I started collecting contemporary American fiction about twenty years ago. I was living in a small closet apartment on 28th and Broadway in NYC; the bathroom was down the hall. The rent was around $300 a month, so it was a bargain. I came home for Christmas December of 1993 and my father gave me a copy of Fathers & Sons, An Anthology edited by David Seybold. Inside the book are pictures of his father, my grandfather who died before I was born. There are several pictures glued inside the book by my Dad, him and me together, and it’s like a time capsule. This is the first book I ever remember wanting to hold onto. I put one of those clear plastic wraps on it, and I still have it. I’ve since moved, several times. Now in my apartment I have seven six-foot bookshelves and three smaller bookshelves lined with books. My collection started a long time ago, but it’s grown and shrunk over the years. My dad told me, as have other people, to collect what you like.
I fell in love with Madison Smartt Bell’s Straight Cut, and remember feeling like I was back in Rome, where the novel takes place. I sill have the first edition, and when I met the author recently and told him how much I loved this book, he was really surprised that I would come to a reading and mention that early book. I used to go to the Strand and start looking in the A’s and work my way to the Z’s, each week. In the 1990’s book collecting was still on the street, so to speak. There wasn’t much online activity, yet. I was convinced I would find a copy of All The Pretty Horses in first edition. Let me know when you stop laughing. I made sure the books I found were without remainder marks, or price clipped, of God forbid, personalized to the previous owner.
I started collecting in earnest the authors I loved. Richard Price became a must have. And I never really found much of his work in NYC, until I got to Skyline Books and Records on 18th street, which has since gone out of business. They had all of his books, but they were signed, and a touch spendy. Then one summer in 1996 I went to Washington, DC on July 4th to see the fireworks. I had an expired license and the girl I was dating at the time and I tried to rent a car and were turned away, forced to the bus station. After a night of hanging out and watching the fireworks, we stayed at her sister’s house and I snuck out and went to the used bookstore in Dupont Circle. There I found every single one of Richard Price’s novels in first edition, a couple of dollars each. The next goal was to get them signed. Lucky for me, he lived in NYC and writes new books frequently. When I finally met him, he didn’t even blink when I set down his entire body of work to be signed. Years earlier, I had gotten his phone number from a friend and called him at home to pitch him an idea for a screenplay. The conversation went like this:
“Hi Mr. Price, I’m a friend of Jane’s, and she said it would be okay to call.”
“Oh yeah? What do you want?”
“I’d like to send you my screenplay,” I said.
“Jason, you sound like a nice guy, but I don’t read anything,” he said.
“Nope. Not even the New York Times,” he said.
His voice gaining a level of annoyance, but he continued. “If you want to write a screenplay move to LA, and if you want to write a novel, move to New York City.”
He said goodbye and hung up. Good advice.
At the same time, I fell in love with the writer Craig Nova. His first book, Incandescence was my favorite for a very long time. I worked at Barnes & Noble running events at the now-closed 66th street location. We had everyone come through there. Craig was my event, I booked it, and I brought out all his books, as I had searched for his work, everywhere. I still have everything. Craig signed the books, and did the reading to a small crowd, and to this day Craig and I are still friends. We exchange emails about writing, or what we’re reading, and he is possibly the nicest man I have ever met.
Also, I have been dining out on the Richard Price story for so long. Every time I see Emily St. John Mandel’s husband at a reading he asks me to tell him that story.