Saturday, August 25, 2012

Living with Women: Bathoom Time

If you should hear in the upcoming weeks about me being found dead on the toilet, and authorities are baffled as to what might have killed me, I want you to copy and paste this article into the Crimestoppers tip line and pick up a quick hundred bucks. It'll be my parting gift to you, and it will also allow my spirit to rest from beyond the pale, with you having solved the mystery of my toilet death.

The following is a true story:

My home is entangled with estrogen. My wife is a woman. Our niece, currently living in the guest bedroom, is a woman. My dog is a teenage girl. The Bunker of Love is literally festooned with womanly accoutrements. Chief among them are candles. This is closely followed by scented oils and a tinderbox worth of incense. These things are deployed swiftly and often, usually shortly after I walk in the door from a day of running around and being sweaty.

Monday, August 20, 2012

Strange Days, Indeed...

What a weird-ass day.

Mondays usually stink on ice to begin with, but there must be something going around. It's as if, in response to the mild relief from the heat wave we've been under in Texas, someone cranked up the crazy to eleven instead.

Wednesday, August 15, 2012

Walking With Blinders Through The Last Book Sale, part 4

In case you missed them, here's  Part 1  Part 2  and  Part 3

The auction as seen from my seat.
Saturday started with a potato, egg and bean burrito breakfast and a frantic drive into Archer City, slightly faster than the law allowed. Cathy was riding shotgun with me this time, to help keep me in check, and also to look over out a few shelves that we both agreed would be great to have...if the price was right.

Which, it turned out, it most definitely wasn’t. All that was left of the Booked Up stock was art and history, fiction and poetry, and some misc. collecting books, and four crummy shelves of science fiction, and the like. We had a cuckoo idea that the big, oversized art books would just go zipping out the door for the minimum cost. Heh. Yeah. That didn’t happen.

As soon as the bidding opened up, the numbers were popping. The auctioneer was surprised when the shelves started selling for between $300 and $500 a lot. Well out of our price range, no matter how good the value was. And it was a steal. But I had a strategy up my sleeve.

I paid attention to the lots that I wanted, and I wrote down the titles of the books on those shelves that interested me. Then, when the shelves sold, I pulled the buyer aside and asked, “Are you a dealer?” The answer was always “yes.” I then told them all what I wanted was a few books off of X shelf, and would they be interested in selling them to me? The answer was always “hell yes.” So I wrote down the lot number, the book title, and even the price I’d pay for the books, with instructions to contact me after the auction. It was genius. And it worked like a charm.

I passed out six or eight of my business cards, and passed notes back and forth like a naughty fourth grader, all throughout Friday and Saturday. If they all bear fruit, I’ll probably end up spending at least a couple hundred bucks on single tomes in the next four to six weeks. This was useful not only for me but for Cathy as well. She hates to lose out on auction bids, and this was a nice consolation prize for her.

Larry, talking about The Last Picture Show.
Throughout all of the goings on, both during the preview week and the auction itself, there was a constant refrain of “Where’s Larry?” usually uttered in a sibilant half-whisper. I’d seen him several times, usually in passing, and always looking a little freaked out by the enormity of what he’d set in motion. On Friday and Saturday, he was positively beset on all sides by a clutch of reporters, hovering around him like horseflies. You could just look at his face and see that it made him uncomfortable, so he did as any right-thinking Texan would do when confounded by flies; he stayed in motion.

Larry flitted, in and out, back and forth, for two days straight, never staying long, and only occasionally sitting down. I think it was equal parts survival and curiosity, but I have to tell you, he looked tired. He had a heart attack in January of this year, and that will take its toll on you. But I could see it on him, this kind of weariness. It made me wonder if there was another reason for The Last Book Sale. Suddenly, the title took on a morbid connotation. Was this Larry’s way of handing us twenty dollars as we were on our way to Mexico? Had he finally become Sam the Lion?

No. Throughout the weekend, everyone was assured that the main store, Booked Up #1, would remain open, its stock on hand for perusal for anyone curious or with a taste for the good stuff. Larry himself spent a lot of time in Booked Up #1, when he wasn’t being hounded by reporters or folks wanting an interview, or a photograph, or—of all things—a signature.

More than one person, perhaps sensing my Inner Texan, or maybe hearing me speak with familiarity about the town and the operation, asked me where Larry was. They always explained that they just wanted to ask him about X or Y, or they needed a photograph, or wanted blah blah blah. I was cautious in pointing him out to these people. The majority of them weren’t bidding on the auction. As such, I felt they had little claim to his time. Listen to me, like I’m his press secretary or something. I sent only one guy over to Larry, a professional photographer who assured me he would be unobtrusive.

I did this partially to ease the pressure on the man, but also because in my tenure as a Booked Up customer, I learned early on that when Larry was in the house, he was not “the Pulitzer Prize-winning author of Lonesome Dove and The Last Picture Show.” He was Larry the bookman. Different guy altogether. If you had a question about stock, or what he just bought, or how often he comes across Dell map backs, or the value of Frank J. Dobie books, or anything else along those lines, you could have a great and interesting conversation with the man. But come at him, head bowed, tattered copy of Lonesome Dove in hand, murmuring, “Mister McMurtry, your book meant so much to me...” and he had no time nor use for you. I know, for I saw it first hand one day during an early visit.

Looking around at the inadvertent circus he’d created, I know he was cringing inside at what he had wrought. So I endeavored, in my own tiny way, to take some of the pressure off of him, as much as I could. Just my little way of saying “Thank You” to the guy who wrote Cadillac Jack. As it turned out, Larry was on his best behavior that weekend. He was tired, of course, but he was very gracious about interviews, photos, and even a few autographs.  I noticed that most people who needed any of the above were quick to get in and get out, in deference to his health and his legendary temperament.

