In the olden days, before the prevalence of internet, it was not an easy business to match a book buyer, wanting a specific book, with a bookseller who had that book. An entire world of intermediaries developed.
Search services tracked down a book. Often a bookstore operated its own search service. It might be focused, but more often store search services were haphazard – run as an incidental operation to the main business of buying books and selling them out of the store. Some very fine services were unaffiliated with any retail store.
Dick Mohr ran one of the very best search services: International Bookfinders. He operated out of Southern California, but his physical location mattered little. He used the mail.
Mohr had been successful in advertising. He brought a brisk can-do attitude to his search service. In a business where searches usually dragged on for a long time, Mohr was famous for his quick turnaround. He brought his briefcase to the post office each day, picked up his mail, responded, and mailed his response before he left the post office.
How does a search service locate a book?
Someone like Dick Mohr knew many book dealers and books scouts. Dick and his wife, Martha, generated a weekly list of books they needed. International Bookfinders sent the lists out to stores and scouts.
Before the internet there was a broad network of book scouts. They followed their hearts into used and antiquarian bookstores all over the country – all over the world. Scouts also carried lists of “wants”. Various search services printed out lists of books they wanted and sent those lists to their favorite book scouts. Lists of wants were also published in trade magazines like AB, The Antiquarian Bookman.
Sometimes book scouts bought books on speculation. They’d seen a title as a “want” frequently and figured it would come up again. In this case, the book scout edged over into the realm of the book dealer. He built a stock of books that he thought he could sell.
When a scout found a book that a search service wanted for a customer, the scout would quote it to the search service. The quote included 1.) title, publisher, and print date of the book, 2.) condition of this copy, 3.) price to the searcher. Of course the quote also had to include the name and address of the scout. Without that critical piece of information the search service wouldn’t know where to say “yes, please,” or where to send the check.
Through wine-drenched evenings, many funny but rueful stories circulated on this theme. They were stories of very scarce books, in superb condition, quoted at shockingly modest prices, by scouts who failed to include return address information. Storytellers would pantomime the effort at deciphering postmarks and the always-unsuccessful nightmare of trying to trace the quote back to the quoter.
On one such wine-drenched evening, Dick Mohr and a bunch of dealers and scouts were assembled around our table in the NYC apartment where Chris and I lived. Another one of our friends was there. This other fellow wasn’t in the book trade. He was fascinated. He tried to make sense of it all.
“So you’re saying,” he said to Mohr, “that someone comes to you wanting a book. You advertise for it or tell your friends. Someone finds it for you. You buy it from them. Then you add some little amount to the price you paid and pass it on it to your customer?”
“Well, no,” said Mohr. “It's more like I add some exorbitant amount to the price I paid and pass it on to my customer.”
It was a costly and time-consuming project to acquire a specific book back then. Now the internet has created a miraculously fluid market with easy connections between the wanting and the finding of books.
Dick Mohr operated International Bookfinders in the 1960s and 1970s. He might have started a decade earlier. He might have continued a decade or two beyond.
I remember him clearly. Close cropped hair, big glasses, strong wiry build, ready wit, limitless personal stores of harnessed energy. I wish I had a photo of him to post. The word picture will have to suffice.
this article (Bibliofind and AB) details an example how the old way is merging with the new way