The Inside Story: The Underground Railroad

In this blog series, HPB Buy Guy Steve Leach takes a closer look at the unique curiosities that we see in our stores.


9780345804327_5d023Critics and readers praised Colson Whitehead’s sixth novel, The Underground Railroad, which won the Pulitzer Prize in 2017 and the National Book Award in 2016. Its fanciful reimagining of the historic escape route for runaway slaves revived popular interest in the subject.

Here’s a look at Reverend W.M. Mitchell’s Underground Railroad, published in England in 1860, among the most significant items we’ve ever acquired: a book written by a black minister about the slave rescue network during the time it was in operation, and the first book to use the term Underground Railroad in print. Continue reading

It’s Geek Week (like every other week at HPB)

If you’re looking to express your geeky side with pride—and why shouldn’t you?—Half Price Books is the place. Our stores seem to have a never-ending supply of games, comics, action figures and other items designed to help you geek out.

Here are just a few highlights we’ve learned about that are currently in our stores around the country. “A Geek Week Sneak Peek,” I guess you could call it. If you are interested in any of them, contact The Buy Guy.

Lee---X-Men-1-(2)[1]X-Men #1 King-Size Special
Signed by Stan Lee!
Has a little bit of rubbing and wear to the bottom of the spine, but no other damage or signs of wear.
At our Mentor, Ohio store: $100 Continue reading

H.P. Lovecraft: Rarest of Rare Collectibles

We’re getting ready for Halloween, and that doesn’t just mean putting the final touches on our zombie and Princess Leia costumes, it also means getting out our favorite creepy stories to set the mood. In our stores all around the country, books by Ray Bradbury, Stephen King and Edgar Allan Poe are popping up on displays. Some of those displays include collectible books, and there are none finer than the two classic collections of H. P. Lovecraft works we’re featuring here.

Our Greenfield, Wisconsin, store was fortunate enough to have received a visit from the nephew of a very early Lovecraft enthusiast, Paul Klingbiel. Two Arkham House Lovecraft books were among the many books Uncle Paul had years ago, over many weeks, shipped to his science-loving nephew Robert. Now those two Arkham House treasures are being offered to our customers.

The Outsider and Others, by H. P. Lovecraft
Arkham House, 1939. First Printing.
The book is in Very Good Plus condition. The dust jacket, which is price-clipped, is in VG condition; there are several closed tears and paper loss to top and bottom of spine. $3,600

outsiders Continue reading

Buy Guy Files: 40 Years of Buying III

Here are another five tales from our buy areas, slices of the buying life at Half Price Books during the past forty years.  You never know what you’re gonna come across, in between the Danielle Steel book clubs and the Jane Fonda workout tapes!

1. Charles Whitman, the UT Sniper

Back in early 2005, a fellow walked in to one of our stores in Austin with some boxes of files he wanted to sell.  The buyer on duty that morning was taken aback by what he discovered in the boxes.  The files were those of former University of Texas at Austin Security Chief Allen Hamilton, covering the period of time he was there at UT, mostly the sixties.  Right in the middle of that period, on August 1, 1966, student Charles Whitman killed his mother and his wife, then ascended to the observation deck of the UT Tower and opened fire on students and others below, killing a total of 15 and wounding 31 more, before being shot dead by Austin police officers.  It was the worst mass killing up to that time, and it immediately monopolized Americans’ attention for weeks afterward.   

The files sold to HPB contained dozens of original documents related to UT officers’ involvement in the tragedy and its aftermath, including several handwritten accounts and drawings recorded that day.  There were also copies made in 1966 of the key documents related to the case: Whitman’s “suicide note,” his psychiatric evaluation at UT, his diary, and others.

We knew when we had the opportunity to purchase this historic material that we should pay enough to get it, but then turn it back over to UT, where it belongs.  And that’s what happened on August 1, 2006—forty years to the day after the murders.  A team from our corporate offices went down to Austin and together with our Austin store staff, they welcomed representatives from the UT American History Center, the organization determined to be the most appropriate recipient of the papers, along with reporters and cameras from many TV and radio stations, newspapers, and the Associated Press.  In a low-key event, the files were presented to the History Center, where they remain.

