I’ve bought many a book at the two shops operated by the Friends of the San Francisco Public Library, the teensy one by the entrance to the Main Library and the spacious one at Fort Mason. And I’ve gone to the huge, several-day sale held at Fort Mason, and walked out with more, much more, than I intended.
But, led by my Southern California pal Suzanne, my one-time editor at New Times Los Angeles, who now sells books on the internet and frequents book sales in and around LA, I had a much more intense though marvelous and almost spiritual experience at the most recent sale, which runs through Sunday.
Suzanne flew up to attend the Member’s Preview, which was on Wednesday from 4 to 8 p.m. I picked her up in SF around 11, and she insisted we drive by Fort Mason before lunch to check out the lay of the land. “In LA, people drop off boxes to mark their place in line the day of the sale,” she told me.
Never was I more sorry not to have my little digital camera in my pocket. Sure enough, there was a neat line of boxes, augmented by a few folding chairs, perhaps three dozen in all, making a crisp 90-degree turn down and out from the Festival Pavilion, without a human being in sight tending them, looking kind of like a toy railroad.
We added our boxes, left and had a swanky, mildly disappointing lunch in a new restaurant near Union Square, surrounded by lanyard-wearing Oraclites. I dropped Suzanne off at Fort Mason, picked up another discerning bibliophile, pal Vicky, at work, and beat it back out to Fort Mason just in time – a few minutes before 4 - to join Suzanne at our place in line, where several hundred book-hungry people had materialized behind us.
Ahead of us, a family of four dealers were studying maps of the table layouts – COOKING, Table 13; MYSTERIES, 28 – and dividing up their assignments. After initially outlawing the use of scanners, which read ISBNs and assist dealers in looking up values – they were permitted; most dealers that I know rely on knowledge (how arcane).
When the doors were opened at 4, the stampede was on. As some of us grabbed for bright red supermarket carts, the crowd behind bellowed – well, a couple of nuts did – and threatened to crush us. I stopped, briefly, at the ART and ARCHITECTURE AND DESIGN tables, already being stripped, locust-like. Intimidated, I withdrew to one of the three BIOGRAPHY tables, where I had a fairly clear field.
Mystically, a title I’ve been wanting for about five years swam into my brain: Fourteen Friends, by the British diarist James Lees-Milne, whose work I’d been introduced to six years ago by my friend Tom, one of the best-read and most generous people I know, who’s always pressing discoveries new and old, literary, filmic, musical, upon his circle. I checked the Advanced Book Exchange regularly for this title, published in England in 1996, and out of print. There are usually a number of copies: right now there are nine, ranging in price from $70.18 to $113.80, and all but one in England, so you can add maybe $10 for shipping to that total. (And the cheapest copies are marked-up ex-library ones.)
Within a minute or two, I found both volumes (not in the same place) of Lees-Milne’s biography of his life-long friend Harold Nicolson, with whom he had a affair in the 30s. (Lees-Milne’s wife Avilde had a brief affair in the 50s with Vita Sackville-West, Nicolson’s wife and the ex-lover of Virginia Woolf. Small world.) The biography is not pricey or hard to find, unlike Fourteen Friends, but at $2 a volume – the top price on the tables is $5; there’s a little area of bookcases for more expensive volumes – I throw them (well, place them gently) in the cart.
I find several other sadly denuded (missing their dustjackets) but crisp, unread-looking English copies of biographies of and by English eccentrics: Nancy Mitford by the English aesthete Harold Acton, volumes about the Sitwell siblings Edith, Osbert, and Sacheverell. And then – it can’t be 5 minutes since I thought of it – there’s Fourteen Friends. At $2.
I’m so thrilled by this that I look around, wildly, for Suzanne or Vicky to share the news. But leaving the tables even for a minute is madness. Volumes are being snapped up with abandon.
An hour later, having visited TRAVEL, ART, THEATER, FILM, LITERARY CRITICISM, and COOKING (and MYSTERY, which is pretty much a bust), my shopping cart is overflowing, and I’m ready to leave. (I tried, after the Lees-Milne appearance, to conjure up one, any one, of the three biographies written about another English writer and favorite of Tom’s and mine, Patrick Hamilton. The book gods do not put any of them in front of me. But I have snagged probably ten volumes from the Anglophile and oddly anti-dustjacket collector who donated his otherwise pristine books to the sale.)
But somehow, what with the member’s reception (the locusts are even thicker and harder to infiltrate at the food tables – all kinds of nibbles, of which the best to my taste are the cheese platters -- than at the book ones), running into old book-dealer pals Patti and Craig Graham of Vagabond Books in LA, and standing in interminable checkout lines, we’re not out of there until well after 6. (Suzanne, who’s been joined by her SF hostess, sticks around, mesmerized, until 10. She’s never seen such a huge sale. Next year she intends to stay in town for several days, maybe even braving Sunday, when every item left is sold for a buck each.)
After finding Fourteen Friends, Lucy economics kick in (“Since Ricky told me we can’t afford to buy the $500 TV set, we just saved $500 I can spend on something else,”): I figure the money I saved on that volume – which I never would have shelled out $70 or $100 on – covers everything else I buy.
The giddy girls who check me out inform me that so far I’ve rung up their highest total of the night, which I feel is a mixed compliment. After all, I’m not buying for resale. As my all-too-frequent saying goes, if asked if I’m a dealer: No. The book stops here.