Tag Archive for 'New York Times Sunday Book Review'


Part One

It’s 1961 and you have to work hard for your information. There is no Amazon or Google Books to get you every book or record in the world, no Internet to give you instant free access to absolutely everything.

Instead, there is Saul Gross.

In his tiny ad, which runs in the New York Times Sunday Book Review, Saul describes himself as a “finder of the out-of-print and the esoteric.” He has thousands of books and records piled floor to ten foot ceiling in every room of his eight-room rent-controlled apartment on 108th. and Broadway. His clientele is scholars, writers, collectors and fans avid for an obscure volume, photo or record album. He has letters of inquiry on his kitchen table–postmarks from all over the world. The phone rings with exotic requests at all hours. “Gimme a minute,” Saul tells the caller. He knows the collected works and discographies of every writer and musician who ever existed and where to get what he doesn’t have. “Gimme a few days,” he says. Sometimes even: “Gimme a coupla weeks…” But he always tracks down “the item.”

Saul gets his inventory from estate sales, bankrupt bookstores, library liquidations and fraud. He makes deals with other “finders,” splitting the small profits. He pays Gerald, an old palsied lush, five dollars a day to sit on the corner of Broadway and 79th. with a sign: “Please donate old books and records to the Veterans Administration Library.” He is a familiar face on Park Avenue every Tuesday when the rich dump clothes, furniture, anything they don’t want, on the street. People bring him their old books, paintings, photos. He puts them in a canvas bag, which he slings over his shoulder like an itinerant peddler and carries across the park.

Saul is a tiny man with laborer’s scarred hands and a huge head of frizzy gray hair. He rents cots in his book-filled rooms to elderly housekeepers who don’t want to take the subway to the Bronx late at night. A weary, stick-thin black woman named Bernice earns her board by cooking short ribs, greens, Kraft macaroni and cheese and wedges of cornbread, which Saul sells to the ladies for two dollars a plate.

When Saul can’t find, buy, chisel or trade an item he steals it. My handball partner, Benny, works for him, lifting rare salsa albums and .45′s from second hand record shops. One night Benny brings me uptown. “Saul says I don’t look intellectual enough to boost books,” he says.

Saul checks me out and pats Benny on the shoulder. “Well done, Benny. “

Bernice gives me a plate of fried chicken and homemade potato salad.

“You steal for fun or profit?” he asks.

“Fun, so far,” I say.

“Stay outta the Eighth Street and Schulte’s. They’re onto you kids and they’ll get suspicious if you keep coming in.”

I get a chill because those are the two bookstores I’ve been plundering.

“Go into the chains, Brentano’s, Doubleday’s,” Saul says. “The clerks don’t give a crap…”

He watches me eat. “Good chicken, huh? Better than that boiled rooster your bubbe gives you every Friday night…You wanna make a quick buck?”

The phone rings. Saul let’s it go on for a while, then answers curtly. “The Country of the Pointed Firs by Sarah Orne Jewett”? he says . “Pretty rare. I’ll make some calls.” And hangs up with a triumphant look. “Needs this for his thesis. He’ll pay through the nose.”

He scurries through a maze of books, into a room where where a large black woman snores peacefully. He bumps the cot– “Get up, Ruth–” and goes unerringly to a pile just over her head. “Gimme a hand, ” he says. Ruth and I hold the pile steady while he prises the book out of the middle. He waits an hour and calls back. “I can get it for you for thirty dollars plus postage.”

He hangs up and calls: “Hey Dale”

A wan, blonde man appears out of the stacks.

“Think he’ll blend in?” Saul asks.

Dale wrinkles his nose like a rabbit. “How should I know?” he says, peevishly.

Two days later I’m in the reading room of the Forty-second Street Library. Dale walks through. That’s my signal. I go to the third floor bathroom. There’s the usual public toilet population of pervs at the urinals and homeless guys washing their socks in the sink. I go to the last stall as instructed. A moment later Dale squeezes in, breathless, carrying a copy of the Times.

Turn your feet around so people think you’re sitting for gosh sake,” he whispers.

He climbs onto the seat so his feet won’t be visible and pulls my shirt out of my pants “Take it off, hurry up,” he whispers. “Bend down a little, you’re too tall…”

He takes a watercolor of a dead fish out from between the pages of the Times and tapes it to my back.

“Why do you want to steal this?” I ask.

“I think it’s called money,” Dale says. He smoothes the painting against my back. “Careful putting your shirt back on. This thing is worth three hundred bucks”

“Why couldn’t you just take it?” I ask.

“They watch the employees like hawks,” he whispers. “They know we hate them.”

He hands me the Times. “The guards like to check something…” Pushes me. “Go…And for gosh sake don’t look so guilty…”

The pervs smirk as I step out of the stall. On the main floor two guards are standing by the revolving door. Three hundred bucks, I’m thinking. This is a big deal. This is jail time. My heart pounds. Sweat prickles on my forehead. Calm down, I tell myself. Calm down or they’ll get suspicious.

They hardly look at me and I’m out and down the steps so fast I’m still scared when I get on the subway.

Saul welcomes me like the prodigal son. Bernice brings me a chicken salad sandwich, swimming in Miracle Whip with flecks of pear and relish.

Saul shows me the watercolor. “This is how they observed Nature in the civilized days,” he says. “It comes from a book of watercolors made in the 17th. Century. Dale’s removes each page with a razor so careful they can’t even tell it’s gone. We’ll have the whole book before they know it.” He puts his hand over the phone so I can’t see the number he’s dialing and is soon bargaining with a buyer. Later, he gives me a ten dollar bill. “You did good.”

“I don’t feel right stealing from a library,” I say.

“What are you, a worrier?” Saul says. “Ever hear of Jelly Roll Morton?”


“I got a guy who’ll pay anything for a record he made in Richmond, Indiana. It’s in the jazz section of the Brooklyn Public…What do you wanna bet it’s got a coat of dust this thick ’cause nobody ever listens to it…?”