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Embracing the Unexpected

Joe Perlman

Within the past few months, I have done quite a bit of traveling. Whenever I leave town, whether for my day job or for pleasure, I try to arrange some time for book buying. I have been making a gradual transition from Wall Street systems analyst to book dealer, and whenever I prepared for a trip I would put on my ‘systems analyst hat’ and spend hours before I left researching the shops I wanted to visit and strategically planning the optimal route so I could make as many stops as possible. Lately, however, I have been discovering that when it comes to planning, less can actually result in more (book finds, that is).

In the fall, my wife and I went up to visit our daughter in the greater Boston area. The trip was rather last minute, so I made no plans to do any book buying. We spent a beautiful brisk fall morning at Walden Pond and then stopped for a quick lunch and hot cup of coffee in Concord. Looking out of the restaurant window I noticed a sign on a second floor window across the street that said “BOOKS”. I finished my sandwich in three quick bites and headed for the door leaving my wife and daughter to linger over their salads.

To reach the shop I had to climb a steep, narrow flight of stairs. Once inside, I received two pleasant surprises. First, all of the books were 40% off that weekend. Second, as I walked over to the literature section, I spotted two familiar faces, cousins by marriage who live in the Boston area, and are in the process of becoming part-time book scouts. Now I was sure I had come to the right place. An hour later, I headed toward the car with two large shopping bags, plus two cousins in tow.

Our daughter, a recent college graduate, was now a member of the work force and needed a more sophisticated winter coat, so we headed towards downtown Boston. Miracle of miracles, I found a legal parking space just across the street from Filenes and around the corner from the Brattle Book Shop. The ladies rushed over to Filenes, and I sauntered over to the Brattle. As I crossed the threshold I saw a large sign that read “SALE all books 40% off.” “Gee,” I thought to myself, “This is my lucky day. I ought to go out and buy some lottery tickets, too.” Needless to say, in spite of a lack of planning, I left Boston that weekend with no lotto winnings, but a trunk full of books for re-sale.

This past December, when I learned that I was going to spend Christmas in Palo Alto, I immediately put a query on the Book Insider Listserv about books shops I might be interested in, in that area. In no time, I received several replies, all recommending a specific literary bookshop in nearby Menlo Park. I made a list of the stores that I wanted to visit, and put this one at the top of the list. We arrived on Christmas Eve day, and as soon as I deposited my wife and luggage in the hotel room, I rushed over to the shop before it closed for the holiday, stopping only to pick up a large Starbucks to keep me awake after a trans-continental journey that had begun that morning at 4 AM. The shop was a bit hard to find. It was tucked away off the main thoroughfare right next to a commuter rail station. As promised, the shop contained a large selection of quality literary books. Unfortunately, there were few bargains to be had, even with a substantial dealer discount.

I spent longer than I had planned sifting through the books and did manage to find some interesting resalable items. At the register, I tried to engage the rather taciturn proprietor in conversation. As usual, I asked about other shops in the area that might be worth a visit. He named two in nearby towns, both of which had been recommended to me on the Internet. Christmas Eve and family commitments were rapidly approaching, so I raced back to the car which was parked right around the corner. While I was unlocking the door I looked up and spotted a sign that said “BOOKS” directly across the street. The lights were on and the shop looked open, so I re-locked the car door, crossed the street and went in.

This was a general used bookstore I had never heard of, with a little of this and a little of that. I found the fiction section and in five minutes found 3 to 4 great items at very reasonable prices. By now I was very late, so I arranged to have the books placed on hold until I returned the day after Christmas, when I would have sufficient time to browse through the rest of the store.

I arrived back at the store two days later. I smiled at the owner, who looked at me quizzically. I explained that I had been in the shop on Christmas eve and left some books on hold. “Oh,” he said, “that was my brother that you spoke to that day.” He managed to find the books that I had placed on hold and an hour later, I had large carton of items to be shipped back to New York. It was puzzling that the owner of the first shop never mentioned this one, which was literally within two blocks. I thought Californians were supposed to be laid back and less competitive than New Yorkers.

On my last day in Palo Alto, my sister-in-law, who lives there, said quite definitely that rest of the places on my list might be worth a look, but I had to go to Bell’s, in her mind the only used bookshop in the area of any consequence. This was another shop had not been recommended and did not appear on my list. I drove over, and spent a wonderful morning there, talking to the owner who had inherited the shop from her father. This was the kind of used bookstore that could be the backdrop for a film set. The specialty was California, and I saw some beautiful and unusual Steinbecks and Jack Londons, and I even managed to find a carton of books for re-sale, which they gladly shipped back to New York for me.

My last stop had been the second most recommended store on my list. The selection was large and the prices inexpensive, but most of the books were in only fair condition. The owner was off on a buying expedition and the clerk was not authorized to override the store’s no shipping policy. Since my wife and I were leaving for Maui that evening and my suitcase was already over the weight allowance, I left empty handed.

Several weeks later I was back in Vermont for my wife’s annual Sierra Club ski weekend.. I had spent a long, cold day driving across Northern Vermont visiting dealers I had met on prior buying trips. While I have to admit that I had managed to buy quite a few books, I spent a lot of time looking at items I had seen on the same shelves the year before. It was not yet dusk as I headed back toward Stowe from Burlington. I remembered that there was an open shop in a very small town on the way back to Stowe that I had read about but had never had the time to visit so I decided to take a short detour and check it out.

The shop was small, maybe 20 feet by 20 feet, but there were books piled everywhere. As I walked around I could tell that there was a categorization system. But, since the shelves were double layered and full, there were 3 and 4 foot piles on the floor in the aisles, making it difficult to see the books on the bottom shelves without moving the piles and inhaling no small amount of dust.

I apologized to the proprietor for arriving so late, but he affably told me to take my time, as he had no pressing engagements that evening. He then disappeared into a back room. In no time, I had a significant number piled up near the antique cash register. When he returned he looked through my selections and said- “I see you are interested in Judaica. I just a acquired a carton of signed books, would you be interested in taking a look at them?” “Sure,” I answered. So he led me to the back of the shop and down a narrow flight of stairs to the basement. He switched on the lights and to my astonishment I found myself in a large, clean, brightly lit space with several thousand neatly organized books.

While the proprietor went to find the box, I started looking at the books on the shelves, and immediately saw at least a dozen that I wanted. The box of Judaica turned out to be a disappointment, so I asked: “These shelves full of books, are they for sale?”

“Yes,” he replied. “This is my internet stock.” None of the books had prices, so as I pulled the ones I was interested in and he began to look the prices up on his database. In the end, I bought more from this secret stash than I bought from the shop upstairs.

The next day, my book buying proceeded with few surprises. Since it was a Sunday, I visited the handful of shops with Sunday hours, and a few dealers by appointment. I can’t say that I turned up at the hotel empty handed, but the finds were nothing like ones I found in the unexpected basement stash.

On the long drive home I thought about these recent book-buying experiences and it dawned on me, that my twenty-five years in financial systems analysis have left me ill-prepared for life as book dealer. The goal of systems analysis is to organize and normalize events and processes. Good analysts design systems which compensate for the unanticipated problems and exceptions which inevitably occur. As a book dealer, I now have to learn a new skill. I need to learn to embrace the unexpected, for it is within that special realm where the unexpected meets the possible that the best books are to be found.