Amy Tan, The Joy Luck Club: $100
Tom Robbins, Another Roadside Attraction: $100 to 150
Joseph M. Forshaw, Parrots of the World: $550 to $700
Richard M. Nixon, Six Crises: $150 to $200
Stephen King, The Dark Tower: The Gunslinger: $550 to $750