Bringing Back the Home Library: Gilbert Huey’s “Out Of This World” Book Collection

Welcome to the first in what we plan to be a series of features on book collectors and home libraries in Georgia and around the South.  

Collector Gilbert Huey with the first book he ever bought with his own money.

For the first year after opening Underground Books, I continued working part-time at my previous job, bar-tending at the Alley Cat, Carrollton’s wonderfully grungy college hipster dive bar. In the early days of the shop I was still doing the spring and summer circuit of Saturday morning yard sales in the region, hunting for inventory for the shelves of the still new store (this was before hundreds of books were pouring in the door every week).  One particular Saturday morning, I had dragged myself out of bed before 8am (despite having closed the bar late the previous night and gone to bed at 3am) to scout the numerous sales happening that day. Not only do you have to go early to find anything on this circuit, I had a narrow window to scout before opening the store at 11am. At a neighborhood-wide community yard sale, I ended up in what turned out to be Gilbert Huey’s driveway looking through a couple boxes of books.

“Hey, you’re the underground bookstore guy aren’t you?” he said.  “You want to see my library?” Gilbert had been in the store several times, and my first memory of meeting him was when he told me about  an exhibit he had put together of collectible and first edition children’s book classics in the local public library’s gallery room.  I had gone to check it out a week or two later, and had really enjoyed it, but hadn’t seen him since. Through my bleary eyed and sleep deprived fog, I nodded and told him I’d love to see his collection.

As I followed him into the house through the garage and up some stairs, he explained that he and his wife Sandra had finished out a section of their second story attic as a dedicated home library. This did not prepare me however, for what I saw when he opened the door at the top of the stairs and he welcomed me into a home library unlike any I’d seen. I think I turned around to look back out the doorway to make sure it wasn’t a magical wardrobe we’d just passed through.

The Hueys’ library evokes the classical ideal of a home library, with comfy leather chairs, warm lighting, darkly built-in wood bookshelves and wainscot panels, fine art, accessories like an antique telescope, typewriter, and globe. Beautiful, inviting, and cozy, this screen-free and windowless retreat is the perfect place to escape the chaos of the world outside and quiet the mind with a good book or thoughtful conversation with a friend over a drink.

 

I recently enjoyed the opportunity to return to Gilbert’s extraordinary home library and explore his impeccable collection. I’ve gotten to know Gilbert better a little at a time over the 5+ years since that initial chance visit to his home library, learning to appreciate his particular collecting interests and habits. An engineer by trade, he’s meticulous – not only about the condition and care of his collection, but in his steadfast completism (the collecting of every title by a specific author, in a series, or of every major work in a niche area of interest).  Inspired to collect books from a young age, he recounted the story of the first time he purchased a book with his own money, when he was just 9 years old. It was in a drugstore in Wedowee, Alabama in 1962, and the book was from a series of short sci-fi novellas called “Ace Doubles,” small pulp-style paperbacks with two novels in one book. There’s cover art for a story on one side, then you flip it over, and there’s cover art for another novel on the back half of the book. The second book he bought was the The Man in the High Castle by Philip K. Dick. “I reread it again in my twenties, I knew I didn’t ‘get it’ when I was nine. I only liked it then because it had the map of the United States split with Germany and Japan, with the two countries’ flags. I thought it was going to be all about actual battles.”   A true collector from the get-go, he still has both of these initial book purchases.

Like many baby boomers, President Kennedy’s announcement in 1961 that the USA would put a man on the moon by the end of the decade captured his imagination. The incredible proliferation of science fiction writing at the time gave ample opportunity to imagine all the possibilities of the coming space age. The exposure to all these new ideas through his reading had a tremendous influence on Huey and eventually led him to study engineering. “I wanted to become an aerospace engineer and work for NASA or Boeing or Grumman, but by the time I started college the space program was winding down,” he told me. “There were no aerospace jobs anywhere in the country much less in the south. So I became a Quality Assurance Engineer, a much less exciting career path, but it did allow me to buy books.” After decades of collecting, Huey now has complete collections of first editions, most signed, of all the Hugo and Nebula award winners (the two major awards for work in science fiction and fantasy awarded by World Science Fiction Society and the Science Fiction and Fantasy Writers of America respectively) and collections of most or all of the works of many of the giants of 20th century science fiction such as Robert Heinlein, Ray Bradbury, Arthur C. Clarke, Philip K. Dick, Roger Zelazny, and many others.

