Booked Up

A tower of tomes on Mission Street

Drunks and junkies move back and forth along the sidewalk at 2141 Mission. Up the way someone is yelling, and the voice echoes in the dim recess of the building's entrance. Only the faded stateliness of the tall art-deco facade hints at the treasures found within. I push a button at the locked door and a voice chimes back through the speaker:

"Tall Stories, come on up."
On the third floor of this nondescript building is a bookworm's heaven. Each of the three suites is occupied by booksellers -- Tall Stories, Meyer Boswell, and Bolerium -- and as I push through the heavy door and get my first glimpse of Tall Stories, I am sure I can hear angels singing.

A knot of people is gathered around the comfy chairs in the center of the room. Space heaters glow warmly between the glass cases. And the entire place is lined, floor to ceiling, with books books books.

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Mark Post greets me as he does every customer.
"Are you familiar with the store?" he asks, leaning over his Chinese takeout.

I tell him no, and we set out on a tour of Tall Stories. Unlike the other two shops, the Tall Stories shelves are run cooperatively, Post explains, with 18 dealers renting shelf space. Each dealer is responsible for stocking and pricing his books; sales duties rotate among six of the dealers.

Working as a bookstore clerk during college instilled me with a certain bibliophilic arrogance, but no amount of time spent in Waldenbooks could prepare me for Tall Stories. There are first editions all over the place, many signed by the authors. I pull Jeffrey Eugenides' terrific book The Virgin Suicides from the shelf and find his autograph scrawled across the title page -- a steal at $35. A first-edition Catcher in the Rye (unsigned), priced at $100, sits on a shelf next to an uncorrected galley of Anne Tyler's The Accidental Tourist.

"We've got the most reasonably priced selection of first editions around," Post boasts as he shows me his shelves.

A tax preparer by day, Post collects mostly new fiction and mystery titles. When I ask him where he finds his books -- it's called "scouting" in the trade -- Post demurs.

"Every dealer has his own sources," he smiles. "It's sort of a guarded secret, because competition is so fierce. Mostly you look through used-book stores, buy from other dealers --"

"People die," Chris Donoghue interrupts from behind the counter, "that's probably the lifeblood of the business."

The deadpan Donoghue, a young, taciturn man, works full time as a bookdealer. His particular area of expertise at Tall Stories is aviation and military history, which accounts for nearly 2,000 of what Post estimates to be Tall Stories' 30,000 titles.

Another co-op dealer hanging around Tall Stories this afternoon is Rocky Heck. Bearded, with incredibly cool thick-rimmed glasses, Heck deals in "hypermodern fiction," meaning fiction published within the last 10 years. As well as renting space at Tall Stories, Heck and wife Jill run Fool's Progress, a bookselling venture that also publishes the occasional chapbook. I strike up a conversation with Heck, and it isn't long before our talk turns to, well, books. More specifically, the high-stakes world of book speculation.

"In L.A. right now there's a lot of speculation happening in hypermodern fiction," Heck says, leaning casually on a glass case. "First editions of writers like Paretsky or Grafton are going for hundreds of dollars." A first edition of Sue Grafton's mystery tome A Is for Alibi, which began her "alphabet" series, can bring a dealer as much as $1,000. But the bubble can burst, leaving speculators holding the bag.

"Take Vollman," Post says. "We've got first editions of his on the shelves going for two, three hundred dollars, but no one's buying them. He's dead in the water."

"Probably everyone who was willing to pay that much for a Vollman title already has," Heck hypothesizes. "But if he writes something that's hot or gets killed in a jeep in Bosnia, well ... ."

Like real estate or the stock market, no one can accurately predict if a work will go bear or bull.

"It's chaos theory," says Heck, who wants to move away from the speculative side of bookdealing. And a place like Tall Stories, where the clientele is mostly made up of knowledgeable collectors, diffuses the erratic market forces by bringing dealers together.

"It's like having several different bookstores in one," Post says, "so it becomes sort of self-regulating."

Heck agrees. "It's like a miniature book fair, only it doesn't cost $5 to get in."

Another factor controlling prices is Interlock, a computer bulletin board operating out of Tacoma, Wash. The service brings dealers and buyers together, acting not only as a Home Shopping Network for bibliophiles, but also as a sort of Blue Book for collectors wanting to establish the value of a particular find.

According to Donna Rankin, who founded Tall Stories five years ago with a group of collectors, this debalkanization of the secondhand-book business is the reason the store exists.

"It's a place where dealers and collectors can come and use the reference materials," she says, "maybe sit for a while and swap stories."

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