Stay-At-Home Outreach, or Remote Bookscouting

It will come as no surprise to anyone who’s read my column… like, ever… that both my bride and I love bookstores. Real ones. Brick-and-mortar.

Looking for new ones, visiting favorite old ones– it’s literally our favorite thing to do when we go on vacation.

So it has filled us with a kind of horror watching how many of them are hurting because of the pandemic lockdown. Even Portland’s mighty Powell’s Books has had to lay off a bunch of people.

And if Powell’s took a hit, it’s got to be a million times worse for all our little roadside favorites we’ve been to over the years.

I’m seeing all sorts of articles and social-media things about trying to help out favorite restaurants and so on, but very little about bookstores. And with Diamond’s announcement about shutting down, comics retailers are in even worse trouble. (Pounds of press back in the 1990s about what an insane idea it was to just hand Diamond a monopoly on distribution. Did anyone listen? No.)

With so much else going on right now and so many people in dire need, I admit I feel a little foolish and petty worrying about this sort of thing. And certainly, the to-read pile– well, piles, really– is daunting enough now without adding anything more to it.

But… books saved my life. MULTIPLE times. I am being completely truthful when I say that without the solace of the written word, I might very well have been another teen suicide statistic back in the mid-seventies. It’s why so many of the fond-reminiscence columns I’ve done over the last decade and a half involve books and comics and magazines… and the wonderful bookstores where I found them.

I’m totally with Erasmus on this one.

When I was single I absolutely lived by his dictum (anyone familiar with my fashion sense is nodding) and even now as a responsible married adult we still budget for books and comics. (Rule of thumb is that freelance income covers it; it’s small enough and erratic enough that it falls under ‘fun money.’)

We had been thinking about a backroads bookscouting trip down to central Washington, down towards Olympia and maybe a three-day ramble from there up through the Cascades or down to the Columbia Gorge (Our friend Marcia gifted us with a $50 certificate at her favorite used bookstore in Centralia two years ago, but somehow we never get down that way.)

But that’s obviously off the table now. Still, we wanted to do something for a few of our favorite indies out there in the wilderness, and considering no trip was going to happen, we were left with a little from the tax refund even after we blew through a hunk of it replacing the cracked oil pan in our aging PT cruiser, and I have a royalty check coming in a week or two.

So I did a little virtual bookscouting. It’s not nearly as much fun as doing it for real out on the road, but I did turn up a couple of interesting oddities, and I felt better after throwing a few bucks to an actual store for a mail-order, even if it was a small order. Here’s what I turned up.

Thanks to Hard Case Crime I’ve been on a bit of an Erle Stanley Gardner kick lately, particularly Cool and Lam, as I talked about a couple of weeks ago. The back cover copy on the last one they sent me suggested that this was the final reprint they were doing from the series, and I got to wondering if old hardcover editions of other Cool and Lam books were around, and available as cheap as the Masons usually are. Gardner — or “A.A. Fair” as he was known on the Cool and Lam series– was a mainstay of the Detective Book Club, after all.

The Detective Book Club, which is not to be confused with the Doubleday Crime Club or the Mystery Book Club, was a subscription book service specializing in cheap hardcover omnibuses.

I think they went out of business in the late 1980s but you still see the books in thrift shops and at garage sales.

The drawback was that with their standard three-in-one format, you were almost certain to get at least one story you didn’t like. The only two I have here are both garage-sale impulse buys and one of them broke the format: it collects the final three Masons, which suggests to me it was some kind of special premium.

Normally the imprint was three different authors in each book, and I know I’ve seen Irate Witness on its own in another DBC collection. (Confirmed after a quick Google.)

The other one is still on the Shelf of Shame waiting to be read, but I couldn’t resist the pairing of Lester Dent AND Erle Stanley Gardner. That was certainly worth risking the seventy-five cents at a rummage sale.

Most of the time I just skip them, though, because even though they aren’t abridged, they are on about the same level as the Reader’s Digest Condensed Books collections: generally regarded as junk books, not interesting or collectible at all. Which is why it’s so hard to find anything out about the history of the imprint. But in looking around for Cool and Lam hardcovers by A.A. Fair, I found these nifty double editions from DBC.

Each pairs a Cool and Lam with a Perry Mason, which is a clever dodge; looks like two different writers to the layman but actually both from the same guy. Certainly it must have made the bookkeeping easier. I already had Beautiful Beggar here in another omnibus collection, but the others are all new to me. Gardner must have been a book club cash cow, because you can find him not only in Detective Book Club hardcovers, but Crime Club and Mystery Book Club collections as well. (My other edition of Beautiful Beggar is here.)