2. Museum Piece

Not all of the treasures to cross our buy areas are old: a 1988 publication bought recently in California is described by California District Manager Matt Dalton as possibly “the coolest book I have ever bought.  It should be in a museum!”  The book is The Life and Opinions of Tristram Shandy, Gentleman by Laurence Sterne, with art by John Baldessari.  Baldessari, who signed the limited edition, one of 400 issued, created 39 photo-collage illustrations for the three-volume edition.

3. One Good Turn…

Brian Millican in Austin let us know about one that got away a couple of years ago.  Brian was sorting through some history books bound for his store’s Clearance section when he noticed a Robert McNamara book called In Retrospect, about the Vietnam War.  He knew he didn’t have a copy in the History section, so he decided to send it to the section rather than to Clearance.  He happened to open the book and, lo and behold, he saw that it was inscribed from Robert McNamara to Ladybird Johnson.  

They managed to track down the seller, who said he had worked for Ladybird but had no idea he had that book with the inscription.  Brian says, “They decided to keep the book rather than have us make an offer on it.  Too bad, because I really would have liked to see what that inscription could have brought.”

We lost the book, but Brian did a good deed by letting the seller know the book had something special about it.

4. “A lion to a lion.”

Employee Philip Lefebvre in Irving, TX, was involved in a buy brought in by a regular seller. The book, An Apologie Or Declaration Of The Power And Providence Of God In The Government Of The World …, had been re-bound in maroon leather. It was printed by William Turner, “Printer to the famous University, Anno Dom. 1630.”

Sometimes we get items that require a little bit of research, which is what Philip did.  Here’s what he learned:

“The book’s author, George Hakewill, was appointed in 1612 to preserve Prince Charles ‘from the inroads of popery,’ a task at which he seemingly failed because Charles I married a Catholic wife.  (He, the king, was also then executed in 1649 for treason, paving the way for Oliver Cromwell.)  So Hakewill was more than a historical footnote, having been at court and a player with big people.  This work is described as a rebuttal to the idea that all creation, including mankind, is decaying.  Which makes it a rare work for a theologian 400 years ago, or even now.  It is also credited with heavily influencing Samuel Johnson, which makes Hakewill a lion to a lion.  So this book is a historical artifact, written by a genuine historical figure.”

5. Judging Books by Their Covers

Sometimes we get books in that are just a pleasure to look at—regardless what the contents may be.  Our main store, for example, bought about twenty excellent bookbinding projects from a student in an upper-level bookbinding course. 

The books in this buy were beautiful, oversize art and calligraphy books.  The materials used included multiple types of wood, handmade paper, silk, and many varieties of cloth, board, and paper.

— Steve, aka The Buy Guy

40 Years of Buying Everything Ever Printed or Recorded

When you buy everything printed and recorded all day, every day, for 40 years, at an ever-growing number of locations, you see a lotta weird and wonderful stuff!  Here’s a first installment of 40 memorable buys we’ve made over the years.

1. Now you see it. Now you don’t.

A few years ago, our Plano store was fortunate enough to purchase several books that were fore-edge painted.  What, you may ask, does that mean?

Fore-edge painting is an almost-lost art.  An artist paints a scene of some sort on the fore-edges of the pages of a book—the edges opposite the book’s spine—while those pages are fanned.  When the book is closed and lying flat, the painting is not visible. When you fan the pages: Voila! The hidden scene appears! Often, the bookbinder would add gilt or marbling to the page edges in order to further conceal the secret scene.  Our buyers wouldn’t have even known that the books they were buying were fore-edge-painted if the seller hadn’t made a note of it.

Here’s one of the books Plano bought, Poetical Works of Robert Bridges, from 1913, unfanned (on the left). Note that the book itself is not especially interesting or desirable to a collector; that is, without its little secret. Here’s a photo revealing the scene, an “Eton School Room” (on the right).

