His business speaks volumesEd Smith can indeed judge a book by its dust jacket.

"On a chilly December morning, Ed Smith was hot on the trail of his quarry - valuable books. As with most hunters, there were hits and misses.The big one got away - a book of Edward Gorey illustrations. The auction opened at $5,000, but within minutes, the bidding topped $40,000 - too rich for Smith's blood. Sale price - $47,500.Next up was an inscribed first edition of From Here To Eternity. Another miss.But then the morning's catch - a first edition of The Naked And The Dead, inscribed by author Norman Mailer. Smith's bid of $1,400 was a winner. "

  • Wednesday, January 3, 2001 6:00pm
  • News

“On a chilly December morning, Ed Smith was hot on the trail of his quarry – valuable books. As with most hunters, there were hits and misses.The big one got away – a book of Edward Gorey illustrations. The auction opened at $5,000, but within minutes, the bidding topped $40,000 – too rich for Smith’s blood. Sale price – $47,500.Next up was an inscribed first edition of From Here To Eternity. Another miss.But then the morning’s catch – a first edition of The Naked And The Dead, inscribed by author Norman Mailer. Smith’s bid of $1,400 was a winner.It’s getting harder and harder -there’s lots of competition, said Smith of the auction of rare volumes in California. Some of the participants attended in person, some over the Internet, and some, like Smith, were on the phone.Smith’s business, which he conducts out of his Rolling Bay home, is selling what he calls collectible fiction. Most of his books are recent – even contemporary.But this isn’t the place to pick up a stocking-stuffer book for the casual reader. Smith caters to collectors, and his books generally offer something special – almost always first editions, frequently inscribed or signed by the author, or otherwise distinctive.What can be distinctive about a copy of Harry Potter and the Goblet of Fire, which came out last summer and had the largest printing in book history?We hired the artist who illustrated the books to do an original color drawing of Harry on the title page, Smith said. We have all of them. There were 25 originally, and I think I’ve got three left.And at $2,250 a pop, these were for the little Pottermaniac who was a really good child last year.After a lifetime of reading, which morphed into book collecting, Smith opened a bookstore in Ojai, Calif., in 1990. He took no joy in flogging the latest best-seller to the casual reader, but loved working with dealers and collectors.I didn’t need a store for that, he said. So he took his work home with him, and for the past ten years, has dealt in rare volumes as Ed Smith Books.Notwithstanding the floor-to-ceiling bookcases lining both walls of his den, I don’t really have a lot of room, Smith said. I have to sell as many books as I buy, which makes me a very particular buyer.Smith has a mailing list of between 400 and 800 customers, and puts out a catalog every two months. His buyers are dispersed around the world – only 20 or so are local, including Seattle.Smith’s literary background comes from experience, not education. In 1972, the ex-Marine found himself in Nashville as a session guitar player, making tours with a variety of country-music bands.When I was out on the road playing, I got so tired that all I could do when I got home was lie in bed and read, he said. He turned to collecting, moved to California, and ultimately opened the bookstore.That’s when wife Ellen turned up.I was going past the store, looked inside and thought ‘Gee, that’s a good-looking guy behind the counter,’ she said.Ellen’s high-tech job brought them to Redmond in the mid-90s, then to Madison, Wisc. But the Wisconsin company was bought out, and they had to turn around and come back to the northwest.We decided we were too old for that, Ellen said, so I retired. We said ‘where in all the world would we most like to live,’ and that’s how we ended up on Bainbridge.Smith does most of his buying at auction, but has a couple of private pipelines. Hunter Thompson is a good friend of mine, he said of the so-called gonzo journalist. I published a newsletter for a number of years about Charles Bukowski, the Long Beach poet and low-life portrayed in the movie Barfly.Fruits of those associations include a limited edition of Bukowski’s War All the Time, which includes an illustration by the poet ($1,500) and a signed copy of Thompson’s Fear And Loathing In Las Vegas ($2,500).He also has first editions of a number of well-known and popular novels that had relatively modest hard-cover printings, and are therefore hard to find. Although David Guterson’s Snow Falling On Cedars sold a gajillion copies in paperback, the hardcover run was only 20,000 copies. Smith has one, in top condition, for $175.The key to value in books, Smith said, begins with literary merit. Beyond that, rarity and condition are critical. And as far as condition is concerned, the dust jacket is the most important thing.Maybe the most valuable American first edition is F. Scott Fitzgerald’s The Great Gatsby, Smith said.A fine copy with the original dust jacket – there were three different ones – is worth probably $100,000, he said.Without the jacket, it’s a $1,000 book. Smith welcomes visiting browsers by appointment. Call 780-8168. “

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