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Collecting Info: In the Reader's Eye

The Search for Archer Mayor

How a 25-cent purchase grew into $200.00 of fun, by Sally Spooner.

These are the best of times for book lovers. Good books are within easy reach, whether from the local bookshop that has not joined the Internet age or from half way around the world in a place you would love to visit but probably never will. And learning about books, at least half the fun of owning them is so much easier to do than it used to be.

I am enjoying every minute of it. If you like sports analogies, there are some apt ones in book collecting. Here is a sport in which the spirited underdog still has at least a chance to pull off an upset against a better-financed and more experienced player. Or use any adjective you like. Here the older, fatter, shorter can, at least often enough to make it interesting come out ahead of the younger, slimmer and taller player.

Booksellers like sports analogies too. They picture books as short fat skis ridden by twenty-five cent booksellers who are racing each other to the bottom of Book Price Hill. They see a big, soggy pile-up at the bottom of the slope from which no one can emerge a winner.

My experiences as a buyer have been just the opposite. Skiing uphill is hard, so maybe a fishing analogy is in order here: in some cases that 25-cent book has been the hook that reeled me in to buy more and more expensive books. That’s what happened with Archer Mayor.

I don’t know exactly why I looked under the shelf and pulled this particular book out two years ago, except that I am attracted to books with black dust jackets. But once Open Season by Archer Mayor was in my hands, it was a pretty easy sell. I was hooked, so to speak. The book was marked down from $2.95 to .59 and later to half of that. They probably sold it to me at Saltmarsh’s - an old time city department store that has changed with the times and managed to survive by selling various things including inexpensive used books on the second floor for twenty-five cents. The book looked to be a regional mystery set in New England. I didn’t know anything about the writer, but I like mysteries. It seemed unread and wasn’t price clipped or marred by ugly remainder marks, so I added it to the small pile of books I had already chosen.

I have been skulking around in used bookstores for many years, and I would probably have purchased the same book ten years ago, or fifteen or more. Just ask my kids how dreadfully bored they were on some of the book buying excursions I dragged them on to Saltmarsh’s when they were younger. But the experiences weren’t nearly as much fun back then before the Internet. Back then I would have put the book on the bookshelf to read it eventually, and that would have been that.

Now I can buy a book during lunch hour and check it out minutes later back at the office, and although most of what I buy is totally unremarkable and valuable only to me, I do get the occasional pleasant surprise. There are a few writers I started to read only because I purchased inexpensive first editions of their work and became curious about them. It’s a little like reading the sports section of the paper. Writers who interest you become like a team you follow. You root for them. You read their reviews. You check to see if they have web pages. If you have first editions of their work when they win, you win.

When I checked Open Season out on ABE I found out the book is the first mystery by Archer Mayor and is considered scarce, and that some people were listing what looked to be the exact book I owned for up to $100.00, sometimes more for signed copies. (I later verified this price in a visit to the Boston Antiquarian Book Fair, where I saw the twin to my book priced at more than $100). Not even two weeks later after having bought the first book, I came across another copy and snapped it up. I was willing to spend an enormous 20 times more than I paid for the first one, the whole sum of $5.00. The appearance of the second book seemed like a sign that I should start to read Archer Mayor’s books and learn more about him. I was afraid to read the books I had, though, because by now they were too valuable in my mind and neither felt or looked like they had been previously read. So I put them away, and it was off to the local bookstore and to the Internet to buy more books, this time new paperbacks of Occam’s Razor, The Ragman’s Memory, and, yes, Open Season. I paid the going rate, about $7.00 each for these books, plus shipping for those I bought on the Internet and taxes for those I bought in Massachusetts. It’s ironic that I wasn’t afraid to read these more expensive books and bend back the pages and break the bindings and pass a couple of them on to friends without asking for them to be returned.