I should pause here to say that our version of bookscouting is a little different than the standard. Most book people define it as “searching for rarities that are unexpectedly cheap. that will turn a profit on resale.” But we are more about finding interesting or fun books in hardcover for ridiculously cheap.

Which is how I came to spend 700-plus words today on an imprint collectors sneer at. (Including me, most of the time.) But it’s kind of amazing to me that no one’s done any kind of catalog or listing of the imprint. Going down this particular rabbit hole offered an afternoon’s entertainment researching it, and piecing together what little I could from various AbeBooks and eBay and Etsy listings. And now you know as much about the Detective Book Club as I do.

Here is another one of those, speaking of cheap reprint hardcovers. Noodling around on the internet I came across this one for a couple of bucks. B.M. Bower’s Big Book of Western Stories.

I had picked up a couple of Bower westerns on previous excursions to the Oregon Coast– one in Tillamook, one in Seaside– and enjoyed both of them.

They’re lighter fare than the usual pulp western, but still with plenty of action. I figured this four-in-one omnibus would be a good bet at three dollars. I’d be hard put to tell you exactly what differentiates them from the other westerns of the time, but they have a flavor all their own; they’re not quite as romantic as Zane Grey, nor as authentic as Louis L’Amour. Let’s put it this way– using a television analogy, they’re closer to Bonanza or The Virginian than to, say, Gunsmoke or Have Gun, Will Travel. Certainly they’re very much in the comfort-food category. You will never be surprised by the plot of a Bower western. But I still like them.

Turns out B.M. Bower was Bertha Muzzy Bower, the first female author of mass-market westerns and one of the most successful.

She published over sixty novels between 1904 and 1940, and later moved from Montana to southern California where she had some success in Hollywood. She spent her final years in Depoe Bay after the death of her third husband, which may be why I came across her books on trips to the Oregon Coast.

Her first novel, Chip of the Flying U, was adapted for film four different times. She wrote many more books about the Flying U, and though first-edition hardcovers are somewhat sought after, for the most part she’s largely forgotten today except for aficionados of the genre. You can find the novels in hardcover for three or four dollars each… usually the Triangle Books or Grosset and Dunlap reprints from the 1940s. Sometimes even still in the dust jacket.

According to fellow Western author Elmer Kelton, when word got out it was a woman writing all those Western books, it hurt her sales, though she was inducted into the Montana Cowboy Western Hall of Fame in 2017. At any rate, I’m adding her to the short list when I’m prowling for a Western.

I’m also running across the occasional comics score as well. I scooped up this hardcover not too long ago, remaindered, for about six bucks from an online dealer. Legion of Monsters.

This collects the series of one-shots from 2007, which are okay. But I was more interested in the older reprints included to fill out the volume. Of course there’s the one-off from Marvel Premiere, a completely gonzo entry from Bill Mantlo and Frank Robbins.

For whatever reason, this gets reprinted a LOT, probably because of the Ghost Rider connection. I think I have it here in three different paperback collections along with this hardcover.

But the one I was delighted to find included in this book was the 1975 magazine version.

I remember reading about this in the Bullpen Bulletins back in the day and sighing wistfully about how I’d never be able to get one. Well, it took four decades, but I made it. The Frankenstein story from Doug Moench and Val Mayerik was very cool, and I have a soft spot for the Manphibian; mostly just because of getting to scratch the four-decades-old itch, but at the price I got it, it was a bargain.

Another find that delighted my 1970s Marvel junkie was the Marvel Masterworks Deathlok collection.

This collects the original Rich Buckler run from Astonishing Tales all the way up through the three-parter in Captain America. This is OG crazy Luther Manning Deathlok, featuring all the schizoid inner monologues between Luther and his onboard database “‘Puter.”

Cyberpunk before the genre got a name, this was ahead of Neuromancer and Blade Runner by five or six years at least. I’d read a couple off the stands back in high school– got interested after seeing the Marvel Team-Up with Spider-Man– and always meant to catch up, but never got the chance till now.

By the way, that Team-Up story is included as well as the Marvel Spotlight issue and the appearances in Marvel Two-in-One. It’s really one-stop shopping.

Those are the fruits of my recent online bookscouting adventures. Normally this is where I’d encourage you to use our Amazon links to buy stuff and support our site, but instead, this week I’m going to suggest you look and see if your favorite local bookstore or comics retailer has any kind of online mail-order system set up. Show ’em a little love. There’s some very cool reprint hardcover comics collections coming out this month– I favor this one…

…and I’m also very fond of this one.

Both chances to finish off stories that I’ve been left hanging on for decades. I pre-ordered mine months ago, but I bet your local retail folks could find them for you without too much trouble… and they sure could use the business.

Back next week with something cool. In the meantime, stay safe, and wash your hands.

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