Thrift Shop Adventures 1: Wherein I Find Fantasy Treasures in Secondhand Stores (Greyhawk Classics and More!)
“I’m gonna pop some tags / Only got twenty dollars in my pocket / I — I — I’m hunting, looking for a come-up / This is ******* awesome”
— Sir Macklemore of the Order of Thrift
When I go into town — to the nearest keep on the borderlands, say — I find it hard to pass up a quick pop-in to a thrift store. Last Friday I did my rounds in the city, hitting the trifecta: Salvation Army, Savers, and Goodwill. As with any type of hunting excursion — for instance, my single days hunting for a date at the college bars — there are highs and lows, ups and downs, mind-blowing flights of rapture and soul-crushing disappointments.
First up was Salvation Army. I always make a beeline for toys first, then books. I’ve never had much luck with toys in this particular outlet, although I did come close to a good score once: an elderly lady came up behind me at the check-out line carrying a vintage SIX FOOT LONG rubber jiggler snake! It had just been stocked on the shelf somewhere in between the time when I had looked and when I was checking out, so I’d missed it by mere minutes. It was tagged $1.99, and I immediately offered the lady ten bucks for it. She shook her head. “No, I want this. I’m thinking of putting it in my garden to keep kids out.” She actually said that.
The thought flashed through my mind “Are you crazy? That thing will be a kid magnet!” But I did not persist, just politely demurred, mentally accepting defeat. Some consolation was the fact that I had one already (they do come up on eBay occasionally, typically fetching about $20-$30).
Strike up the old Army Marching Band, though, because today was going to be a thriftastic day. Mostly thanks to a coloring book (which I’ll get to in a bit), but that wasn’t all: I was also about to unearth a tomb-full of Greyhawk.
This Salvation Army separates their sci-fi and fantasy books out from the rest of their stock and puts them on a cart right up by the front registers, each one marked a dollar. I approached the cart with a tingling sense of anticipation, because throughout this past winter I’d been finding it loaded with crazy-cool vintage sci-fi and fantasy books in great condition. We’re talking the sorts that John O’Neill regularly features in Vintage Treasures, and it makes you wonder how such paperback treasures are regularly making their way into this particular store? Whose collection(s) are these coming from?
On this day, two days before Easter, it was my fate to find a near-complete lineup of the classic TSR Greyhawk novels, out of print and increasingly hard to find. I snatched them all up and gladly paid 11 bucks for them. Happy to help out the cause of feeding the homeless, especially if it meant going home with these. [Spoken like a typical bourgeois American. Sometimes you make me sick, Nick — and I’m you, so you make yourself sick! Okay, okay, myself. Yeah, I admit it didn’t even cross my mind where the money goes to until I was writing that last sentence. Happy? Can we get along with the blog now?]
The first six books are the Greyhawk Adventures from the late ‘80s and early ‘90s. Gary Gygax penned the first two, then Rose Estes took over authorship on the remaining four. Then there are five Greyhawk Classics, each a stand-alone novelization of a classic Dungeons & Dragons module. We have:
- Keep on the Borderlands by Ru Emerson
- The Tomb of Horrors by Keith Francis Strohm
- Queen of the Demonweb Pits by Paul Kidd
- Descent into the Depths of the Earth by Paul Kidd
- White Plume Mountain by Paul Kidd
The latter five books are dated from around 2000-2001, just after Wizards of the Coast had purchased TSR, and some of them are still listed as TSR/WOTC (apparently WOTC kept the TSR label as a subsidiary brand at first, before jettisoning the name entirely). Beautiful cover artwork, and all in very good condition. I’ll be posting them all on eBay, but… I’m mighty tempted to read a couple of them first. If they’re written well, revisiting some of those fondly remembered modules in novel form could be a lot of fun.
Now, on to the find that would make my day. Just so you understand why I nearly shouted out loud and would have tossed confetti into the air if I’d had any in my pockets, let me explain that earlier this winter I came across a vintage coloring book on eBay that brought back a wave of nostalgia.
Nostalgia, for me, is more than just a sentimental feeling for a happier time. It is a little rush that fleetingly seems to bridge the gap in the space-time continuum between the middle-aged man and the seven-year-old boy. It’s what Neil Gaiman is all about in The Ocean at the End of the Lane; it’s practically all Steven Millhauser writes about: signifiers that transport us back to an earlier time, be they a place or a song or a smell, or a cheap dime-rack toy, as the case may be.
Likely it is a time that never really existed, and what you are really reconnecting with is not that time or place per se but the conception of a world more good and more perfect and more beautiful that you possessed at that time, when you were closer to the Platonic Forms. When everything was limned with more promise and potential. When the most important thing might be putting that Lincoln Log cabin together just right, such a small and transitory thing, or assembling that dinosaur diorama or gluing together that Aurora model kit of the Wolfman.
