Happy Jack and the Value of Books

James

A few months ago, my wife and I took a weekend vacation to Ruidoso, New Mexico. At the outskirts of the small town of Roswell, we drove past a plain sign declaring Happy Jack’s, Beads—Books in front of a solitary building a hundred yards from the highway. My pulse quickened, my hands grew sweaty.  I blurted, in the cracking voice of a thirteen-year-old, “Hey, is that a used book store?”

My wife gave me one of Those Looks. She knows me well.

“Do we have time to check it out?” I asked.

She sweetly mentioned that it would be nice to reach Ruidoso before twilight. Or midnight. Or Thanksgiving.

“We won’t stay long,” I insisted, turning the car around. “I promise.”

My wife is a trooper, a team player, an accommodating woman whose enjoyment of used book stores dissipates, on the average, about a hour and a half before I’m ready to leave.

I skidded to a stop in front of the building. “You stay here,” I commanded, using my Band of Brothers scout voice. “I’ll check it out.  If it doesn’t smell like cat litter, the Dust Bowl, or the inside of a Marlboro, I’ll sound the all-clear.”

Flanking the building commando-style, I slipped through a side-door, eyes alert, nose sniffing.

And found Paradise.

The floors were clean, the aisles well-lighted. The cool breeze from a swamp-cooler wafted through the air. And everywhere stood rows and rows of paperback books, seen through the reflected, prismatic light of thousands of beads on display at the store’s front. Sublime joy suffused me.

I write and read Science Fiction and Fantasy. Unlike some genres, SF has traditionally been a collectors’ market; fans tend to seek out and keep specific volumes. For me, the time spent at Happy Jack’s (only an hour, I swear) was like stepping into the past, finding titles I had never seen before, studying the cover art, looking for one or two special books. I left triumphant and happy, a bag of books in hand; my wife came away with a couple novels and a sack of beads. I made her drive so I could study my new finds. Life was good.

But Happy Jack’s Trading Post got me thinking about the value of books. (And beads, but that’s another story.) Originally copied by hand, books were practically priceless, and in the early days of printing were so costly thieves would murder to steal them. Thomas Jefferson, seeing the need for a national library, sold many of his own precious volumes to the U. S. government—they were far too expensive for him to give away.

Decades later, with the advent of mass-market production and inexpensive paperback editions, books became more affordable. Reading soared; authors could sell not just hundreds, but thousands of copies. This was a Good Thing. It was also, unrealized at the time, the first devaluation of books as a medium.

Before the internet, I kept a want-list of SF books in my wallet. When we traveled, I visited used book stores, looking for specific editions of certain paperbacks. It was like a treasure hunt, sometimes in vain, sometimes rewarded with the discovery of a long-sought volume. Once, thinking I would never find a particular book, I used a Book Search Service, paying what I considered an astronomical price so I could read the story.

Ah, the glory of the past. (Sigh.) With the advent of internet sites such as abebooks.com, all but the most scarce books became available, often for less than ten dollars. Amazon’s decision to release hundreds of public-domain works as free ebooks, while nice for the consumer, undoubtedly affected the reprinting of classic novels and reinforced the message that some books have no monetary value. On websites such as paperbackswap.com, you can post books by ISBN number and trade them to other members for the price of postage. (Full disclosure: I joined paperbackswap several years ago. I use it as a marketing tool, including a printed bookmark about my own novels with any book I send.) But these transactions pay nothing to the authors or publishers, and whereas finding used books used to require diligent search, it’s now effortless to locate current editions of many novels. Used bookstores disappear; traditional bookstores struggle to survive. The world has moved on, far from Happy Jack’s Trading Post.

Such reflections made me ponder my own collection. Because I keep a list, I know I read about fifty books a year. I counted my books and found I owned a little over five-hundred. If I reread them all, it would take ten years. I realized I had been living under the old assumption that I had to retain anything I “might” read again because books were hard to find. So I started weeding through them, seeing which ones I could buy as ebooks whenever I wished, which could be had on the net for five or six dollars, and which ones I just couldn’t part with. I gradually gave books away to libraries and friends, sold some on ebay and put some on paperbackswap. I’m down to about two-hundred. It’s been a process, parting with old friends.

Did the loss of book value make me question my value as a writer? A little. I fear change. But paradoxically, though individual books can be had for pennies, trade book sales in 2012 were at 15 billion dollars. 15 . . . Billion. Not bad for a valueless commodity. I’m only looking for a tiny slice of that, and for readers who are touched by my work. So for those of us who love writing, the rules of the game haven’t really changed. Writers write for the art of writing, for love of the process, for the joy (and hard work) of creating a story, of crafting something all our own. The medium doesn’t matter. Only the words. Writers write. We put our fictional worlds out to be read.

And occasionally, we stumble into a Happy Jack’s Trading Post, where we remember why we loved reading books so much that we wanted to write them.