Friday, November 19, 2010

A Ballad of Great Finds, Chance Encounters, and Near Misses

Yesterday, Joshua and I both had a much-needed day off of work, so we decided to thank the gods for the opportunity to catch our breath by setting out on the open road and heading downstate, to Champaign, Urbana, and Bloomington—three cities smack-dab in the middle of Illinois—to continue our search for the final few novels we each need to complete our Pulitzer Prize collections. He started the day off needing a mere three novels, and I needed eight; at the end of the day, Joshua hadn't found what he needed and I had come two novels closer to having a complete collection.

The story of our day together, however, would have made for a great story—even if neither of us hadn't found anything.

We headed out early, anticipating the nearly hour and a half drive ahead of us to get from Bradley to Champaign. We smoked some cigarettes, shared some laughs, discussed art and language and religion and literature (our usual conversational stomping grounds) as my tiny little car, weighted down with boxes upon boxes of books yet unpacked from my most recent move, ambled its way down Interstate 57 to the tunes of Tears for Fears (of all things). I had guessed that the day set before us was going to be absolutely ridiculous, and I couldn't have thought of a more ridiculous band to listen to in order to prepare ourselves for it.

The reason we set out in the first place was for one book—James Gould Cozzens' Guard of Honor, a World War II novel which won the Pulitzer in 1949. For some reason, in the eleven months that Joshua and I have been doing this project, I have not been able to find this book anywhere. One would think that living in Chicago, one of the country's greatest cities for used book stores with stores like Powell's and Myopic, that I would have had an easier time finding it—one would, in this case, be wrong. Although Joshua found it very early on in the journey, I didn't have any luck until a few days ago, when we haphazardly found it on On this website, you can search for a specific used book and find sellers all over the world who have a copy of it that they are wanting to sell. A couple of days ago, Joshua was perusing this site and discovered that the nearest Guard of Honor was waiting for me at JBL Books in Champaign. We called the owner and learned that his business is based out of his home and he sells from his own private collection on the Internet; since the Net's inception, this trend is growing more and more popular. Booksellers no longer have to pay rent in a store front or have a payroll; rather, they can post their entire library on the Internet and let people shop their stock that way.

Sooner or later, I think this whole Internet thing is really going to catch on...

So we drive to his house, a humble, lovely little ranch style home in Suburbia and John, the seller, let us inside and led us up the stairs to his collection (which was impressive, albeit modest). He pulled Guard of Honor from the shelf, handed it to me, flashed a big toothy grin and said, "This must be for you." Though it sounds trite, cliche, and melodramatic, I am not ashamed to say that joy welled up in me to have finally found a copy of this book—this book that has, I feel, unnecessarily eluded me for eleven months. I attempted to explain how happy I was at finding this book, but couldn't really choose words that wouldn't make me sound crazy. "Well, you see, sir—I have set up a challenge, a challenge with absolutely ridiculous rules and regulations and guidelines that I have imposed upon myself, and, apparently, you are the only person in all of Illinois that has a copy of this damn book!"

The edition which he sold me is an elegant leather-bound edition of the novel, so he naturally asked me if I were looking specifically for rare editions of it, and felt like I seemed crazy enough when both Joshua and I tried to explain that we were, actually, looking for any copy of that particular book, as long as it was used. This, of course, led to our having to explain, in its entirety, The Pulitzer Project to him. He seemed rather impressed with our undertaking and informed us that he knew a lot of private booksellers in the area that might be able to help us; then, this sweet, kindly old man pulled out his rolodeck and phone book and made several phone calls to associates that he's met along his own book collecting journeys. Unfortunately, he couldn't get a hold of any of his contacts, though we were still appreciative of his efforts.

He did, however, inform of us a used book sale at Urbana Public Library that was going to be held from 5-8pm.

Since we were in the area anyway, and it was only 11am, we decided that we'd spend the rest of the day hunting in used book stores and antique shops; so we did a bit of research and came up with a pretty healthy list of places to visit. Say3 Books in Champaign was our next stop. We pulled in the parking lot, where we were greeted a giant neon green awning displaying the words Say3 Books, in Comic Sans font, over the front entrance. I turned to Joshua and said, "Josh—this place is not going to have what we're looking for." "You don't know that, man. Come on, let's go inside." When we walked in the front door, we were greeted by a middle-aged woman, the store's proprietor, and her tiny little Yorkshire Terrier. The walls were outlandlishly colored, adult-contemporary blues music was playing on a purple boombox, and the front display in the lobby was covered with dog books. I turned to Joshua again and have him the look. You know—the look that silently says, "I really don't think you're right about this one."

