The Doctor’s Bad Habit

Asimov Books

The Doctor’s Bad Habit

“Chuck, I’d like to talk to you about those Asimov’s you have in your case.”

Those would be the three matching books, short octavos with colorful vintage dust jackets. The Foundation Trilogy. They were first editions. They were signed. They were inscribed. They were seven hundred and fifty dollars.

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A lot of money at the time. Nineteen eighty-seven, I think. A lot of money for me, anyway. The store had moved to a larger location not that long before. We were still on a growth curve. Money was tight. Money was always tight. I had invested a lot in those three books. At least it was a lot of money at the time. I was burning to get it back.

Who was asking?

My doctor, of all people. He had been my doctor for about five years.

I hadn’t seen him that often as a patient. I was young and healthy. Some coughs and colds and an ear infection. Once he had diagnosed a poisonous spider bite I had on my calf. I never knew I had been bitten, but an itchy spot on my leg grew larger daily. It became a cherry size bump with a tiny black dot in its center. It became sore. Then bigger. Then painful. It was throbbing when I raised my leg on his examining table.

“You’ve been bitten by a spider. There’s nothing we can do for it. It will either get better or it won’t.”

Comforting.

“It will probably gradually go away. But it may get worse first. Call me if…”

He went on to describe gruesome things that could happen to my poor appendage that was laying between us. Essentially, it seemed he was saying if it started rotting I should return.

He was right.

It did get worse. It grew to the size of a baseball, and I was bedridden for a couple days. If I moved my leg at all, excruciating pain would shoot up to my brain where bright lights would flash, blinding me.

But the wound never opened. No cracks appeared in my flesh. No wads of skin sloughed off.

He was right; it did gradually subside until it was just a painful memory. And a mystery. Why would a creature have such a potent offense and not advertise it? Why had it not made me well aware it was biting me so I’d be sure to avoid its ilk forevermore?

Evolution, I suppose. Or creation. Whatever.

“It will either get better or it won’t.”

Those words have stuck with me ever since. They’ve become part of my philosophy. They apply to so many situations one has no control over.

So, I had never seen a lot of him. In his office or in my bookstore.

“Sure, Dr. Curran,” I replied coming out from behind the rustic hand crafted plywood sales counter I built with all the carpentry art I could muster. It wasn’t a pretty sight, but it was solid.

I tried not to appear anxious as we walked over to the glass case that had my small stock of valuable books. It was crudely hand built. Towering to seven feet with two levels of very large glass sliding doors. I had bought it and some other store fixtures from a “Head Shop” when it went out of business on Market Street in downtown Frederick in the early 1980s. It was a pretty dangerous contraption, but it was all I had to keep my treasures showcased. And from being mishandled. Or misappropriated.

“They’re autographed, you know,” I said trying to hide any excitement in my voice.

“Yes, so your sign says.”

The upper glass doors always stuck on their sliding tracks, and this time it was worse than usual. My well-heeled audience of one stood patiently, as a doctor should, and observed my discomfiture. I switched to the other side and was able to reach in and bring the three books out in one handful. I set them in his two hands.

Did I detect a slight tremble?

He opened each volume and noted Asimov’s bold signature and brief inscription on each front free endpaper.

Asimov’s handwriting was bold, awkward, almost childlike. But he was a seminal figure in that relatively new genre called science-fiction starting in the early 1940s. Many considered The Foundation Trilogy his best work. Many considered The Foundation Trilogy some of the best work in science-fiction literature. Asimov went on to write hundreds of books after these, but they seldom rose to this level of creativity. During his long life, he put his name on a huge variety of books. From small, thin children’s non-fiction books on the planets to large annotated versions of the Bible and Shakespeare. It was almost as if he was trying to prove something. That he knew a lot about everything. There was a joke that, at the end of his life in 1992, he was nearly half way through his biggest project:

THE ANNOTATED ENCYCLOPEDIA BRITANNICA.

Did I detect another slight tremble as the doctor held these books?

“I’d like to have these,” he said flatly.

“I can give you twenty percent off,” I replied.

It was a foolish and expensive non sequitur. He hadn’t asked for a discount.

A year or so passed. I didn’t see him at work or in his office, but I heard from my night employees that a doctor would occasionally come in and buy some science-fiction off the shelves or from the case. It was always better stock, and he never asked for a discount, and he was always genteel. These three things—a trifecta—set him apart from our usual clientele.

