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The Perfect Copy

There usually is more than one. Maybe one of the perfect copies of a book is the one inscribed and presented to the author’s mother. Or maybe it’s the dedication copy. That would be cool. If it was the editor’s copy, that would certainly elevate it.

There are other perfect copies. Let’s explore one possibility for The Acts of King Arthur and His Noble Knights by John Steinbeck published by Farrar, Straus & Giroux in 1976. The book was based on the Winchester manuscripts of Thomas Malory and other sources. It was edited by Chase Horton.  In addition to Steinbeck’s introduction, the book includes Merlin, The Knight With the Two Swords, The Wedding of King Arthur, The Death of Merlin, Morgan le Fay, Gawain, Ewain, and Marhalt, and The Noble Tale of Sir Lancelot of the Lake.

The published state

The published state

First let’s look into the history of the book. Steinbeck’s interest in King Arthur goes back to his extreme youth when an aunt gave him a copy of the Boy’s King Arthur. That would lead him to his eventual career as a writer. In fact, this life-long affair with the written word led Steinbeck to continued study of the Knights of the Round Table to the point that he tried writing his own “translation” of Arthur into modern English. Steinbeck was essentially a moralist who constantly used the battle between good and evil in his works.

In his own introduction for this Arthur book Steinbeck wrote, “I remember that words — written or printed — were devils, and books, because they gave me pain, were my enemies….And then, one day, an aunt gave me a book and fatuously ignored my resentment. I stared at the blank page with hatred, and then, gradually, the pages opened and let me in. The magic happened….I think my sense of right and wrong, my feeling of noblesse oblige, and any thought I may have had against the oppressor and for the oppressed, came from this secret book.”

So who reviewed the book for The New York Times? None other than novelist and English scholar John Gardner. Gardner, author of Grendel and other literary novels, had already written The Life and Times of Chaucer, The Construction of the Wakefield Cycle, The Complete Works of the Gawain Poet, and The Alliterative Morte Arthure and Other Middle English Poems. Who better to review the book?

John Gardner

John Gardner

His copy of Steinbeck’s Arthur would be one of a very few perfect copies to own. Gardner had received two copies of the advance copy of the book, an uncorrected proof, one from the publisher which asked for a blurb, and then another, later, which came from The Times asking for a review. Either one falls into the “perfect copy” category.

Proof copy, used to obtain a blurb

Proof copy, used to obtain a blurb

Another proof, used for the NYTimes review

Another proof, used for the NYTimes review


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Don’t EVER move!

I’m a wreck. Don’t ever move. Avoid it at all costs. Your body, mind, and spirit might never recover. I just moved. The jury is still out on my recovery.

But I had no choice. I’ve lived and worked in this same building for almost 30 years now. It became clear not too long ago that the floor in my book sales office was slipping — slipping to the point that as I approached my desk I felt like I was running downhill. My landlord took a look and announced that he could fix it in 20 minutes. That “deadline” came and went long ago. Seems that not only was the floor slipping (the sub-floor apparently needs at least six new joists), but that there was a lot of very moist ground under my flooring. An investigation revealed that there was a break in our water main that was losing 1,000 gallons a day, all of which was accumulating under my specific unit.

But the real nail in the coffin was revealed when I moved a couple of bookcases to accommodate my landlord’s look-see under my office floor. Behind all three bookcases along that wall was a substantial amount of the dreaded black mold, a product of moisture wicking up the drywall. I had no choice. I had to move.

Luckily, my next door neighbors just moved, leaving me to move into their old place. Business was a bit slow, as it always seems to be around tax time in April, but that actually helped my ability to download six shelves of books from each bookcase into waiting boxes. Then I had to clean the bookcase and the six shelves, not to mention the top of the case. Then I had to grapple and manhandle the bookcase to get it out the front door so I could tote it on my 67-year-old back to its new location in the new unit so I could fill it up again with those books. Then all I had to do was repeat this 14 times. Piece a cake.

Last count showed 15 bruises on my arms. Saw some interesting shades of blue and purple.  At one point my right forearm felt like I must have banged it. I took a look only to find that there was an egg-sized knot in the middle of that forearm that looked like the baby Alien escaping that poor bastard’s guts in that Sigourney Weaver movie. I later measured the bruise. It was the size of my palm. I measured it again a bit later.  It was then the size of my right hand. This can’t be good.

It was all exhausting work, complicated my coming down with a nasty virus that badly affecting my sinuses with constant drainage. It also took root in my chest. Now I was dog tired, had no energy, asthma kicked in, and I was unable to sleep properly. Oh, the joy!

And on top of all this, I found a large lizard hiding in the new bathroom. I named him Larry after my last room-mate of 30 years ago. He was a lizard, too, as well as a psycopath, but that’s another blog. Larry ended up slithering under my bed. I decided not to chase him. I had higher priorities.

