Never judge a book by its cover, right?
But how about its size?
Scott Richter, resident used-book expert at Auntie’s Bookstore in downtown Spokane, recently got a call from a woman offering him a volume containing all of Abraham Lincoln’s speeches.
A paperback edition of Lincoln’s speeches sells for $14 new.
But hers was published in 1929 and bound in leather.
More significantly, the book measured a miniscule 2 centimeters high by 1.5 centimeters wide – the perfect size for, say, a California Raisin.
“It had belonged to her mother, and she had no idea what it was worth,” Richter recalled.
Imagine the woman’s delight when he informed her it might fetch as much as $400 from a rare book collector.
Of course, most used books are worth less – much less.
But people still bring them to Auntie’s by the boxload – or, in one case, a horse-trailer load – eager to swap them for in-store credit.
During a recent interview, Richter discussed treasure hunting, troublemakers and “the dude.”
S-R: Where did you grow up?
Richter: In Pratt, Kansas, for the most part – halfway between Wichita and Dodge City.
S-R: Were you an enthusiastic reader?
Richter: Yeah. That’s one reason I’ve been a bookseller so long. My parents and grandparents read to me from the day they brought me home from the hospital. I worked in libraries in junior high, high school and college.
S-R: Did you have a favorite book as a child?
Richter: When I was around 12, I really liked “My Side of the Mountain” by Jean Craighead-George. A kid runs away from home, lives in a hollowed-out tree and has a pet falcon.
S-R: Did you ever try that – running away from home?
Richter: No. I left that to my younger brother.
S-R: What career did you envision?
Richter: Initially in high school I wanted to study parapsychology – ghosts, extrasensory perception, things like that.
S-R: Did you suspect you had paranormal talents?
Richter: Everyone has a certain level of awareness. I was always curious about things.
S-R: What college did you attend?
Richter: The University of Missouri. I got a degree in forestry, and for the last 30-some years I’ve been in wood products. (laugh) But I started out managing nurseries and garden centers before switching to bookselling.
S-R: Then what?
Richter: I was working in Kansas City in an independent bookstore when a Borders (Books & Music) opened about a mile away, and the bookstore where I worked closed. So I put a camper top on my pickup, threw my sleeping bag and tent in the back and spent the next eight months exploring the western United States.
S-R: What brought you to Spokane?
Richter: I’d kept in contact with someone in Spokane who worked with me in Kansas City, and he said an independent bookstore here was about to move from a small location to a large building and that they’d need more people. So I headed this way, interviewed for a job at Auntie’s and was hired.
S-R: How did you learn the used-book trade?
Richter: Working with more experienced people. I also did a lot of book scouting – going to estate sales and other book stores. That was before the days of Google – back when people priced a used book according to what they thought they could get, when it may have been worth a whole lot more than they were asking.
S-R: Do you recall coming across vastly underpriced books?
Richter: That happened all the time. I picked up a book at Value Village for $2 that was worth $900 – “Bid Time Return,” a science-fiction novel by Richard Matheson, who wrote a lot of “Twilight Zone” episodes. They made it into a movie called “Somewhere in Time.”
S-R: Before the internet created a worldwide market, how would one find a buyer for something like that?
Richter: About the only way was to take it to a store that dealt in collectable books.
S-R: How has Auntie’s evolved since you arrived?
Richter: When I first got here, we were still crammed into the store on West Riverside. Then we moved to the Liberty Building and spread out over three floors. Used books took up the whole second floor. Now we have a lot fewer books overall, and the used books are integrated with the new books pretty much all on the first floor.
S-R: What’s some wisdom you’ve gleaned over the years?
Richter: The author John Dunning, who wrote a series of books featuring the character Cliff Janeway, an independent Denver bookseller, said, “When you go someplace that sells used books, be sure to look at all the small stuff, like pamphlets. Nobody else checks those, so you’re more likely to find hidden treasures.” That’s paid off for me.
S-R: What else have you learned?
Richter: The best way to be effective at this job is to see as many books as possible and remember those titles. That gives you an idea of a book’s relative scarcity. After doing this for 30 years, the majority of books I see I’ve seen before. So when I come across something I haven’t seen before, that interests me.
S-R: Has the internet been good for Auntie’s sales?
Richter: As far as new books, yes. But not for selling used books. We tried selling used books online, but we no longer do.
S-R: Is there a busiest time of year for buyers?
Richter: Holiday season – November, December.
S-R: How about a busiest time for people bringing you books?
Richter: (laugh) Are you familiar with (Japanese organizing consultant) Marie Kondo? For the past several years, thrift stores nationwide have been overwhelmed with used books because of her philosophy of getting rid of anything that doesn’t spark joy, starting with books.
S-R: As a book dealer, which used books spark joy for you?
Richter: The first consideration is condition. Then demand, which changes over time. When I started selling books in the ’80s, early 20th century authors and books about World War I were losing their appeal. Now interest in World War II is disappearing.
S-R: How about Vietnam-era histories and novels?
Richter: That war was so unpopular that even the guys who experienced it don’t want to read about it.
S-R: What’s the largest book collection anyone has ever brought you?
Richter: Once, on my day off, a 35-foot horse trailer pulled up outside, totally full of boxes of books.
S-R: Did someone say, “No thanks”?
Richter: I wish they had. Instead, they hauled them down to the basement, and a number of us went through them over a period of about two years, as time allowed.
S-R: Where there any hidden gems?
Richter: Out of approximately 500 boxes, there were maybe four boxes of books worth taking on trade.
S-R: Are there many places people can take used books?
Richter: Not anymore. Just a handful.
S-R: What do you like most about your job?
Richter: The people I work with.
S-R: What do you like least?
Richter: Troublemakers and shoplifters. One day, someone brought in a three-volume set of books that we recognized right away, because it had been stolen from us.
S-R: What did you do?
Richter: We kept the books and didn’t give any store credit.
S-R: What has this job taught you about yourself?
Richter: That I’m tolerant.
S-R: Even with so much experience appraising books, are you still learning?
Richter: Sure. Once I paid $4 for a book-club copy of “Catcher in the Rye.” Later I looked online and saw people were asking $100 or more, when normally book-club editions are almost worthless. But when the novel came out in 1951, J.D. Salinger insisted his photograph not appear in the original Little, Brown and Company edition. But his picture did appear on the dust jacket of the book-club edition, which makes it more valuable.
S-R: If a collectable book – say a Louis L’Amour Western – is autographed by the author, does it make a difference whether it’s signed simply “Louis L’Amour” or “To my pal, Jack – Louis L’Amour”?
Richter: Not if the buyer’s name is Jack, I suppose. (laugh) But most collectors would prefer a book not inscribed with a personal note unless the dedication is to someone famous, in which case that can add value.
S-R: Are you a book collector?
S-R: How many do you own?
Richter: More than I need. I’m in the process of whittling down.
S-R: Marie Kondo would applaud you. How do you get rid of books?
Richter: Donate them to Friends of the Spokane Public Library. Sell some. Give others as gifts.
S-R: When you travel, do you still prowl used book stores?
S-R: What’s a book you’re looking for?
Richter: “The Dude De Ching: A Dudeist Interpretation of the Tao Te Ching.”
S-R: Autographed by Jeff Bridges?
Richter: I’d take one of those. (laugh)
S-R: Dedicated to “my fellow dude, Scott”?
Richter: Even better!
Writer Michael Guilfoil can be contacted at mguilfoil@com
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