The wall outside of Booked Up #4.
The oversized art and design books went for way more than we could spend, so I sent Cathy off to write down the titles of what she really wanted, the better to make a side deal with the winner. I cooled my heels listening to the history books sell for cheap, or a lot, depending on what country was being auctioned off. The Chinese history books, for example, were out of my price range, so I made a side deal with one of the winners, a woman I’d been previously chatting with about the sale and my interest in same. She was amendable to selling me the one book I really wanted, and so I took great pains to explain to her, via notes, that I was a collector of the author, Robert Van Gulik, a former ambassador to China, who wrote a series of mystery novels set in historic China featuring Judge Dee, a clever court official who throws the cold light of reason upon seemingly supernatural occurrences. She seemed baffled and a little put out until I told her that the name of the book was The Sex Life of China, by Robert Van Gulik. I included the parenthetical note, “Don’t Judge Me!” to let her know that this wasn’t some weird pick up line, and thankfully, she got the message loud and clear. 

The last big section to sell was the fiction section, and both me and the auctioneer were stunned when the minimum bids weren’t even enough to tantalize people into picking up stock. I had one shelf earmarked, full of Jim Crace books that I didn’t own, which were worth more than fifty dollars all by themselves. No one else wanted it, so I bid on that lot and picked it up, happy as a really happy thing that is happy.

From fiction, looking into history and beyond. Booked Up #2.
It was weird. This was fiction. I would have thought that it would be the section to go for the most. In fact, some shelves did go for a couple hundred bucks, but it was impossible to know what they were fighting over. In previous trips, I’ve bought Thorne Smith and Damon Runyan books for thirty and forty bucks a piece. There’s always a hidden gem here or there in the fiction shelves, and I never passed them up on any of my trips. Oh well. I noticed other collectors doing the same thing I had, buying a section or two, just because, and grinning when they got the books for so cheap.

Some mixed lots and a few reference sections closed out the auction, and everyone applauded weakly, too drained by the experience to do anything else. I was in Monty Hall mode, cutting side deals and looking for one particular bidder (who turned out to be a buyer for Powell’s, I think), who outbid me on one of the last two lots I wanted. Granted, I only wanted half of the books on the shelf; science fiction and mystery fiction reference books, which ran across two shelves. The rest of the two shelves was a set of leather bound journals. I had a hunch the guy who outbid me was wanting those journals, and seeking him out, I was right.

I explained to him who I was and what I wanted, and we went to the two shelves in question and agreed to a swap, right then and there. With three auction staffers watching, he scooped all of the old leather books off of my shelf, and replaced them with the reference books I wanted. Simple, really.

Elated by my success, I tried like hell to get some of the book buyers to come out, have a drink, keep the carnival-like atmosphere flowing, but suddenly the book nerds reverted to type, averting their eyes, shuffling nervously, and muttering something about needing food and sleep. Whatever, losers. The people I’d been talking to all weekend, or had met during the course of the weekend, were all from different places, and as it turned out, going back to those places. I really wanted a post mortem on this experience, if not a dead dog party, and it just wasn’t going to happen.

As I waited in line for my turn to pay out (a lengthy, hour long process, as you can well imagine), I was engaged in conversation by a guy who came looking for me. He was one of the bidders vying for the Jazz lots. We struck up a conversation around that, exchanged business cards, and I told him about the Jack Teagarden museum and he let me in on his research project. We agreed to try and help each other.

While talking over the sale, I mentioned my bittersweet notion that I had helped destroy the thing that I loved. He shook his head and said, “Naw, man, you gotta think of it like this: Larry’s setting those books free, man. He’s got good book Karma for the rest of his life, man.”

The simplicity of that notion fairly stunned me. Here Larry had traveled all over America, and he’d bought up all of these bookstores and private collections, and gathered together this, this, this solid mass of books, fully forty years of pressure on top of them, and then in one very big bang of a gesture, he just sent them back out to the farthest reaches again. It was cosmic. It was beautiful. I smiled and agreed with my new friend. “I hadn’t thought of it that way.”

“It’s the only way to think of it,” he assured me.

I’m smiling as I write this. Even Monday Morning Quarterbacking it, his point is valid. Archer City had served its purpose, allowing these books to collect, and pile up, and become the legendary Texas version of the Library of Alexandria, y’all, and it gave Larry a place from which to operate in relative solitude. But at the end of the journey, the snake eats its tail, the universe resets, the Alpha becomes the Omega, which becomes the Alpha.

Years from now, someone else will take up the quest that Larry put down. Whoever it is will gather the books up and build another repository of information, and it will take decades. It probably won’t be in Texas, but who really knows? I won’t be around for it, but I hope that when it comes time for them to retire, they will remember the story of The Last Book Sale and do the right thing.

Tuesday, August 14, 2012

Walking With Blinders Through The Last Book Sale, Part 3

In case you missed them, here's  Part 1 and  Part 2  

After lunch, my friend Tim met me at the auction. Tim had been with me at the preview last week, and so he wanted to come watch the human panoply of events unfold, if only for a couple of hours. We snuck him in without a guest badge and were able to actually get seats, since, as predicted, some people were only there for The McMurtry 100.

Everyone filed in, all loopy from lunch, and the bidding resumed. Apparently the auctioneer and Larry had a conversation or something, because suddenly the opening bids were fifty bucks for shelf lots. And a funny thing happened; an auction broke out. People were jumping in at fifty bucks, and hanging in until $150 or $200 or even more, depending on what section was being auctioned.