It took Herculean efforts to get Comcast into the new place to activate the phone, computer, and TV. Seems there was a cable in the front of the house which worked nicely to get the TV and stereo going, but the cable in my office was from another company. That would not do. So, while making the sign of the cross, I called Comcast. I talked to no less than six service representatives. Each rep had to verify my name, my address, even my zip code, before they would allow me to speak a word. Each person heard me out and then transferred me to someone else. I kept thinking this was finally the right one, but each time there was a new ringing of a phone line all of a sudden with a new person asking me how they could help — but not before I revealed all my state secrets like that zip code. I still have no idea how I got the appointment, but luckily the tech guy who showed up was a professional who did me right. I had several hundred e-mails to wade though, but finally the phone worked, the computer worked, and I had no more books or bookcases to move.

I did have three massive piles of stuff. One was on the kitchen counter which made cooking an adventure. One was on the top of the refrigerator. Another was on top of the kitchen table. This is not to mention other boxes of stuff still begging to be put away. But suddenly I could use that table again. I finally saw space on the kitchen counter. The fridge finally looked like the fridge again.

But wouldn’t you know it? In one sense the two units are identical, but in another they are not since they are flip-flopped layouts. Thus, I keep trying to open the fridge on its left side, like my old one, even though I can clearly see that the door handle is now on the right. Same with the bathroom, I’ve lost count how many times I’ve tried to access the medicine cabinet for my toothpaste by trying to open the hinged side the cabinet door. At least I’ve started to laugh at my folly, but now there’s a new issue. Last Friday night was the first night I spent there with all my electronics working and with nothing from the old place to move.  What a relief.  I was looking forward to sleeping in, hoping to regain my strength, but the contractor who’s tearing up the old floor in my old place started his demolition at 7 a.m. Saturday. It sounded like a galactic-sized Alien was trying to escape through the walls.

Oh, and I can’t find Larry.

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Herbert Gold

Herb Gold is amazing.

He’s just published his 20th novel. This would be an amazing feat if he were only 71 years of age. It would be a spectacular achievement if he were a man of 81.

But Herbert is 91 years old. Which adjectives exist to describe this accomplishment?

“I’m pretty sure I’m the only writer who’s publishing a novel this year at this age,” he laughed when I saw him at his San Francisco apartment recently.

Herb Gold at work

Herb Gold at work

Herb and I go back a few years now. He is among a number of older writers thatI have befriended — Wallace Stegner and Harriet Doerr among them. Herb thought I might be interested in selling some of the letters he’s kept over the years from writers such as Saul Bellow, William Kotzwinkle, William Saroyan, Even Connell, Elmore Leonard, Kurt Vonnegut, among many others.

Indeed. I am more than interested. I’ll sell a few books for him, too, but I was delighted to hear that a Portland, Oregon publisher, Jorvik Press, recently published Herb’s 20th novel, When A Pyschopath Falls in Love.

His latest novel published at age 91

His latest novel
published at age 91

Herb looked as handsome as ever with a bit of mischief in those 91-year-old eyes. He can’t weigh more than a buck fifty, but he’s not frail, despite having a recent hip replacement. He doesn’t even use his cane. He still has a pretty good head of hair, a sly smile, a gray beard. He moves about his San Francisco apartment with a great view of the Bay Bridge with alacrity. It’s a much better word than spry, a word we use to describe old people. Herb may be 91, but he ain’t old.  He looks at least a decade younger than his actual age.

Still a handsome devil

Still a handsome devil

Herb was born March 9, 1924 in the Paris of Ohio, also known as Cleveland, to a Jewish family. He moved to New York at age 17 after selling some of his poems to literary magazines. He studied philosophy there at Columbia where he struck up a friendship with Allen Ginsberg. He later won a Fulbright scholarship and moved to Paris where he finished his first novel.

Subsequently he moved as he wrote, often traveling to Haiti, sometimes hitch-hiking all over the United States.

Eventually he came to San Francisco, his home of more than a half century, just as the Beat Generation was giving way to the hippies and the turbulent and wonderful ’60s. He’s been a fixture in the San Francisco literary scene ever since. He counts Birth of a Hero, The Man Who Was Not With It, Fathers, and Salt among his best-known works, and he’s written a few memoirs, too, such as My Last Two Thousand Years, Not Dead Yet, and Still Alive!, which he subtitled A Temporary Condition. The man is as funny as he is hip. And he makes a mean cup of green tea, if you’re lucky enough to spend some time with him.

His papers are now housed at the Bancroft Library at the University of California, Berkeley.

I can hardly wait for the next time I see him, and especially to call him a year from now to honor his 92nd birthday — and to see what he’s going to publish next.

