Thursday, July 04, 2013

Bookstore tales

Note: This is a re-posting from 2010. I have done some slight editing, and made new scans of some of the pictures.

From 1976 to 1981 I worked part-time in the rare books department of a large full-service bookstore in Salt Lake City, Utah. Our store was sought out because it was a counter-culture center, and it was celebrated by locals and out-of-town visitors as a liberal oasis in the middle of the conservative Utah desert. I got to know quite a few of my loyal customers because they came in several times a month, but some customers came in once or twice a year, to coincide with the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints General Conference in April and October. They were usually people from out of the state, or even out of the country, who made a pilgrimage to the Mormon Mecca for enlightenment by church authorities, and a side-trip to our store for items of which the church would probably not approve.

The fantasy artist Frank Frazetta died in 2010. In the last couple of decades he was famous for his paintings, where for many years before that he had been mainly known to just a hardcore group of fans. Frazetta had illustrated paperback book covers, comic books, and magazine covers, but he became really well known to the general public when this bestselling trade paperback book, The Fantastic Art of Frank Frazetta, came out in 1975. We sold a lot of copies of the book. On a day in 1980 a man came up to me in the store.He said to me, “I’m from Canada. I was here three years ago for Conference, and I remember there was a book of paintings by Frazetta. I didn't get it then, but I want it.” He then pointed to a shelf. “It was right there! I remember, it was right there!” I saw a look in his eye. Sometimes you can tell obsessive-compulsive disorder by the wide-eyed and frenzied look, and this guy had it bad. My immediate reaction was, he thought it was going to be in the same spot on the shelf for three years? but there's no telling what customers think. Especially if they’re people who’ve been thinking about Frank Frazetta for three years. I said, “Hold on there, pal...I think I can help.”

I recalled that I had a couple of used and worn copies we'd taken in trade a few months before. I found them on a back shelf waiting to be priced. The one I sold him was well-used, so I only charged him $2.00 and from his ecstatic reaction I felt like the Angel Moroni handing Joseph Smith the Golden Plates.

At one point we had a lot of copies of Warren magazines for sale on our shelves. Warren was a publisher who began with the cult magazine, Famous Monsters Of Filmland, then went into black-and-white comic books, fantasy and horror, usually with some sex involved. A cowboy from Wyoming had driven about 300 miles to buy Warren magazines from us, but in the months we’d had them on display they hadn’'t sold, so by the time he came in they were in boxes in a storage basement. He had such a fit that other employees gathered around to hear his rant. To satisfy him I went down two flights of stone steps and brought up the boxes one at a time. Out of five or six boxes of several dozen magazines each he bought maybe a dozen issues or so, so after the guy made his purchase my boss told me to set the boxes aside. He sold them to Pete, another local bookseller, and told me, “If that cowpoke comes back in tell 'im to get on his horse and go over to see Pete.” Pete was a character who had guns under his counter in case he got robbed. I figured he could probably outdraw the cowboy if he was causing trouble.

In one case a customer of mine was caught stealing. He was suspected of shoplifting, so one of the employees brought his kids into the store, and when the man came in the kids followed him around and watched as he put a book under his coat. No one ever notices kids, even kids who are spying on them. The guy had been good for a lot of business, but maybe he felt we owed him something so he took freebies. He was banned from the store after that.

Another time my boss bought a big box of various issues of Classics Illustrated comic books. He didn't really know what to do with them, but I had an idea. It was nearly June, the end of school. I put them on the shelf with a sign, “Kids! Remember your last minute book reports! Only $1.00!” I had no idea the trouble that would cause when a local teacher saw the sign and complained loudly to my boss. We even got a letter about our practices from the Better Business Bureau, no less. To me and my coworkers it was funny, but I ended up pulling them off the shelf and putting them back in the box. Maybe my boss sold those to Pete, too.

Before I worked in a bookstore I hung out in bookstores. I still do — at least as long as the book business being what it is — there are any left standing. Bookstore people, both customers and employees, are different. When you get into rare books or comics or anything else that can be collected you run into some oddballs. I had my share of that. I also saw myself in my customers, as if reflected in a funhouse mirror. After that when going into a used or rare bookstore I tried not to act too crazy or obsessive. It hasn't always worked for me.

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