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Titles as Treasure : * Dave Roberts has made a profitable career from hunting down desirable volumes and reselling them.

March 18, 1994|PATRICIA WARD BIEDERMAN | SPECIAL TO THE TIMES

Dave Roberts is king of the Valley book scouts.

Book scouts are the people who scour garage and estate sales, private collections, Goodwill stores and other sources for desirable titles they can sell at a profit to used-book dealers who resell them in turn.

There was a time, according to Denver writer and book dealer John Dunning, when many book scouts were "borderline psychopaths who slept in their cars" and subsisted on the $30 or $40 a day they could make selling books to people like him. (Dunning, who owns Denver's Old Algonquin bookshop, is also the author of a highly collectible mystery, called "Booked to Die," that begins with the murder of a book scout.) But a new generation of what Dunning calls white-collar book scouts has begun to emerge.

"You go out to garage sales and you see doctors with knapsacks looking for books," says Dunning. Nouveau scouts such as Roberts have the same unerring nose for a profitable book as their more downscale predecessors, but they also have permanent addresses, college educations and Visa cards. There are a mere handful of Angelenos like Roberts who make a decent living scouting books.

Roberts, 35, came to Los Angeles in 1990 to break into the film business. A new graduate of San Francisco State, the Northern California native finagled his way into the production company of Roger Corman, king of the Bs, only to discover that he couldn't make enough to eat regularly working as an assistant to the head of distribution.

Books bailed him out. As Roberts recalls, he first realized he could make a decent living at this after he bought five bags of used books for $1 each at a Laurel Plaza charity sale and resold them for $150.

An avid reader, Roberts figures he acquired his sense of what would and would not sell during the many hours of his youth he spent scrutinizing library shelves, category by category. He also bought books for a retail bookstore while in college. The owners of three local stores--Bargain Books, Book Castle and Dutton's--generously took him under their wing and schooled him in the specifics of the used-book business. Now, as a full-time book scout, he regularly supplies more than 25 dealers in the Los Angeles area and earns more than $50,000 a year.

Roberts looks for different kinds of books for different stores. He knows, for instance, that Berkelouw Books in Hollywood always wants books about the South Pacific and Australia, in particular. Sifting through thousands of books a week, some found at sources he zealously keeps to himself, he makes a split-second judgment about whether a particular item is a good title, then brings it home to examine more closely at his leisure. He has so many boxes of books in his Van Nuys home, he says, "the cars have been evicted from the garage."

This is a great town for book scouting, according to Roberts. The weather is such that you can work year-round without fear of chilblains, and there are no climate-related perils--like the humidity--that destroy so many books in the American Southeast.

"It's a constant treasure hunt," Roberts says of the book trade. He is always on the lookout for desirable books in good condition. On the resale market, he reminds, goodness has little or nothing to do with literary merit. The key is "the perception of desirability." Thus, he always has his eyes peeled for the early works of Stephen King and other guaranteed resellers.

"I probably find one book a week I can sell for $100, one book a month that I can sell for more than $100 and one book every four or five months that I can sell for $500 or more," he says. And then sometimes you get lucky.

Every successful book scout has a story about the big score. Roberts made his several years ago at a Thousand Oaks Library sale. He found a copy of "The Great Gatsby" inscribed by F. Scott Fitzgerald to a woman he was seeing. Roberts paid 50 cents for the book and sold it for $1,700. Had it had a dust jacket, which is routinely far more valuable than the book it protects, it would have been worth 10 times as much.

During his daily quest Roberts often has to explain to owners that books are not necessarily valuable simply because they are old. And he must often tell a disappointed private seller that what he or she thought was a valuable first edition is actually a book-club edition good only for reading. (Often the only clue, he says, is that the book-club edition will have a dot or other small mark in the lower right corner of the back cloth cover.)

*

Increasingly, Roberts is able to marry his love of film and his love of books. He sometimes goes shopping for celebrities who collect books but don't want to be bothered at stores. He also gets the occasional call from Disney or one of the other studios seeking a particular book for a film or TV project. One wanted a volume on orchids, another a book on turn-of-the-century apparatus for dispensing of soda water.

He has also begun working with art directors who want a library full of comely books or even a collection that reflects a particular character. Asked to provide a library, circa 1978, for a college-educated feminist who loves the outdoors, Roberts delivered books on backpacking, healthy eating and a collection of essays by Gloria Steinem.

Book scouting is more than a profession for Roberts. He is married to actress/comedian Caden McCort, whom he met at a garage sale--"over books." And he has the sense, whenever he rescues a book from the mechanized jaws of the trash truck, that he is performing a cultural service. "If you don't take care of these books, they'll be lost for all eternity."

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