First Books

First Books

Revised July 26, 2019.

It seems appropriate for this first blog post to pull one of my “first books” off the shelf and write about the memories holding it again conjures. For me, many books are like Proust’s Madeleines—the touch or sight of which will bring me back to a time and place associated with that book’s entry into my life and memory.

In the summer of 1980 I was in my mid 20s. My plans were to go to Grad School in the fall. Both my parents were recently deceased and my future was, to say the least, confused.

I’d always been a “bookie.” From gifts from family and “stealing” books lying around the house to the Scholastic Book Club in Elementary school to the book hunting freedom that a driver’s license provided, I’d always been on the hunt for next book.

At that time there were a couple dozen bookstores in the DC suburbs of Montgomery County, MD. How many were in the entire DC region then? 150? More?

One of my favorites was Book Alcove of Gaithersburg. It was a veritable rabbit warren of nooks, crannies and blind alleys of odd bookcases—many clearly salvaged from numerous house calls where the cases “came along” with the books.

(It still IS! Wonder Book bought the store in 2008 to keep it from shuttering. Its layout is virtually unchanged since the 70s. It may be the most “organic” bookstore layout you’ll ever see.)

At the end of June 1980, as I was browsing there and selling my Sports Illustrated collection, I asked the owner if he needed any summer help. Carl Sickles said: “Sure,” and as Robert Frost said “that made all the difference.”

Carl was a retired Civil Servant, a Child of the Depression and, at 17, enlisted and became a B-52 Ball Turret Gunner in World War 2.

He looked every bit a Dickensian Bookseller. He had a wild tousled forelock islanded before a receding hairline. A pair of half frame reading glasses was perched perennially upon the tip of his rather long nose.

I’ll write more about Carl in future blogs.

Part of my initial training was how and what to buy for the store—and how much (or little) to pay. He had me buying books from customers pulling up to the store’s front door the very first day.

In those days the competition for good stock was fierce. Booksellers would bid and battle over good collections. Auctions were well attended by dealers and consumers alike. Every charity, library, church or school sale would have a long line anxious to rush in when the doors opened.

Yard sales were also an important source. (For years I would hit as many yard sales on the way to work as I could before opening the store on Saturdays.)

Carl instructed me to meet him outside the now demolished Rockville Maryland parking deck at 6:30 AM on one my first Saturdays for an immersion experience in buying books for resale. This deck hosted a large “yard sale” where folks would drive their car or van in and set up the stuff for sale in adjacent parking spaces.

Carl handed me 40 bucks and a bundle of brown Kraft paper grocery bags. We walked together for a bit and he offered sage advice like: “A buck a piece for those cookbooks is way too much.” Or “Ask if they’d take $3 for the whole box of quilting.” Then he decided we should part ways (maybe I was slowing him down.) He said, “Lets see what you can find. Now don’t spend too much on any book!”

Whatever else I bought is lost in the fogs of memory, probably sci-fi, classic literature, Civil War…, but one book remains in my mind—and my hands.

I picked up a Profiles in Courage from a box on the pavement behind an old car. The box had been marked “25 cents each.” I don’t why that book caught my eye. I knew it, of course, but didn’t think it would be especially sellable in the Book Alcove store. It was very common then. Popular during JFK’s rise as a Senator, then President, and it became hugely popular and greatly reprinted after his assassination.

Profiles in Courage

Up ’til then I’d been a collector of reading copies mostly. My tastes for “rarities” was more focused on comics and LPs. Maybe an Edgar Rice Burroughs paperback with a lurid Frank Frazetta cover would catch my eye and wallet but I knew nothing of First Editions or dust jackets or…autographs…

I recall opening it up and there was an illegible scrawl on the front free end paper. I held the copy and picked 5 more and asked the guy if he’d take a dollar for the 6 of them.

“One twenty five.”

I balked a bit but then acquiesced and stuck the 6 books in a grocery bag.

In couple hours the 40 bucks was gone. I had a pile of filled grocery bags stacked by Carl’s van. He arrived soon after and we headed to the store to open for the day at 10am.

We spread my buys on the floor of his “Buying Room,” and he critiqued my selections. “How much did you pay for that?” “Go check the shelves and see if we don’t already have five copies of Catch 22.”

But generally he was pleased, and he made piles of my choices by what he’d charge in the store. A $1.25 pile, $2.50, $4.50…a couple he said he’d ask 10 for.

I asked what he thought of the Profiles. “We see them all the time. And this copy doesn’t state First Edition.”

“What about the writing?”

“I can’t read it. Can you?”

“Can I buy it?”

“Sure. What did you pay?”

“A quarter.”

“Ok. 50 cents.”

Carl had some price guides but no autograph guides. I went to the library one evening but couldn’t find any examples. I put the book on my shelves at home and forgot about it. Some years later I saw a JFK signature at an auction and my memory was jogged.

It was a “good” autograph?!

My “first” good book was essentially an accident? Well, maybe instinct combined with wishful thinking.

I’ve kept that book all these decades. It’s been misplaced a few times but here it is now.

There have been times when money was tight, or I desperately needed to buy a good collection, or…

But this book has stuck.

Many of us remember the first book a parent gave us. Or loved one. Or the first great edition of a favorite book we could afford.

This “first” book taught me a number of things. Trust my instincts. There are great books to be found in “rough” locations. That, in addition to the excitement of the hunt, there was a very real aspect of “Book Rescue” in what I was doing. This gem would likely have been lost had I not taken a chance on it.

As near as I can read the inscription it says:

“To [Frantz?],

With very best wishes.

John Kennedy

(By courtesy of his son Duke)”

Who was “Frantz?”

“Dad” clearly.

Who was “Duke”?

Profiles in Courage Inscription

I’d like to fantasize that Duke was Duke Zeibert. He owned and operated the eponymous POWER restaurant near all the DC action for decades.

There have been millions of books come and gone since then. I’m glad I’ve never “had” to sell that one.

There are plenty of other books at home and at work I’ve kept for various reasons.

But this book is special because it helped set me on a path.

And that has made all the difference…

1 Comment on Article

  1. Margaret Minton commented on

    The first book I remember buying was Art Linkletter’s “Kids Say the Darnedest Things.” $2.98 in hardcover, a fortune to the child I was at the time. I believe the cover was yellow? Two related stories about this book : at the time, my mother lamented, “You’re just like your father – rather have books than eat.” I was, of course, pleased by the comment. And the second thing about this book was that my kids both loved it in a paperback edition they bought themselves 25-ish years later.

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