Sunday, August 4, 2013

Sci-Fi in the Hinterlands: A Tribute

I am, as long-time readers of this blog will know, a used-book aficionado. I also have a fondness for classic science fiction.

Recently, the town in which I live was part of the Hotter 'n Hell Hunnerd Mile Yard Sale, or some such thing, with all and sundry lining the highway from Point A to Point B and trying to sell junk. As part of this, the worthy ladies who support the county library were holding a "Cool Book Sale." You see, they always have this little room in the lobby where they sell used books for a dollar or two, right beside the maize exhibit, but I never find anything good, not being interested in coffee-stained copies of Going Rogue or the Left Behind series. So, I figured, I'll go to this little sale they're having and poke around, because, you know, I have family in town and want to go hide out somewhere, but surely I won't find anything.

Was I ever wrong!

It was just this big room filled with big tables filled with stacks of old hardcovers. For fifty cents apiece, no matter what. First edition of Dashiell Hammett's The Glass Key? Fifty cents. First edition of A. E. van Vogt's Empire of the Atom, cover and all, in perfect condition, from a run of 2,000 copies by a small press that went out of business immediately thereafter? Fifty cents. I got an excellent old Modern Library copy of Plutarch's Lives, and a collection of C. L. Moore's best pulp stories, and a flawless Everyman's Gawain and the Green Knight, and Dorothy Day's autobiography, and a book on Thomist existentialism by Jacques Maritain, and, well, other things.

And then there were these tables filled with old paperbacks. They had plastic grocery sacks: fill one for a dollar. There's just something wrong with me, I think, but I genuinely enjoy certain books more when they sport simple, non-glossy covers with crude artwork and lots of exclamation points. Well, I now have enough to last me through, oh, the rest of the year. A. E. van Vogt! Alfred Bester! Poul Anderson! Damon Knight! James Blish! Robert Heinlein! E. E. "Doc" Smith! They had stacks of 'em, and they were begging me to take as many as I could carry! Which I did. Twice.

In all I spent eight dollars and twenty-five cents. Eight dollars and twenty-five cents! It was like one of my bizarre bookstore dreams. I mean, here's this perfect and rather rare first-edition copy of a classic science fiction novel, and I only paid fifty cents for it. Actually, I feel kind of bad about it, and am tempted to see what I can get for it on Amazon, so I can donate the money back. I'm not sure if I feel that energetic, though; maybe I'll just sit on it for a few years and see if the price varies. Right now it would bring in anywhere from sixty to a hundred and fifty dollars. It's a shame that the library people can't wrap their minds around doing something more with these books, but hardly surprising. People around here simply don't use computers much. I would try to get involved, but I don't know. The guy spearheading the disc-golf course project is already making enough waves as it is…

I think most of the novels came from the same person, probably through an estate sale or a donation by family members. The Hammett novel has a name in the front, dated 1944, and the same name appears in many of the paperbacks. He served in the Marine Corps and apparently had much the same taste in science fiction as I do. Based on what I heard the old ladies saying while I was crawling around on my hands and knees under the tables, pawing madly through boxes like Gollum looking for his Precious, a lot of the paperbacks came from the drugstore right off the town square. They dated into the seventies at least.

So here we have this native son, a marine and possibly a veteran—I would guess World War II or Korea, given the spread of dates—who, during his mature years, would frequent the town drugstore to see what new science fiction they had on the rotating rack. But some of the paperbacks plainly came from second-hand dealers in other parts of the country, so maybe he sought out the writers he really wanted, too. And what he wanted was the greats. None of that Asimov stuff.

Our marine apparently wasn't much of a fantasy reader, alas. There were some sword-and-sorcery items (Michael Moorcock, Fritz Leiber, &c.) but no out-and-out fantasy. My abiding dream is to find an old hardcover copy of The Worm Ouroboros for really cheap. It seems that I must continue to wait.

So, to conclude: Sir, I salute you for your service to our country, your loyalty to our town, and your enlightened and wholly anomalous taste in fine literature. Your collection will (partly) be in good hands. Requiescat in pace.

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