Bookscouts are essential to the antiquarian book trade. They haunt thrift stores, estate sales, library sales, auctions and other places to find books they can buy cheaply enough to sell to dealers and make a profit. Successful bookscouts combine a knowledge of books and the book market with hustle and luck. Luck, you can’t do anything about. Hustle and knowledge, you can. The most successful bookscouts I know work hard: They visit multiple thrift stores every day (or camp out at just one to wait for the periodic re-stocking of the bookshelves). They get up early to be first in line at estate and library sales. They spend the time it takes to go through piles of paper in search of valuable ephemera. And they study the booksellers in their area and go to book fairs to learn about the market for books. In short, they do whatever it takes to learn about books and their authors.
Bookscouting had changed a lot since I started doing it in the mid-1980s. In those days, I’d scan newspaper want ads to find garage sales that offered books. I’d then use the City Directory to put a phone number with an address. I’d call up the seller, inquire about the kind and quantity of books and try to get them to let me come over early. I’d trick my way into church and school sales by bringing a box of worthless books and telling whomever was at the door that I was there to donate them, hoping they’d let me in. I ran ads in my neighborhood newspaper offering to come to people’s homes to buy their books. I put my business cards on bulletin boards in grocery stores. On Saturday mornings from March to November, I’d race from garage sale to garage sale trying to beat other scouts to good books. (And I’d always ask the sellers if they had any books if there weren’t any already out.) I thought of bookscouting as urban fishing: Fishing requires skill and luck, and so does bookscouting. The bookscouts I competed with generally knew books. My heart would sink if I pulled up to a sale and saw one of their cars, because I knew I’d been beaten.
Now, bookscouts rely heavily on scanners that tell them Amazon sales ratings or somesuch. It works for books with bar codes, meaning it doesn’t work for books produced before bar codes. I don’t think technology can make up for knowledge, although I know booksellers who rely on scanners.
Scanners aren’t all that’s changed bookscouting. Now, any one with a book and an internet connection can sell their books directly online — and many do. Maybe that’s why we’re seeing fewer and fewer bookscouts. They’re trading the a dollar today for the hope of two dollars tomorrow. Welcome to our world!