Rare Book Monthly

Articles - August - 2005 Issue

The Bookseller as Anti-Hero

John Dunning, Booked to Die. NY: Scribner, 1992


Renee Magriel Roberts

It's summertime and it's hot and I'm looking for a quick read. The only things getting cooled around here are the books in my warehouse. I've got to get my mind off the K2 pile of books, still un-vetted, piling up in the book barn, no doubt with some choice editions diabolically buried within the detritus. So, for the first time, I order a John Dunning out of Amazon, Booked to Die (NY: Scribner, 1992). Seems like a perfect combination to me: a mystery with a bookseller/ex-cop hero. Might even learn a few things about books while I'm letting my higher faculties go blah in the night. I've come to realize, as a long-time customer of fine book establishments, that there is a dark underbelly to the business. I kind of "got it" during some early trips to library book sales, when I observed the unmistakable angst/frothing at the mouth of buyers who were clearly not there to languidly browse. The same narrowness of the eyes, the same pawing of the pavement, was no doubt present in the early land rushes. In my darker moments I imagine that booksellers and book scouts regularly show up at wakes and funerals and occasionally meet at bookseller conventions where, looking an awful lot like vultures, they solicitously enquire after each other's health.

Remember "The Ninth Gate" with Johnny Depp as a rare book dealer, Dean Corso, and Frank Langella as the evil Boris Balkan? Balkan hires Corso to seek copies of a very rare book supposedly written by Satan himself (yes, even Satan aspires to be a bestselling author). As Corso follows the various clues to the puzzle in the copies of the books he finds, people die all around him, a process that seems to go hand-in-hand with rare book acquisition. (I'm sure there is a "Six Feet under the Bookstore" in the works, ready to be produced as an HBO series about a combination bookstore/funeral home business which not only makes money from the families of the dead, but has right of first refusal on their libraries.) There is a short, but particularly memorable scene at the beginning of "The Ninth Gate", when Corso arrives at the home of a recent decedent, feigns interest in some books that he will appraise at a future time, and then nonchalantly scoops up a rare Don Quixote for next to nothing when he is walking out the door. Business as usual in the rare book business.

But, I digress. So it's like 95 in the shade on Cape Cod, and without a proper way to put my feet up, the warehouse is getting pretty uncomfortable as a permanent nesting spot, so I'm back in my un-air conditioned living room, Booked to Die in hand. Cliff Janeway, the bookseller/ex-cop anti-hero introduced in this novel, is multi-tasking - simultaneously trying to protect an abused female from being further beaten by her gangster boyfriend while running a ratty bookstore in one of Denver's less attractive venues. And oh yes, he is also trying to figure out why another character, an unattractive book scout (Bobby Westfall) who was living from book pile to book pile, has turned up murdered. Janeway, an admitted book fiend, is also trying to figure out what rare book or books may have contributed to Bobby's end.

