The Hang Fire Books Blog

The rantings of a bookdealer in Brooklyn, New York.

Wednesday, May 30, 2007

On the Bum: You Can't Win by Jack Black

I just finished the perfect book for my Memorial Day road trip, You Can't Win by Jack Black.

The book is the memoir of a hobo/vagabond and career criminal whose life on the road spanned 30+ years from the post Civil War-era (some of his traveling companions were veterans) to the early decades of the 20th century. History with a capital "H" though is peripheral as the author was single-mindedly focused on casing hotels, cracking payroll safes, and avoiding murderous railroad Bulls.

With its complicated, hermetic underworld, and surreal street jargon, You Can't Win was a heavy influence on William Burroughs and the Beats and is a fascinating read. You'll meet fine Americans like "Foot-and-a-Half George", "Salt Chunk Mary", "The Sanctimonious Kid"; methodically learn how to find a mark, rob a house when the occupants are sleeping inside, and dispose of your loot so you can hit the Faro table and score a hypo of opium.

The author was widely read (he was a big user of the prison library) and the book is lucid and engrossingly written. You don't need a historical preamble explaining why the book is important (unlike Asbury's Gangs of New York, which I wanted to love but is much better when excerpted in Luc Sante's Low Life), rather Black will step forward and tell you himself. Sadly we don't know much about the author's life that isn't in the book. The best corroborating evidence to this memoir would be his arrest record but as he never gave the same name twice (and this was the pre- fingerprint era) that information is likely gone forever.

The first edition of You Can't Win commands several hundred dollars but it's still in print and a new or used copy can be purchased from Amazon. Sadly they've changed the cover from the gruesome (and somewhat inaccurate) Joe Coleman painting on the Amok Press Edition (pictured above).

I love historical crime memoirs and exposes of particular, extinct "rackets". They remind me that we're all in a racket or one kind or another (particularly bookdealers....yuck). Hobos definitely had it rough but reading this book made me lament the fact that modern trains are too damn fast and they barely go anywhere besides urban centers which are all more or less the same anyway.

Paperback Pr0n

Just received the last part of a large SF collection I purchased a while back. A lot of great paperbacks in this lot: some mapbacks, early Ace Philip Dick, Avon Lovecraft, lots of Kuttner, Sturgeon, Avram Davidson and more.

Some of these need a little touching up but they will be making their way into my store soon (the ones that make it past MY bookshelf that is).

Check the new arrivals link at right over the next few days. Photos will follow.

Thursday, May 24, 2007

Zine Review: Ghosts of Ready Reference

I received a packet of 'zines from Love Bunni Press. They were all smart and charming but the ones that really grabbed me were two issues of a librarian produced 'zine called Ghosts of Ready Reference.

The 'zine details everyday life at the reference desk of a public library and describes the recurring characters (and they are Characters) who float in and out. "Mad Margaret" (a cranky autodidact), "Walker, Texas Ranger" (who lost his mother and needs the proper reference work to find her), and "Babyface" (a middle-aged infant, seething with anger) are just a few of the characters you'll meet.

I've never worked in a library, but I've paid my dues in bookstores and the unnamed librarian in this 'zine has a real knack for capturing the feeling that you've been unwillingly stuffed in the middle of a Samuel Beckett play that runs for 8 hours every week day. Libraries and bookstores are magnets for lonely people who can't get attention anywhere else. You're trapped behind a counter and they will be satisfied.

Highly recommended. Try the Love Bunni website or send a SASE and a dollar or two here:

Wednesday, May 23, 2007

Book Arts

I just started a section for Book Arts & Bookbinding in my blog rolls. The first link is to Nancy Loeber's blog The Good Fight. It displays a selection of her works in progress. Really beautiful, whimsical stuff.

Nancy was my instructor for Bookbinding I at the Center for Book Arts. It's a week long intensive course in which you make several books and a few boxes/structures. Definitely worth it.

Gotham Book Mart

The Times just published a really depressing account of the Gotham Book Mart auction. So much history... Gotham deserved church status.

Tuesday, May 22, 2007

I miss the boat

A customer just balked at the exact shipping cost I quoted for oversize, 3 1/2 pound book to Australia. I can't blame him since it was a fair amount more than the cost of the book. I think the new shipping rates are going to do some harm to the international used/rare book trade.

