Geek With (Lots of) Books: Super Special Secret Origin
Several years ago Rick Klaw wrote that he had decided to take a break from his popular column Geeks With Books which ran on SF Site. I ran into him that very week and expressed an interest in doing a couple of columns so that Geeks everywhere might have someone to rant and rave with. For whatever reason, I never ended up doing those columns at the time, but the idea kept lingering in the back of my mind. Recently I ran into John DeNardo of SF Signal and approached him with the idea. He liked it and this column was born. I liked Rick’s old title for the column and added my spin to it so that you get Geek With (Lots Of) Books.
Like Rick, I have been involved with books my entire life. I have worked in a bookstore. I helped open the first Walden Book Store in Austin in 1972. I found out soon that loving books and working with books were two wildly divergent ideas. I was a collector and worshiped at the altar of the paperback and later hardback.
Somewhere over the years I accumulated books. To be sure, there are a few collections within the walls, but it is mainly a mass accumulation. Before my massive sale two years ago, my wife, cat and I shared our living space with slightly over 20,000 volumes, assorted art prints, comics, movies, records, cassettes, CDs, and other entertainment related fun things. Early on I read voraciously – omnivorously, and indiscriminately. These days my time is at a premium. Where one summer I managed 120 books in the summer school break, I am now happy if I can squeeze in 50 pages before I nod off.
The previous couple of paragraphs probably describe too many of you out there. You are not alone. We are all members of the Brotherhood of Readers. For some, this is the Brotherhood of Evil Mutant Readers. Depends on your orientation. I tend away from Chaotic Evil these days.
In one of his final columns, Rick mentioned that he was attending AggieCon. I was there that weekend, just as I had been for the last 33 years. And I was selling books. For more than 30 of those 33 years I have sold books at this convention. It was innocent at first. At my first AggieCon (AggieCon 4 in 1973, my first SF convention) I met some wonderful people including Jack Williamson and Robert “Bob” Vardeman who were the Guests of Honor with Chad Oliver whom I had previously met. There was a small dealers room – again my first encounter with the like. I saw a few books priced $3 and $5 that I had seen in Austin bookstores recently for a quarter.
My student-math-besotted-brain reasoned that I should be the one buying the book for the quarter and selling for the princely profit. I tried it the next year, covered my expenses, had a place to sit, and saw all my friends. I now had a Modus Operandi for working a convention. Sit, talk, sell – rake in the dough.
Later I discovered the curse of the autographed book. At that convention, I obtained a few autographs – maybe ten from Joe Lansdale and Bill Crider. Through an amazing logistical snafu, I managed not to get my Michael Moorcock books signed. Understand that I had a shelf with some 70 signed Moorcock titles already on it (there are others hidden on some paperback shelves somewhere). I took a small box with roughly 30 titles to finish out the books I owned and get them signed.
While packing up after the great snafu and after talking with Rick, I began to think about book obsessions and autograph fiends. I tried to remember the first book I got the author to sign, the first signed and numbered title, the most interesting meeting, the wildest weekend. I thought they might make interesting subjects for discussion.
The amazing Chad Oliver provided the first autograph I collected. It was the early 1970’s and I was in school at the University of Texas in Austin where Chad was a Professor of Anthropology. I saw a flyer for a lecture he was giving and I was familiar with the name but not the works. I had no Chad Oliver books in my collection at that time. (This being about 1973, my total book collection probably numbered 250 books, mainly Doc Savage and Thomas Burnett Swann). I wandered by my favorite used book store the day of the lecture and found a copy of Chad’s Mists of Dawn (his first book – a Winston juvenile with the wonderful Alex Shomburg end papers). The book was naked (no dust jacket) and lying in a shopping cart. I picked it up and saw that the front free flyleaf (or FFF, a term I had never heard) was gone exposing the title page when you open up the book. In pencil in the top right corner was the heavenly price “FREE”.
I took it home and went to the lecture. The price remained there and Chad smiled when he saw it. “Free?” he said. “They may still owe you some money.” I held on to that book for many years, eventually replacing it with a better copy and a dust jacket. Chad became the idol of all science fiction writers in Austin and we became friends. I was never so pleased as when he came to see me after my first short story was published and he showed me the secret handshake.
My most unusual autographed book had to be the copy of Blind Date by Jerzy Kosinski that I found in a Woolco in Laredo, Texas in 1980 for $1.00.
The one that got away. About 1973 I was working and going to school. I made slightly less than $2 per hour and worked about 28 hours a week. My take home pay was about $45 a week to cover food, gas, rent, utilities, tuition, books and entertainment. I went to my favorite bookstore. The owner saw me come in and took me over to a little bookcase. From it she lifted a red leather volume. “I have to show this to you,” she said. I looked at the gold lettering. “Presentation copy” it said. Phantasmagoria it said. I knew that title! I opened up the volume and there it was – the tiny signature “Lewis Carroll”. The price was a mere $150. There was just absolutely no way I could get it. My brain kept screaming “GET IT!” My checkbook said “NO WAY, JOSE.” and I sat there holding this gem for five minutes before I had to give it back. For me, it was like being offered the Hope Diamond for a mere $500,000 when your total assets were 3 sticks of gum and a paperback of On the Road.
My wife, Sandi, and I spent a lazy Sunday afternoon tooling around Dallas Ft. Worth with Dan Simmons one day. We picked him up at the airport, took him to lunch and then over to a scheduled signing in Ft. Worth. After that we eventually ended up back at DFW and sent him on his way. This was part of a special “Dan Simmons Storms Texas” tour where he visited Austin, Houston, and DFW in one quick weekend. It was fun; he signed my books and doodled odd pictures inside them.
I went to a World Fantasy Convention in Arizona in the mid 1980’s. Among the books I took to get signed was a British hardback of The Anubis Gates by Tim Powers. When I presented it to him to sign, he made Jim Blaylock come over and sign the FFF. One signed the “William” name while the other did “Ashbless”. (William Ashbless is the name of a fictional poet – a contemporary of Samuel Taylor Coleridge – invented by Powers and Blaylock while they were in college. He is also the protagonist of The Anubis Gates) Tim also brought Dean Koontz into the picture and had him also sign as William Ashbless. I have never found out the full story of Dean’s involvement but all three signatures grace that copy.
Joe Lansdale on Batman: Captured By The Engines. Joe dedicated the book to me, recalling a cold day when he and I and our wives went to a small state park to watch a small film group do an adaptation of “Fish Night” (one of his short stories). It was a long day but we had real fun. I remember us coming up with post-apocalyptic titles for stories. My favorite was “A Man Called Taxicab” but Joe liked “Captured by the Engines” and when that became a Batman story, I got the dedication.
Filed under: Geek with Lots of Books
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