A great many shelves went for fifty or seventy-five bucks. And believe you me, our auctioneer made his displeasure known. I won a shelf lot of miscellaneous art books, oversized picture and travel books (there were ten books I wanted on that shelf) for fifty bucks. I bid, and I was the only one, and when it was clear that no one else was jumping in on it, he said “Sold, fifty dollars to Bidder Number THREE.” Just like I was the fat mailman on Seinfield. What did I do? Anytime there were no takers, he pulled the lot, refusing to go below fifty dollars. Hey, I can’t blame him. Fifty bucks for two hundred books is a steal...if you can sell all two hundred books. If you’re just buying ten books, then it’s five dollars a book, and while that’s still a good price, you’ve got a hundred and ninety bricks to get rid of or they will take up too much space on your shelves.

This is the crowd after it thinned out on Friday.
Tim and I kibitzed with each other and my fellow bidders while we waited on some lots to come up that I was bidding on. I had two lots in particular that I was gunning for, and would not be dissuaded from acquiring them, right up to the limit of my budget.  I paid strict attention as my section loomed near. The music section, which was going more or less just like everything else: minimum numbers and a scowl of frustration from the auctioneer. But I was bidding on two shelves full of jazz books, and I knew in a Murphy’s Law kind of way that if any section would go for more, it would be the jazz books.

And I was right. I got the first lot well within my budget, since it was mostly jazz, but not completely. When he started the second shelf, I cockily raised my card and heard the auctioneer start rapidly talking and pointing. All of a sudden, he’s looking at me and saying, “Now a hundred...” I kept my card up, and every time it came back around, I kept my card up, but it was happening so fast, I didn’t have a chance to turn around and see who the hell was bidding me up.

Finally, everyone dropped out, and I won the lot at the limit of my single shelf budget. Victory, sure, but now I wanted to know: had I missed something on the shelf? Was there some sort of rare, out of print, first edition Jazz tome that I missed when I was looking the shelves over? There were dealers in the room, and it’s no stretch to acknowledge they knew the market better than me.

During the next break, I strolled over, after saying goodbye to Tim, who was satisfied that the shelf lots he’d picked out all went for way more than he was willing to spend. It’s nice to know you’ve got champagne tastes, I think. Anyway, I took a look at the shelves, joining about a half dozen other people, who were just as curious as me. No one had any answers. The woman who bought the very next shelf, rock and country, was the same woman we’d eaten barbecue with the night before, and she asked me if I wanted anything off of the shelves. I quickly checked all of the Elvis books and saw that I had them, and politely thanked her and declined.  A bidder came up to me and gave me his card, so that I could contact him if I wanted to let any—ANY—of the jazz books go. He was just a fan, it turned out. We were all scratching our heads.

I will skip to the end of the mystery for you: on Saturday, I found the other two bidders. One was a musician, who came in just for the Jazz books, and he dropped out at about $150, and the other was a book dealer and jazz fan, who was bidding for himself, because he just wanted the books. The bottom line: people who read also like jazz. In my case, I just happened to line up with some fellow enthusiasts. When I told them the books were going into a museum, they all felt a lot better about the fate of the books, and apologized to me for running up the bids. All is fair in love and war and book auctions.

With my major lots taken care of for the day, I took a break from the floor and ran into the documentary film crew, who asked if they could interview me. We found a kinda quiet place in one of the other buildings and I told them my favorite Larry McMurtry story and they told me that they were planning to do the film festival route and make this something that could go into theaters. Cool. I like it when people are serious. We did about thirty minutes, all together, and then I rejoined the auction.

“What number are they on?” I asked one of the guys in the back of the room. He told me that they had finished with Booked Up #4 and were about to start on the contents of Booked Up #3. Wow, I thought, they are moving and grooving on this. I sat down, for the chairs were more and more plentiful as the day wore on, and looked over my list. As I did, an unpleasant thought ricocheted through me like Lee Harvey Oswald’s magic bullet.

I looked around at the long, tall shelves, all laid out in a grid like the walls of some labyrinth of old, and I realized that the next time I came to Archer City, this building would be closed and the shelves empty. My favorite Booked Up was going away, and I helped to dismantle it. Me being here was working against my own self-interests.

My Own Personal Labyrinth.
See, I am a regular (insofar as Archer City is concerned) at Booked Up. Ever since we moved to Middle of Nowhere, North Texas, some six years ago, I’ve been going twice a year, without fail. Sometimes more if I was showing a guest where Archer City was. It was a getaway for me. A place to go to recharge the batteries, reconnect with literature, find strange reference books I didn’t know I needed (and a few that I did), and in general spend a day, hanging out with one of my most favorite things of all time, books. Just being in the bookstores at Archer City was enough for me. It was always a nice day trip for me.

And I would be lying if I didn’t get a vicarious thrill out of updating my Facebook status to the groans of envy from my other book-minded friends in Austin and the Metroplex.  They knew the reputation of the place. They were aware that going was akin to a pilgrimage for the Texas Literary Set. I always respected Booked Up, but I don’t know if I ever really appreciated it before now. And it was coming apart before my eyes. Son of a bitch.

My wife joined me after the auction closed for the day. They made it through two buildings in one day. Tomorrow, Booked Up #2 would sell, and that would be that. I expressed some of my concerns to her, but the excitement of seeing James McMurtry live trumped all. We’d gotten tickets, you see, and this would be our first time to see him live.

I won’t go into it, because as it’s been famously noted before, writing about music is like dancing about architecture. Let me just say this: if you like strong songwriters who write about things of substance, and use language like a surgical scalpel, and you like songwriters like Dylan and Springsteen, you need to check out what James McMurtry does. Go onto whatever you’re buying music on, and click on his songs and listen to the samples and know that he is every bit as genius a storyteller as his father is.

We drove home invigorated and talking about the show. After all, McMurtry played “Choctaw Bingo” and we agreed that it’s pretty much a perfect song. Tomorrow was the final push, the last hurrah, and as you can expect, I tossed and turned for hours before falling into a restless sleep.