The owner asked us if we needed any help, so we told her what we were looking for; she replied, "So you're looking for, like, fiction books? I'm not sure if I have anything you're looking for, but you'll find some fiction books in this room, around this table, over here in this room, and in the back room. Let me know if you have any questions," and returned to her desk. We walked into the rooms that she pointed us to and were horrified at the lack of organization—there were piles upon piles of books everywhere, from floor to ceiling, from wall to wall. It was as if a giant truck, filled with books, backed up to the store, the roof were lifted, and these books were just dumped into the store.

We looked around for about 20 minutes, but obviously, this store did not have what we were looking for. However, all that being said, I don't mean to say that the store was by any means a bad place to shop for books—it just wasn't the type of place where we were going to find what we needed. They had a lot of really great books that, were it not for the task at hand, I would be very interested in. So, we piled back into the car and left the store behind. Our next stop would prove itself to be the second-greatest used book store in Illinois, and the greatest source of our frustration along this journey...

Jane Addams Book Shop, in downtown Champaign, is three floors of book-browsing magic, specializing in rare books. As soon as we walked inside the shop, and saw the neatly organized aisles and shelves, completely stocked with extremely old volumes, Joshua and I knew we had come to the right place to properly ensue our day's hunting.

We made our way over to the fiction section of the store and separated so that, in the unlikely event that one of us found something, we'd be able to beat the other person to it. Of course we're best friends, and are partners, traveling companions, along this journey, and of course we want each other to succeed, but it is also a matter of course that we are men—competitive men—and both of us want to be the lucky man that completes the journey first.

I was scouring the P section of the shelves for Poole's His Family, and my entire chest seized up when I actually say the name "Ernest Poole" gracing the spine of a novel. Then, to my horror, I discovered that the novel I found wasn't His Family at all, but his ironically more famous work, The Harbor. I almost refused to believe it, turning the book over in my hands and inspecting it, as if I might discover that the book had been tampered with and was actually His Family, but in a clever disguise! As I was doing this, I heard Joshua exclaim, very loudly, from the next aisle over, "Noooo!! Come on! You have got to be kidding me!," followed by a bunch of unintelligible, un-spell-able growls, and, possibly, a slur of profanities. I hustled around the corner of the long shelf, worried that something unspeakable might have happened, and found Joshua crumpled up on the floor, a wreck, clutching a first-edition copy of Margaret Ayer Barnes' Within This Present—a novel which, unlike another work of her's, 1930's Years of Grace, did not win the Pulitzer Prize for Fiction. My heart broke again, and I related to him that the same thing had just happened to me with Ernest Poole.

He looked up at me, with a sudden glimmer of hope in his eyes, and silently exclaimed, "Drew—this store has at least one of the books we're looking for. I can feel it." I smiled mischieviously and slowly replied, "Yeah... We are." He must have seen what I had in mind on my face when he said that, because he scrambled up to his feet and we both raced to the S section and frantically scanned the shelves for "Sinclair." Aha! There they were! Upton Sinclair's books! Oil!, no; The Jungle, no; A World to Win, no; Jimmie Higgins, no; World's End, no; Between Two Worlds, no; Wide Is the Gate, no; "Singer." Wait, what? That's it!? Where is Dragon's Teeth??

For the third time that day, we had been thwarted by a near miss and for the second time in as many weeks, we had come so close to finding Dragon's Teeth—the third book (and 1943 Pulitzer-winner) in Upton Sinclair's 11-novel "Lanny Budd" series—; the first near miss we had with this book came a week earlier at Ravenswood Used Books in Chicago when Joshua, while perusing a completely unorganized "classics" shelf, haphazardly stumbled across Dragon Harvest, the sixth book of the same series. After these two adventures, we have now seen five of the eleven books in the series, but not Dragon's Teeth, a book that hasn't even been printed since the 1960's. It's weird—as popular as Upton Sinclair is in 20th century American literature, I really didn't think his books would be too difficult to find; I figured Dragon's Teeth would be tough to find, just because neither Joshua nor I had even heard of it, but I've been shocked to find that the only three books we've been able to consistently find by him are Oil!, The Jungle, and A World to Win—especially when one considers that his body of work includes over 100 titles.

