The Rock Man – Part 1
From His Early Days to Hollywood Book Dealer
A Tale of a Grouchy Bookseller; Part Time Scoundrel, and at one time the most disliked bookseller on Hollywood Blvd.
By Paul Hunt
I always thought that Jack Garvin looked like Nikita Khrushchev, except he wore thick glasses. He was stout with a big head, wavy gray hair and a gruff voice. At any time I thought he might take off his shoe and start pounding it on his desk. I did see him slam books on his desk on one or two occasions when he was particularly irritated about something. And since he was an amateur geologist, he could always reach back on the shelf behind his desk and pick up a geode to hurl at you.
Jack Garvin started out as a book scout in the Los Angeles area. At one time in the 1960’s he was operating in the Adams Avenue area. He rented a couple of old garages behind some storefronts in the once swanky borough. The street, just east of Western, was at one time filled with mansions of the wealthy. By the time that Garvin had arrived, it was a seedy area, and auction houses now lined Adams, with an occasional antiques shop in the shadows. There were four of them that I remember. Tuesdays was Orrill’s, a big general auction of Furniture and sometimes piles of boxes of books. Wednesdays was Morrie Ziff, a short, sharply dressed man who chain-smoked and had a big diamond ring on his left hand. Although he was only about 5 feet tall, he was a tough character. When he climbed up to his auction perch he would be lord of the room, and woe be unto any of his slovenly employees who dragged a piece of furniture across the floor. “Hey,” Ziff would bellow, “pick up that table, what the hell are you doing dragging it.” The humiliated employees, usually old black guys, would almost start crying. “Sorry, Mr. Ziff, we’ll pick it up, we’ll pick it up.” The 50 buyers crowded into the smoke filled room remained silent until Ziff calmed down, and started to take bids.
A few doors down the street was H & H. who also auctioned on Wednesdays. These boys not only had an auction, but they had a big Quonset hut where they allegedly “sterilized” the sofas, mattresses and other fabric-covered items to State of California standards. The other auction houses would dump their stuffed items in there to get the coveted sterilization sticker. It looked to me that whatever horrible gas they pumped into the hut would leak out fairly quickly. Maybe it explains the high cancer rates in the neighborhood.
On Thursday was the big, high end auction, Abel’s. This is where the expensive furniture, jewelry and collectibles were sold. Where the rich Beverly Hills antiques dealers headed. The area was seedy, but there was money to be made. Abel’s always got the good books, the libraries from the old estates. As the last of the old mansions in the central city were being torn down for office buildings, the remains of the once elegant life style were shipped to Abel’s.
As I have written elsewhere on this blog, it was Harry Bierman of Pick-A-Book who usually prevailed, buying up the great libraries and carting them to his shop in West Hollywood. Guys like Garvin could not compete with Harry, he had money behind him. Jack Garvin could only get a few odd lots here and there at one or another auction, never the big prize at Abel’s.
An old lady who ran an antique shop across the street from H & H told me that she could look out her back door and often see Garvin lugging in boxes of books into the rear garages. “The place was really a mess, slovenly, books and paper everywhere. I was always afraid it would attract rats,” she said. “I was glad to see him go”
He did, however manage to score a couple of big libraries. Somehow, an elderly woman closing out her house got his phone number and called him to come over and look at some books. Her recently dead husband, a retired assistant prosecutor for the City of Los Angeles, had a fine library of Western Americana. Jack told me that it was one of the best collections of scarce Western books that he had ever seen. “I was thinking hard to figure out how I could get the books, I didn’t have much money. Finally, I thought I would offer her $500 for the entire library, a steal even back then, so when she asked me how much I would pay, I held up my right hand and wiggled my fingers.”
“Five dollars?” she said. That’s all it’s worth? I know my husband spent a lot of money buying these old books, but if you say so, you’re the expert.”
I asked Jack if he had set her straight and told her he meant $500. “Hell no,” he chuckled. He had a weird way of laughing, the air hissing through his teeth while his belly moved up and down. “If she would sell me the books for 5 bucks, who am I to argue?”
I told Jack he was unconscionable, taking advantage of an old widow like that. He lit a cigarette, took a drag, then started to chuckle again. “That’s not the end of the story, kid (I was always the Kid to him). A few weeks goes by, and the old lady calls me again. I go back to her house and she shows me into another room, which I think was the husband’s office. It was filled with even better stuff, really rare Americana. I looked around and tried to act disinterested. When she asked me how much I would pay, I said the same as before, $5.” Jack started to snortle again with glee, remembering, savoring the moment.
