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Collectibles: Rare Books and Raw Criticisms

Sheila Gibson Stoodley

The Biblioctopus Catalog can be as entertaining a read as some of the rare and antiquarian books that the Beverly Hills, Calif., shop sells. An entry for a $3,300 first edition of Ernest Hemingway’s The Old Man and the Sea asserts that the book is “as stubbornly immortal as those plastic baby diapers that won’t biodegrade.” A listing for a signed first edition of D.H. Lawrence’s Lady Chatterley’s Lover (priced at $21,000) begins by positing that this novel, James Joyce’s Ulysses, and Henry Miller’s Tropic of Cancer form a 20th-century triumvirate “lecturing that chastity is just an unlit lamp and adult abstinence ranks as a purity alongside of malnutrition.”
 
Shop proprietor and catalog author Mark Hime, who cofounded Biblioctopus in 1979 with his then-wife (he has since divorced and moved the operation from its original location in Idyllwild, Calif.), contends that his irreverent descriptions reflect a sound strategy. “I realized that librarians and other collectors would look through the catalog for books that they wanted,” he says. “I thought if I could seduce them into reading the catalog, they could buy something they didn’t know they wanted until they read about it.”

His instincts were correct. Hime says that nearly a third of the books in his catalog, which he publishes at least once per year and sends to about 1,000 subscribers, are purchased within the first three weeks of the catalog’s release. Those sales are sufficient to absorb the occasional loss of a customer who cancels his or her subscription after being offended by Hime’s commentary. He suspects that his brief but pungent summary of Edgar Rice Burroughs’ 1927 novel, The Outlaw of Torn, in catalog number 34, prompted the most recent cancellation. (He said the novel was set in a distant time “when real men shaved with a rusty arrowhead and real women filled their vibrators with angry bees.”)
 
In addition to Hime’s pithy critiques, the current catalog, number 35, offers a three-volume, $125,000 first edition of Jane Austen’s Pride and Prejudice (which already has sold); a seven-volume, $27,500 first edition of Charles Dickens’ A Tale of Two Cities (which also has sold); and two original Sherlock Holmes manuscripts penned by Sir Arthur Conan Doyle, priced at $500,000 and $375,000.

Hime, who is 63, published his first catalog in 1980. Like the other early editions, he says, it was entertaining but far more sedate than the more recent releases. Hime says he found his voice in the 1991 catalog, in which he included a short spoof describing how he had died and his family was offering his collection of literary relics. Those included Tarzan’s birth certificate, James Bond’s license to kill, Mr. Toad’s driver’s license (“Sadly, no photo”), and the pocket watch used by the White Rabbit in Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland (“Still runs but loses time consistently”). “Some tried to take it seriously,” Hime says. “One person tried to order the 6 feet of fishing line recovered from the fish that was caught in The Old Man and the Sea. Others sent condolences. I thought, if I can get away with this, I can get away with anything.”

Biblioctopus, 310.271.2173, www.biblioctopus.com

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Courtesy of Shakespeare and Company - Paul Foster Books - the NY Antiquarian Book Fair
Photo courtesy of Klein Sun Gallery, New York; Li Hongbo