Literary Sleuth : Novel Strategies Help Hired Gun Track Down Hard-to-Find Books

TIMES STAFF WRITER

The sleuth receives the call early in the morning and the search begins.

Out of her rustic home nestled in the foothills, she gathers her clues by phone, using anything from a name to a description. Then she narrows down her choices of places to look.

Will it be that little bookstore in Chatsworth? Or maybe a shopping center in New Jersey?

Genevieve Krueger is not a police officer nor an FBI agent, but she is a detective of sorts: a book detective. The Sunland woman has dedicated her life to searching for hard-to-find or rare books for the likes of movie studios, book collectors and the few customers who drop by her home now and then to browse through her 15,000 book titles.

Yes, 15,000. Books, books everywhere. In the living room, in the dining room, in the hallways. When her kids grew up and moved out, their rooms, too, were filled with books.

In her 17 years in the very "detail-oriented" book-finding business, Krueger said, she has never had to advertise her services, depending instead on loyal customers and referrals from bookstores. The work is painstaking, frustrating, often dusty, but eminently satisfying.

"I find books for people who want to read it one more time before they die," she said recently, taking a break in her living room amid a maze of bookshelves.

The 59-year-old former librarian and teacher's assistant specializes in finding children's books but said she "can find you anything, even an old car manual," all for a small percentage of what the book costs.

And it isn't just a business for Krueger, it is also a crusade.

"Books have their own dimension," she said. "The association people have with children's books is always good. They trigger feelings in people. It is why children should read books."

Ideally, Krueger starts a search with a book's title, author and publication date--but she rarely has that much to work with.

"A girl once asked me to find a book with seven crows with seven crowns on their heads," Krueger said. "She said it was a big book but didn't have an author or title."

In that case, Krueger set off snooping in Seattle, where she happened to be on a business trip with her late husband. She began by pounding the pavement. Her first stop: local bookstores.

"I can still see it now," she said, as she sat back in her chair, a faraway look in her eyes. "I walked into one store and I saw a big, green book with crows on it right on the shelf and picked it up."

Mission accomplished.

It is not always that easy, of course. Some searches have taken up to five years and Krueger is proud of a 60% success rate for uncovering rare and hard-to-find books.

"It really is a serendipitous thing when you find the person who has the book and is willing to sell it. There are a lot of things that never come through," Krueger said. "But those are pretty good odds."

In the book sleuth business, Krueger is part of a small network of people who perform searches mostly for individuals, as opposed to book scouts who service bookstores. Only a handful of other book detectives operate in the San Fernando Valley, among them Lois Gereghty of North Hills. She has been in the business for 23 years and has her own collection of about 10,000 books.

Gereghty collects books on all topics and said most of her business also comes by referral from local bookstores.

"There are long hours," Gereghty said. "I work as long as I can. There is just no end to it--there is always just one more call to make."

Although Gereghty makes use of a fax and personal computer, Krueger still does everything manually.

The book detectives do most of their business through the mail and by phone. Each of them has a sales tax license to sell by mail. Last year, postage cost each of the women about $1,700.

For more complicated searches, Krueger relies on her secret weapon: Booksellers, a national periodical where book buyers and sellers pay to list books they want or have.

Krueger said she has done searches for some of Hollywood's biggest names, including Steven Spielberg and Harrison Ford. She declines to say which books they asked for, but said, "you get to know their interests and it fills out their personality."

Krueger recently provided producers of a documentary on Theodor Geisel (Dr. Seuss) with editions of Boners, a 1931 cartoon series, and some adult books written early in the author's career, such as "The Seven Lady Godivas," published in 1937, to illustrate his early works. She also was asked to review the documentary about the man and his work when it was completed.

Many of her quests have no celebrity dazzle, but are no less fulfilling.

A desperate Reseda woman once called on Krueger for a 1932 copy of "Tale of Corally Crothers" by Romney Gay. The woman had just lost both parents and felt the book--long since lost from her possessions--was her only tie to her family and childhood, Krueger said.

The small book with simple watercolor sketches tells the story of a young girl who is lonesome and packs up her belongings, leaves home and jumps into a book. The woman could recite the entire story from memory.

"She had moved around a lot as a young child and couldn't take many possessions with her," Krueger recalled. "She would always take the book with her but lost it at boarding school.

"When I found it, she just cried," Krueger said. "You get a response back and you feel like you are doing something more valuable than just selling something."

A folder on Krueger's table, bulging with thank-you notes from some of her clients, shows that if response is a measure of success, she has been a winner.

"Don't worry, the shrieks you heard last night were from my husband," a woman from Orange County wrote. "You wouldn't think a grown man would be jumping up and down for joy but he was! 'Pinto's Journey' (a children's book) is a hit. Thanks so much."

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