I felt that Jack Garvin had really gone out of his way to build up some bad Kharma. I just wondered when it would hit.
With the money he made from these buys, he moved up to Hollywood, where he opened a bookshop with a guy named Ray Cantor. I told the story of how Jack and Ray got a hold of the wonderful ephemera collection from Nick Kovach’s closed down bowling alley in South Los Angeles, see Hollywood Blvd. Bookstore Follies, Part 4 on this blog for that saga.
So Jack and Ray were operating out of Hollywood Book Shop, smack in the middle of book row, and the situation should have been fun and profitable. Alas, there was a big problem. Jack and Ray really did not like each other. They should never have been partners. They were polar opposites, Ray a nice mellow man, and Jack, a gruff, belligerent bully, always playing pranks on Ray, and always seething with dislike. Jack was always complaining that Ray would give a 20% discount to other booksellers, a standard courtesy if they would reciprocate. No amount of logic would pacify Garvin, who would rage that Ray was “giving away” the store. To Jack, other booksellers were basically the enemy, and should be given no favors. Or discounts.
Since at that time, I was a book scout, I floated between the many book shops in Hollywood. Sometimes it was really disturbing. There was little, if any camaraderie in those days. Most of the dealers would never visit another dealer’s shop, especially Garvin’s. So the few book scouts were like troubadours, going from shop to shop, picking up gossip, seeing what was new, what collections had come in, what could be bought for arbitrage and sold to another dealer for a profit. It helped that most of the dealers did not speak to each other much, but were always curious about how the others were doing.
One night I had stopped by Garvin’s place to look around. I was talking to him when the phone rang. It was his partner, Ray. He was calling from the Santa Monica area where he had gone to look at some books, which he said were junk and didn’t buy any. Jack said “Ray, I just got a hot lead on a library out in Northridge, but you have to go tonight, as other dealers are coming tomorrow.” I could hear Ray say something like, “Northridge? Are you kidding? It’s rush hour and I’m in Santa Monica.”
“Ray, it sounds like a really good load, I think you should give it a shot.”
Ray agreed, and Jack hung up the phone, at which point he started his heavy chortle, pounding on the desk, laughing. I asked him what was so funny? He said that the “library” was really just a load of old textbooks, and that Ray would be gone for hours on a wild goose chase. That Jack would do that to his partner, an over-the-top prank, a time wasting exercise in maliciousness, was beyond me. I shook my head and left the shop.
It wasn’t long after that incident that Ray and Jack got into a heated discussion about something, non-stop yelling for a half an hour. They stopped for a few minutes, took a breather. Jack lit a cigarette. Ray keeled over with a heart attack, dead before he hit the ground.
Jack managed to buy out Ray’s share of the shop from his wife, and was now the sole owner. But there was no mercy from the other dealers. Every day, Jim from Partridge would walk by Garvin’s place on his way to the bank. He would stop at the entrance, and yell out:
“You killed him Garvin. Poor Ray, you killed him!”
This went on for months. The other dealers kept their distance.
Meanwhile, down in Orange County, another situation was developing that intersects with our story of Jack Garvin. A rare book dealer named John McLaughlin of the Book Sail, had just hired a guy to help him run the store. We will call this guy “Pete” to protect the living. Pete had worked in bookstores and was a decent bookseller, but really down on his luck due to his gambling problem, so he had heard that McLaughlin was hiring, and begged him for the job. It didn’t pay much, but Pete was desperate.
McLaughlin, as mentioned previously on this blog in the “Secret World of Script Collectors”, was a wealthy bookseller. He also had a lot of quirks, one of which was to hang out at Orange County biker bars and shoot pool. So naturally, John thought it would be fun to take his new hire, Pete, with him after work for a couple of beers and some billiards. Pete did not like this at all, the bars John hung out at were sleazy and dangerous. And besides, Pete did not play pool. His eyesight was shot from years of sitting in Gardena card palaces staring at his cards in marathon poker games. But John the Mighty, his boss, bullied him to go with him.
The billiard game commenced, with John offering Pete an extra $100 if he won. Pete, no fool, did not want to take this suckers bet, knowing that John was a pool shark. John insisted. “What happens if I lose? I can’t pay you $100 on my salary,” said Pete. “Remember, I work for you.”
“No problem, Pete, I’ll think of something, but you won’t have to pay money, just a trivial thing of some sorts. If you beat me, I’ll give you $100 bucks.”
