Buy Guy Files: 40 Years of Buying VI

Sometimes the buying experience at Half Price Books involves elements of surprise.  Here are a few “Tales of the Unexpected” from company buying lore, as related by some of our longtime HPB-ers.

1. Marianne Moore Noir

Donations Manager Scott Ward counts among his most memorable buy experiences an occasion when he was a buyer faced with a little “ripped from the headlines” shenanigans.

Scott says, “We had received a fax message from a high-end antiquarian bookseller, alerting us to a robbery of a UPS truck in the area. It seems that a driver had left the motor running and the door opened while making a delivery, and a very valuable package was snatched from the truck. This package contained ten valuable, limited edition-type signed and numbered books, valued at over $10,000.”  The fax advised our buyers to watch for these books.

“Another buyer was on duty on an otherwise ordinary weekday,” Scott continues. “I was close by, on call to help out with buys. The buyer brought me a book: a beautiful, leather-bound, numbered, limited edition, signed by the poet Marianne Moore.”

The scruffy, nervous seller and his female accomplice did not appear to be your typical Marianne Moore aficionados. Scott checked the fax and, sure enough, there was the book, valued at about a thousand bucks. The police department was called, and Scott and the other buyer tried to keep the sellers occupied while help was on the way.

Scott says he “attempted to engage them in a conversation about the merits of mid-20th Century American poetry (yeah right) while trying to make eye contact with them. They weren’t having anything to do with poetry or eye contact, and the longer they waited, the more nervous they got.”

Fortunately, the cops showed up fast.  “As soon as they hit the doors, the girlfriend of the perp hit the floor in a dead faint (like a bad movie), but the cops and the HPB staff were not having anything to do with that. We identified the book for the cops, showed them the fax identifying the book (and explaining to the police how it was we knew this was the book described in the fax) and they hauled the pair away.  The female somehow recovered from her fainting spell.”

The thieves were “greatly disappointed to find books,” says Scott, “as there are not many good out-sources for fencing Marianne Moore.”

The caper made the local papers.  A rumored reward never materialized, but Scott has a nice story to share eighteen years later.

2. JFK Mementos

Operations Director Jan Cornelius recalls a buy decades back when buyers were looking through a stack of JFK memorabilia they had just bought: 

“There were about five or six of us in the buying area, making sardonic, wry comments about the popularity of assassination conspiracy theories, all the JFK memorial editions, and HPB co-founder Ken Gjemre’s insistence that we do a display every November to try and sell some of the stuff.  We were getting louder (some would say funnier – no customers around), when a single card fell out of one of the memorial books.  One of the buyers read from it aloud.  It was an invitation to a lunch and speech at the Dallas Trade Mart, to start at 1:30 pm, November 22,1963, with President and Mrs. Kennedy.  The buy area fell silent.  We all went back to work.”

3. A Lock of Hair

Sometimes, a surprise found in a book can arouse the buyer’s curiosity about the story behind it.  In one case, Media Buyer John Wilson became determined to track the story down.  A lock of hair pinned to a 1932 funeral notice for a Mary Hearn was found by buyer Chris Carter in an old book being processed in our Lewisville, Texas, store.  Chris let John know about it.  He immediately decided that “it was our mission to return the lock of hair to Mrs. Hearn’s family.”  Serendipitously, a D Magazine editor, Jeff Bowden, was just then working on a story about things found in books, and he joined our odyssey.  (Mr. Bowden’s story appeared in the May 2001 issue of D Magazine.)

The buyers were not able to pinpoint which customer’s buy contained the book that contained the lock of hair, but the funeral notice gave us the name of a small town in West Texas. 

John, Jeff and I drove out to Baird, and, using a Roads of Texas guide, located a little cemetery way out in the country.  We had a hunch we’d find Mrs. Hearn’s grave there, and, sure enough, we did.  Driving away from the cemetery, we saw a man standing alongside his truck and asked him if he knew anything about the Hearn family.  “Y’all sure going to a lot of trouble for a piece of hair,” he said.  True.  But his mother and father knew quite a bit about the Hearns.  Guided by their information, John located some key descendants, who pointed us to a young lady, Dawn Pearson, in Lewisville.  Mrs. Hearn was the mother of her great-uncle.  Our quest reconnected several estranged members of the family.  We returned the lock of hair to a grateful Ms. Pearson back at the Lewisville store.

4. More Wealth Without Risk

A few years ago, an employee was shelving books in the Business section.  It was the usual stuff, nothing too special.  To make some space on the shelf, the employee grabbed a hardback copy of More Wealth Without Risk to shift it to the shelf below.  The book seemed bulky, like it had something stuck inside it.  Sure enough, there was $1,200 in cash tucked into the pages.

Was the money there when buyers bought the book?  Was it secreted there on the shelf by a customer making an illicit payment?  Whatever the explanation, that particular bit of wealth did involve some risk after all.

5. Books by the Truckload

Laurie Coburn, the manager of one of our Milwaukee stores, was contacted by a customer who said he had “38,000 book club editions, mostly Sci-Fi and Romance.” 

Laurie got some help from another of our locations, deciding to do the buy as a “district project.”  A 15-foot box truck arrived, packed from floor to ceiling and front to back with paperback books—not book club edition hardbacks.  A failure of communication.  The buyers estimated that it was about 90% romance, going back to the late ‘60s.  The customer was told that we’d thought it was hardbacks, and that paperbacks were far less desirable.  Unfortunately, the sellers came from outside of town and had rented the truck and paid some kids to load it up. 

Laurie and company agreed to go through and make an offer, reminding the customers about the resale price and oversupply issues.  After four hours of backbreaking labor, buyers managed to find 3,200 PBs which seemed to be salable.  What was saved was mostly Sci-Fi going back to the early ‘60s, some vintage erotica and a few westerns, some of which were moderately collectible.  

Wisconsin District Manager Joe Desch sums the experience up this way: “The best part may be that after all the customer went through, I believe they left satisfied with our offer and service (though maybe not as wealthy as they were expecting to be).” 

In case you missed it from the last blog post, we’ve also put together a series of videos to help answer customers’ Frequently Asked Questions about selling to Half Price Books. Would you like to know what kinds of books we’re looking for? Or how to judge the condition of your books? Do you suspect you might have a first edition? Here’s how to spot a first edition, and how to figure out if it’s valuable.

Here’s one that goes back to basics — how to sell to HPB:

Steve is Staffing & Development Manager (aka the “Buy Guy”) at Half Price Books Corporate.

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