While he started out collecting science fiction, Huey eventually started collecting books and materials related to NASA and the actual real-life (not science fiction) space program. Out of the substantial collection, he picked one specific title to share that really stood out to me as exceptional:  a leather bound Easton Press first edition of First on the Moon (by the first three astronauts on the moon) that he sent to the famous space illustrator and official NASA artist Robert McCall, who added an amazing hand drawn illustration on the endpapers. Huey then proceeded to get everyone he could find who was close to the space program’s moon landing to sign it. Here’s Gilbert, explaining just a sampling of the signatures in the book:

Huey:  Robert McCall, this famous space artist, he called me one night after I sent him the book, he said, “What exactly do you want me to do in this book?” I said, “Just draw me the moon module landing.” Well he did this whole thing, then Buzz Aldrin signed it. Ray Bradbury was in London during the landing of Apollo 11, and he appeared on TV, Dick Cavett was interviewing him. [He was the] London voice for Apollo. That’s Walter Cronkite over there. Wally Schirra was one of the announcers. Paul Haney, he was the P.A.O. (Public Affairs Office) for NASA, the voice for NASA back in the 60s. Most of these guys are dead now. All of them. Every one of these actually. I did this several years ago. It’s full of them. Thomas Kelly was the engineer that created the lunar module. Dee O’Hara was the nurse. Here’s the head of NASA.

He continued listing some of the other names. They went on for pages, all the blank space in the front and back filled with names and inscriptions from people related to the moon landing. It’s a truly amazing, one-of-a-kind treasure.

As time went on, Huey’s collecting interests broadened. In addition to science fiction and the space program, he has first editions of all of Stephen King’s works (mostly signed), every James Bond book (mostly first editions), there’s collections of military history, aviation, Easton Press leather bound special editions, and more. His recent interest has taken him into fine press editions of his favorites, including a complete set of the Hyperion series by Dan Simmons, who Huey cites as his favorite author. Subterranean Press printed all of Simmons works in very limited “lettered editions” (meaning there are only 26 copies of each made, usually bound by hand and with exceptional paper/materials and art/illustration).

I could go on at length about the wonderful books Gilbert shared with me, but I’ll start to wrap up with the story behind this very cool drawing of Ray Bradbury I saw framed in the stairwell on our way out of his library that day. Gilbert shares the story behind it in his own words:

Huey: Ray Bradbury was appearing at Oxford Books (a legendary Atlanta bookstore) at the Peachtree Battle Shopping Center around 1995. Sandra and I stood in a long line to get a couple of books signed. I believe 1 or 2 books for each person was the limit. I took the pencil drawing of Ray Bradbury I had done a few years earlier just in case he would sign it. When I presented the drawing to him he looked at it a minute then looked up at me. He said, “I wish I looked like that now, you did a good job.” He took his pen and started writing on the drawing. I watched and held my breath. He scribbled a large “A+” and then signed his name under it. He said, “That’s your grade. You should draw some really important people and not waste your time on an old pulp writer like me.”

Quick aside — there’s a substantial facebook group of Oxford Books fans HERE that encourages people to share their stories, memories, and photos of good times they had there. It closed down in 1997, before I moved to Georgia, so I never got to experience it.

I want to also highlight the fact that Huey is not only a serious book collector, but an author as well. His book The Free State of Carroll is a historical novel based on real events in the 1830’s here in Carrollton, then on the western edge of the Georgia frontier.  Indians, horse thieves, and a desperate vigilante group collide with an indomitable sheriff in a true-life adventure rivaling the best westerns. Readers get a glimpse of the hardscrabble life early Georgians endured and a feel for the volatile political climate that eventually led to the Civil War.  You can purchase copies of The Free State of Carroll at Underground Books.

I’m very grateful to Gilbert Huey for making time to share his library with me, it was an extraordinary treat. If you have a home library or book collection you’d be interested in sharing with Megan or Josh, let us know at info@undergroundbooks.net as it is our intention to make this into a regular series.

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Behind the Bookcases: How We Stay in Business

We love running a real, live, brick and mortar bookstore. We love being surrounded by books and book-lovers. We love looking for that elusive book you need that has no title or author, but only “a blue cover.” We love setting up new displays, recommending our favorite books, and stocking the shelves with unusual titles. We love providing a space for creative, cultural, and intellectual events in the town we love. Here’s how we do it, with hard work, sweat, and all of the internet.