Another year passed, and we moved again. This time to a newly built eleven thousand square foot space. When I first walked into that raw dusty unlit cinderblock and concrete store space, the words: “Wonderland” escaped my lips. I had the floors tiled in alternating black and white. It was a checkerboard pattern that was immediately popular. I had a real office constructed with two doors. One door led to the sales floor; the other one allowed me to enter or escape unnoticed out of the back of the building. A row of five-foot glass-fronted cases stretched from my office toward the front sales counter. I had the cases built to my design by a carpenter. A glazier then came in and installed lockable doors on them. They were four feet wide. The number two solid pine shelves were ten inches deep. The wood was stained walnut. There were twelve of them in this row initially.

One case was dedicated to science-fiction, fantasy and horror.

Leaving my office late one afternoon, I nearly stepped on Dr. Curran. He was seated cross-legged on the checkerboard floor looking through the glass at the science-fiction on the lower shelves. He had one of our two-handled plastic shopping baskets on the floor next to him. It contained what appeared to be about twenty collectible science-fiction hardbacks. I could ascertain this from a distance because every one I could see had its dust jacket protected by a clear plastic protector. They were called Brodarts in the trade, named after the company that produced them. They were designed so that they could easily and neatly fold over the paper dust jackets of any size book. Any excess in length could be trimmed to size with scissors. These not only protected the dust jacket from wearing or tearing while on our shelves. They also distinguished—sort of showcased—the more valuable books from our general stock. We only went to the expense of wrapping a Brodart around a dust jacket if we were asking fifteen dollars or more for a book.

The dust jacket can be worth up to—well, almost ALL of the value of a modern collectible book. A pristine dust jacket can add a substantial premium to the value of a collectible book. A dust jacket that is torn, worn, or chipped or damaged in any way can substantially reduce the value of a book. A book missing its jacket is essentially incomplete and is always worth much less.

Dr. Curran was lithe, well built, medium height, handsome, graying at the temples—everything you would want your doctor to be. But seated as he was upon the floor reading the titles through the glass, there was a look—something like a kid peering into a candy store’s front window.

“Would you like me to unlock the case for you, Dr. Curran?” I asked.

“Sure, Chuck, there are a couple of titles that look interesting.”

I went to the front and retrieved a one-foot wooden block to which were attached all the store’s general keys. In addition to the twelve keys for the glass case locks, there were keys to the bathroom, storerooms, janitor’s closet, and rear security door locks. Attached to a long pole like this they are much harder for employees to lose or take home in their pockets by mistake. We discovered this necessity the hard way. When you can’t find the keys to the bathroom, well, things can get memorable.

As he already had over three hundred dollars worth of books in his basket (twenty times at least fifteen dollars), I thought it might be a good thing for me to stick around and handle his transaction. I unlocked the case and slid the door open on its smooth aluminum track and said:

“Let me know when you’re done going through them. I’ll be in my office right here. I’ll make sure you get checked out quickly.” In passing, I added a quip, “I know how valuable a doctor’s time is.”

About an hour later, he stuck his head in my door. It was almost shyly as if I was someone important like a physician or something.

There were about a dozen titles stacked next to his basket. Even from fifteen feet away I recognized a nice copy of 1984 I found in an old man’s attic a few weeks earlier. I could not mistake the dull soft red color of its rather plain vintage dust wrapper. It had been priced at five hundred and fifty dollars. The other selections from the glass case would all be fifty dollars and up—for that was the minimum required for a book to be case worthy. This was going to be a good day. I was glad I had stayed late.

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I bent and picked up his stack, and he followed me up front to the sales counter with his basket of books.

I asked the assistant manager on duty to help me ring them up. We started on the basket first.

Our point-of-sale hardware had progressed over the years from a fishing tackle box and two part carbon paper receipt pads (designed more for waitresses in diners than booksellers) to electronic cash registers, to the point where now we had a computer with a cash drawer beneath it. We would record the title, author and price of any book over fifteen dollars. In this, the doctor’s case (pun intended), all of them were over that minimum. He had picked out relatively modern first editions by authors like Frank Herbert, Piers Anthony, Michael Moorcock and Ursula Le Guin from our general stock on our open shelves.