Rare Book Monthly

  • Bonhams, July 15-25: THE AUTOGRAPH COLLECTION OF ISRAEL WITKOWER. $8,000 - $12,000
    Bonhams, July 15-25: GEORGE WASHINGTON SIGNED DISCHARGE. June 9, 1783. $8,000 - $12,000
    Bonhams, July 15-25: "Shhhhh!" A DAVID SHANNON ILLUSTRATION FROM DAVID GETS IN TROUBLE. $2,500 - $3,500
    Bonhams, July 15-25: PICASSO, PABLO. Le Carmen des Carmen. Paris, 1964. $2,000 - $3,000
    Bonhams, July 15-25: RARE AUTOGRAPH OF AMERICAN NAVAL HERO CAPTAIN JAMES MUGFORD. $2,000 - $3,000
    Bonhams, July 15-25: KARA WALKER SILHOUETTES FOR TONI MORRISON'S FIVE POEMS. $2,000 - $3,000
    Bonhams, July 15-25: FIRST APPEARANCE OF PINOCCHIO IN ENGLISH. COLLODI, CARLO.New York, 1892. $2,000 - $3,000
    Bonhams, July 15-25: BONAPARTE, JOSEPHINE. Autograph Note (unsigned) in French. $1,000 - $1,500
    Bonhams, July 15-25: FROST ON MATTHEW ARNOLD.Autograph Letter Signed to Adams, July 27, 1934. $800 - $1,200
    Bonhams, July 15-25: ELIAS BOUDINOT'S COPY OF BARLOW'S COLUMBIAN EPIC. $800 - $1,200
    Bonhams, July 15-25: A SIGNED HART CRANE BROOKLYN BRIDGE POSTCARD TO EDWARD DAHLBERG. $600 - $800
    Bonhams, July 15-25: A STOCK CERTIFICATE SIGNED BY THE "QUEEN OF WALL STREET," HETTY GREEN. $700 - $900
  • Fonsie Mealy’s
    Summer Rare Book
    & Collectors’ Sale
    July 30-31, 2024
    Fonsie Mealy’s, July 30-31: U.S. / European Shipping Archive 1800-1814. The Widow Bermingham & Sons Collection. €7,000 to €10,000.
    Fonsie Mealy’s, July 30-31: Bunreacht na hÉireann. Constitution of Ireland. An important copy of the First Printing of De Valera’s new Constitution, approved in 1938. Signed by the Constitution Cabinet. €7,000 to €9,000.
    Fonsie Mealy’s, July 30-31: A Rare Complete Run of the Cuala Press Broadsides. €7,000 to €9,000.
    Fonsie Mealy’s
    Summer Rare Book
    & Collectors’ Sale
    July 30-31, 2024
    Fonsie Mealy’s, July 30-31: Grose (Francis). The Antiquities of Ireland, 2vols. folio London (for S. Hooper) 1791. Magnificent Hand-Coloured Copy - Only 25 Copies. €3,000 to €5,000.
    Fonsie Mealy’s, July 30-31: Cantillon (Richard). Essai sur la Nature du Commerce en General, Traduit de l'Anglois, Sm. 8vo London (Fletcher Gyles) 1756. €3,000 to €4,000.
    Fonsie Mealy’s, July 30-31: Gregory, (Lady Augusta). Spreading the News: The Rising of the Moon: The Poorhouse (with Douglas Hyde). Being Vol. IX of the Abbey Theatre Series. €3,000 to €4,000.
    Fonsie Mealy’s
    Summer Rare Book
    & Collectors’ Sale
    July 30-31, 2024
    Fonsie Mealy’s, July 30-31: Lavery (Lady Hazel). A moving series of three A.L.S. and a Telegram to Gen. Eoin O'Duffy, July-August 1927, expressing her grief at the death of Kevin O'Higgins. €3,000 to €4,000.
    Fonsie Mealy’s, July 30-31: Dampier (Wm.) Nouveau Voyage Autour du Monde, ou l'on descrit en particulier l'Isthme de l'Amerique…, 2 vols. in one, Amsterdam, 1698. €800 to €1,200.
    Fonsie Mealy’s, July 30-31: Howell (James). Instructions for Forreine Travel Shewing by what Cours, and in what Compasse of Time…, London, 1642. €800 to €1,200.
    Fonsie Mealy’s
    Summer Rare Book
    & Collectors’ Sale
    July 30-31, 2024
    Fonsie Mealy’s, July 30-31: Rowling (J.K.) Harry Potter and the Philosopher's Stone, 8vo, L. (Bloomsbury) 1999, First Edn., First Printing of Deluxe Collectors Edn. Signed. €800 to €1,200.
    Fonsie Mealy’s, July 30-31: James (Wm.) A Full and Correct Account of the Military Occurrences of The Late War Between Great Britain and The United States of America. 2 vols. Lond. 1818. €650 to €900.
    Fonsie Mealy’s, July 30-31: The Laws of the United States, Published by Authority, 3 vols. Philadelphia (Richard Folwell) 1796. €600 to €800.
  • Sotheby’s, July 11: Galileo, Document annotated and signed by Galileo, dated Padua, 1595. £500,000 to £700,000.

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