Standard hardcover (and smaller) books didn't take much of a hit as they fit in a priority, flat rate envelope and the price only went up about $1.50 (Europe/Asia). But for oversize books the options have narrowed considerably. Surface rate (colloquially known as "slow boat") is gone and even M-Bags (which the USPS site is cagey about quoting anyway) now only travel by air. I was hoping the flat rate "Shirt box" option would encourage multi-book international orders but $37 (Europe/Asia), for maybe 3-4 books, isn't enough of a bargain to encourage casual shopping.

Has anyone found better solutions? It would be wonderful if the rare book trade had shipping agents in each major country who could collect/receive M-Bags then reship the packages via the local "media mail" equivalent. But that would require a whole lot of trust from buyers and sellers and lord knows I wouldn't want to be one of those agents.

Ebay Blogs

I debated starting this blog on eBay since it would allow me to easily integrated my store and auction listings (I have definite flog tendencies) but I wasn't comfortable with eBay as an open discussion forum.

Looks like I made the right decision:

You Blog It, eBay Owns It (too), Says New User Agreement (link via Auctionbytes)

In an update to the user agreement eBay is claiming rights, in perpetuity, to all of the user-created Web 2.0 content (blogs, wikis, discussions boards, etc).

Sunday, May 20, 2007

Bookselling Tools: Book Cradle and Page Weight

Taking attractive, professional photos can be a chore when you have a stack of 50 books to get through. Especially as a one man (only two-handed) operation. Here are a couple of tools that make it a little easier.

The book cradle display is from Gaylord Library Supply. They are often used to show-off illustrated volumes at book shows. The concave shape hold the book in a natural open position, without stressing the binding, and the gap at the bottom middle prevents pressure on the foot of the spine. If you have a decorative/antique lectern this would work (and make a more attractive photo prop) but they aren't as gentle on book bindings.

The page weight I found at a stoop sale but they also have them at Gaylord (a different variety). It's just two flat lead weights covered in suede (to prevent marring). You could probably make something similar with a nice length of finished hardwood or an antique wooden ruler (which would serve the double purpose of showing the books dimensions).

Here's how you use them:

Much easier (and nicer) than trying to hold the book open with your hand and ending up with a blurry photo, or a potential bidder fixating on your hang-nail.

I use three clip-on lamps (arrayed at 10, 12 and 2 o'clock) with 150 Watt bulbs. Then align, crop and tweak in photoshop.

Saturday, May 19, 2007

Chinese Burke and Hare

Corpses sold for Chinese 'weddings of the dead'

Field Report

A promising stoop sale day was cut short by some spitting, irresolute rain. I could have stuck it out, but when the items you want are made of paper, it's best to know when you're beaten. Thankfully the first two sales were great and required a trip home to drop off my loot.

I picked up a near complete run of Neil Gaiman's Sandman #1-70 plus specials, annuals and spinoffs. Might fill in the 3 or 4 missing issues and auction as a lot.

Also, a pile of Glenn Danzig's Verotik comics (Probably have to try eBay's adult categories for those)

Some Beatnik and Acid lit, including a copy of Jack Black's brutal hobo memoir You Can't Win with a Joe Coleman cover. Gonna give that one a read. A first paperback edition, first printing of the Ballantine Hobbit.

A nice little pile of Vintage Jim Thompson and Dave Goodis (all for me!).

Plus some Abrams and Rizolli architecture titles.

No complaints. A Good day.

I ran into a friend while out and I asked her if she wanted to come along. Seeing the load I was carrying she said I "didn't want company, just a pack mule". I swear the sky opened. A mule would be my perfect business partner. No jealousy or competition for merchandise, I could let him graze in the park, kids could ride as a haggling tool....Anyone have a burro for barter?

UPDATE: That Mask of Medusa by John Hejduk is a rarie. I don't feel too irrational asking $400 for it. Esoteric Architecture titles never let you down.

Friday, May 18, 2007

Found in a Book

A few new items for the ephemera wall.

Found this in Volume 12 of the Collected Marx and Engels:

Who knew Uncle Joe had such healthy and happy daughters? RRRRRrrrrrrr

And this one in an old diary:

Nice spats! Wish I could pull those off. What kind of deal do you think they're sealing? Either the car was just sold, or they whacked a guy in the back seat.