While working the counter at Underground Books, we frequently hear some variation on the following: “I can’t believe you’re still here,” or “How do you guys make money?” or “You must be rich to keep a used bookstore open.” We get these comments frequently enough that we thought it might be worth sharing a little about our business model. It’s nice to be understood, and maybe some of our patrons would like understanding a little bit about the evolving nature of the used book trade. Much has been written about the death (and recent resurgence) of bookstores in general (new, independent, or big-box chain stores) but for our purposes, we are only talking about the used & antiquarian side of things.'Mom' and 'Pop' box with the 'Super dooper Mega Stores'

Put simply, the old idea of a small mom & pop used bookstore that sells only to the public that enters into their shop is indeed a dying breed. There are still some holdouts— old timers that own their building outright, or bookstores with heavy tourist traffic – but the regular old small town used bookstore, that survives off of only in-store sales is an increasingly rare bird. The well documented trends of book buyers turning to e-books and Amazon are largely to blame, as well as difficult economic times.

Yet some of us remain. An increasingly popular model for used bookstores is to simultaneously sell books in their shop as well as online. Some used bookstores have a “blended” inventory, meaning books on the shelves in their public store are also listed online. This is good for low-traffic stores where it is easier to keep up with inventory. Underground Books started out this way. We would list books online, but they would be for sale on the shelves in the shop as well. We would get a sale through an online venue like Amazon and would go find the book and pack it up to ship. As we grew, this became increasingly complicated. Customers would buy books at the counter, and we would not get them “unlisted” from the internet, and chaos ensued. Because we were getting more foot-traffic than we expected when we opened, browsing customers would also put books back in different locations, so sometimes we could not find a book to fulfill an online order we had received.  This led us to separating our in-store/retail and online inventory. Eventually, we kept all books listed online in the back of the store, away from the rest. About a year ago, we outgrew the back room, and now have an entirely separate office/warehouse, staffed full time just like the store.

If you browse the books at our website www.UndergroundBooks.net , these are the books that you will find at our warehouse. They are often 003books of interest primarily to collectors. Antique or out-of-print books. We recently sold a book for $75 on South Asian Farm Economics published in the 1950’s. That book would have NEVER sold on the shelves of our shop, but somewhere some scholar wanted that hard-to-find book. Earlier this year, we sold an original love letter hand-written by Jack London for $900. Currently we have a rare pre-publication edition of Kurt Vonnegut’s very first book. Or these late 18th century books on horse racing.

Without these rare, antique, out-of-print, and collectible books that we’re selling in the “background” of the more public bookstore operation, Underground Books would not be a profitable endeavor. In some ways, having an open storefront becomes about getting books as much as selling them. Having a nice open shop lends you a certain credibility—we are overwhelmed with people wanting to sell us their books. There are online booksellers everywhere – you’ve probably seen them at Goodwill scanning books on their phones—but having the shop gives us a huge competitive advantage over these lone book scouts. We are invited to buy huge personal collections of books at private estates, not to mention the flood of books that people bring right in the door. We are currently processing in the ballpark of 1,000 books every week. A certain percentage of these get listed online, some go to the shelves of the open shop, some get set aside for our periodic $1 sales, and some get donated to charity. Antique damaged books we recycle into crafts like our vintage book journals which we now carry not only in the shop but online at our Etsy store.

Fortunately for us, we also happen to love running an open shop.  We’ve fostered a real sense of community at the shop through nearly 5 years of special events and beloved regulars, and people constantly tell us how grateful they are to have the store in Carrollton. We get loved up a lot, so that “social payoff” doesn’t hurt. It’s nice to be appreciated.

For those wanting an even deeper understanding of our business, check out the following list of websites that we either maintain stocked with online inventory or use for social media marketing:

www.UndergroundBooks.net

ABE Store

Biblio Store

Amazon Store

Etsy Store

The Underground Books Blog

Facebook Page

Twitter Page

Pinterest Page

Instagram Page

Tumblr Page

Maintaining all of this requires herculean effort. People in the shop also often say “Oh, it must be so nice to sit around and read books all day.” We wish! We work constantly, usually 7 days a week, often 10-12 hours a day. Fortunately we LOVE our work, but it’s a serious career commitment. Megan and I read and study constantly to continue to educate ourselves about rare and collectible books, trends in the book trade, types of bookbindings, etc.

A growing part of our business involves exhibiting at rare book fairs and antique shows. We have a busy fall calendar of events we are excited about this year, and we’ll share more about that in our next post.

Juicy Hand-Written Love Letter From Jack London to Mistress

Photo of the young Jack London

Photo of the young Jack London

Underground Books recently acquired a small archive of materials related to famed American author Jack London. London, most well known today for his works The Call of the Wild and White Fang, was a dramatic and controversial figure in his time. His passionate activism, outspoken socialism, and racist ideologies made him a polarizing figure whose personal life has been widely studied by scholars, fans, and critics alike.

