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VALLEY WEEKEND | BOOKS

Collectors Find Value in Written Word

At the Burbank event, where a tome's price may bear no relationship to its literary worth, the perfect book is sometimes the one with a mistake in it.

May 09, 1996|PATRICIA WARD BIEDERMAN | TIMES STAFF WRITER

Book collectors are different from you and me.

They know the difference between the first state and the rest of the first edition of John Steinbeck's classic "Of Mice and Men."

Before some wise editor got to Steinbeck and told him, "No, no, the line doesn't work," the author had written that Lenny's arms "were pendula." In the rest of the first edition, Lenny's arms "hung loosely," the term preferred on Earth. But in the copy that you want, if you are a book collector, that dissonant pendula is worth about $375, the difference between a corrected first edition and the $750 you are likely to pay for a more pretentious but earlier version.

A lot of people who went to the Burbank Book Fair last weekend know this stuff. They know, for instance, that you would much rather have the first printing of F. Scott Fitzgerald's "The Great Gatsby" that says, incorrectly, that someone was "sick in tired" of something or other. Some sharp-eyed editor caught that one, too, and, thus (more or less), the brisk trade in modern first editions was born.

The Burbank Book Fair, held spring and fall at the Burbank Hilton and Convention Center, is the premier local event for book collectors. This year, for the first time, the fair was decently publicized, and it seemed to attract a somewhat wider audience than the people who would kill their mothers for an obscure Jim Thompson paperback. According to fair organizers, as many as 2,000 collectors showed up on opening day Saturday, somewhat fewer Sunday.

The fair is always a hoot. It raises such cosmic questions as why semi-demented-looking young men seem to make up the bulk of book collectors. Sunday afternoon the browser you couldn't ignore was a tall, ashen guy who looked like he had traded in his Sealy Posturepedic for something watertight with a blue satin lining. Is it redundant to say his T-shirt read, "Vampire"?

Among the collectors rummaging through the stalls of more than 100 dealers were Keith and Jane Gaydon of Orange. Like so many of their literate ilk, the Gaydons have books "all over," according to Jane, "in the trunk of our car, on the walls, in the buffet cabinet. There are some stored in the garage, and the good ones we have in the glassed-in cabinet."

Keith estimates that they have 5,000 volumes, most of them science fiction. "We also collect teapots," he says.

There are always fads in the book trade, and in recent years one of the oddest has been the incredible prices paid for recently published mysteries. If you come across a first edition of Sue Grafton's "A Is for Alibi," published in 1982, snap it up. It currently sells for $1,000 to $1,200, according to fair exhibitor Craig Graham, owner, with wife Patti, of Westwood's Vagabond Books. That's only remarkable when you recall the price of a fine copy of "Of Mice and Men."

Among the buyers at the fair were Linda and Richard Guillis of Moreno Valley. "Books have been a passion for us for years and years," Richard explains. The Guillises spent $2,500 at the gathering, numbering among their purchases a highly marketable copy of the Michael Connelly mystery "The Concrete Blonde."

The Guillises are proprietors of a virtual bookstore, called As My Whimsy Takes Me. They buy books they like and describe and offer them for sale on the Internet.

They got into the business, they say, in hopes of turning it into something that will occupy them and add to their income when they retire in a decade or so. They also hope to make buying trips to London and elsewhere and to deduct them as a business expense. One of the reasons they chose this sideline business, they say, is because the vast majority of book dealers are so decent. Richard did allow, however, that he had seen a dealer at the fair charging top dollar for a copy of a book that had come off a remainder shelf and had had the identifying mark of shame sanded off.

Among the high-end dealers at the show was Joseph the Provider/Books, of Santa Barbara. Known as Joe the Pro, this is where actor John Larroquette went when he decided he could finally afford the Samuel Beckett collection he had always wanted. Company President Ralph B. Sipper says Burbank is the minors compared to such major events as the New York shows sponsored by the Antiquarian Booksellers Assn. But Joe the Pro had a good weekend in Burbank. It sold a first paperback edition of Vladimir Nabokov's 1970 novel, "Ada or Ardor: A Family Chronicle," for $5,000.

Needless to say, this was no ordinary paperback. Nabokov, who rarely autographed his books, inscribed this one for his wife, Vera, to whom the novel is dedicated. An amateur lepidopterist, Nabokov also embellished it with a drawing of an imaginary butterfly that incorporated the title in the wings. The book is part of a major collection the bookseller recently acquired in Switzerland from Nabokov's son, Dmitri. A New York attorney was the buyer.

On Saturday night Pacific Book Auction Galleries of San Francisco auctioned off a collection of Edgar Rice Burroughs material as part of the fair. A copy of "Tarzan of the Apes" sold for $19,500 to a Beverly Hills book dealer. Also on the block was Burroughs' 1923 novel "The Girl From Hollywood," about a starlet who kicks her cocaine habit and finds redemption in the San Fernando Valley.

The dust jacket features the provocatively clad starlet, a lecherous movie maker and a cameraman in a polka-dot cap. "The young woman looks vulnerable, and the man looks . . . very capable," reports auction house President Douglas Johns. It sold for $2,588 to a Westside dealer.

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