Monday, August 13, 2012

Walking With Blinders Through The Last Book Sale, Part 2

The gas station in the movie is now the Visitor's Center.
I slid into town on three and a half wheels Friday morning (my tire is on order, so I’m driving with the donut on the back right side), and squeezed into Booked Up #4, where the auction was taking place.  It was standing room only, and everyone looked worried and apprehensive. The auction staff wore masks of grim resolve against the crush of bodies, the dangling boom mikes, and the interminable whir and click of cameras.  I ended up off to the side, right up front, by the podium, along with five or six guys who were taking pictures and writing notes. Great. Stuck with the press corps. 

The air conditioner was working overtime, and it was a losing battle, at that. There were just too many people crammed into a small space. Everyone was fidgeting and mouth breathing and already the pressure was on. The auctioneer informed the crowd that they were going to go fast, attempting to sell a lot every thirty seconds or so. There would be no hemming and hawing. No “Storage Wars” last minute Yuups like that bullying jackass Dave Hester does. No, we’re going to fast and in a gentlemanly fashion. Right? Everyone ready? Okay, here comes lot number one. We’ll open the bidding at one hundred and fifty dollars.

There was silence. The air pressure in the room changed in a fraction of a second. Suddenly, it was real. And it was going to get expensive, real quick.

The auctioneer, stunned that forty yellow cards hadn’t suddenly blossomed in the air before him, informed the crowd that there were over 300 books on that shelf, and $150 dollars was a dirt cheap asking price.  Someone in the back tentatively raised their hand. The auctioneer proclaimed the lot sold, and we were off and running. Lot number two...let’s start the bidding at one hundred and fifty about one twenty five? That got a card in the air. He sold that lot, and grimly plowed ahead with the same results. As the lot numbers became books about theater and film criticism, the auctioneer lowered the starting price to $100 and that seemed to stimulate folks a little more. The shelves were selling for between $125 and $150, and we could all see that it was pissing the auctioneer off something fierce.

When we got to lot one hundred, he proclaimed that we were going to take a break, and then we’d start back in with The McMurtry 100. Yes, of course! That’s why everyone was bidding so conservatively. It made perfect sense. They were holding out for the valuable books, the marquee items. Duh!

I texted Cathy and asked her which books she wanted me to try for. Several lot numbers came back at me and I quickly looked them up: the Elmore Leonard first edition. Yeah, right, baby. Keep dreaming. The Tony Hillerman first novel. Okay, that may be doable. A Frank Lloyd Wright book. I can see that. And...The Mermaid and the Messerschmitt. What?  Cathy explained to me that, in addition to being a very cool vintage-looking book  with a great dust jacket, it was a memoir about three sisters who lived in Poland at the time of the German occupation. Okay, now it made sense, because that’s exactly the X-Y axis point on the graph that would get Cathy’s interest; a heartwarming memoir, coupled with great vintage graphics. Can you blame her? Can anyone?

The bidding resumed, and I scrounged a chair to sit down and record the winning amounts for posterity. If you’ve looked at the list, you know that there’s a weird, odd assortment of books on there—literature, art, history, and education were well represented, of course, but then there’s some of those strange things you find in libraries from time to time. Things like a ledger containing 1,200 pages of original erotica writing, circa the 1940s, commissioned by an Oklahoma oilman, and a privately bound copy of something called Selective Blood Studies of Swine, which was exactly that.

Auctioning off The McMurtry 100.
Lots were flying, and of course, everyone was waiting for the first big marquee item: the first edition Elmore Leonard book. The auctioneer reasonably started the bidding at $850. And once more, the only sound heard was the distant chirping of the crickets. “You’re kidding me,” he said, out loud. “Folks, it’s not going to get any cheaper than that, and you all know it’s worth a hell of a lot more...” Nothing. The auctioneer’s face started to redden. Someone in the back put a card in the air. Thank you, said the auctioneer, trying to resume the natural order of bidding.

There were no other takers. He declared the lot sold, and visibly slumped, defeated, in his chair. “You just stole that book, you know that, right?”

Some of the lots had a lot of action. The four volume Winston Churchill set went for $475 after a false start. Or a false end. Or some sort of technical screwup that forced him to reopen the bidding.  I’m really not sure who was in attendance that had never been to an auction before, but apparently it was a lot of folks, because there was wriggling, strange hand signs, late bids, and a lot of “Sir, I’m already got you in for a hundred. You don’t need to bid yourself up” going around. One guy was standing in the back, partially blocked from sight by a support pole, and was intent on scratching his nose with his bidding card. That’s not a rookie mistake. That’s Mister Magoo action, right there. The auctioneer finally asked him to please stop doing it, and the bidder more or less complied.

Many of the McMurtry 100 were selling for their reserve price, thirty to forty dollars. Not the collectable stuff, mind you, but the “interesting” and unusual selections. Again, can you blame anyone? Sure, there’s some provenance associated with what has become a national story like this auction, but you have to be into something as a collector to drop fifty bucks on it. Or, in the case of Selective Blood Studies of Swine, which sold for $110 dollars, I shit you not. Of course, whoever bought that book was buying it as a found art object, and not because he’s into porcine bloodletting. I hope.

The Hillerman book went up past my limit, but I hung in on the Frank Lloyd Wright book and won it, which was a nice thing since both me and Cathy like his design. Then we came to the last thing on her list: The Mermaid and the Messerschmitt. Well, it’s so weird, the odds are pretty good that I can nab it for her at the reserve. So I stuck my card up when he opened the bid at $40. Now fifty. Now sixty. Now seventy. Now eighty. What the hell?

I dropped out of the bidding and saw who was gunning for the book. This is her, right here. She won the prize for $90. I couldn’t believe it. What was going on? What could she POSSIBLY want with that book? I resolved to find out.

We broke for lunch and I found her, hanging outside the diner, smoking. I walked up and said, “I was your competition for The Mermaid and the Messerschmitt. Sorry about bidding you up.”

