It finally happened. After nearly a decade of trying -- of awakening at the crack of dawn, crouching in my chilly, parked car for hours on end, and enduring the steely glares of a crush of bitter book collectors -- last February I was first in line at the Volunteer Nonprofit Service Association Booksale.
Some people live to scale mountains or find the perfect mate; my goal had long been to be the guy pressed against the cold metal of the cattle barricade that stands between the front door of this renowned book sale at the Arizona State Fairgrounds and the massive crowd of dealers and collectors who attend it each year.
Now I can die happy. Which I'm certain the other spazzes who camp out overnight at VNSA would love for me to do.
(For the record, I do not camp out at VNSA. My friend Amy says that showing up five hours before the doors open and bringing my own chair and a thermos of coffee counts as camping out, but she's mistaken. Any VNSA veteran will tell you that camping out involves arriving the night before with a bedroll, when the gates are still locked and the winos try to steal your shoes.)
They're the same 30-odd word nerds every year, crammed into the chilly veal pen at the line's front ranks, nodding grim hellos that say, "You again? Just steer clear of the cookbook section, pal. It's mine." We meet -- solemnly, grudgingly, sleepily -- the second weekend of February, standing shoulder to shoulder in the desert cold, plotting ways to get to the Rare and Unusual section before the guys from Bookman's, and grumbling about the asshole in the owl suit who is VNSA's mascot. (Why does a book sale need a mascot, anyway?)
There's the Potboiler Twins, a pair of grouchy, middle-aged sisters who never look up from the romance novels they're there to buy boxloads of. There's the Chutes and Ladders Family, a noisy clan that tries (always unsuccessfully-- we're a proudly grumpy bunch) to get the rest of us to join them in playing the stack of board games they bring along. And there's Ed with the Earflap Hat, a bookseller who travels here from Okoboji, Iowa, every year and spends exorbitant amounts to ship home the treasures he finds. Ed hasn't spoken to me since the time three years ago when I mentioned that I live six blocks from this, the biggest book sale in the country, and that one year I plan to just walk over.
I understand Ed's angst. None of us gathers in this yearly predawn cold to bond with like-minded losers. I'm there because it's the only place I can find 80-year-old first-edition hardcovers for under a buck apiece. I'm there because I know that, among the more than 600,000 books inside this manure-scented hangar, there's a dead-mint, autographed copy of Cornelia Otis Skinner's Dithers and Jitters with the dust jacket, and if I don't get to it first, some eagle-eyed bookseller will -- and then he'll mark it up about 400 times and stick it on eBay.
Which is why you'll find me at this weekend's 49th annual VNSA sale, wearing long johns and an ankle-length wool coat, and glaring at the guy who looks like he might want to race me to the stack of 19th-century rhyming dictionaries I started collecting last month. Pity the fool.