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The Book About Books

on February 22, 2009

Yesterday afternoon was cool and cloudy. Bookstore weather. I’ve heard a lot of recommendations about Book Zoo, a small shop on Telegraph Ave. in Oakland, and about the people who own it. The words “manic,” “crazy,” and “obsessive” were dropped, “in a good way,” I was promised.I ended up there for a couple hours, talking about the mania and the business of book collecting with Eric Lyngen, one of Book Zoo’s owners and an extremely smart guy. Eric says his story of becoming an indie bookstore owner is typical. He was a private collector for years, meaning his apartment was stacked ceiling-high with obscure old hardcovers on things like croquet and zoology, picked up for 15 or 20 cents at flea markets. He also worked at other shops in Berkeley and Oakland (Moe’s was one), and brought home a lot of unsold product.

He lived in a state of siege to his collection for a long time. Five years ago, “the fever broke.” He packed his books into boxes and, with an old Moe’s coworker, started looking for a storefront to lease.

It’s a pleasantly dark, surprisingly navigable space, mostly used books in very good condition and a nice kids’ section in the back. Books are organized under usual categories like fiction, biography, etc., but with subsections like “Show Trials” (under History) and “Genitals and their Manipulation” (Erotica).

Eric is an endearingly twitchy guy in his late 30s with a lot of dark stubble, thick black glasses, and floppy black curls. He’d look equally appropriate working at a bike shop or a co-op grocery store. We were discussing his dislike of Internet research (“Being in a bookstore is like being surrounded by 15,000 well-edited, thoughtfully constructed web sites!”) when the sound of someone loudly clearing their throat interrupted him. Unnoticed behind a tower of paperbacks on the shop counter, a customer was waiting for help.

“A customer! That rare and most welcome thing!” said Eric, twirling out from behind the counter. The guy smiled politely and backed up a step. He was in a heavy black overcoat over gym pants and a t-shirt, looking like a lawyer on the weekend. “Yeah. I’m looking for something by Raymond Chandler?”

Eric nodded a few times, rapidly. “Chandler, very nice. That’s Crime or Pulp, depending on title and date of publication.” He bounded off to the fiction section in the back. The guy looked at the spot Eric had been standing in seconds before and made the face that means, “O . . . kay . . . .” He shifted his gym bag under his arm and followed Eric, who had hopped onto a stool and was thumbing through paperbacks.

He whipped around to the customer. “A particular title in mind?”

The lawyer-looking guy cocked his head. “Uhhh….”

“‘Anything,’ right?” He said it like someone impersonating a frat boy or a Soprano. Or a Raymond Chandler character. “I know you guys, you guys who want to get into Chandler. It’s always, ‘Anything.'” The lawyer-looking guy snorted, good-naturedly, and broke into a smile. “Sure,” he said, his opening his palms wide, “anything.” They settled on a title and the guy left, reading as he walked out the door and down the sidewalk.

Most of the purchases that afternoon were fiction paperbacks. Eric deals in some rare books, but you wouldn’t rightfully call him a “collector,” he says. He’s definitely an “accumulator.” There’s a difference. A collector approaches books with a discerning eye, while the accumulator hoards with unflagging, unconditional love. Think of collectors as people who research dog pedigrees and work with professional breeders to acquire one perfect, pristine specimen for a lot of money. Think of accumulators as those people in the “wierd news” section of Yahoo, usually women, living in a trailer with dozens of stray dogs and/or alley cats they can’t afford and love with all their hearts. Eric is a rarity in the world of accumulators–he had turned his habit into a business.

Shortly after the Chandler guy left, we were talking about new categories Eric wants to reorganize some books into (Biographies of Animals, The Madness of Crowds, Books with Misspellings on the Spine) when the phone rang. The caller was a Cal student, looking for an econ textbook. I looked for a computer on the shop counter for Eric to punch the title in to, like at Borders, but only an old cash register sat there. “No, sorry, I’ve got Folklore of Capitalism and, of course, Religion and the Decline of Capitalism, which if you’re interested in the topic you probably want to check out anyway, but I don’t have that.”

When Eric hung up, I brought him back to the idea of book collecting as a world unto itself. Having written about a few subcultures (coffee snobs, aquarium hobbyists, eyebrow artists), I sensed Eric was involved in one, a real doozy. I wanted him to reveal for me the “sticky web” of his world.

“Sticky web” is my term for the network that connects one lone, obsessive hobbyist working in a garage to friends and conferences and expensive catalogues around the world. The sticky web extends via rumor and legend, Internet message boards, and the work of minor celebrities within the field. “Geek stuff” is how members of a subculture always explain it, with a little embarrassed laugh, whether they’re hip cute young baristas or 40-year-old suburban white guys who grow their own coral reefs or, as I now know, book collectors.* I wanted to trace the threads of geekery that ties book collectors together.

Eric immediately understood what I was asking for. He bounded off to the back of the shop, swatting aside the sheets that section off his office, and bent over with hands on knees squinting at some shelves, shouting the whole time about a strange late 19th-century book he recently acquired called “Salmagundi, or the Whimwhams and Opinions of Launcelot Langstaff,” which I didn’t entirely understand. He popped back up to the counter with a thick red hardcover in hand. “You need to read this,” he said. He’d said the same thing earlier about both a medical textbook on neck diseases and a little-known Einstein essay on cosmic religiosity. This was titled The Book About Books, and subtitled “The Anatomy of Bibliomania.”

The Book About Books isn’t for sale, but Eric let me borrow it after a gentle lecture on the etiquette and noble purpose of book lending. It’s a paean to and an explainer about book collecting published in 1932 by one Holbrook Jackson (1874-1948), an Englishman and a “bookman,” as he calls himself. Jackson dissects everything here, from the proper assembage of one’s library to the best lighting to read under, with chapter headings like “Varieties of Book-Eaters,” “Methods of Famous Bookmen,” and “On Parting with Books.”

I just started The Book About Books, and I can’t tell yet whether it’s satirical or not. There’s a chapter about how people become book collectors called “Origin of the Species,” which has got to be a joke. But then again, the book is extremely well-researched. A short chapter about the bookworm (Oecophora pseudopretella) and the damage it inflicts cites some 30 sources, from psychologists to zoologists to traumatized collectors. So, it’s hard to say how tongue-in-cheek it is.

I do know, however, that I need to totally rearrange my living room and buy a new lamp before I get much further.

*That little laugh is a front, by the way. Most hobbyists don’t have the time or patience to explain their world to a total newbie, and they deflect newbie questions with self-deprecation. They prefer to talk amongst themselves.

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