I couldn't dawdle in agony any longer blankly staring at the name "Sinclair" on the spines of books, so I ran over to "D" and once again cursed the sky when I found, not Honey In the Horn, Harold L. Davis's 1936 Pulitzer-winning novel, but Harold L. Davis's Land of a Thousand Harps. None of the three books Joshua needed were there, but I still needed to find a couple for myself, so I made my way over to "G" and, once again, had to bite my tongue to keep from swearing out loud when I found five Ellen Glasgow books—none of which being her 1942 Pulitzer-winning In This Our Life. The same fate, of course, awaited me when I returned to "S" to search for T.S. Stribling—rather than finding his most famous work, the 1933 Pulitzer-winning The Store, I found The Sound Wagon.

We were outraged—and rightfully so! I really can't recall a time in my life when I felt so completely and entirely ripped off. One of the store's owners, a younger lady, greeted us at the desk when, heads hung low, we shambled back to the door: "Any luck?" We recounted to her the fate that had just befallen us and she couldn't help but sympathize for us; then she suggested that maybe, just maybe, there is some other person out there who's doing the same thing Joshua and I are—collecting all of the Pulitzers. This, of course, makes a lot of sense: how could it be that a bookstore, specializing in rare books, has literally all of the authors that we are looking for—three of which we had never seen and were seriously starting to doubt if they even existed—, but not their most famous work? That is unless, of course, there is someone else out there doing this same project and beating us to the punch.

If you had told me what was going to happen next, I wouldn't have believed you. Even after experiencing it, I still can't hardly believe it happened... 

We left Champaign, feeling a little deflated, but, in a strange way, inspired now that we had at least seen some of the author's names that we saw. We hopped on Interstate 74 and headed west to Bloomington, IL—our first stop as we entered the downtown area was a store that will, next month, be closing its doors for good: About Books.

This shop wasn't quite as prestigious as Jane Addams Book Shop, but not nearly as familiar as Say3 Books—it was somewhere in the middle of the two. It had its fair share of trade-size paperbacks, but it had a back room and basement with some real gems—some really rare gems too. The back room housed most of these books. Since the owner is retiring, she hasn't bothered to organize any of the books in the back room and they are scattered all over the place—on wooden racks, metal storage shelves, table tops, sawhorses... Everywhere. So Joshua and I, seeing that these books were really antiquated volumes, set out to scour through them in hopes that somehow, somewhere, we'd find something we needed. The fact that we were finding a lot of Tarkingtons, Bucks, Wouks, Wilders, and Ferbers was encouraging anyway.

Now, having the experience we had at Jane Addams Book Shop, where we found literally every single author we needed but none of the right books, was a total fluke. Neither of us had anticipated having that much (un)luck and both of us knew that experience was a once-in-a-lifetime thing that would never happen again.

Until it happened again.

Once again, three first-edition Ellen Glasgow books that weren't In This Our Time; a Margaret Ayer Barnes novel that wasn't Years of Grace; a Stribling novel that wasn't The Store; a Margaret Wilson book that wasn't The Able McLaughlins; an Ernest Pool novel that wasn't His Family; several Upton Sinclair novels that weren't Dragon's Teeth; and, most unbelievably, another Harold L. Davis novel that wasn't Honey In the Horn.

This was becoming increasingly infuriating.
The afternoon was plodding along and we had just time enough for one last store before we headed back to Champaign for the Urbana Public Library used book sale. So we headed into downtown Normal to pay a visit to Babbitt's Books—another store specializing in used, rare, and collectible books.

This store was very similar in selection and quality to Jane Addams Book Shop and other bookshops with this specialty that Joshua and I have been to over the course of our lives; and, I can freely admit, that Babbitt's Books is one of the better stores either of us have been to (and, between the two of us, we have been to several hundred used book stores—so this quite a feat on their part).