Somewhere around the tenth title I felt there was something wrong with the book in my hand. It looked right but something was wrong. I stopped. I flipped it open to the copyright page. It was published by Doubleday and down at the bottom of the copyright page it stated “First Edition.” With this publisher for many years that was all you needed. If it stated first edition, it was okay. They would delete the words “First Edition” from any later printing. I took off the dust jacket to inspect the binding and there it was at the base of the rear cover. It was the dreaded Book Club blind stamp.

The blind stamp was a small depression punched into the cloth. It was one of those things that was hardly noticeable but which meant everything. It meant that this book, I forget which title it was, had been purchased at a bargain price through a mail order book club. I suppose publishers did it so they could differentiate these bargain books from higher priced books sold at retail stores. A customer wouldn’t be able to exchange their cheap mail order book for cash or credit at any retail store. But that little dot ruined the value of any book. That tiny dot on the back of a book instantly transformed it into a cheap reading copy. Almost always.

Someone had clipped off the upper corner of the front dust jacket flap. Thus, there was no original retail price upon this book. Clipping a dust jacket like this could be explained. It was tactful in olden days and is still, in some circles, to make sure the recipient of a gift does not know how much the giver spent upon this book; this “gift.” But this particular removal was deceptive. There was never a printed price on the dust jacket of this book. Book club hardbacks never had retail prices printed on them, at least not this title and publisher and vintage. Whoever we had bought this from had tried to transform a worthless book club edition into a collectible book. Another dealer? We had a few hundred thousand books in this store. I couldn’t remember where most of them came from.

He’d never know it, would he?

“There’s something wrong with this book, Dr. Curran.”

Then I proceeded to point out the point that ruined this book’s value.

“I’m sorry. I don’t know how it got by us. I’ll be sure to work on training Aaron and Chip to look for this. I’ll let you have it for free if you want it as a reading copy.”

I put the book aside and finished reading off the rest of the titles. The total came to just over twenty-one hundred dollars. I told the assistant to take twenty percent off and headed to the storeroom to get the doctor a box.

That was a huge sale for us in those days.

A week or so later there was a soft knock on my office door. It was Dr. Curran.

“Chuck, do you have a minute?”

For my doctor and a good customer I always had a minute.

He stepped in, and I hurried to clear a path through the clutter to the chair next to my desk. I gently lifted a stack of LECs (Limited Edition Club books) each in a perfect slipcase and each with the highly desirable newsletter inside from the chair and looked around for another safe flat surface to set them upon. He sat down, and I noticed he had four hardback books in his lap.

“Would you take a look at these and tell me what you think?” he said, handing them over to me.

As I was inspecting them, he continued, “I’ve been getting most of my books from you, but these are some I picked up in the city. After you showed me the problem with that book last week, I started looking through some of my collection.”

Two of his books were obvious book club editions. Another was a second printing. The fourth seemed all right, but something felt wrong about it. All had penciled notations on the free end paper “1st Ed.” beneath the price. They were from three different dealers. Two I knew from their handwriting and date codes.

“These two are book club editions. They have the blind stamp I showed you last week, only these two have square stamps as opposed to the pinprick punch you saw last week. This one is a second printing—see?” I said opening it toward him. “It says ‘First Edition’ but down here at the bottom, do you see the ‘BCDE’?”

“Yes.”

“The publisher removed the ‘A’ when they had a second printing. On the third printing they would remove the ‘B.'”

I paused. The fourth book he had brought in was The Silmarillion by J.R.R. Tolkien. The dust jacket was priced. It stated first edition, and there was nothing on the copyright page or the title page to indicate otherwise.

But it didn’t feel right.

“Do you have a few minutes while I check on something about this book? You’re welcome to stay here or you can go out and look at books. I’ll find you.”

He chose the latter, and we both exited the office. He paused at the science-fiction case. As I passed the sales counter, I instructed the clerk to go unlock it for him. I continued to our storeroom where we received, sorted and priced books. It was also where we researched them if necessary. This was long before the Internet became a popular medium for bibliographic data, so researching books was tough. Especially for a general bookstore like ours that received all kinds of books. We had a bookcase of price guides, bibliographies and specialist dealer catalogs. Still, so many books stumped us. I would hold a newly received book in my hands and know it was good, but was it fifty dollars good? Or a hundred dollars? Or five hundred dollars?

