4 Ways to Celebrate Elvis Presley’s Birthday (Rarest of Rare Collectibles)

Elvis Presley would’ve turned 81 this January 8! Whatever your opinion of Elvis and his music, he had a profound impact on popular culture and remains the second-best-selling departed celebrity of all time (behind Michael Jackson).

Here are four ways to remember The King on his birthday:

1. Get yourself an Elvis collectible.

Our South Lamar store in Austin, Texas, recently bought a pretty special Elvis item:

Elvis2 Continue reading

Buy Guy Files: 40 Years of Buying IV

Our store buyers never know what they’re going to see when they start a buy shift.  OK, so they know they’re going to see a lot of National Geographics, serial romances and Outlook 2003 manuals.  But they also know to expect the unexpected.

1. 100,000 Penguins

Several years ago, we got a call from the publisher Penguin, who was clearing out their archives.  They wanted to get rid of around 100,000 books, including thousands of file copies of the distinctively-designed Penguin paperbacks (more about them another time).    

Along with the paperbacks, we got thousands of hardbacks and trade paperbacks published by various Penguin imprints.  One treasure trove we came across was a box of assorted international editions and Penguin variations of the classic John Wyndham title Day of the Triffids.

In the photo, you may spot editions from Sweden, Spain, and Czechoslovakia.  The original mass-market Penguin cover shows a triffid, drawn by Penguin illustrator John Griffiths, based on sketches done by the author.

2. Things Found in Books

Buyers occasionally come across wonderful things left in the books our customers bring: pictures and postcards from earlier times, notes or news items about the book’s author (one book I got in had a note taped inside the front cover describing how the book’s owner had met the author at a journalists’ convention and the author had shot himself not long afterward), and ephemera that itself is of value, often of more value than the book itself.  Whenever the buyers see these impromptu bookmarks in time, they are returned to the customer; sometimes, though, the discovery is after the fact.

Other times, items are discovered in the boxes that are brought in.  One buyer came across a wooden box that contained a sterling silver ID bracelet, some old foreign bills, a letter from one of our US Presidents from around the WWII era, and lots of old family photos.  “We called the seller,” she says, “and he was so happy we had found all these old mementos he didn’t know he had in the box.”

A buyer in Houston a few years ago discovered at the bottom of a box of old, moldy books a menu from the famous Twenty-One Restaurant in New York.  It was from the 1950s, and was signed by Salvador Dali.

3. Dylan’s Harmonica

I’ll let Paradise Valley, Arizona, Store Manager Myles Chaplin tell you in his own words about buying a harmonica owned by “song-and-dance man” Bob Dylan.

4. School Days

Jeremy Evans, Manager of our Westport store in Kansas City, recently was sold a couple of yearbooks from Abilene High School in Abilene, Kansas, from the years 1906 and 1909.  “So what’s so special about those?” you may ask.   

Well, a certain Dwight David Eisenhower attended Abilene High School.  In 1906, he was a freshman, and 1909 was his senior year.

Jeremy donated the yearbooks to the Eisenhower Library, located in Abilene. They were very appreciative.

5. A Hunk, a Hunk o’ Collectibles

The opportunity for a great thematic display arose a couple of years ago when our Flagship store in Dallas bought a huge treasure trove of Elvis Presley memorabilia, including fan magazines, sheet music, and small-press memoirs by assorted associates of The King.

Most of it sold pretty quickly, but enough of it stayed around long enough for an attention-getting display in the store’s ephemera area, a room-size safe adjacent to their Collectibles section.

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 the latest, which tackles the first and simplest question: “How to Sell to HPB?”

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

Jim Swayze’s Favorite Section

As you’ve heard me say so many times on the radio, *almost* everything at Half Price Books is half price or less. But here’s a Swayze secret: no matter which store I visit, my first stop is always where I’m pretty sure things won’t be half price … the Collectibles Case! Every store has one under lock and key and it’s a must stop and see, fellow treasure hunters!

Besides the really rare stuff – vintage first editions, out of print goodies and the like, I’ve found autographed copies of Hemingway and Twain, great old vinyl records signed by the artists, and Beatles albums from around the world I’ve never seen (I’m a Beatles freak by the way).

In Austin, Texas, there was an original, yellowed, typewritten report on Charles Whitman and the timeline of UT campus clock tower shooting tragedy back in the 60’s. It was sold to HPB by a descendant of the chief of the campus police at the time. HPB bought it with the intention of donating it to the UT library for their archives, but had it on display among their collectibles for a while and I was able read through it in its entirety. Being the history nut, this was an incredible time warp experience– and it was the first time I truly realized what a fantastic place Half Price Books was. Who knows what may show up when you’re buying from the locals all day, everyday?

While in California on vacation, I found a pristine 45 rpm of Elvis’s first national release, with a perfect dust jacket and not a scratch on The King’s first hit! Now, that was something I had to have … and like most everything at HPB, it was in my price range! It’s now framed in my office. When folks ask if it’s one of those novelty reissues, I’m happy to say, “Nope! It’s certified authentic – another treasure I found at HPB!”

