In the early 70s, my best friend Andrew and I were stuck in California's armpit, Modesto. We were both obsessed with books: me with science fiction, primarily, and Andrew with anything related to art, drawing and cartoons. This isn't an obsession well-served in Modesto, especially in those days and we made regular pilgrimages to Berkeley, where Telegraph Avenue was a book-lover's Eden. The core of the apple, as it were, was Moe's with other lesser bookstores in orbit around it. Although I live in a city that can boast the largest bookstore in the universe, Powell's, nothing can ever supplant Moe's as the greatest bookstore. Moe's had everything (although compared to Powell's it was pitifully small) and an incredible turnover of used books; one could safely visit on a daily basis (except if one was stuck in Modesto) and find new treasures every time. And, wonder of wonders, Moe's was always open. Always. Which meant (at least in memory) dropping in at 3 a.m. on Christmas morning. Andrew's books were upstairs somewhere, mine scattered throughout the funky old building.
The ritual of the pilgrimage required preparation for days in advance, painfully picking over the existing collection to determine what might be sacrificed to the cruelty of the book buyers, in the expectation of finding something even greater and more astonishing on the shelves at Moe's (and to a lesser extent, Shakespeare & Co. and other little nooks and crannies around town). For the book-obsessed, letting go of a book is painful, but knowing in advance that it could never be a simple trade, but rather an inevitably humilating experience made the sorting process even worse. Ah, yeah that one's kind of a stinker, but that just means no one will want it. And this one is great, but it's too esoteric and no one will want it. Maybe better to keep it . . . Andrew always had a worse time of it than I did, because it was easier for me to let go of a novel once it had been read, but his books were resources, reference material and there was always something in each that needed to be preserved.
The first stop was always Moe's, even though their bookbuyers were the cruelest and most particular of all, because the goal was always the same: credit at Moe's. Credit at other stores was a pale imitation, with their inferior stock (although in any other town they would have been treasures beyond compare). The buyers didn't speak much, just flipped through the pile of books unloaded before them, rapidly assembling two piles. Even after years of this, the sting of rejection and disappointment never softened: the Out stack was always taller than the In stack. Always. And the offer was always presented without argument, take it or leave it. X dollars cash, X+Y dollars for credit and it was never what we knew the books were really worth. And the offer was always accepted, with eagerness, because it was something, and that was always something much more than either of us had in our pockets when we walked in.
Next stage required putting all the Out books back in the box, pocketing the credit slip, and heading off to the next store, where the buyers were a little more open, a little less cruel and somehow a lot more human. And, usually, there was necessarily a third store and on the really bad days, a few books to stick back in the trunk of the Rambler to drag back to Modesto. Then off to Moe's, to prowl and dig for treasure, to always use all the credit acquired and whatever cash wasn't absolutely necessary to eat on for the next few weeks. And we always drove home happy because there always were treasures at Moe's that hadn't been there the last trip.
I faced a Powell's bookbuyer this weekend, with a big paper bag filled with books I knew were worth selling: good novels and interesting nonfiction. And there were two stacks. And the Out stack was bigger than the In stack, and it stung. Buyers are no longer supernatural, though, with the uncanny ability not only to judge the value of the book but whether it could find a place on the shelf unoccupied by another copy of the same book. Books all have barcodes now, and barcodes can be scanned and software can determine whether the book will sell, whether there's room in inventory and how much to pay for it. Powell's, it turns out, has separate inventory at all of its stores, so my books were not just being weighed for inventory-worthiness but inventory-worthiness at that store, chosen because it was close to home. The In stack was really short. I can haul the Out stack to a Powell's warehouse and maybe the barcodes and the scanning and the software will shrink it. Or not. The cruelty of the bookbuyer is immutable.
And afterward I really missed Andrew, who has been dead now for 24 years. He's missed a lot of books, and cartoons, and drawings by checking out early. And I've missed my best friend.