I began flipping through some science-fiction catalogs. Lloyd Currey used to issue encyclopedic catalogs full of great data. Some were over an inch thick. I always made sure to order something from him—if only to stay on his mailing list. The second one I looked through had what I was looking for.

In many books the page opposite the title page of a book often lists other works the author has written. Currey wrote:

“True first lists FATHER GILES OF HAM on author’s credits corrected in later printings to FARMER GILES OF HAM…”

I looked at the doctor’s copy. Sure enough, about two-thirds down the page of Tolkien’s other works was printed:

“FARMER OF GILES OF HAM.”

The correct title. This correction rendered the book in my hand to a later printing and therefore only an inexpensive reading copy, despite all indications that it was a first edition.

Rather than being disappointed at the news of his losses, Dr. Curran seemed to have some internal resolve enforced. I would have been ticked off at having been ripped off by the other dealer or dealers who had sold me these four books, whether I’d been misled out of ignorance or with intent.

“I’d like to start collecting science-fiction seriously,” he said looking me in the eye. “And I’d like to do it through you.”

I had never been anyone’s exclusive dealer before. I was no salesman. My business personality and philosophy was one of putting books before the public and letting them sell themselves. I was friendly, congenial, helpful to my clientele, but there was an invisible line I would not cross. I would not “sell” them books.

But this was intriguing. I liked science-fiction and fantasy personally. I also liked this man.

“What kind of science-fiction would you like to collect?” I asked.

“Everything.”

Many years passed. My two sons were born. The younger boy had a birth defect in his aorta, sort of like a kink in a garden hose. It was a relatively rare problem. A coarcted aorta. It would be fatal if not treated soon. Somehow we were connected with two specialists at a huge cutting edge university teaching hospital.

The first doctor wanted to proceed with the traditional treatment. His plan was to remove the defective section and splice the artery back together.

The other doctor had developed his own procedure. He would insert a line with a tiny balloon into the artery at its end. When the balloon reached the obstruction in the artery, it would be inflated, opening up the obstruction. It was a non-invasive procedure. It was innovative. It was new. It had rarely been tried.

Kind of a “Judgment of Solomon”—an Augsburger Kreidekreis—with my baby in the victim’s role.

So, as a supplicant, I imposed on my relationship with Dr. Curran. No layperson should have a choice this complex.

Each of the specialists thought his procedure was best for my baby.

Dr. Curran did some research and explained both procedures to me dispassionately.

“The new procedure may be better. It is less invasive. The old one has worked many times.”

“What should I do?” I was nearly pleading.

“I can’t choose for you. The surgery has worked for many years. If it was my son, I wouldn’t go with the experimental procedure when the option is something that has been successful so often.”

My son is a fine young man now. He’s very athletic. No sign remains of the life that would have been measured in days but a small scar below his left scapula where a traditional incision was made and a small pinched section of his tiny aorta removed.

At book shows where I exhibited, I would trade anything I had for something I thought Dr. Curran would want. With dealers I knew, I would present my best finds in areas they favored as barter. I would sharpshoot for science-fiction and fantasy bargains in antique malls and small out-of-the-way bookstores.

If any special books or collections came through my stores, they would be set aside for Dr. Curran so he could have the first look at them.

I established a fixed and substantial discount for him because he would buy anything he didn’t have already. Anything.

At some point, I tentatively invited him to join me in a round of golf. I hadn’t played since junior high school, but had recently picked up the game again. I had discovered it was a great escape from work and family duties. Sort of a four-hour mini vacation. Joining the country club in the little town I lived in Pennsylvania had been a bargain. It included a pool and tennis and all kinds of events for the kids. The restaurant was the only good one around the area.

The afternoon was a success. We got along really well. It was the first social encounter we ever had. I was still Chuck, but he was no longer Dr. Curran. He was now Kip, a nickname his family had given him. Our relationship had evolved from doctor and patient to collector and seller to friends.

He was from a historical local family. His circle of friends from the regional elite. His wife was perfect, beautiful, smart, and adept at any social occasion or function. One or both frequently appeared in the newspaper in a group photo at a charity ball or other newsworthy social function. They were way out of my league.

Once I visited his home, and he snuck me down to the basement. Well, it wasn’t a “basement.” It was a fully finished below ground level. That’s where he kept his collection.

Pointing out some of the highlights: “Remember these?” he asked.

