A THOUSAND WORDS - Alex Waterhouse-Hayward's blog on pictures, plants, politics and whatever else is on his mind.


Booked To Die - The Perils Of Membership
Sunday, November 04, 2007

"It's a Book-of-the-Month Club first," Nuff said enunciating each word with chilly distinction. "It's printed from the same plates as the first, or maybe even the same sheets are used; that's why it says first edition. But the binding is different, there's no price on the jacket, and the book has a blind stamp on the back board."
"How much is it worth?"
"This book? Five bucks, tops. There are eight million copies of it in the naked city."
- from Booked to Die(1992), by John Dunning

Rosemary refused. I had asked my wife to call the Book-of-the-Month Club to cancel my membership. She was to tell them she was a recent widow. The next time, I did the calling. I wasn't swayed by their, "Sir, our records show you have been a member since May 15, 1975. Are you sure?"

It all began in 1968, when I was living in Mexico City. A friend had a diplomatic passport with access to the diplomatic pouch which meant she could bypass the notorious Mexican postal system. She bragged about the book deals she got from BOMC. I lusted after her unabridged Random House Dictionary of the English Language. But Even though I tipped my mailman at Christmas and for el día del cartero (Postie Day), I never got more than eight or nine of my National Geographics in any given year. The others would get "lost." I could never be a member of the BOMC.

When I arrived in Vancouver in 1975, I joined almost instantly. It was a happy day when I got my first shipment of "free" books. It included a copy of William Shirer's The Rise and Fall of the Third Reich.

Selecting and ordering my new books became a pleasant routine. Thanks to the BMOC I was exposed to John Updike, Margaret Atwood, V.S. Naipaul and Anthony Burgess. I discovered Elmore Leonard, P.D. James, Tony Hillerman and Colin Dexter.

It wasn't all fiction. I got hooked on Stephen J. Gould and Richard Dawkins. And there were all those wonderful reference books, like Benet's Reader's Encyclopedia and John Ayto's Dictionary of Word Origins.

When my friends (and in particular Paul Grescoe) told me my books were worthless, I countered that no dollar value can be placed on the pleasure of reading a good book.

By the early '90s my BOMC buys were being supplemented by purchases at local bookstores. Authors who interested me - Jerome Charyn, J. Robert Janes, even Walter Mosley - were not offered by the club. Not that my tastes were especially stuffy. BOMC also did not carry Bernard Cornwell's terrific but lowbrow Richard Sharpe series, set in the Napoleonic Wars. I gobbled them up as well as Stephen Coonts' The Flight of the Intruder.

By then I had discovered Manhattan Books (now Sophia Books), so I could read my favourite writers in Spanish": Alejo Carpentier, Homero Aridjis and Paco Ignacio Taibo II. I started losing BMOC order forms beneath piles of faxes and other places. Unwelcome and unordered Stephen Kings started appearing at my front door.

Then, in 1996, I met mystery writer John Dunning (above)and read his novel Booked to Die, about a Denver cop who is also a collector of first-editon fiction. The motive for the novel's multiple murders centres around what appears to be a worthless BOMC collection.

Booked to Die with its antiquarian-bookstore atmosphere, rings true because Dunning is also a keen book collector. In the novel, he reveals the crazy prices popualr first-edition fiction can fetch.

A friend, a local book collector Robert Blackwood, told me those prices could be corroborated on Abe Books, a web site with more than 50 million listings compiled from antiquarian bookstores in North America and elsewhere. There I found that Stephen King's Salem's Lot is valued at $450, Anne Rice's Interview with the Vampire at $2000 and my BOMC version of John Updike's The Coup at $5 (while the real thing goes for at least $50). Not surprisingly, Dunning's Booked to Die goes for at least $1000. And if your search in Abe you will discover that there is such a thing as an early as opposed to a later first edition. The price between those categories can be huge.

Also from Booked to Die , I learned that a good, clean first edition is worthless if:

1. The dustjacket has been clipped. It seems some booksellers routinely do this to BOMC books' jackets to hide their lack of price.

2. It contains a written greeting or dedication from anyone but the author.

While I do not regret my club years, I no longer want my books to come to me at the front door. Part of the fun of acquiring books is reading reviews and going out to look for them.

Now that Manhattan Books has resurrected as Sophia Books I can find or order Saramagos, Pérez-Revertes and Taibos.

When Mystery Merchant on 4th long closed I bought my mysteries or ordered them at Granville Books. When they closed I had to start going to Chapter's. But I have also discovered the pleasure of browsing at the many antiquarian bookstores in town, such as Lawrence Books and MacLeod's Books.

Just don't try to sell your BOMC books to them. They won't buy, although Robert Blackwood did cite one exception. Such is the rarity of the 1952 first edition of J.D. Salinger's Catcher in the Rye (over $10,000) that pristine BOMC editions will trade for $300.

As a result of my better book-buying habits, I no longer pay "shipping and handling" charges and don't even think of the lost "bargains"."

As Ruby, the expert bookseller from Booked to Die , says, "A book has always cost about what a meal in a good restaurant costs. Did then, still does. I get sick hearing how expensive books are. Which would you rather have, a good book, or a tender steak? I know what I'd take, seven days a week."

But then Ruby did not know then of the bargain section of Chapters where one can buy a good book and have money left over for a tender steak.


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