Folks, when you hear me say that you should make as many visits to your local HPB as often as possible, remember that they’re adding to their collectibles almost as often. What a store! Half price? I’m thinking priceless!

 — Jim Swayze


Staff Picks: Top Ten Music Biographies

I own a lotta books. It’s a wonderful sickness (and I’m not as sick as my wife, who owns about five times as many as I do).  A pretty good number of my books are books about music.

Here’s a list of my 10 favorite music biographies, along with a playlist below:

Really the Blues by Mezz Mezzrow (1946)–This autobiography of minor jazz player and major hepcat Mezz Mezzrow was written entirely in hep lingo and is a real trip to read. Mezz was white but “went black” in the thirties, immersing himself in the culture and jamming with and dealing pot to some of the great jazzmen of the era.

Favorite Song: “Really the Blues”— This is the song that gave the book its name.  Mezz Mezzrow joins the great clarinetist Sidney Bechet in solos on the Tommy Ladnier & His Orchestra recording.

Last Train to Memphis (1994), Careless Love (1999) by Peter Guralnick–This two-volume bio of The King is a great story even if you aren’t an Elvis fan, because Peter Guralnick is the best music biographer out there.  (Also check out his bio of Sam Cooke, Dream Boogie.)  The books are chock full of improbable success and failure, obsession, and some really weird behavior.

Favorite Song: “Don’t Be Cruel”— Everyone (except Elvis haters) has their own King faves.  This is the one that first got me interested in music.

Beneath the Underdog by Charles Mingus (1971)–A third-person autobiography?  Yes, indeed.  The great jazz composer Charles Mingus takes us for a bumpy ride along his stream-of-consciousness.

Favorite Song: “Goodbye, Porkpie Hat”— Mingus is best enjoyed in the long form.  His album Mingus, Ah-Um, which features the best version of this song, is great from start to finish.  Another high point is “Better Get Hit in Your Soul.”

Bessie by Chris Albertson (1972)–What was it about Bessie Smith that makes us keep listening to her songs eighty years after they were recorded?  Who cares?  Just listen to the songs!  But to go further with it, this book is a respectful but no-holds-barred look at the blues queen’s troubled life.

Favorite Song: “My Sweetie Went Away”— You can’t go wrong with Bessie Smith.  This one I like slightly more than all of her others.

Lush Life by David Hajdu (1996)–This is the story of the unique songwriter Billy Strayhorn, Duke Ellington’s right-hand man, told by the author who went on to write the tale of Dylan and Baez’s early days, Positively 4th Street.  Out of all the music bios I’ve ever read, this one probably had the least in the way of lurid, low-life livin’, because its subject was such a nice, gentle, and much-loved guy.

Favorite Song: “A Flower is a Lovesome Thing”— Ellington’s trusty muse Billy Strayhorn wrote several of the most gorgeous songs of all time, including this one.  Any version that features Johnny Hodges, such as the one on Caravan by the Johnny Hodges All-Stars, is divine.  Or try the version by the Vince Guaraldi Trio.

Shakey by Jimmy McDonough (2002)–Here’s everything you always wanted to know about Neil Young.  OK, so maybe you really didn’t care to know anything about him.  The book was written by a cohort, often relating first-hand accounts.  A scene about recording On the Beach in a pitch-dark studio with a tripping Rusty Kershaw is a high point, so to speak.

Favorite Song: “Pocahontas”— Of the many Neil Young songs I revere, this one, from Rust Never Sleeps, is the one that always gets to me.

Hellfire by Nick Tosches (1982)–Here’s one with a wild and irreverent subject (Jerry Lee Lewis, with his cousin Jimmy Swaggart in a supporting—if not supportive—role), told by a wild and irreverent writer.

Favorite Song: “Breathless”— The Killer’s third hit is another sentimental favorite—one of the first 45s I owned.  It sounded superb on my little portable record player, but it sounds pretty good on an MP3 player, too.

Thelonious Monk: The Life and Times of an American Original by Robin D. G. Kelley (2009)–I have several bios of my main music hero, and couldn’t decide which was best, until this comprehensive and sensitive page-turner came along.  Nothing else needed.

Favorite Song: “Locomotive”— Monk’s my song god, so it’s so hard to choose.  But the single recording I’ve listened to more than any other is this one, from the 1967 album Straight, No Chaser.

The Nearest Faraway Place by Timothy White (1994)–This is my favorite version of the story of The Beach Boys, Brian Wilson’s wanderings, and his place in sixties West-Coast pop culture.

Favorite Song: “Wonderful”– Every version I’ve heard of this strange Brian Wilson song is mysterious and beautiful, but I’m currently most thrilled by the version on the soundtrack album for the documentary I Just Wasn’t Made for These Times.

Bound for Glory by Woody Guthrie (1943)–The down-home autobiography of the All-American rabble-rousing troubadour is a classic.  Read it aloud with a Okie twang for best effect.

Favorite Song: “Way Over Yonder in the Minor Key”— Billy Bragg and Wilco set some of Woody Guthrie’s lyrics to music for the album Mermaid Avenue in 1998.  This one was Bragg’s and he did Woody proud.

Here’s a playlist to give you inspiration as you read:


— Steve L., aka The Buy Guy