She immediately got chatty with me and said, “We’re not going to fight about it, are we?”

I said no, of course not. “But I have to ask, what’s your interest in the book?”

She took a drag off of her cigarette and answered, “Well, after I got bid up on that swine blood book, I decided I was not going to get outbid again!”

Unbelievable. The thought that Selective Blood Studies of Swine was responsible for me NOT getting The Mermaid and the Messerschmitt sank in. I took in her piercings, her tattoo-sleeved arms, and I realized that she was buying the book ironically, and not because she was dying to read it. Without meaning to be rude, I blurted out, “So, basically, you’re here just to bid on the weird shit that falls in your wheelhouse?”

She grinned, busted. “Yeah, pretty much,” she confirmed.

I wished her good luck, and then drowned my sorrows with a couple of corn dogs and a sweet tea. It was noon, and we had a long way to go.

Walking With Blinders Through The Last Book Sale, Part 1

I first heard about Larry McMurtry’s book auction back in April. Booked Up, located in Archer City, Texas, is an oasis of literature and culture in the otherwise bereft Middle of Nowhere, North Texas. Four buildings on the town square, all filled with ten to twelve foot tall shelves, each full to overflowing with books. So many books, in fact, that they are grouped according to subject matter, according to store. The first time you go, you need a full day to take it all in. It’s that many books.

450,000 tomes, conservatively estimated, and now McMurtry made the announcement that he was liquidating three-fourths of that stock at auction to be held in August. I immediately called and threw a barrage of questions at the nice woman who works there and was told that the auction would be done in shelf lots (the aforementioned ten foot tall monsters). Roughly 200 to 300 books per shelf. I did a quick mental calculation, got real dizzy, and hung up. It was going to be epic.

As the weeks passed at a glacial rate, I went back through my mental map of Booked Up and ticked off all of the books I’d been meaning to buy over the years. I live only a short hour’s drive from Archer City, and so for the past six years, I’ve used Booked Up as a kind of refuge to go and recharge. Vernon has no bookstore, and for that matter, neither does Wichita Falls. And before you protest, let me assure you that Hasting’s and Books-A-Million are not bookstores. Not really. Not like a good used bookstore, which is often less about buying books and more about reconnecting to a higher power. The Gods of Literature, or something I am afraid to name, lest I take away its meaning. But I digress.

These are the smaller, 10' shelves.
I’ve made the drive to Booked Up twice a year for the past six years, without fail. Usually in the late Summer (when it’s hottest) and the dead of Winter (when it’s freezing). Both extremes prove to be a challenge for the mediocre HVAC systems that Booked Up employs. I’m not sure why I made those times my scheduled trip windows; perhaps there’s a component of suffering that I have to endure in order to justify coming home with fifty or sixty bucks worth of books that I didn’t know I needed until I got there. I don’t know. But one of my little tricks was to mentally remember which books I wanted to pick up the next time I come to Archer City, both to help keep my purchases reasonable, and also to remind me which sections to regularly check for new stock.

Now that all of that was going away, I needed to get down to Booked Up to make some notes for myself. Luckily, a preview of the store’s contents was planned the week prior to the auction. I did take it as a good sign that the auction would fall during the time of my usual summer pilgrimage. I knew there were a couple of sections that I wanted to buy in total, because they were my favorite sections and I was the only person who ever seemed to buy anything off of those shelves. But I really didn’t know what else I wanted to try for, because that’s the beauty of a used bookstore; you can’t know what’s there, or even what you want, or what you may need, without browsing the shelves. And all it takes is one or two careless shoppers or inattentive shelvers and you will find great books in places you never expected to find them. Glorious.

Finally, August dawned, and like a kid at Christmas, I beat feet for Archer City as fast as I could go. I drove down with a friend of mine, a fellow book enthusiast, on Friday and we got there in the early afternoon. Posters hung on the building windows proclaiming “The Last Book Sale,” with a sepia-tinted photo of the buildings that was reminiscent of the movie poster for The Last Picture Show. Clever, I thought.

The registration process took forever. McMurtry brought in a professional rare book auction group from Georgia, and they have their own way of running things—not in a bad way, you understand. It made sense to have these guys do the auction, since they were out of state, and maybe didn’t have the ties, emotional or otherwise, to this unique situation. There was a hefty registration fee (applied to whatever you win, of course) to discourage the gawkers. I was told at that time that news of the auction had rippled through the book store community and there would be people coming in from all over the country to attend. Wow. But, I mused, it made perfect sense. McMurtry has been a bookman legend for forty years, and had stores all over the country prior to settling down in Archer City. Of course everyone would be here. Then I got my bidder number handed to me: three.

“Three?” I said, confused.

“Yeah,” the auctioneer said with an apologetic shrug, “not a lot of folks have shown up yet.”

“How many do you expect?”

“Around a hundred serious buyers,” he replied. “Plus guests.”

Guests. I must have looked confused, because he told me that my entrance fee covered both me and a guest to the Thursday night activities. My confusion deepened. To offset the kinda steep price and the middle-of-nowhere-ness that is Archer City, there would be a barbecue dinner after the Thursday preview, followed by a screening of The Last Picture Show at the Royal Theater. This would be the same Royal Theater that was featured in The Last Picture Show. Oh, and Larry McMurtry would be onhand to introduce the movie personally.  I turned to my friend and said, “You realize that I now have to bring my wife to this, or she’ll kill me.”

“I completely understand,” he said, for he too knows my wife, who is a brisket junkie and a fan of Texas films. This combo would be too much for her to pass up.

Buoyed by this new information, we traipsed through Booked Up #4, Booked Up #3, and Booked Up #2, taking notes, writing titles down, and always keeping a loose running tab of how much this was going to cost us.

