The Curious Art of Book Scouting

Book hunting is a past-time I’ve enjoyed since I was old enough to be trusted to browse through antique shops with my parents. Later, each time I moved to a new location, by the first weekend, I would have identified the used books stores, antique markets, and their hours of business.

For introverts, this is sort of like knowing where the bathroom and exits are located at any event facility right when you get there. Knowing where the books are in a town provides comforting reassurance that in fact, there are at least a few reading people in the populace and you know where to go to occasionally escape from the rest and maybe find a kindred spirit.

As I’m learning more about the book world, I’ve discovered that my methods of book hunting, while loads of fun for me, were not skilled in the eyes of a professional book hunter, also called a “book scout.”  An alternative definition of book scout is a person who introduces a book or screenplay from one market to another. However, from the books I’ve read about book collectors and book sellers, book scouts are what they call the individuals who will track down specific copies of books for clients or who will know how to identify books in the market that they can turn around and sell to higher-tier book sellers with particular buyers.

This past weekend I attended a Friends of the Library Sale in Sunnyvale. The sales promised a collection of first edition, antiquarian books that had not been library copies. I paid to become a member of the organization so I could get in early with the other books scouts of which there were at least three or four that I could identify. It was worth the $10 early entrance fee because at 10 minutes until the general sale opened for the public we were given a “warning” and the pace became more frantic. When the public entered, the scouts retreated, as did I.

rugby match
A Rugby Match, between England and Scotland. Date circa 1880. Illustrator Unknown.

At these library sales, it’s usually a pretty cut-throat environment to snatch up the deals the scouts think they can resale at a profit. The event was somewhat like a more civilized version of a rugby match. Mild shoving and “accidental” bumping occurred. We were limited to 20 books per round, and accordingly, there was some hoarding and hiding going on. I saw a few “hidden” piles of books under the table and someone tried to put a bright yellow post-it note with “save” written on one book – which I ignored because even though I am a novice that looked like cheating to me!

A couple of the larger fellows were able to physically block me from reaching some of the books until they were completely done with that part of the table. Apparently beer bellies are useful in this profession. But I had an advantage because I am short and honestly in better shape than the majority so I was able to get on my knees and go through the boxes under the table while they blocked the tops. And there were some good finds down there, including a nice three volume set of Edward Gibbon’s The Rise and Fall of the Roman Empire.

Unique to this sale experience, I witnessed an older scout teaching another older scout some finer points about whether to pick up a book or not. He compared the condition of the book at the sale to a copy he had and what he would be able to sell it for. I tried to be inconspicuous as I listened in to the lesson and tried to glance over at what he was pointing out about the book. I don’t usually see scouts helping each other. I’m not sure how a person gets started in this business without an apprenticeship but those are rare to find these days unless you have years to spare working for cheap under an established seller in order to develop an intuition. Being in my forties, I have lost the luxury of such time so I’ve jumped straight into the trenches.

booksalessunnyvale3Overall I spent $60 and acquired several books that I know would be worth more than that standing alone. Next up, I am going to catalog my acquisitions and then do research to see what they might be sold for. This is all part of the learning process for me for whatever I end up doing in the book world. I want to understand how this side of the market works and learn about printers, publishers, and production of bindings.

To generalize, book scouts are a curious breed of book people. I like them, and I have much more to learn.

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