I recognized them. The three Asimov’s. The ones that had started the quest. Or mission. Or inconvenience. Or avocation. Or addiction.

Through our relationship I came to learn how hard doctors work. Good doctors anyway. Long nights and weekends on call. Phone calls in the middle of the night requiring long distance diagnoses.

The years ran on. Streams of books flowed to his shelves punctuated by the occasional high points I would find. Dune for a few thousand dollars. It had been published, incongruously, by Chilton, a publisher more noted for their automobile manuals than their fiction. Arkham House limited editions appeared from time to time. They had published authors like H. P. Lovecraft and Robert E. Howard who created Conan—authors who never would have been discovered by traditional publishers. A nice run of autographed early Heinleins somehow found their way to me.

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The years ran on. Punctuated by fairly frequent golf and my occasional illnesses or procedures that seemed to accumulate with age.

I filled in 19th to early 20th century books for him like The Time Machine, Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde and War of the Worlds. I recall some beautiful books passing through my hand to his by Arthur Conan Doyle, Jules Verne…

Science-fiction and fantasy are often called escape literature. They can be at their simplest exemplars. But, at their best, their works can be metaphors for the human condition. The struggle of good versus evil. Man’s inhumanity to beings (be they human or not) who are different. They can be predictive—anticipating technological changes and how these changes will affect the way humans will live in the next decade or century or millennium.

Writing about the future can influence the future.

The years ran on. Dr. Curran would have to re-alphabetize his basement and find more room for his books each time a large collection came in.

We would play golf about once a month. For a few years, we made a point of playing every month—a problematic endeavor near the Mason-Dixon line. I recall one memorable round on New Year’s Day. There was no difficulty with water hazards. Everything was frozen solid. One of my drives landed on the pond. It bounced and made an odd hollow Doppler effect sounds as it bounced across the ice and finally rolled onto the shore.

“Great shot!” he chortled.

We would get together for dinners once or twice a year. Was I Kip’s dealer? Enabler? He could have worse habits—gambling, drugs, women…but this was more than an addiction or hobby.

He had told me long ago that as a child science-fiction was his favorite reading material. He had pointed out some of the childhood editions he had preserved—all still in great shape. He told me he could never get enough of the books.

Now he had enough money. Every wish he and his wife could desire could be placed upstairs.

Downstairs was another world. His other world. An escape from the pressure of preserving and extending other peoples’ lives. An escape from the paperwork and oversight of medical insurance companies and government agencies. An escape to ten thousand futures. An escape to one past. His own past. As a child wanting every science-fiction book there ever was. As an adult well on his way to getting that child’s wish.

When I was a child, my bookshelves were a kind of altar. When new books arrived, I would often have to move everything to create a space for them. I would shift everything to get them where they belonged alphabetically. Kip would do this on a massive scale with books that could be worth thousands of dollars.

He still had the magic and joy of youth as the years passed.

10 Comments on Article

  1. Nelson commented on

    Thanks.

    1. chuck replied on

      Thank you Nelson – for reading and commenting!
      Chuck

  2. Andy commented on

    Chuck,

    This is one of your best yet. You’ve beautifully described the sort of experience that makes bookselling the joy that it is. We’re a very fortunate group of people.

    1. Chuck replied on

      That is high praise indeed, Andy. Especially from a consummate professional such as you. Maybe I should dig up more of the old stories…
      But right now I’m on Amtrak heading fro NYC. The ABAA Rare Book Show – but especially the Tolkien Exhibition at the Morgan Library.
      That will likely be this week’s story.
      Thanks for reading and commenting. Your encouragement early on was heartening and inspired me to continue.
      Chuck

  3. Michael Magri commented on

    Great story. Really need to read more of your columns.

    1. Chuck replied on

      Thank you! I really appreciate your reading and commenting! Chuck

  4. Victoria Breeden commented on

    This was wonderful, thank you!

    1. chuck replied on

      Thank you! It really helps to know people are reading and enjoying the book stories. Best, Chuck

  5. Timothy R. commented on

    I’m certain Dr. Curran is delighted with finding a concerned bookseller like you. This is an exceptional profile of a book collector.

    I miss your store in Frederick. Before we moved south years ago, I found many great “finds” there. I still, however, shop on line. Thanks, Chuck.

    Good hunting in NYC.

    1. chuck replied on

      What inspiring comments ! I’m glad you still find Wonder books. Best Chuck

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