Conduits outside of Booked Up #4.
Several hours later, we found ourselves back in #2, which was auction headquarters, and I managed to finesse some information out of the auctioneer, who apparently found me non-threatening as I was not a bookseller. With so many books per shelf, and so many shelves full of great stuff, the auction house was planning to start the bidding at around $125 to $150 a lot. My eyebrows shot up over my head. I was afraid of this. He laid out their rationale: three to four dollars a book was a steal, especially since so many shelves had such great books on them. He’s thinking, of course, of the wonderful 19th century leather and cloth-bound stock that makes up a large chunk of Booked Up #3. I was thinking about, say, writing reference in Booked Up #4, with three copies of the Chicago Manual of Style and an assortment of thesauri and other such titles that would be labeled “dead stock” in any used bookstore in the country.

But I didn’t say anything. This was, after all, his rodeo, and while I’ve been to many an auction in my time, there was nothing in my experience to cover something this vast, this intrinsic in nature. After all, what I would pay for a shelf full of writer’s reference books and what YOU would pay for a shelf full of the same are vastly different numbers. It’s always—always—a question of what value you personally place on any given item.

We talked a little bit about The McMurtry 100, a shelf full of lots that would be sold singly, all hand picked by Larry McMurtry as representative and indicative of his varied and interesting stock.  We were both impressed by the Elmore Leonard first edition. Then I hit him with the sixty-four thousand dollar question of the day: what was the minimum reserve for the shelf lots.

He looked uncomfortable as he confided that well, he didn’t think they would get down that far, but certainly no lower than fifty to eighty dollars a shelf. That would be criminal, practically stealing the books, he said. I agreed, but I also had to bite my tongue. There would be Texas booksellers in the crowd, along with other folks from other states. I don’t know how it goes in places like Washington or Vermont, but in Texas, it’s buy low and sell high. If there’s one book on the shelf worth fifty bucks, Texas bookmen will shoot for that one book, try to buy that shelf for fifty bucks, and then put a dollar on all of the other books, on the rationalization that if they sell that fifty dollar book, everything else is pure profit. This of course ignores the fact that all of those books take up real estate, valuable shelf space, in any book operation, up to and including operations that don’t have four bookstores’ worth of room.  But he seemed confident that it wouldn’t be an issue, and so on the way home, as we discussed the sale, I mentally added several hundred dollars to my budget for this little excursion.

Far Too Few Words About Joe Kubert

One of my favorite--one of everyone's favorite--artists has left us. Joe Kubert was a Golden Age great who only got better with age. A gifted artist and storyteller, he was generous with his time and talent and he created a body of work that is still vibrant and relevant today.

I got to meet him in 1994, at my first San Diego Comic-Con. This was before it was the giant mega-media-multi-stravaganza that it is now. Back then, you could go there and meet comic book creators. But I digress. I had brought with me a copy of The Great Comic Book Heroes, a hardcover reprint book that featured, among other things, Kubert's work on the Golden Age Hawkman.

He smiled when he saw the book, and I was able to blurt out that he was one of my all time favorite artists. He said, "thank you so much!" and held out his hand for me to shake. I took it and told him thanks for my childhood. The war comics you drew helped me establish a connection with my father that I otherwise wouldn't have had. He said, very sincerely, "You're welcome." And that was that. He shook my hand with the same hand that had drawn some of my favorite comics ever. It still gives me goose bumps to think about it. 

Kubert was one of the first artists I could recognize by style. This is pretty significant at the age of 8 and 9 years old. I could spot a Kubert cover a mile away. Unfortunately, I hadn't yet picked up on the trick of getting a great artist to illustrate a dynamic cover to sell mediocre insides. Well, actually, that's not fair to the stable of great artists who worked on the DC war comics in the sixties and seventies. But when you are expecting Joe Kubert and you get anyone kinda pales in comparison.

I was always attracted to Kubert's lush and vibrant line work. He could be precise when he needed to, drawing tanks and warbirds and M-16s as the story dictated, but his figures in motion, and especially in comics like Tor and Tarzan, were loose and graceful and expressive. He was a masculine artist, but he was also capable of great humanity, a trait that first showed up in his excellent tenure on the DC war comics line and continued with various projects to the day he died.

As big a fan as I was of Sgt. Rock, I was an even bigger fan of Enemy Ace. This was something that only Bob Kannigher and Joe Kubert could have pulled off: a World War I flying ace who is so skilled he is known as the "Hammer from Hell" and is as much feared as he is respected by his men. His superiors don't understand him, and so, feeling alone, he wanders out in the woods where he is regularly visited by a large wolf, in whom he confides his conflicted nature about being ordered to kill. Oh yeah, and he's a German.

It's fair to say that those comics, and so many others that Kubert made come to life with his amazing thunderbolt of a right arm, are a big part of what shaped my philosophy on war and conflict. They taught me that there were people, real people, on both sides of the gun, and who they were and how they acted had nothing to do with their political beliefs.

As a cover artist, he was one of the greatest ever. Kubert could capture the absolute crux of a story without giving anything away and draw you in and make you want to buy the comic, if only to see how it plays out. I think that many times, his dynamic cover composition trumped the stories he was depicting. Take a look at this cover from Our Army At War. It's one of my all time favorites, and a great example of what I was talking about earlier.

See, these Kannigher and Kubert war comics were always about something else. World War II was the vehicle for telling these stories, but not the reason. They never glorified the war, but they were quick to point out real bravery and valor, wherever it could be found. They also didn't shy away from controversial subject matter--and this was during the Viet Nam war, on top of everything else.

I don't mean to keep going on about the war comics. Kubert could draw anything, and he did, for decades. His Hawkman comics are legendary, as was his run on Tarzan. In the seventies, he started an art school specifically designed to make comic book artists. So many talented people ran through that school: Steve Bissette, Tom Mandrake, Rags Morales, Rick Vietch, Tim Truman, Alex Maleev, Amanda Conner, Steve Lieber, Lee Weeks, and of course, his own sons, Adam and Andy, just to name a few. It's amazing what he did with his time and talent. So many of his graduates are artists I collect and have enjoyed for years.

