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Wednesday, March 14, 2007 - Page updated at 02:00 AM

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Rare finds make stacks of cash for book scouts

The Associated Press

Carefully and lovingly displayed in the Rare Book Room at Powell's Books in Portland is an original edition of the Lewis and Clark journals. At $285,000, it's the crown jewel in a room full of gems. Many other used bookstores around the country have similar treasures. But where do they come from and who finds them?

Meet Wayne Pernu. He's what is known as a book scout. He's also a 40-something musician and journalist. But his main source of income comes from several hours a week in dirty thrift stores and at estate and library sales where he's on the hunt for bargain books that he can turn around and sell to Powell's or other used bookstores. Because of the secretive nature of the scout world (they don't like it when their secrets are handed out to any old yahoo), Pernu was initially hesitant to do an interview until I offered him a first-edition hardcover of Wallace Stevens' first book of poems. That is, if I ever find it.

Q: What are the best places you've found for your book scouting?

A: The best place to scout for books is where the good books are. In general, I divide my time between estate sales, thrift stores and library sales. I prefer going to smaller yard and garage sales on weekends, since its more low-key and there's still a chance of finding something of value somebody wants to get rid of. I know others who go to antique stores, looking on the shelves for rare items that fall through the cracks.

When I started doing this in the late '80s and early '90s, the only competition were these older, eccentric, antisocial types who wouldn't even look at you let alone talk to you. You had a sense they'd been doing this for a long time, and they knew what they were looking for. You don't see them as much anymore. With the advent of the Internet, everything has changed.

Q: What's the most valuable book you've bought without knowing it was rare?

A: I once found a two-volume history of Alaska at a Christmas bazaar. It was about the only book they had in the place. It turned out to be worth $1,500.

The most rare book I've found that I knew was rare, I spotted on the shelf of a small bookstore in downtown Portland in the early '90s. It was a book signed by an East Indian spiritual master. His signature is quite scarce and virtually any signed copies of books by him are in private libraries. The one copy I know of that was put up for sale at a charity auction sold for $13,000.

Q: Do book scouts get competitive or mean with each other?

A: It comes with the territory. On the other hand, you also see a selfless exchange of knowledge. No matter how low or high on the food chain they are, book scouts seem to take great pride in their book knowledge, and they are frequently good about sharing it. Also, book scouts cultivate friendships with one another since it's in their interest to do so. These are people you sometimes have to see every day of the week, so it would be as foolish to foster ill will with them as it would a co-worker at the office.

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Q: If you "make a living" doing this, how many days a week do you do it, and what, schedule-wise, does that day look like?

A: It's hard to generalize this. Sometimes you go weeks without finding anything of value; other times, you may go to a sale at 8 a.m. and in 10 minutes have made enough money to take the next two weeks off.

A lot of scouts seem to actually maintain a fairly routine five-day workweek. The advantage to this is a relatively short workday and not having a supervisor looking over your shoulder. You're your own boss. The disadvantage for many of them is an unstable economic situation.

I personally work seven days a week since I'm simply in the habit of waking up and making the rounds to the different places I frequent. As crazy as it is, I still enjoy the sense of mystery inherent in it. The world today is so homogenized and corporatized and sterile and predictable. Every day I wake up and have no idea what I'm going to find. For me personally, that makes getting up worthwhile.

Copyright © 2007 The Seattle Times Company

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