Thursday, May 17, 2007

Health Insurance Alternatives

If you're like many used booksellers, you probably work for a small shop or are self-employed and "health insurance" consists of looking both ways before you cross the street, and not touching the handle on the men's room door. If so, I have just the book for you--

Treatment, or Healing by True Prayer by F. L. Rawson (Society for Spreading the knowledge of True Prayer, London 1922)

In it the author recommends using modern diagnostic methods together with the "rifled barrel" of targeted prayer to treat your ills... to deny them existence actually.

Reproduced here are a few prayers for ailments common to the bookseller:

HAY FEVER: There is no hay fever, for man is spiritual and perfect. There are no irritating substances, for each idea of God, from the infinite to the infinitesimal, benefits and ministers to man. There is no "running at the nose," for God controls and directs all activity in accordance with His omnipresent law.

HERNIA: There is no rupture, man is spiritual, complete and perfect. There are no weakened muscles. There is no weakness in the abdominal wall. Man's muscles were never separated. Man's bowels are never out of place, man's bowels are the knowledge of God as soul, working perfectly and divinely.

NEAR-SIGHTEDNESS: There are no flattened eyeballs, man's eyeballs are spiritual and perfect. There are no weakened muscles. There is no hardening of the eyeballs, man's eyeballs are spiritual, perfect, pure and holy.

IMPURE THOUGHTS: There are no impure thoughts, man is spiritual, always doing what is right. Man has no desires, man has everything he needs.

INCOME TAX REPORTS: There is no difficulty in preparing reports. There are no mistakes, man reflects divine wisdom, intelligence and knowledge, grouping together God's ideas into perfect combinations, which he presents to his fellow man.

CONSTIPATION: There is no constipation, man's food is the ideas of God which continually unfold to man, with perfect ease and perfect regularity. Man's bowels are channels in consciousness through which God's ideas, when grouped together, pass. Man's muscles are God's thought forces, having absolute power and strength, working perfectly, working divinely.

There. feeling better? Pardon me, I have some ideas to channel.

Wednesday, May 16, 2007

Ephemera Wall: Not Work Safe (If you look reeeal close)

Baseball cards, love notes, pressed flowers, indecent photographs--and sometimes cash--have all drifted to me from the pages of old books. If you're a book buyer you should always "fan" (either flip through with the thumb, or gently shake out) a book you're considering for purchase before you put it down.

Every used bookstore I've worked in (or heard of) has a wall full of these curious treasures. Here's mine:

Still on my first layer but it's coming along. I will post new items as they find me. I'd love to see other people's walls or hear stories about peculiar finds.

Tuesday, May 15, 2007

Bookselling Tools: Desktop Packing Tape Dispenser

I thought I would start series of posts on equipment/software/office supplies that I find valuable in the bookselling trade. I love tools and will spend a fair amount on them if they make my life easier.

My first entry is fairly mundane but has saved me plenty of time and frustration.

Behold, the Desktop Packing Tape Dispenser!

Magnificent isn't it? If you've tried tape guns or the tooth method to pack small-medium packages you know how frustrating it can be. You often crumple and throw away as much tape as actually makes it on the box. The DTPD solves that problem. It has a double spool that can either hold 2 different standard rolls of tape or 1 roll of packing tape. The dispenser has some heft and a rubber non-skid bottom so--depending on the thickness of tape used--you can generally operate it with one hand. I also use clear packing tape to attach my address labels and my meter-printed postage. This is much cheaper than using peel-off, adhesive labels and the DTPD is perfect for tearing off short 2-3" pieces of tape.

I haven't been able to find these in the chain office supply stores but you can generally find them on eBay for 12-20$

The only caveat/warning I offer is that the cutting edge is long, quite sharp, and won't give if you're not looking and swing your hand down on it.