Kubert never stopped drawing. He got picky with his jobs, because he could, but he always returned to certain characters and themes: war, conflict, action, and always, humanity in crisis. In the 1996, he drew the graphic novel, Fax From Sarajevo, a real-time war account of the conflict in Bosnia, taking faxes from his friend and fellow cartoonist, Ervin Rustemagic, and creating somber pictures of the war-torn city and the struggle for survival. Not surprisingly, it won the Eisner and the Harvey for that year.

I never stopped buying his work, never stopped appreciating him. I'm very glad I got the chance to tell him that, but I know I was just one of millions of people over the years who said the same thing or nearly just to him. I also know this: I'm sure he personally thanked, very sincerely, every single one of them, just as he did with me. He was that kind of guy. Supremely talented, tempered with grace and humility. We are the poorer for his passing, all of us--but most especially the comics industry.

Rest in Peace, Joe Kubert. And thank you. For everything.

Friday, August 10, 2012

Cthulhu Beer (My Dark Secret)

I used to work for Chessex Manufacturing, out in Berkeley, California as their editor in chief for their creative division. It was one the coolest, and also one of the most frustrating jobs I ever had. I won't go into it here, because it's a tale best told over beer, and with some help from my friend Weldon Adams, who was there with me. The story is more of a performance piece, really. It requires props and a brief intermission for a costume change.  Ask me about it at a convention sometime.

But that's not why I called you here today. I am coming clean about something that has taken on a kind of cool cult status in popular culture. I'm the guy who originated Cthulhu barware. I know that seems like a small distinction of note, but bear with me. I'll try to make it relevant.

Chessex Manufacturing was making etched glasses, among other things, in the mid to late 1990s. Stuff like Vampire: The Masquerade wine glasses with the creepy ankh logo on them. This was in addition to their regular line of gaming accessories, dice, battle mats, dice, vinyl book covers, dice, gaming bric-a-brac, dice lead miniature cases, dice, paint, dice, and oh yeah, speckled dice. 

Weldon was in charge of research and development, and that job was only slightly more glamorous than my job title of editor in chief. He and I together worked on roughly 75% of the line projects together in some way. He had a few of his own things going, as did I, but since we lived and worked together, there was a lot of cross-contamination. Anyway.

As was the usual deal back then, we needed to put out something new. Some new product. Something to generate cash, and quick. And so we were all feeling the pressure. Weldon mentioned that he'd like to do something with the glassware. We'd already made Vampire clan glasses to go with the T-shirts, and there were some coffee cups with biohazard printed on them (we didn't come up with that), and those projects were pretty easy to do. But what? Weldon wanted to do pint glasses, but that wasn't really a Vampire-ish thing. Hey, we needed new glasses for the apartment. What can I tell you?

I don't know where the idea came from, but I first suggested fake beer labels with a cthuloid slant to them, but played straight, as if they were actual beers from an actual tavern--and Weldon said, "you mean, like the Whateley Ale House?" Perfect. So, off we go, and since I was all hepped up with the Lovcraftian references, I worked with our house artist, Chris McGee, to design three different logos: Arkham Pale Ale, Dunwich Dark, and Innsmouth Stout (which had the awesome slogan, "Taste the Taint"). We designed them to look like real beer labels, and as an afterthought, Weldon suggested a pitcher with the Whateley Ale House logo--a dancing satyr.

We made sets out of three glasses and a pitcher, and also offered the glasses for sale separately. The sets were limited to five hundred and were signed and authenticated as actual barware from this non-existent brew pub. Everyone liked the logos, so we also offered them as T-shirts.

The powers-that-be got their wish. The sets sold--in fact, they oversold and had to allocate them. Cool. Ditto the glasses and the T-shirts. It was one of the top selling lines that month. We shipped everything to the game stores across the country, and the products were instantly sucked up as if with a Dyson Sphere.

And that's my story. Chessex never went back to print on any of them. In fact, shortly after that, both me and Weldon left the company and they changed hands several times. Chessex manufacturing is still around, making dice, paints, cases, and so forth. But they haven't made anything that cool in a long, long time.

Now other people have made barware, but I don't think theirs is as cool as ours was. I have always loved the idea of a shirt or a glass that, if you aren't a geek, looks completely legitimate to them. These beer labels did that.

Years later, at an ArmadilloCon, a friend of a friend was introduced to me, and he was wearing a Dunwich Dark T-shirt. I hadn't seen one since I was in California, and when I told him that I had designed that, he practically fell to his knees to thank me. The shirt, he informed me, was responsible for a lot of his geek cred. In fact, he confided, he also had the Arkham Pale Ale shirt, but he'd stored it in his garage and some rats got ahold of it...which, if you know your Lovecraft, makes the shirt one hundred times cooler. He still wore that one on special occasions. I didn't ask what those were.

Curious, I went home and looked up the barware and was shocked to find it selling for over a hundred bucks at online auctions. If you have any of these, hold on to them. They are legit collector's items. And here's the rub: I lost my set of glasses in a move. Weldon never even got a set to begin with. Of all the stuff I've ever worked on, those slipped through my fingers. But at least I can show you what the logos looked like. I think they hold up. These were scanned off of the glasses themselves, hence the quality, but you get the idea.

Looking back over this post, I see now that I failed to make it relevant in any way, shape or form. It just comes off as self-indulgent. Sorry about that. I was very excited to find these logos online, having not seen them in over a decade, and wanted to share them with you.

At least now you know what I want for Christmas!

