Saturday, August 6, 2011

Yet Another Blog About Books

When I first met my wife, she said she wanted to go to medical school.  I nodded and smiled at this and just ignored what she had said.  I’d already met lots of people who said they were going to med school and if half of them had actually gone, the country would have had to import patients.  So, it was something of a shock when she actually got accepted to med school.

It was definitely a shock to the budget--her tuition and books were almost exactly what I grossed.  Obviously, I needed a new and better paying job.  My plan was simple: I applied for every job in the newspaper that paid enough money for us to survive, regardless of the qualifications needed.  I remember submitting resumes for jobs requiring degrees in fields I had never heard of.  Eventually, I actually got hired.  I worked for a very large publishing company in New York and my job was very simple.  I read books, drove around Texas in a company car and explained to bookstores what the company was publishing the next month.  It is hard to imagine how a job could be better than this (unless it involved free scotch and a lot of nudity).
Even the few problems with this job were minor and laughable.  I remember being asked by accounting why my expense account reports were so much less expensive than those of the sales reps from New York or Chicago.  It seems that they honestly expected me to spend $50 on lunch.  God knows, I tried.  This was in the 1970’s, and it was pretty hard to spend that much money for lunch.  In Beeville, I took the owner of the town’s only bookstore (and all the customers in or anywhere near the store) across the street to the diner for lunch, and still couldn’t get the tab over $40.
There are very few tourists in Corpus Christi during January.  The beach is as cold and wet as a well diggers’ feet.  At any hotel in town I could rent the honeymoon suite for $14 a night.  The home office in New York was expecting lodging bills of roughly $75 a night.  I’m pretty sure they thought I was sleeping in my car.  
New York never understood the Texas book market either.  I sold too many Louis L’Amour westerns and too few romance novels than their market plan allowed for.  And I distinctly remember being asked why I had only sold 4 copies of “A Shiksa’s Guide to Married Life” in the entire hill country of Texas.  I tried to explain that this was 134% of market penetration (some woman must have lost and replaced her copy) but they never really understood.
Nor did I ever understand what was happening in New York.  I would get pre-release copies of books for review.  If I thought they were horrible, each would invariably become best sellers.  Books I thought were wonderful usually disappeared from the market faster than donuts at a faculty meeting.   Let’s see--among the books  I told New York would never amount to anything were “Jaws”, “Amityville Horror”, “Saturday Night Fever”, and anything by Clive Cussler.  The only book that I raved about that ever actually amounted to anything was “Ecotopia”.  That book has become a staple on college campuses, and is still in print.
I spent a lot of time in campus bookstores: this was back when publishing companies kept extensive back stocks of books.  Our catalog of books was bigger than the phone books of many of the Texas towns I traveled through.  One of the campus bookstores on southern border had a new manager, and she had developed quite a problem.  When she was hired from a large eastern urban college, she expected that a college bookstore on the Mexican border would be fairly similar to what she had seen back east.
Wrong!  Sadly, in those days the literacy rate in the valley of Texas was horrible, and books just didn’t sell there, even on a college campus.  Most of my competition didn’t even bother trying to cover the area.  Not aware of this problem, the poor bookstore manager noticed the store lacked almost any reading material outside of class textbooks and decided to correct the situation.  She bought thousands of used books from a jobber back east.
And books sat in that store like lumps.  No sales!  The manager marked them down to half price.  No sales!  Her last desperate attempt was a grocery bag sale.  For $5, you could fill a paper grocery bag with books.  No sales!  No matter what she did, those books sat there like a basketball player in a math class.  By the time I arrived in her store, she was frantic to move the books; their very presence was starting to be a campus joke.  Did I know of anyone who would buy them in bulk?
I still have no idea why, but I heard my mouth offer her four cents a book for the entire collection.  As soon as I said it, I was horrified--this woman was going to be horribly insulted and call my boss and… She accepted my offer.  I had just bought a bookstore.
I knew a guy with a truck, (everyone in Texas either has a truck or knows a guy with a truck, but this guy had an 18-wheeler).  He picked up just over 12,000 books and brought them to my three-bedroom house.  The books, once we began sorting them into piles by category, filled the house.  Thankfully, the Doc and I did not yet have children, for there would not have been enough room left over for them.    These were mostly what are termed “Quality Paper-Backs”, with a few hundred coffee-table books thrown in.
Almost immediately, I began to sell books at a garage sale, at flea markets, and even a few to a book store in Beeville that remembered me kindly.  After about two months, I had broken even financially, but still had roughly 10,000 books left in my home (not counting the original 1000 or so the Doc and I owned before the deluge).  Even by our standards, we thought we had a few too many books in the house.  The problem was that the market was saturated.  I couldn’t imagine selling another used book to anyone, ever.
So that is how the Milliorn family came to donate 10,000 books to the Texas prison system.  The tax deduction for the donation wiped out both my father’s and my income taxes for three years.  We declined the offer by the prison to put up a plaque in our name, not from modesty--we just didn’t want to make any new friends in the prison system.
Enema U just opened a new bookstore.  If it doesn’t work out, they can call me.

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