The highlight of our recent acquisition is a love letter from London to his mistress Charmian Kittredge in 1904. London was married to his first wife at the time, Elizabeth “Bessie” Maddern. They were open about the fact that they did not marry out of love, but the desire to produce “sturdy children” (a nod to some of London’s controversial views on eugenics). As the letter below shows, London’s fiery love of Charmian stood in stark contrast to his passionless marriage to Maddern. In 1905 London divorced Maddern and married Charmian, who would be his partner for the rest of his life.

A passionate love letter from London to Charmian, who would soon become his second wife.

A passionate love letter from London to Charmian, who would soon become his second wife.

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The complete text of the letter reads as follows: God knows I love you, my woman. I know it now, as never before. And I know, also, that I shall see until I die the picture of a woman’s gray form – stark against the black crowd – as she stood on the pier-end and kissed, and kissed, and kissed her lover goodbye. I see you now, as clearly as I saw you yesterday and it was better than the last kiss, my darling. It was you, all you & all abandon, there on the ______-piece of the pier kissing your love to me. And because you could not get the last kiss, no woman got the last kiss from me yesterday. I kissed George on the lips by the gang-planks. Dear Charmian, dear my own. I shall come back, & soon. And we shall be happy, so happy. There are two correspondents on board with their wives, & how I envy them – not their wives, but the fact that they may take their wives with them, while my true wife remains at home.

Interestingly, there is also a bit here about how he “kissed George,” most likely a reference to his long-time friendship with poet George Sterling.

Other items in our collection include programs for Bosworth’s silent films of London’s books The Sea Wolf and John Barleycorn (2 copies of each), reproduced photographs of London and his horse, and magazine first appearances of several London short stories and novellas.

Movie programs from the release of two London works by filmmaker Hobart Bosworth.

Movie programs from the release of two London works by filmmaker Hobart Bosworth.

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See details about purchasing this collection on our website at http://www.undergroundbooks.net/pages/books/707/jack-london/original-hand-written-jack-london-love-letter-to-charmian-other-misc-london-ephemera

 

Vintage Book Crafts and the Atlanta Maker Faire

By Josh Niesse

“Do you take books?” asked the caller, one of 5 or more we field a day.

“Yes, but we are very picky about what we buy, we only want –“

“No I’m not looking to sell them,” the caller cut me off, “I’m just wanting to get rid of them.”

book avalanche

How it feels when I show up to the store Monday morning and someone has piled boxes of books against the door.

Anyone dealing in used books these days is likely faced with staggering multitudes of books that no one wants. At our little shop we see as many as 1,000 books a week, of which only about 10% (or less) are ones we really want for our shelves. Half of our time is spent sifting through the biblio-debris looking for decent “store stock” (popular & desirable, if common, titles) while finding the occasional interesting or scarce gem we can sell online for $100 or more. Sometimes people bring in really good books, and for them we offer cash or store credit, but more often people are just dropping off unwanted books.

Why are there so many books flowing into the second-hand/donation stream? I’m sure there are lots of answers to this, but to name a few: the proliferation of e-books making bulky libraries less necessary, massive online sellers like Amazon driving used book prices into the ground, a decline in sincere book collecting, etc. to name a few. But there have also just been tens of millions of books printed over the last hundred years that are no longer relevant. The 1970’s sociology textbook in the back with coffee stains on it, or the 1983 stock market guide, or this 1991 travel guide to Belize, or the children’s “Golden Book” title with the first 4 pages ripped out and crayon scribbling on the rest of the pages.

 

Vintage Book Journal -- Using Words We Need

Vintage Book Journal — Using Words We Need

After opening the bookstore in 2011, I realized how overwhelming the volume of unwanted books was turning out to be. Most of the unwanted material I donate to Goodwill. I would sometimes take it to the local Friends of the Library, but realized how overwhelmed they were with unwanted books, and didn’t want to burden them. The staff at the local Goodwill said they took unsellable books to a pulp mill for recycling, which seemed better than the landfill at least. Influenced by green business authors such as Paul Hawken and William McDonough I started thinking about how to turn this abundant unwanted resource into something useful. It turns out the internet is insanely overflowing with ideas for projects using unwanted old books. Some customers showed us ideas they had. We carried some other folks work for awhile, before starting to make our own. One of Underground Books’ best-selling items now are the vintage book journals, in which we take broken, damaged, or otherwise unsellable old books and rebind them with blank pages. We also turn spines into bookmarks, and pages into buttons and magnets. These are just a few easily commercialized projects, but we also made a book arch for Josh & Megan’s wedding, and have started experimenting with original art-collages, among others.

