Bookseller, Book Writer: <br>An Interview with John Dunning
When you got into bookselling, had you had any training, such as working at a high volume bookstore? No training really, just learned the hard way. Mostly, I figured it out for myself. I bought a lot of price guides and bibliographies. I still buy the bibliographies, but with the Internet, the price guides are not much help anymore.
I worked for two years with an incredible book buyer-bookseller in Eureka, California. Did you have a bookseller guru or mentor who taught you about rare and out-of-print books? Well, first of all, a “rare” book is rare in the book business. You and I will probably never see a really rare book. Scarce might be a better word. But, yes, of course I had someone, as Janeway had in Booked to Die. There was a bookstore a couple of doors down the street from mine and there was an old hippie type with a long beard who really knew his books. He was crazy about Kerouac, and he helped me a lot.
What was your greatest book buying adventure? Well, there have been a number of house calls that have been really great. When I was a relatively young book hunter, I would get up early every Saturday morning and hit the streets and work the yard sales. I remember walking into a yard one day and I didn’t see any books, so I asked the woman, “Do you have any books?” “Oh, God, yes,” she said, and grabbed my hand and dragged me off - I was in fear for my virtue - but she just led me to a carriage house full of books. They were all high quality, lots of university press, scholarly stuff. It took me two days to haul them all away and she gave me a great low price. Those were the days when I could empty a house by myself in no time.
Maybe my greatest book buying adventure was an estate sale in Denver that a woman was brokering – she didn’t care about books, just glassware and china and the like. She showed me what she had – Henry James firsts, turn-of-century stuff, Civil War books, and fiction originals – incredible stuff. I thought there was no way I could afford them, but after four hours of looking at them, she asked what I would give her for them. I told her I couldn’t pay anything close to what they were worth. She didn’t care, she wanted to get those books out of the house. I told her I couldn’t give her a fair price, but she said if I would carry the books out, it would be a fair price. She had books in the attic and books in the basement with eighty or ninety years’ worth of dust on them. I still feel a little guilty about that buy.
What kinds of books do you read? I don’t find many books I want to read anymore. I mostly read fiction, but not too many mysteries. I like John Fowles, French Lieutenant’s Woman and The Magus. I like John Gardener, Michelson’s Ghost.