Tuesday, November 28, 2006

What Books Elude Your Grasp?

Is there an accepted term for a book that you know exists but you've never been able to find a copy of? That you've hunted for without success even in this day and age of interconnectedness and lightning-fast communication? If there isn't such a term, I think there ought to be.

I've had one of these books in my life for about three years now: Edwin Wolf II's The Book Culture of a Colonial American City: Philadelphia Books, Bookmen and Booksellers. Somewhere along the way I saw a citation to this book and decided I ought to have a copy, so I started looking around online to see about getting one. None were listed on ABE, which was surprising since the book didn't seem particularly difficult - printed in 1988 by Oxford University's Press' Clarendon Press, with many libraries having a copy - surely it wouldn't be overly tricky to find one up for sale. Hah.

Literally two or three years (eons to me!) of checking ABE and eBay listings went by, with no success. I set up an ABE alert (awfully handy for things like this) to tell me if any sellers listed one ... and I periodically combed through the Books on Books and Regional Americana sections on my rounds of the used bookshops. Once I got to Boston and started working in a used shop myself I discovered the quite useful AddAll, which aggregates used book listings from ABE, Amazon, Alibris, ILAB and a whole bunch of other sites. Surely I thought Wolf's book will show up there. But no, still nothing.

Emails to some of my best sources for Books on Books, including The Colophon Book Shop in Exeter, NH and Oak Knoll Books in Wilmington, DE were also strike-outs, as was a shot-in-the-dark note to the publisher (who failed to answer at all). Was this book printed in such a limited run that libraries had snatched up all the copies out there?

Suddenly late one night when I opened that day's email of "wants" from ABE I sat bolt upright at my desk: there it was. Harvest Book Company from Fort Washington, PA had listed a copy. My hand shaking, I clicked the link in ABE's email, only to get an error message which said something to the effect of "The requested record is out of date." Nooooooooo!! Thinking I was already too late, that someone else had snatched the book up as soon as it was listed, I nearly gave in. But, I thought, maybe the listing's still live at Harvest's site. Sure enough, it was. I put through the order, fully expecting for the next few days to get an email saying they'd already sold the book, it was no longer available. But then there on the mailbox one evening was a little cardboard package stamped "Harvest Book Company" on the side. It did exist! There have been many books in my life I've been very happy to finally get my hands on, but most of those were fortuitous discoveries. This one I'd searched for, I'd despaired of ever finding a copy, and then here it was. Quite a thrill, let me tell you.

So, I've been thinking since, we need a word for such elusive books, the ones that keep getting away. Any ideas are welcome, as are your own stories of long-sought tomes.


Ed said...

What a coincidence. I used to work for Harvest. I was the manager for all cataloguing, storage and the retail outlet. I left a few years ago. They're a great company. I was just there on Saturday and picked up a couple pbs.

I've seen that Wolf book a few times over the years. I've also read it (alas, a library copy, not my own). I may have even catalogued it for Harvest (although probably a different copy). It's probably easier to come across in the Philly area.

JBD said...

Ed - how funny. I bet you're right about finding it in that neck of the woods.