You were able to be engrossed in creating that little bit of order and beauty without the undermining reflection — which, sadly, comes with maturity to all but a few of the most stubborn artists — that this little project will serve no utilitarian purpose and will have no lasting value or meaning. Just sand castles.
But heck, even real castles are just sand castles, when you consider them in the light of eons. Their grandeur and seeming solidity, from a less mortal point of view, could be gauged as no more substantial than a pattern that emerges for one second in an ever-morphing lava lamp. Child’s play. Maybe child’s play, when observed from a detached, godlike perspective that takes in the whole sweep of human history, is — on that scale — not much more or less significant than real wars and grand constructions.
But, being children, we were still somewhat unfettered from the recognition of time with its demolishing implications and so could be fully invested in the moment, the creative assertion of order in chaos that, even though it last only an hour, would now forever leave its mark at this spot in space and time in the warp and woof of creation.
When we were not self conscious of the crushing tyranny of time: The reminder of what that freedom felt like is partly what makes guys my age pay jaw-dropping amounts of money for things that were generally tossed out thirty years ago as cheap junk. That is, if you have jaw-dropping amounts of money to spend. I don’t, which is why this is about a visit to a thrift store.
The 1975 Golden Book of Dinosaurs (it was also put out as a “Whitman” book — both imprints were the same publisher out of Racine, Wisconsin) was probably my favorite coloring book when I was growing up in the ‘70s, and I’m sure I went through multiple copies. Not just because the illustrations were fantastic and I wanted to color and recolor them, but also because several pages included dinosaur figures to cut out, fold the base, and glue or tape into a diorama. So when you did that you had to cut up your coloring book!
Well, as soon as I spotted that little childhood treasure on eBay I watched the auction with an eye toward bidding on it. I can’t remember if I ever did put in a bid, but the price very quickly shot up out of the range I could in good conscience pay for a coloring book that sold for 79 cents in the 1970s (and without danger of the wrath of my soul mate raining down on my fool head — “I sent you to town to sell the cow and you brought back magic beans?!” Yes, I empathize with Jack). It ended up going for $79 plus shipping!
So I resigned myself to wishfully thinking that maybe I might come across it some day at a garage sale, or a thrift store. (And that’s some pretty wimpy wishful thinking, I know. If you’re going to fantasize about something, why not winning the lottery? Daydreaming about coming across a cherished book or rubber jiggler monster from childhood in a box of crap at a flea market seems like pointlessly trying not to be too presumptuous in the privacy of one’s own head. But here’s the thing: those more modest sorts of daydreams really can occasionally come true…)
Lo and behold, O Seeker: There it was. Top and center on the Children’s Books Clearance rack! Good Friday indeed!
This sort of wish fulfillment doesn’t typically happen to me except in particularly pleasant dreams, the kind you wake up from wistfully hoping you can fall back asleep and dive right back in where it left off.
I snatched that coloring book up like Gollum suddenly noticing that Frodo has carelessly dropped the ring when the hobbit went to take a leak under a bush concealed from the roving Eye of Sauron. I quickly flipped through its pages, hoping it would not be completely colored in. Condition, overall: one page ripped out near the back and just a few pages colored on. The rest of it, though, mint. In this condition I estimate it would fetch $15-25. I paid 35 cents for it and practically danced out of the Salvation Army — they might have thought I’d found religion.
Next I hit Savers, my finds at the last store artificially heightening my anticipation for hitting on something good again (even though, statistically speaking, it was probably now less likely that I would make another good score that day).
Indeed, I was in for a disappointment. I have had luck at this store in the past, specifically in the mixed toys. They have a whole aisle-long rack of bagged-up toys, lotted together generally thematically: boys’ toys, girls’ toys, cars and trucks, dinosaurs, etc. The bags are $2.99 to 3.99 apiece, and I have spotted vintage dinosaurs and rubber jigglers in these bags that are alone worth two or three times the price of the bag. Some of them I’ve resold; some have gone into my personal collection; the rest go to putting smiles on my children’s faces. No such luck on Friday, although I did find a 12” Snake-Eyes. Not vintage, but my son is getting into G.I. Joe and so that went into his Easter basket.
Right when I walked into the store, though, I thought one of my other daydreams that also involves items made from cheap pulp paper was going to come true on the same day: stumbling across beloved comic books of my youth.
Think of a moment of disappointment. Like your wife brings home a package of Oreo cookies, but then you look closer and realize it’s some generic sugar-free brand. Or five of your lottery ticket numbers match the winning numbers, but then you realize you’re looking at an old ticket for last week’s drawing and you’re not rich after all. Or something somewhere between those two extremes.