 

 

 

One a week or so, someone in the shop sees the book arch and gasps “oh I can’t believe you did that to those books!” I always patiently explain that the books used were completely unsellable, damaged, etc. and they usually understand. When they are persistently negative about I still remain polite, but what I would like to say is “hold on” and go get the 10 boxes of crap books from the back and ask them to go through and pick out the ones they want to buy to save from destruction.

Josh & Megan under the fantastic book archway courtesy of ForrestWorks. May 2014

Josh & Megan under the fantastic book archway courtesy of ForrestWorks. May 2014

 

 

For the last year we’ve been improving our book crafting operation, especially with the help of book journal wizardess Miranda McMillan. We recently quietly opened a second location from which we are managing the online portion of the bookstore and warehousing the substantial volume of books we are processing, giving us even greater access to unwanted books for crafting.

We are excited to be showing off our book crafting operation this weekend in Decatur at the 2014 Atlanta Maker Faire where you’ll also be able to see 200 booths showing off 3D printers, drones, lock-picking, fighting robots, honey-bees, art-bikes, home-brewing and much more! Mention this blog post at the Maker Faire and get a free button or magnet! Hope to see you there!

 

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Underground Books Blog — Meet Your Booksellers!

This month (September 2014) marks 3.5 years since we opened Underground Books, just off of Adamson Square in downtown Carrollton, Georgia. To celebrate, we’re launching a blog to share our experiences as booksellers and highlight some of our favorite books and materials as they pass through the shop.  To begin with, we’ll share a little about the folks you’ll encounter when you come to our store.

Josh & Megan under the fantastic book archway at their wedding, made by local craftspersonForrestWorks. May 2014

Josh & Megan under the fantastic book archway courtesy of ForrestWorks. May 2014

Josh & Megan

Underground Books opened in March 2011 and was originally the creation of Josh Niesse. Josh graduated from Western Kentucky University with a bachelor’s degree in philosophy (and a minor in religion). He moved to Douglasville, Georgia to join an AmeriCorps volunteer program (sort of like the domestic Peace Corps) tutoring youth-at-risk in literacy and GED prep, a program which he eventually managed for several years. After experiencing burnout in the nonprofit world, Josh moved to Carrollton, where his interest in urban planning and traditional neighborhood design caused him to fall in love with the charming Adamson Square area.While bartending for several years at Alley Cat, he started selling books found at yard sales online through outlets such as amazon and ebay. Eventually this hobby, combined with a lifelong passion for books, morphed into a dream of full-time bookselling. Not long after opening, Josh met Megan Bell, who was then an English major at UWG, minoring in creative writing, with a focus on poetry. In May 2014, they were married. Megan just began her MBA at UWG and contributes her professional writing skills and creative research finesse to the bookstore by aiding in the cataloguing of inventory for online sale.

 

 

 

Miranda uses her winning smile to sell all the books to West Georgia's bibliophile community.

Miranda uses her winning smile to sell all the books to West Georgia’s bibliophile community.

Miranda McMillan

Miranda met Josh when they both bartended at the Alley Cat for a time. She started helping at Underground Books before the doors were even opened, volunteering to help clean and paint the disastrous basement space that would eventually become a charming little bookshop. Officially hired in the fall of 2012, Miranda has become an essential part of Underground Books, working at least 2 days a week, and covering longer stretches so Josh and Megan can do things like go on their honeymoon and visit family out-of-state. Miranda is also a rockstar barista at Bella Coffee and an off-and-on again psychology student currently on the 8 year degree plan. Fans of Underground Books’ biblio-crafts such as the popular vintage book journals have Miranda to thank for taking this crafting operation to the next level.

 

 

 

Maria pinch-hits occasional hours at the shop (usually Sundays) and is sometimes aided by her partner Sebastienne.

Maria pinch-hits occasional hours at the shop (usually Sundays) and is sometimes aided by her partner Sebastienne.

 

Maria & Sebastienne

You might recognize Maria & Sebastienne from their work at Farmers Fresh CSA across the square from Underground Books, where they usually work, supplying West Georgians with fresh, locally-sourced and delicious food. You might also have seen this pair in local media lately due to their amazing tiny house they just finished building, and their blog about it, Tiny House, Big Dream.  Maria also teaches yoga classes at Carrollton Community Yoga and is incredibly well read  in modern philosophy, as is Sebastienne, who is currently working on a PhD in Psychology, Consciousness, and Society at UWG.