Pete, of course, lost the game. John laughed with glee. “OK, I won, so here’s what you have to do. Tomorrow we are going to drive up to Hollywood, to Dawson’s Book Shop, and you have to ‘goose’ Glen Dawson!”
Pete was shocked. Almost speechless. ‘Goose’ Glen Dawson? One of the deans of the antiquarian book business? “Are you kidding? Glen Dawson was not the kind of man you could do that to. He is respected, above reproach, a war hero. He’s not some teenager. Besides, he might get mad and kill me,” he said.
John, after torturing Pete for a few minutes, let him off the hook. “OK, lets play another game, double or nothing. If you win, I’ll give you $200. If you lose, I’ll think of something else, not Glen Dawson.”
Pete was in a pickle, but what could he do? He knew he was going to lose again, but he needed to keep his job to pay off some gambling debts. He badly wanted to leave, just go home and never lay eyes on John or the Book Sail again. This was just too much.
Pete lost the next game. John, happy as kid with a gallon of ice cream, told Pete what his punishment would be. The next day they were to drive up to Hollywood, to Hollywood Book Shop. Pete was to march inside and kiss Jack Garvin on the lips. Pete protested, to no avail. “You lost fair and square,” John said, “so be a man and take your punishment.”
Pete felt sick inside. He pleaded to John, “Come on, man, this joke is going too far. I can’t do it. Kiss Garvin? Yuuck! It makes me sick to think about it. He’s an old man, grizzled, and has tobacco breath. Uggh.”
“You do it or you’re fired” said John. “Besides, we can look around Hollywood and buy some books. I’ll buy you lunch, even if you retch.”
So the next day John and Pete drove up to Hollywood and parked right in front of Hollywood Book Shop. John got out of the car with Pete and said “No tricks, I’ll be watching. If you want to keep your job, you go in there and do what I told you to do. Give him a big smack.”
Jack was sitting at his desk, just inside the front door to the right, a cigarette burning in the ash tray. He saw Pete come in. “Pete, what are you up to?” He found out quickly as Pete came over and kissed him dead smack on the lips.
Jack jumped up, overturning his chair and ran out onto the sidewalk screaming, “What the hell are you doing, have you turned faggot?” A small crowd gathered in front of the shop, curious as to what was happening. Garvin kept yelling.
John McLaughlin was doubled up in laughter just inside the door. Pete, dejected, had nothing to say. Garvin was screaming. “Get out of my store you fruitcake,” wiping his lips again and again, afraid he might catch something from Pete’s kiss. As soon as Pete and John left the store Garvin ran to the back restroom and washed out his mouth and lips, which were luckily protected from Pete’s germs by a thick layer of impenetrable tobacco juice.
Hollywood was closing in on Garvin. His dream of bookselling on the Boulevard, with other dealers, in some modicum of respect, entirely vanished that day. Garvin became wary of anyone entering the shop who might be a secret queer, ready to pounce on his chubby old grizzled body and drag him into the stacks for a book orgy. He was also sick of Jim coming by every morning yelling “You killed him Garvin.” The dream was turning sour. There was one last ploy that he was going to try.
Jack Garvin wanted to join the Antiquarian Bookseller’s Association of America. He wanted to be a member of the prestigious club. The ABAA represented ultimate success for Garvin, it was something that he always had wanted. He applied for membership, but there was a lot of opposition, something unusual in the rare book trade. New members were always needed and desired by the ABAA, but in this case, some of the Hollywood dealers objected. His application dragged on and created quite a kerfuffle. Peggy Christian was opposed to it. “He’s so uncouth.” she said. Doc Burroughs at Atlantis was also against Garvin being in the ABAA. “Why are they lowering their standards” he told me. The guy dislikes other dealers. He refused to sell me some books that were for sale on his shelf because he was afraid I would make a profit on them. And then there’s the thing about his partner…”
Eventually Garvin was approved, and was accepted so to speak, as a member, mainly because they could not figure a way to legally keep him out.
It was at the old Ambassador Hotel on Wilshire Blvd. where the ABAA held their Los Angeles show every two years. Garvin prepared for months and put up a nice stock of books. He told me when the show started he was excited to show off his books and chat with other members. “The whole first day I was eagerly looking forward to the ABAA members to come by my booth. None did. Not even one of those bastards came to my booth. NOT EVEN ONE!”
“I’ll tell you kid, I felt really bad. Why did I go through all this? Joining up and everything. They boycotted me. Kid, I went home that night and cried like a baby.”