They were sitting on the end rack facing you right when you walk in (see pic to right). I thought I’d hit a little gold mine — more an emotional than a financial one; none of these Bronze Age comics are worth a boatload of money, but they are straight from my childhood and they’re cool. I mean, Micronauts? Shogun Warriors? Howard the Duck (the Star Wars parody issue no less!)? Man-Thing? The Black Panther? Marvel Team-Up starring The Thing? Power Man and Iron Fist? I was ready to clear the racks. I’ll pay thrift-store prices for those titles every day of the week and on holidays. Then I looked closer…
All of them had water damage. They all had the waviness that comes from damp; some even had noticeable stains. Crinkly paper from moisture exposure, enough to make a comic-book collector cry. Rendering them completely unpalatable to me even as reading copies.
Nothing really to write about at my third stop, Goodwill. But hey, I had my dinosaur coloring book and my Greyhawk Adventures. With that kind of reinforcement, you know I’ll be back next time I’m in town, hunting the aisles for that elusive something that, just for a moment, makes me a kid again.
It was all the way back in 1968 or so that, as a boy, I began to visit H & H Furniture Co. in Coos bay, Oregon — a second-hand store that also had a hand-painted sign in the window: MAGAZINES. H & H turned up well-worn copies of Marvel comics that had appeared before I began collecting in early 1967.
My fond memory of discovering Marvel comics of yesteryear in a secondhand shop is similar: My Nan would take us young ‘uns to a little junk shop up in Heber, AZ called Trifles and Treasures (has there ever been a better name for a secondhand store ever?). When he saw us little kids streaming through the door, the shop owner would pull a cardboard box out from behind the counter and dump it in front of us. It was chock full of comics. From that box I pulled my first copies of some of the early Marvel Monster Masterworks (the monster comics Stan Lee and Jack Kirby were doing just before they decided to try another run at superheroes and changed the face of popular culture forever).
I make the thrift store rounds with the wife sometimes for this very purpose. And I’ve had a little luck often enough that I’ll keep doing it. Hardback Wheel of Time volumes, Goodkind, Gaiman, even a really old copy of The Screwtape Letters. We live in an area transitioning away from being a retirement community, so …
(morbidity alert) Weirdest thing was, several months back, I went into Goodwill and it was like ‘I’ had died and some uncaring soul had dumped off all ‘my’ books. Not really a worry, my kids have already called dibs, but scanning the shelves that day was just a little too spooky. They even had the old Roget’s from when I was a kid. I looked and same printing year too. Creepy.
There’s one store she goes too now and again and I always complain, because due to their nature, they will not sell any books relating to fantasy, magic, etc. I think you get my drift. Some Stephen King, and a little Sci Fi once in a while, but that’s it.
But I always look anyway. Imagine my surprise to find a beautiful leather bound Moby Dick, and a very nice hardback of Twice Told Tales. Not sure when I’ll read them, but they sure look good in my library.
Oddest find of late, Against all Things Ending by Donaldson, hardback, at the Everything’s a Dollar store. Cover price was $30, but I got it for a buck.
And at least for that one, nobody had to die …
I did like the Gygax books, warts and all; and his series from New Infinities, at least until it kind of went off the rails in the last few books. I think Sea of Death was probably the best novel he ever wrote (although I admit I haven’t read the Paizo/Planet Stories releases.)
Gruud: “Weirdest thing was, several months back, I went into Goodwill and it was like ‘I’ had died and some uncaring soul had dumped off all ‘my’ books. Not really a worry, my kids have already called dibs, but scanning the shelves that day was just a little too spooky. They even had the old Roget’s from when I was a kid. I looked and same printing year too. Creepy.”
Heh heh, I’ve had that spooky feeling a time or two as well, coming across something that seems so like an object from my childhood that I momentarily wonder “How did this end up here? In Minnesota? I grew up in Arizona!”
There’s the seed of a story in that: I picture a guy roaming the aisles of a Goodwill, marveling at how many books and knickknacks and even pieces of furniture are just like ones he has. The kicker could be he picks up one particular book, opens to the frontispiece and discovers his name written there. He’s really a ghost! (A bit obvious, I know, but doesn’t a set-up like that sound just like it could make a good Twilight Zone episode?)
I’m pretty sure I did read the first two Gary Gygax Greyhawk Adventures books back in high school, but I remember very little about them. (The cover of the first one sure made a lasting impression on me, though! It’s probably what originally drew me to the book. I’m a sucker for a ranger-like guy with a sword facing off against a glowing reptilian humanoid.)
What little I do recollect seems to be conflated with the Lone Wolf RPG books by Joe Dever that I played around the same time — those made a more lasting impression on me (of course, those were not novels but solo role-playing adventures, so one had that extra layer of interaction with them).
