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.
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.”
In one of the glass cases in the center of the store I find a title by Melville, The Marquesas Islands. Heck pulls it gingerly from the case. Carrying an English imprint from 1846, the book sells for $750.
“That's his first book,” Post explains, peering reverently over my shoulder. “I believe it was called Typee when it was published later in America. That's one of Allan's finds.”
Allan Milkerit is the reigning doyen in this nest of experts. An ex-systems analyst with gray hair, Milkerit has been a bookseller for 17 years (“It sort of took over,” he says of book-collecting, “like a cancer”), and was one of the original dealers who set up shop at Tall Stories. He walks me through the store, stopping occasionally to run the dried, cracked skin of his fingers over some particularly beautiful rare bindings. I salivate over a 12-volume set of Samuel Johnson's works printed in 1801.
“Yeah,” Milkerit smiles, “those are nice. Tell me, what did you study in college?”
When I answer English, he smiles again and produces a book he recently picked up during a scouting trip to Portland. Milton's Paradise Lost and Regained, an American imprint. “Look at the date,” he says. Seventeen ninety-six. “I've been looking back over auction records for the past 25 years; I can't find this printing. The oldest the Library of Congress lists is 1801. I paid about 10 bucks for it in an antique store in Portland.”
When I ask Milkerit why Tall Stories doesn't advertise, he feigns shock.
“We have an ad in the Book Finder [a listing of used-book stores]. And we have an ad in the phone book.”
We spend some time going through his newest discoveries: a title from 1850 with hand-colored engravings; a stack of Beatrix Potter books from 1905 he's trying to price.
“The fun isn't sitting here selling books,” Milkerit says, tenderly closing an aged copy of Potter's Peter Rabbit, “it's going out and finding new treasures.”
I spend a few seconds reconnoitering the Meyer Boswell shop, which specializes in legal history. It's not as large as Tall Stories, but the clerk informs me that the owner is trying to find a buyer for some recently discovered letters written by Clarence Darrow. Asking price: $1.5 million.
Down the hall is Bolerium Books, which specializes in radical and labor history. When I introduce myself to co-owner John Durham as a writer for SF Weekly, he extends his condolences.
“Another soul swallowed by corporate power,” he laughs, offering me a piece of his chocolate chip cookie as consolation. Durham, who runs Bolerium along with fellow traveler Mike Pincus, is likably acerbic as he gives me a tour of the stacks. He points to a rack almost totally bereft of books wedged between waist-high piles of boxes.
“That's our Bolivian Trotskyite section,” he laughs. “We're working on it.”
It's only a half-joke: One of Bolerium's best-selling sections is devoted to Trotsky's thoughts. Why the boom? I ask. Durham laughs. “I dunno, everyone under 30 is buying it.”
Durham explains that Bolerium's mission is to maintain the history ignored by the mainstream.
“There are only about four people in the U.S. doing what we're doing,” he tells me, noting that about 30 percent of his business is selling books to research libraries.
Along a back wall, Bolerium keeps a fantastic selection of old left-wing pamphlets. From one of the file boxes Durham produces an IWW tract defending the Wobbly leaders rounded up in the Red Scare of 1919; from another he produces a labor song book titled A Song in My Pocket. I tell him I saw the same chapbook in the local history room at the public library.
“They probably got it from me,” he says matter-of-factly.
On another shelf I find a collection of travel guides commissioned by the WPA's Writers Project in the '30s. I ask Durham about them and he delivers an informative minilecture about the New Deal arts subsidy and its wonderfully subversive consequences.
“We also have one of the best selections of gay literature, everything from the more learned stuff to the one-hand publications,” he says pointing to a shelf lined with gay-porn paperbacks with titles like The Carefree Queen. “What's funny is that when the British Library went through here looking for gay titles they were more interested in this stuff.”
Before leaving, I step back down the hall to Tall Stories to purchase the first-edition Baghdad-by-the-Bay that caught my eye earlier. I'm a sucker for Herb Caen. And at $25, the beautiful old hardback, complete with pristine dust jacket, is less than a new book. As I'm standing at the counter, a young woman wearing bookish eyeglasses walks through the door.
“Are you familiar with the store?” Mark Post asks from behind the register. She nods enthusiastically. “Have fun,” he says.