Fore-edge painting is very uncommon, so I wouldn’t suggest rushing to your shelves and fanning all your old leather-bound treasures.  But fore-edge-painted books could make an interesting collection (which you’d have to be prepared to show-and-tell). 

2. Family Heirloom

Way back in 1990, longtime employee Chuck Pierce was assigned to work the Religion section at one of our Houston stores.  One day, he spotted an old worn Bible that was in pretty bad condition. Just before he set it aside to be recycled, he opened it and, to his surprise, saw his father’s name along with the names of his siblings. Turns out that Chuck had serendipitously come across the Bible of his aunt who had passed away twenty-six years before. Chuck believes that he was meant to have that Bible and keeps it close-by to this day.

3. “We proudly accept this buy…”

Wisconsin District Manager Joe Desch and District trainer Carolyn Beck went out on a buy recently and didn’t see much among the books and CDs that was very exceptional.  “However,” says Joe, “this guy was amazing!  He was a writer for the Carol Burnett show and won an Emmy for his work on the fifth season.  He also produced the 25th anniversary TV special for the founding of the state of Israel and worked with Jim Henson.”  Joe is pictured here delivering his fantasy Emmy acceptance speech. 

4. Leafing through a classic.

We occasionally find flowers pressed into books sold to us, but once, when I was checking the condition of a Disney Giant Golden Book from the seventies, I noticed that a large, perfectly-preserved marijuana leaf was pressed between a couple of pages.  On further inspection, I discovered a total of twenty, one inserted every few pages throughout the book.

5. Psychiatric and Psychological Examinations of Jack Ruby

A collection in a file folder, bought at our Kenwood store in Cincinnati, Ohio, contained the findings of Dr. Francis Forster, a noted neurologist who was called to testify at the 1964 trial of Jack Ruby for the murder of Kennedy assassin Lee Harvey Oswald.  Forster’s testimony countered Ruby’s insanity defense.

Documents included in the file: dictaphone recording and transcription of a meeting between Dr. Forster, assistant prosecutor William F. Alexander, and Dr. William Peterson; Forster’s interpretations of two encephalograms made of Ruby; copies of other physicians’ findings; and correspondence from Forster to Alexander.

This unique grouping of documents gained the attention of the Sixth Floor Museum in Dallas, and was donated by HPB to that organization. The Sixth Floor is a John F. Kennedy museum located in the old Texas School Book Depository building where Lee Harvey Oswald perched.

Certainly not all of our buys are quite this memorable, but there are enough to keep the buying gig pretty interesting!  Look for another five tales from the Buy Guy archives next month.

— Steve

From The Buy Guy: Rare, Signed “Lord of the Rings” Boxed Set

Hi, Everyone! This is the Buy Guy, Steve Leach, reporting from the Buy Counter. Today I have exciting news! Kerry West, Store Manager of the Mentor, Ohio location, had something very rare and exciting cross her Buy Counter recently.

“We recently acquired a three-volume ‘Lord of the Rings’ in slipcase, each signed by J.R.R. Tolkien. We bought it from a woman who inherited it from her grandfather.  It is a second American edition; all three books are signed, and the first volume has an inscription.  The condition is not great, but the appearance of signed Tolkien items is so rare that the item’s value is great.” 

  This inscription (above right)reads, “Allen, 4000 m (miles) is a long way to travel for my dubious company.” J.R.R. Tolkien. It is dated December 15, 1966.

A few different factors were evaluated when determining the value of this Lord of the Rings boxed set. Very few American editions were signed. According to a website that specializes in Tolkien, another boxed set sold for $9,000 with only the first volume signed. The description noted that Tolkien very rarely wrote anything other than his name. Other signed copies of any individual books (not as a boxed set) start at $7,500. Because this boxed set includes signatures on all three books plus a personalized inscription on the first volume, Kerry and Steve are estimating the value at $25,000-30,000.

Contact Kerry at 042mgr@halfpricebooks.com if you are interested!

Happy Buying & Selling!

— Steve

 

(Note: Thanks to our Sales Inventory Manager Kim Freeman for providing these pictures!)