We didn't have quite as much bad luck with near misses as we did here as we did in the other stores, but our streak of finding wrong books by the right authors continued. Finally, after 20-30 minutes of searching, I decided to approach the front desk to ask if they had an inventory of their stock, where they could look up some titles for me. As it turned out they do, and I proceeded to rattle off all the titles to the young lady sitting at the computer, a pretty girl named Sarah. Every title I said out loud was followed by the click-click-click of her fingers on the computer's keyboard and a "Nope." When I got to title #7, I said, "Okay, well—I'm assuming you won't have this one either. But, it's Ellen Glasgow—the title is In This Our Life."

This title, however, was met with an excited shout from the other end of the counter, where I turned to find an older woman, Kathleen, jumping and exclaiming, with giddy excitement, "I have that one right here in this pile! It just came in this morning!" I turned to Joshua with the juvenile expression of a kid in a candy shop plastered to my countenance. He gave this sort-of half-grin and held out his hands, as if he were a butler escorting me into a giant castle; and, just as the juvenile expression I displayed suggested I would do, I eagerly reached out to Kathleen and she, ever so obliging, handed it off to me. There, in my hands, was the first edition of Ellen Glasgow's In This Our Life—my second find of the day, and the 78th of this journey.

Kathleen asked the two of us why we were searching for the Pulitzers, so we, for at least the fifth time that day, explained the entire story of the Pulitzer Project. However, this time, rather than being met with an almost insincere "Oh, neat," or "How interesting," our story was met with robust enthusiasm! Kathleen asked if we were going to write a book about the experience, and we told her we had planned on it originally, and she encouraged us to press forward with that idea; she asked us if we were blogging the experience, and we told her we are, so she wrote down our blogs' web addresses, and has even subscribed to both and is already actively directing her traffic to us; she even shared her blog with us and wrote up a little paragraph about the "two young search of some of the hard-to-find Pulitzer Prize winning  novels for a blog project they are doing together." If that weren't enough, she has even offered some career insight to me!

What a swell lady! The coolest aunt I never had.

We headed back to Champaign for the Urbana Public Library sale around 4:30pm with renewed energy, renewed hope, renewed ambition. We finally got back into around 5:30pm and discovered that the sale was only open to "Friends of the Library" and, in order to become a "Friend of the Library," a $10 entry fee for the book sale was required." I had already found two books, so I let Joshua be the one to go in while I perused the library itself and stole their Wi-Fi.

While perusing, a strange thought popped into my head: "I wonder if they have Dragon's Teeth here..." As I was about to go looking for it, Joshua called my phone and distracted me. "Hey man. Where are you?" "Oh, I'm upstairs looking around." "Okay. I need to show you something. Be right there." *click*

I thought he had found something... I thought his search was over... I thought maybe he had found some of the ones I needed... When he found me browsing all the aisles, I saw that he was empty-handed and my heart shrugged its shoulders Oh, well.

"Drew," he said in a short, curt manner. "I need to show you something." He turned and walked down one of the aisles and I followed eagerly behind as, soon, the author's last names on the book spines started being spelled with an "S." "Sa," "Se," "Sh," "Si," then, there it was—the 1942 first-edition of Upton Sinclair's Pulitzer Prize-winning novel, Dragon's Teeth. Even without its dust jacket, even with the coffee stains on the first few pages, even with the library card pasted inside, and the ragged edges of the hard binding, it was beautiful. It was everything I dreamed it would be. Euphoria washed over me when I held it.  

At last, I thought. Here it is. Here it is in my hands. Now I know—a physical copy of this book really does exist.
Now, you may be thinking that this trip was kind of a loss. We did, after all, spend 12 hours on the road while never leaving the state; we did, after all, spend 12 hours on the road and over $80 on gas, food, and expenses while only actually finding two books. And all of that is true and, in a way, I guess it was kind of a loss.

But if you're going to set out on a journey with your best friend, you need to do it right. And we did yesterday right. We found two books, we found two amazing book stores, we met the sweetest kooky old lady we'll ever meet, and we pursued, even further, the Prize set before us.

This was a good day.


  1. Happy to be the "older woman" in your blog and the aunt you never had.

    Isn't that the old Babbitt's in your photo? You can find Babbitt's Books at Facebook and you'll find photos of the new Babbitt's, moved down the street. And many, many photos of Babette, the store kitten.