While traveling up the coast this past week, we had a chance to veer half-an-hour inland over to the bucolic but always art amenable town of Ojai, home to the "greatest outdoor bookstore" in the U.S.A., Bart's Books. Granted, that they are the "greatest" is their own self description, but I believe them! I believe also they may in fact be the greatest bookstore, indoor or outdoor, in the United States, period. The last time I visited, two summers ago, I turned left at the front cashier stand (beneath which are shelved about two hundred $1 books), and explored their vast contemporary literature section as the sun beat down upon me. This time, I turned right at the cashier stand, into what looked to be the room of an old house. And this house had a roof. Can't let the acidifying effects of sunlight beat down on so many leather bound tomes from the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries. A narrow hall — the First Editions section — began opposite the roofed room, and continued round a corner.
While perusing the First Editions section of Bart's Books, I happened upon several signed and inscribed books by Steve Erickson. Every book of Erickson's (there were five there) were inscribed to "Frances". Curious. Soon, the owner of Bart's Books serendipitously materialized, holding a large mug of coffee, and asked me if I was looking for anything in particular, if I needed any help. At the moment he asked I was holding a signed and inscribed first printing of The Sea Came In At Midnight. I opened the book to its half-title page and inquired, "Is the 'Frances' here," and pointed at the inscription, "the same 'Frances' that's also inscribed in all the other Erickson books you've got on the shelf?"
"Yep," he said. "Frances Ring."
"Frances Kroll Ring?" I'd heard of her somewhere. "Wasn't she, like the editor, or the, for ... um ..."
"Scott Fitzgerald, that's right. She was his secretary and typist the last year-and-a-half or so of his life, when he was writing The Last Tycoon."
"Really? Wow! How'd you get all of them?" I motioned toward the balance of Erickson's books — three novels* and one nonfiction book** — on the shelf.
"Her estate sale. There was a lot more valuable stuff there too," he said, "but her family decided to keep it."
"Yep," he replied.
I reiterated: "Wow!"
Later in our conversation, the owner and I (sure wish I had gotten the name of this most congenial, knowledgable fellow) discussed how absurdly undervalued Steve Erickson's work was, both among collectors of contemporary first editions, and a literary establishment that has largely, for the last three decades (sure, there have been many and varied exceptions, primarily sounding forth their lauds from west of the Colorado River, but still) shown indifference when not dishing him outright disrespect that would've ruined writers of lesser vision than he. However, on the silver lining flip side of Steve Erickson's relative — and again: absurd, undeserved — lower value among collectors in the market, at least lower when you compare what his stuff sells for next to what his contemporaries' stuff sells for, allowed me, a regular 'ol working class freak, to buy one of his signed first editions that he inscribed to Frances Kroll Ring, The Sea Came In At Midnight. So what if it didn't break my bank, to me the book and its inscription are priceless, because it's living literary history right there forever on the half-title page.
* The three novels I left on the shelf for someluckyone else to find were Days Between Stations (1985), Tours of the Black Clock (1989), and Arc d'X (1993).
** The book of nonfiction was American Nomad (1997).
*** My research never revealed the exact dates.