What do you know, but I found myself deep in the heart of Red Sox country over the Thanksgiving weekend. My girlfriend and I were visiting her parents, who live roughly twenty minutes outside of Burlington, Vermont, in a lovely farm house that overlooks Lake Champlain. It was my inaugural trip to their home, and we spent most of the time happily cooking, eating, and digesting.
As much as I was looking forward to meeting her family and spending time in their home, I was also eager to comb the area for used bookstores in the hopes that I would find some hidden treasures.
Several years ago, when collecting records—digging for beats, was my primary hobby, I found the college towns of New England to be terrific for good finds at reasonable prices. I assumed I could have some similar success in the bookshops as well.
There is nothing like the feeling of finding the book you’ve been hunting for, especially when it’s at a decent price. It makes all the dust-inhalation worth it. I usually rate bookstores in terms of selection and pricing. Ambiance and all that other good stuff is nice but strictly secondary. The sports section is often minimal in used bookshops; this can be vexing, but it also makes finding a choice book all the more satisfying. The suprise, and delight of finding a coveted book, or that rare record, is a small, but rich pleasure; one that is harder and harder to find in the world of instant access.
Last summer for instance, I bought “Beyond the 6th Game” by Peter Gammons via the internet. Although I ended up enjoying the book plenty, it was tough for me to shell out close to $20 including shipping and handling for an edition which should have cost me no more than $7. I’m by no means miserly by nature, but in certain instances, my grandmother, the bargain hunter, is alive and well in her grandson, thank you very much.
My first outing was not an overwhelming success. I braved the elements—snow, gusting winds, bitter cold, and headed to Burlington. Much to my dismay, two of the the town’s four bookshops were closed. As I trudged through the town mall, my mood soured considerably; it was not ideal browsing weather. (I was however smart enough not to have dragged my girlfriend along, so at least I was left to suffer on my own.) By the time I reached the two remaining stores I discovered precious little in the way of selection, but screw it, I was not leaving empty-handed.
Angry shopping is the worst state a bargain hunter can find themselves in, because you end up forgetting your principals in favor of the quick fix, the immediate gratification. So what if the gender studies department dwarfed the sports section, I was going to buy something, dammit. And I did. Terry Pluto’s “The Curse of Rocky Colavito: A Loving Look at a 30 Year Slump” for six bucks (a good buy), a hardcover edition of Arnold Rampersad’s formidable and elegant-looking Jackie Robinson biography for $12 (just about right, though more than I wanted to spend), and just for shits and giggles, a paperback copy of Louis Armstrong’s first autobiography, “Swing that Music” for $8. (Armstrong is a suprisingly deft writer; engaging, unpretentious and of course, funny.)
These books were fine in and of themselves, but since they weren’t books I was necessarily searching for, I left feeling empty and discouraged. (Sometimes I have a concrete list of titles in my head, or at the very least I’ll be on the look-out for specific authors. Currently I’m interested in almost anything written by Ray Robinson, Ed Linn, Leonard Koppett, or Fred Leib.) Fortunately, when I got back to the house, and sat my ass down in front of the fireplace and cracked open Pluto’s book on the Indians, my mood quickly brightened. Knowing next to little about the history of the Indians, it didn’t take long before I was gobbling up Pluto’s heartfelt, and humorous recollections of what it was like growing up an Indians fan.
The following day, my girlfriend and I got in the car and took a trip to Middlebury, which is about 40 minutes away from Burlington. I found Middlebury much more to my liking—quaint and personable: the quintessential charming New England town. There wasn’t a national chain in sight—no Borders books, no Eddie Bauer, no nuthin.
We parked just outside of a bookstore that would be the only shop we would need to visit all day. When we walked into the place, we were greeted by the impenetrable smell of dust and moth balls, along with the house cat—usually a good sign. The bookstore was downstairs, and it resembled a dusty-ass salvation army as much as it did somebody’s congested, wood-paneled rec room. I quickly found the sports section and was suprised at the size of the collection, which was larger than normal. I immediately spotted the garish yellow dust-cover of “Nice Guys Finish Last”, Leo the Lip’s biography, written with Ed Linn.
Eureka. I can cross that one off my list. A hardcover book, in very good condition, I opened it slowly to peek at the price: $5. Hey now.
Next, my eyes fell on another hardcover book in good shape: Roger Angell’s “Five Seasons”, which I already own. Again, $5. (For that kind of money, you know I couldn’t resist buying a second copy; hey, with the holidays upon us, you could do worse than getting a Roger Angell book from ol’ Saint Nick, am I right?) I put the books down and scurried off to find my girl, just so I could do a victory dance. She laughed and said, “You better get back there before someone snatches them up.”
Like who, the cat?
I ended up making off with a few more books on my list: “The New Thinking Fan’s Guide to Baseball” by Leonard Koppett, and Richard Ben Creamer’s definitive biography on the Bambino, “Babe: The Legend Comes to Life”. For the hell of it, I also snatched Tim McCarver’s first book (written with Ray Robinson) “Oh Baby, I Love It*”. But I couldn’t stop there, so I also picked up a second copy of David Halberstam’s book on the Trailblazers, “The Breaks of the Game”, and another hoopskaball book, “48 Minutes”, by Bob Ryan and Terry Pluto, which is an in-depth study of a single game between the Cavs and the Celts in 1987.
I was on a roll, so I stocked up on doubles of some old favorites: Nat Hentoff’s “Jazz Is”, John Huston’s autobiography, “An Open Book”, Garson Kanin’s tinseltown memoir, “Hollywood”, and Woody Allen’s “Side Effects” and “Getting Even”. When hardcovers are going for five bucks a pop, and the paperbacks are no more than $2, I make like Cy Syms and was a very satisfied customer.
So while we sit on our hands and wait for slowly developing Hot Stove League to bear its winter fruit, I can’t say I don’t have anything to keep me occupied. I can, as Roger Angell suggested, learn by reconsidering and reflecting, and by “keeping [baseball] warm in a cold season…begin to make discoveries.”
If anyone has any thoughts or comments about any of the books or writers listed above, I’d sure appreciate hearing them.