I liked them. They are well written with fleshed out characters and give a wonderful sense of the Vermont setting, worth reading for the snow scenes alone. I have read some of the snow scenes out loud to my husband, and he likes them too, which is a high complement.

Here’s one scene from Occam’s Razor:

"Snow, as it turned out, was on everyone’s mind the next morning. Having held off entirely through a bitterly cold, bleak Christmas season, it seemed winter was trying to make amends all in one day. Looking out the window as I dressed, I couldn’t even see the garage. Slowly falling in thick, heavy flakes, it reminded me of a flurry of cherry blossoms torn suddenly from their stems. But a flurry without stop…This kind of snowstorm—dense, silent, and windless—has an effect unlike any other weather phenomenon. Rather than producing sound, it absorbs it; instead of displaying great havoc, it cuts off your sight. And yet it permeates every sense, less like an act of nature and more like a spiritual event. Most people walk around in such a snowfall as if blessed with new insight—or at least lost in childlike wonder."

I liked the books so much that it now seemed reasonable to add to my collection and buy other copies of his first editions. I made on-line purchases of Occam’s Razor and an advance reading copy of Fruits of a Poisonous Tree. I don’t remember exactly what I spent for these books, except to say that it was probably more than all my prior purchases combined. These books aren’t just first editions; they are signed first editions, which gave me another idea.

Would it be possible for me to get my own two copies of Open Season signed? That would be the ultimate. Like having a baseball star’s rookie card signed.

Well, yes, I could. Archer Mayor has a web site at http://www.archermayor.com/index.htm.

He publishes a book every fall. And he does publicity tours, often in Western Massachusetts, which is about two hours away from my home. And he makes an annual trip to Kate’s Mystery Bookshop in Cambridge, Massachusetts, an hour or so away. He has an e-mail address, and in response to my question about whether he would sign my books, he said, "Yes." He was nice enough to say he would sign them even if I didn’t buy his current book, a ski mystery called Tucker Peak.

Western Massachusetts is a wonderful place to browse for books, but most of the book signings were on weekdays, making them difficult for us to get to. The signing at Kate’s Mystery Bookshop was on a Sunday, perfect for us. It was place I had always wanted to visit. I seem to recall that planning the trip involved a promise to take my husband out for lunch or supper if he drove me there, although I’m not too clear on that detail.

And so, in early December, we made the trip to Kate’s, where a very gracious and friendly Archer Mayor signed my two copies of Open Season, saying he knew what I had spent for those books. I said well, no, you probably don’t, at least not exactly. He offered to have his picture taken with us. Just to make it fair, I bought two copies of Tucker Peak at $23.95 each plus tax. He signed those, too.

Kate’s was a pleasure beyond expectation, and by the time I left I had purchased Christmas gifts for a number of people. I seem to recall writing a check in the range of $120.00.

I keep mentioning dollar amounts because I want you to have a sense of the economic ripples of my first twenty-five cent purchase. If this is what I have been up to, there must be others who have been hooked by twenty-five cent books and there must be many others just waiting to be reeled in.

Just in the search for Archer Mayor I have:
  • Purchased books at four bricks and mortar shops; two for used books exclusively and two at independent bookstores which combine used and new books.
  • Purchased books on-line twice, once from Amazon for new books and once from a small on-line bookseller for the other first editions.
  • Purchased a ticket for the Boston Antiquarian Book Fair.
  • Taken my husband out for supper.
It all adds up. Since that first twenty-five cent purchase I have spent a little less than $100.00 on Archer Mayor books themselves and a little more than $100 in other book-related purchases.

And it will continue. I will buy his books if I see them, and I will buy each new book as it comes out. I will continue following a few other writers I have found in the same way and I’ll buy their books as they come out and try to get signatures on the ones I already have.

Forgive my mixed analogies here, but when my son took his first skiing lesson he observed that there were standers and fallers. He was a faller. I guess you could say that, with respect to Archer Mayor I am a faller, too. I fell hook, line and sinker.

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