Though I’ve seen those Greyhawk books, when new and in used book stores, I never picked one up.Not sure why, just…didn’t. I never got much interested in the “series” books like these, or Dragonlance, or the like. Maybe it was because I’d been reading SF since 1952 or so and these kinda looked cheesy to my older SFF eyes.
My all time fabulous find story is walking into a used book and magazine shop in downtown L.A. when I was about 12 (it was a different world then!) and finding full year sets of Astounding Science Fiction magazine tied with twine. I could afford to buy years 1950-1953 that day, went back a month later and bought 1954-1959, which brought me up to the issues I already had, bought new. What a find! They were in nearly perfect condition, and I had them for decades until… well that’s another story.
There’s an amazing sci-fi/fantasy bookstore up in Minneapolis called Uncle Hugo’s where you can still find complete annual runs of Astounding, Asimov’s, F&SF etc. bundled with twine!
I read all the Gord the Rogue books. I really enjoyed the first two as a tour of the world of Greyhawk, but yeah, Gygax went off the rails. The last one destroyed the world of Greyhawk and replaced it with an almost identical world that was not the property of TSR.
Clever, Mr. Gygax. Very clever. And subtle. Let’s not forget subtle.
Uncle Hugo’s? Good to know! I’m moving to Minneapolis this July. I need something to replace my Half Price Books here in Columbus, OH.
Poor Gygax. In 1985 he and the new majority owners came to some disagreement about the business side of TSR operations, so Gygax sold out his rights, took the money, and went off to continue doing what he was doing but just with new names for everything. We all know how that went. Today Dungeons & Dragons is still Dungeons & Dragons, but can anyone even name the games and settings Gygax created post-TSR? (Well, we are on the Black Gate site; some readers here probably can. But you see my point.)
Oh, you are in for a treat. Uncle Hugo’s, founded in 1974, is the oldest independent science fiction bookstore in America. It shares the building with its sister store Uncle Edgar’s, added in 1980 and dedicated to mystery.
You walk in there and it’s something of a disorienting, mind-altering experience. There is so. much. stuff. Books and magazines and memorabilia just piled up, filling boxes, spilling over in the aisles. I spent an entire afternoon up there a year ago and barely scratched the surface. You could poke around in there every day for a month and find some new treasure every day. Come to think of it, I’m going to have to make another pilgrimage up there again one of these days.
James — We have such sights to show you … I’ve been going to Uncle Hugo’s for almost 25 years now.
And Jeff, yes, I did also see through Gygax’ subtle plan. (I think it was called Aerth? But I’d have to check in that last book to be sure.)
Aside from occasional purchases from The Book Depository, most of my genre buying these days is via thrift shops (what we call opportunity shops here in Australia). Someone higher on the thread mentioned the Joe Dever Lone Wolf books. Have I a story for you!
Back in 2001, a friend mentioned that a a discount bookshop two hours from where I lived at that time had a number of the Lone Wolf books (keep in mind the range ran to 28 books, and that books 21-28 were published in very low numbers, especially those around 25-28. On ebay, it wasn’t unusual for a book to sell for in excess of $200). Oddly enough, I knew that shop well as I’d lived in that town at the end of high school and was a constant visitor there before leaving for university.
I rang the shop and asked them how many they had in stock.
And they were all a mixture of books 21-28.
In a moment of utter clarity and calm, I very politely asked them to hold all of them for me and said I would be in the next morning. I then arranged a half day off work with my manager.
Those 32 books cost me A$120, plus petrol.
Thanks to the miracle of ebay, I sold all those books. At the height of the mania, I sold two copies of one title (#26)for $405 each. Most went for between $150 and $250 with the prices tailing down to $50 at the end as I’d saturated the market.
Very, very occasionally you can still find one of these titles here in Australia, but I think I’m right in saying that thanks to me, I managed to export the bulk of them to very happy (and much poorer!) fans around the world.
Thanks for sharing your experience with “opportunity shops” Down Under!
I played the Lone Wolf gamebooks back in junior high — the ones that were then available, which were the first 8 or so. I did not continue to follow them, but decades later (a couple years ago) I became curious to go back and revisit them. I was flabbergasted to discover the series had grown to 28 volumes! I was considering playing through the whole series and then reviewing them here, but it appears that playing the final volumes (21-28) might prove financially difficult.
I think it was called Aerth?
My memory says Yrth, but it’s not to be trusted. Either one would be a fine replacement for the destroyed Oerth.
OK, I just checked — it was Yarth.
Aha! Aerth was the name of the campaign setting in Dangerous Journeys!
Happy to give some insight.
As for finding cheap copies of books 21-28, Joe Dever gave his blessing for all 28 to be made freely available electronically from this site.