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Oh, the life of a bookseller

There’s a store here in Walnut Creek where I have an arrangement with the owner to have about 300 of my books for sale in her retail shop. I do most of my business on-line, at book fairs, and through quoting my regular customers, so this arrangement exposes some of my books to a retail audience.

A gentleman came in looking for a book as a gift. He found one of my books. It’s one of those home remedy medical books so common in the 1800s when your doctor might be a five-mile drive from your house via horse and buggy.

I was busy in the back of the store working on some books, so the owner and this gentleman were involved in conversation about the book. She called to me to explain a bit more about the book, and I was able to relate a few stories to him, so he knew this book had some “heft” to it irrespective of its actual size.

“How much?” he asked?

“Jim,” the owner called to me, “four fifty for this book?”

“Yup, four fifty.”

“Great. I’ll take it,” he said, smiling while still admiring this great black book which is about the size of one of those huge dictionaries.

“There’s a bit more for the government,” the owner warned about the sales tax.

“Not a problem,” he said, handing her a $5 bill.

“I’m not sure we’re on the same page,” she said. “Jim,” she called to me again, “it’s four hundred and fifty dollars, right?”

“Yeah,” I said, thinking that I thought the price was clear, but I guess he was hearing only what he wanted to hear. Four dollars and fifty cents?  Really?  He ended up declining the book.  All I could do was smile a wan smile.

All this reminded me of a situation very early in my career as a bookseller, c.1982, when I had the best looking copy of Gone With the Wind that you’ve ever seen, a first edition, first issue, with the first issue dust jacket, signed by Margaret Mitchell, in immaculate condition.

I had taken the book to a local book fair where it was sitting on a table, looking as pretty as can be. Well, Ma and Pa Kettle stood in front of that table, admiring the book and discussing it in hushed tones. They asked its price.

“Twelve fifty,” I replied.

They looked like they wanted it, and sure enough, Pa Kettle nodded to Ma Kettle who fished a five and a ten dollar bill out of her purse and handed them to me.

I stared dumbfounded at the bills and finally looked up to say, “It’s twelve hundred and fifty dollars.”

“Oh,” Ma Kettle said in surprise, taking back the bills rather quickly.

“No problem,” I said, trying hard to suppress both the rejection and the laughter that was trying desperately to billow out my mouth.

About 30 seconds or so went by when I saw Pa Kettle smile a slightly mirthful smile at me and then said, “I guess at that price I’d want to buy them all.”

Dealing with the public. You gotta love it.

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Herb Caen

Herb Caen was a legendary and long-time daily columnist for the San Francisco Chronicle, eventually winning a Pulitzer Prize for his columns that covered what Bay Area residents call The City. He wrote about the characters that inhabited his adopted city whether they were down-and-outers or high flyers, as long as they were interesting. For many Chronicle readers, Herb’s column was the first they read in that newspaper, eschewing the sports page, fashion reports, local news, and national. No one captured the allure, the fascination of San Francisco better than Herb Caen.

Herb Caen

Herb Caen

Herb published many books about this city with whom he had a love affair, often calling it Baghdad by the Bay. Those books were often accumulations of his daily columns. Whether you were a writer or a personality or a restaurant owner, you knew you had made it when your name reached his column.

Some collectors want his books just because Herb wrote them. Others might collect his books because of their own love affair with San Francisco. Still others might collect his books because their favorite writer found his exploits discussed in a Herb column.

One writer he often favored was John Steinbeck. Caen mentions Steinbeck several times in his One Man’s San Francisco published by Doubleday in 1976, once in connection with one of Herb’s favorite people, an advertising genius named Howard Luck Gossage, one of the many characters that could be found only in Caen’s City by the Bay.

Herb Caen's book

Herb Caen’s book

Caen’s book describes Gossage as having an ingratiating stammer, a man with flowing white hair and “the sad-sweet smile that seems to be the signature of so many Irish philosophers.” He goes on to say, “Like most of the best men I’ve ever met, he never haggled over a bill and he over-tipped recklessly….I never met a more unbigoted man, even about bigots; the worst he would say about anybody was, ‘Well, I can t-take him or l-leave him — not n-necessarily in that order.’”

In his One Man’s San Francisco, Caen recalls a meeting between himself, Steinbeck, and Gossage. It occurred when Steinbeck had made his way south from Seattle to San Francisco as he navigated around this country doing his research for the book eventually published as Travels With Charley. This small group had met at Enrico’s Coffee House. Steinbeck was recalling one of the highlights of the trip — not for him, but for his beloved Charley. They were moving through redwood country in Northern California.

“I looked around till I found the largest redwood in the area — an absolute beauty,” Steinbeck told them, “probably 2,000 years old, a considerable tree before Christ was born.