Saturday, May 12, 2007

Movie Break: 28 Weeks Later

I just took a time out from staring at my computer screen and went out to stare at a movie screen. Saw 28 Weeks later. I liked it better than the first film (which I thought was too derivative of Romero's Day of the Dead). 28 Weeks Later is set in a crumbling Iraq-style Green Zone--just outside London--and steeped in security-state paranoia. Like the zombies in the film who travel at a dead run, it doesn't waste any time in descending into a chaotic, viral nightmare.
The zombies are infected with a disease dubbed "the Rage virus" which turns the hosts into hyper-adrenalized, vectors who blast body fluids in every direction. Eventually all of mainland Britain is infected and the hosts die of starvation (and, presumably, exhaustion). The film has a number of excusable plot holes (How come one zombie can use a key card?) and I caught myself thinking, "Why would a virus evolve that would burn through all of its resources and kill its host so quickly?" But then I was like "Hey, look who's talking".
The thing I miss most in the new breed of hyper-active walking dead movies are the moments right after a likeable character has been bit. They know they're f**ked but they have a couple of days think about it as their limbs turn blue.
Zombie films usually have a strong anti-government, Libertarian streak. They offer a fantasy world where complete, selfish self-reliance is justified (Though I'm not a Libertarian, I am a curmudgeon, so I've seen every zombie film that has staggered onto video). 28 Weeks plays with this tendency, there are serious consequences for "going it alone" (yet another Iraq parallel) but I need to see it again (when I know where all the gotchas are coming) before I get a handle on its political discourse. I wish all political discourse was dramatized with walking corpses...oh yeah, it is.
I read something about ticks once that completely terrified me. They wait in trees--inert, hibernating--until something warm walks underneath; immediately they boot-up and drop into the warmth. I wanna see zombies like that.

Friday, May 11, 2007

Sin Merchant

Lately my specialty has been sex / sleaze paperbacks from the 50s and 60s. They're great fun and they are sought out by a variety of collectors. Some purchase them for the camp value, many collect the writers who pseudonymously churned these out, plus the covers are excellent examples of poverty row graphic design.

Robert Silverberg (as Don Elliott, Loren Beauchamp), Donald Westlake, and Lawrence Block (both as Andrew Shaw) seem to have produced hundreds of these on their own. Harlan Ellison also did a few; Gore Vidal and many more.

Paperbacks from this period were some of the first to address gay themes and other taboo subjects. While they were almost never positive or approving of alternative lifestyles they were at least portraying gay and lesbian characters and helping to create and support a subculture.

I have read a few of these that caught my eye. Mostly the ones set in New York City, written in hipster slang. They aren't necessarily high art, but because the writers didn't have their name on the book, and they had to turn them around quickly to make a decent buck, they are remarkably free and spontaneous. This was the passage that caught me from Sin Hipster by Don Holliday:
"There is nothing on Earth so abominable as three drunken sailors staggering through Greenwich Village, whistling at girls, talking loudly, their ridiculous hats tipped far forward and their necks strained backward so they can see despite the hats; pretending they are worldly men of the sea...One sailor alone might be all right, might know a little something. And two sailors, well, perhaps they are good friends and are looking for something together. But three sailors....what can one say? Hence three white suited abominations swagger through the streets. Something, somewhere must be wrong with the navy."
This novel also feature a bitter bookstore clerk with a nymphomaniac girlfriend nicknamed Mechanical Annie, endless parties, and sex scenes that are more imaginative than the usual (which tend to be of the "my hand moved ever lower across the smooth white mounds of her buttocks" variety). Highly recommended.

There are many resources if one wants to start a collection of these books. Strange Sisters is a cover gallery of lesbian themed paperbacks, Paperback Parade is a bi-monthly print zine that publishes carefully compiled lists of collectible titles plus interviews with authors, artists and publishers from the golden age of paperback publishing.

Enjoy! Just don't blame me if you get all sin sick and join the lust lost.

Thursday, May 10, 2007

Shipping increase

So i just updated the shipping on 92.67% of my nearly 1700 eBay store listings. It only took me about 3hrs to do, but a day and a half to choose between all of eBay's broken, beta, or undocumented tools.

Finally, using the (very fussy) online bulk-editing tool, and Firefox tabbed browsing, I got it done. I actually ended up LOWERING my shipping in most cases since I had been padding my flat rate international shipping to make up for the hits from elephant folios shipped to Outer Mongolia.

Now I have a disclaimer in my listing stating that oversize books may incur additional shipping charges. I think this is more fair for the buyer, won't entail too much additional work for me and might make my listings more attractive.

Alright back for the last 7.33%.

Welcome Post

Welcome to the Hang Fire Books Blog. This is still a work in progress. I need to add my profile, links and all the other frills, but since I'm a compulsive tweaker, I need to start writing before everything is perfect.

I plan to post on the art and craft of online bookselling, book curiosities and emphemera, what I'm reading and anything that catches my magpie fancy.

Comments are welcome, and since I'm new at this, advice on blog maintenance and etiquette will be appreciated.