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Around the Foothills

Save the book until its author is dead, the appraiser said.

May 05, 1988|DOUG SMITH

Eventually, almost everything that people collect finds its way into the Glendale Civic Auditorium, home to weekend trade fairs for Southern California's hobbyists.

Last Saturday the old wooden-floored auditorium--distinctive for its library-like austerity--was appropriately filled with books.

About 165 dealers from as far away as Alameda and Denver were there for the California Antiquarian Book Fair. Bringing boxes of books which they stacked into bookcases atop their booths, they turned the auditorium into a passable replica of a central city library, an image enhanced by a dowdy-looking crowd of collectors whose most extravagant flights of fashion tended toward tweed and corduroy.

Together, seller and buyer created a peculiar blend of the intellectual and mercantile. Those on both sides of the booth were as passionate about what was on the cover as what was inside the books.

Many people brought their own books with them, hoping to sell or at least to get a professional answer to the one most important question: "What is it worth?"

They had to check their books at a counter outside but before that usually went straight to the table on the opposite wall of the Civic's porticoed entrance.

There, through most of the day, sat Keith Burns, organizer of the fair and its designated appraiser, scrunching this way and that to relieve the stiffness.

Book owners came at him with an insistence that he indulged. Some carried books under their arms, others in plastic shopping bags or briefcases.

Burns, in jeans and a gray tweed jacket, had a subtle way of breaking bad news inoffensively.

He flipped through the offerings rapidly and talked just as rapidly about the good and bad points.

When one slight old man proudly opened a leather case that contained several Boy Scout handbooks, he surveyed them like a deck of cards.

He mumbled, "$15," for Boy Scouts in Belgium, slightly higher for the familiar American version.

"That's the best one you've got," Burns said showing genuine interest, as he turned the cover of "The World of A," and noticed the autograph of its author, A.E. Van Vogt.

"Save it until he's dead," Burns said. "He's old."

Most of the supplicants brought handsome volumes of the classics, probably handed down from a grandmother, Burns said in an aside, or works of popular culture such as "The Lone Ranger," which they had guarded since childhood.

Often, Burns summarily placed books in the $15 to $25 range, noting that its publisher was a reprint house.

He had wanted to make an offer on a copy of "Alice in Wonderland," signed by the real Alice who had been Carroll's model. But as official appraiser, he was forbidden.

He almost jumped with excitement when a woman in a raggedy polyester dress put down a raggedy binder identified as a record of Wells Fargo Way Bills from April 24 to Oct. 16, 1907.

"It's a nice book," he told her, thumbing through its crisp carbon copies. "I'd say several hundreds of dollars."

In a slow moment, Burns said the 5-year-old event was conceived as a provincial book fair to give small dealers a low-cost gathering place to buy and sell.

Now, he said, the fair rivals some of the nation's largest, and draws about 3,000 people.

"If you can't find a book in there, it's your fault," he said.

Indeed, if you were looking for the garish red "The Zombies That Ate Pittsburgh," it was your lucky day. Or, if your tastes were more sedate, you could have also found the three-volume "Memoirs of Francisco Crispi," for $75.

"He's an Italian patriot of the Unification period, late 19th Century," a dour bookseller named Michael R. Thompson said, obviously pleased that someone had asked.

It was a satisfactory day, but not a great one for Thompson's collection of history and philosophy.

"Nobody is interested in reading a good book about Gladstone," he mockingly protested. "Now if it's about his prurient sexual life, it's a different situation."

Downstairs, the tides of taste were also mystifying to Alameda bookseller Richard Persoff, who stood in a cream suit before his books like a genteel barker.

"Nobody is buying anything on Australia," he protested.

He pulled a book off a shelf, "Arabian Sand" by Wilfred Thesiger. It described the author's trek through Arabia before the invasion of the Land Rovers, and even recommended a passage.

"It's just a gorgeous book, and nobody's even opened it up and looked at it."

But Persoff couldn't complain. He said he was doing well in his specialty, which is mining and embraced the extremes of turgid geologic journals and fanciful stories.

He looked for "Coronado's Children" by J. Frank Dobie.

Its tales of lost mines and hidden treasures were the delight of his childhood, he said.

Into its pages his melancholy manner melted away in a passion.

"I enjoy being excited about what I have," he said.

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