“And then I let Charley out of the camper so he could go and pee on that tree. Now I ask you, what is left in life for that dog?”

“Well,” Gossage ventured, “he could always t-t-teach.”

Only in San Francisco.

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Dennis Murphy

The Sergeant by Dennis Murphy is an example of a book with many cross-over book collecting components.

The Sergeant

The Sergeant

The book was published by Viking in 1958. It became a bestseller. Murphy also wrote the screenplay for the film adaptation and went on to work as a screenwriter for 30 years.

The book is a psychological drama set in a post-World War II army camp in France in which a veteran sergeant and a French girl vie for the soul of a young draftee.

So why is the book collectible? It is his first book. It was the source for the film that followed. It won the Joseph Henry Jackson gold medal for a first novel in progress in 1957 and the Commonwealth Club’s medal for the best work of fiction by a California writer in 1958.

Dennis Murphy

Dennis Murphy

And then there is Murphy’s connection to Hunter S. Thompson, John Steinbeck, and Wallace Stegner.

Let’s back up a bit. Murphy was born in Salinas in 1925. There is another, slightly more famous writer who was also born in Salinas. That would be Steinbeck, winner of the Pulitzer Prize for fiction for his The Grapes of Wrath who went on to become a Nobel laureate. The Steinbeck family and the Murphy family were friends. In fact, Murphy’s grandfather was the physician who delivered Steinbeck. Murphy became friends with Hunter S. Thompson, known later for his Gonzo journalism, well before anyone knew who Hunter S. Thompson was.

Murphy went on to college at Stanford University, the same school attended by Steinbeck. He was a student in the creative writing program run by Stegner. In fact, the rear dust jacket panel of The Sergeant carries a blurb by Stegner in which he describes the book as “…a novel with a strange, almost a hypnotic, intensity….The tension never slackens. In its kind, it is close to masterly….It indicates a talent that is serious, devoted, and under quite extraordinary control.”

Steinbeck also penned a blurb about the book which is printed on the front panel of the dust jacket. Steinbeck calls it a remarkable book with “none of the faults of a young first novelist….Most impressive is his ability to put believable people on paper and then to relate them in scenes which happen. There is a great deal of truth and beauty in this book.”

In 1985 San Jose State University published a letter from Steinbeck to Murphy titled Your Only Weapon Is Your Work, one of 500 numbered copies issued in wrappers that was used as a fund-raiser.

Your Only Weapon Is Your Work

Your Only Weapon
Is Your Work

Murphy completed a second novel, The Lions of Big Sur, shortly before his death in 2005.


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This Is Not A Rant

So I see some books I would like to buy an ABE, otherwise known as Advanced Book Exchange, the Canadian company that is probably the best book selling site on the internet.

Now when I say it’s the best, you might think it is without fault, but that is far from the case. Ask any bookseller what they think of ABE and once they tell you how it sells more of their books than any other site, they will also tell you that ABE is replete with problems, that the people there just don’t get it, that talking to them is like talking to cable TV idiots who seem capable only of corporate-speak.

But let’s cut to the chase. The book dealer from whom I made my purchases was not responding to my follow up e-mail questions, including my plea to have him send me his phone number so I can resolve my issues. He eventually sends his phone number, but tells me not to call for a few days because he lives near Buffalo, NY. He informs me of his ice/snow/roof problems that he needs to resolve quickly.

No problem. I wait about three days and then call him. The dealer is at least 80 years old and a nice old guy.  I’ll probably be there myself someday, so I bear with the fact that he can’t hear well. Asking and answering questions is…difficult, despite changing phones. He hears better on one vs. the other.

In the end we strike a deal. He says I can get his address from ABE. I think this is a good idea since our communications were so difficult. So, I look up his address on ABE, or at least I tried to look him up on ABE. ABE, which doesn’t list his phone number, also doesn’t list his address — just the city in upstate New York.

So, I call ABE. The otherwise pleasant person on the phone gently tells me ABE cannot give me his address since the transaction he and I completed was accomplished without ABE which wants its cut. That’s true I counter, but I did buy books from him, via ABE, just a few days previously. ABE did get its cut.  Once these books arrive, I’ll have his return address. I just don’t want to wait until then. Since he and I struck our deal, I’m thinking it would be bad form to wait a week or two to send the check I just promised moments before.

This debate continues with the ABE rep until I point out how ludicrous its position is and ask to speak to a supervisor. Smiling through gritted teeth, she says someone will have to call. I ask when, since this was on a Friday and ABE not only doesn’t work on weekends, their offices actually close around 2:30 Pacific time.  While wishing I had those hours, I wait for the supervisor to call me back.

It’s been about three days now. What do you think my chances are of ever receiving such a call? Or ABE coming to its corporate senses? Okay, maybe it is a rant. But jeez….


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