Thursday, August 2, 2012

Chicken Pride Day and What It All Means

No doubt, the memes and cartoons and movies and sniglets and bumpersticker wisdom that has choked FaceBook over the last week regarding Chick-Fil-A and its owner's conservative values have managed to once again polarize friends and families alike, and polarize them where they hurt the most--in their stomach.

I won't recap the battle, because all you have to do is log into FaceBook and scroll down for six or seven seconds until you find examples of what I'm talking about above, and probably links to the story of how the Muppets ditched Chick-Fil-A after what their owner said, because, well, it's not widely known, but Jim Henson was gay.  And since the Muppets are about everyone getting along together with no hang-ups, you can see how some people close to the creator of Sesame Street and Kermit the Frog might have gotten their noses Gonzo'ed out of shape over that.

This, to me, is a rare peek at a much, much larger concern: who we are doing business with as consumers. I know it's not a pleasant conversation to have, and moreso because no one has ever asked us, as Americans, to have it. In fact, there's been a lot of effort to suppress it. Anytime slave labor or grossly inadequate wages regarding goods and services are brought up (usually in a Wal-Mart discussion), someone who doesn't want to have to make a choice about where their $8 t-shirt comes from will pipe up and accuse someone of being a Communist, a Socialist, or Anti-Capitalism in general. This, of course, derails the conversation completely as the accused now has to assure everyone that they are not, in fact, a Pinko. And so the topic seems to sit out there, bobbing in the mainstream, and only occasionally nudged to the right or the left as it suits people.

Well, in fact, it's not a red or a blue issue. It's a voting issue. It's democracy 101, and most especially since we don't elect presidents anymore, but the Electoral College does, and most people can't name their state senators, and wouldn't take the time to write them a letter if their head was on fire and the politician had the last glass of water in the world. No, I'm talking about the only votes that ever seem to matter in America: the bottom line. The Red and the Black. Profit and Loss. These are our new Overlords, and I do not welcome them. But they are here, nonetheless.

It's really simple: since corporations exist as a firewall between themselves and their shareholders, and the stated intent of all corporations is to make money for their shareholders, you cannot really punish a corporation the way you punish a person (and Mitt Romney is wrong--about so many things--but most emphatically that "corporations are people"). All you can do to send them a punitive or encouraging message is to vote with your dollar. Spend it or withhold it as you deem necessary. When the shareholders see the bump, or the dip, the next quarter, they will know why, and they will correct whatever is causing the bump. And it's just that easy.

There were lines around Chick-Fil-A restaurants across America yesterday, and I suspect they were all in line for one of three reasons:

1. Their chicken is delicious and they wanted a sandwich. This would have been the smallest group yesterday, incidentally.

2. They felt that poor old Chick-Fil-A had gotten beat up over the past week and they were making a show of supporting them (really a sympathy purchase) to help them in these trying economic times. I need a minute after that last sentence; it's hard to type while laughing out loud.

3. They honestly, earnestly believed in the sanctity of Chick-Fil-A's stated policies of not being open on Sunday to observe the Sabbath, giving donations to Right to Life organizations, and admonishing the gay and lesbian community in general for their hedonistic ways. These would have been largely the politicians and pundits who needed a photo-op and something to Tweet about.

I've known about Chick-Fil-A's practices for some time, and I've curtailed 98% of my spending there, which amounts to doodley squat for their bottom line, but it mattered to me. It meant the chicken sandwich I bought didn't contribute to a Right to Life group, however legitimate, who may have taken a donation from Chick-Fil-A, and then that money somehow got handed off to a more radical sect, who thinks it's okay to firebomb clinics and kill doctors and nurses in order to justify the existence of what amounts to a parasite growing in someone's body. An extreme example? You betcha. But understand this: I have no say in how Chick-Fil-A spends its money. None whatsoever. And neither do you.

If a corporation wants to fund overseas heroin farms with its profits, then I don't want anything to do with that corporation. And neither should you.  Another extreme example, but I'm making a point. It DOES matter where and how we spend our money. In the wake of scant to no regulation of things like investment banks, companies doing business overseas, and so forth, it seems clear to me that the message is not self-regulation but fiscal regulation. We send the message with our purchases, or lack thereof.  We the people tell the corporations what we will and will not accept.

Think about it: no matter how many negative Wal-Mart stories you see on the news about cheap Chinese labor, they don't change. Why? Because people are still buying $8 shirts, whether they need them or not, because "it's a good deal!" Consider what would happen if Wal-Mart got 10 million signatures asking to buy clothes made in the USA again, and that we'll stop buying t-shirts from them until they do: they'd laugh at first, but after one month of their t-shirt sales being down 75%, they'd have a textiles factory in the midwest up and running in a fortnight. Think about it. Does Wal-Mart like to leave money on the table? They do not.

The problem is, we've never really used that power. Not until this, until now. And it was kind of a bust, really--so many people signed on for a Chick-Fil-A sandwich yesterday in some kind of righteous indignation, even as this picture made its way across FaceBook. And this is always--ALWAYS--an option for Christians to lead through action rather than to get drawn into a debate with other people. I would think that if someone was really passionate about their beliefs and the opportunity to both support a multi-million dollar chicken restaurant and also feed the homeless with delicious sandwiches presented itself, it would be a real win-win for everyone else involved, including the homeless. But of course, the last thing a lot of the people who espouse these values  seem to care about is putting a sandwich into a needy person's hand. There's irony in there, somewhere, I'm sure of it.

So, now the door is open. You can peek inside and see how they make the sausage, and if you don't like it, you don't have to buy it. You can even tell them why. My suggestion is that you start doing that very thing. Of course, most of the people who read this blog already do things like this anyway, so I'm just preaching to the choir. Therefore I have to ask you to start talking this idea up with the people you know who don't know any better. It's time America started thinking for itself again.

Now if you'll excuse me, I'm going to go figure out how to reverse engineer their secret recipe so I can make Chick-Fil-A sandwiches at home.