One of the things mentioned in Jack Chalker's previous article on Baltimore fandom
was the Werewolf Bookshop of Verona, Pennsylvania. Jack mentioned that
"it was just a book remainder house; you sent them money and
they sent back lots of books, you didn't get to pick which ones." But it
turns out there was more to the store's way of doing business than that, as the
following article shows us...
In his article in Mimosa 20, Jack Chalker mentioned ordering science fiction books from the Werewolf Bookshop of Verona, Pennsylvania. Jack wrote that most of the batch of books he received were "worthless or uninteresting in the extreme," instead of what he had hoped for. Well, let me give you the rest of the tale...
I don't know when Robert Michael, the 'owner' of the Verona Bookshop, went into business, but I think he was advertising in Weird Tales by the late 1940s. He may have once been honest but by the late 1950s he had worked out a system for making money. If you answered his advert he would send you a mimeographed pricelist. His books were usually overpriced for that period so the customer would usually just threw the pricelist away.
Several weeks would go by, then you would receive a mimeographed letter from the Mr. Michael. He would tell you that he was going back into the Army, and that he must get rid of his inventory of books and magazines, one way or the other. He went on to say that rather than assigning them to a paper drive he was giving them away for the price of postage -- for six dollars postage you could pick out one hundred dollars worth of books. The postage was far too high but it was still a very good deal, so, you picked out $100 worth of books and sent him the six dollars.
Eventually, you got a package from him, but when you opened it, it did not include the books you ordered. Instead, you got two or three old beat-up books, which were marked 'out of print, $50'. For one specific case I'm aware of, the package consisted of Songs of the Lone Star State and How to Raise Pigs for Profit. You could buy similar books at the Salvation Army for ten cents. You figured you'd been taken, but when you complained, asking, "Where are the Shasta books I ordered?" all you got was an apologetic mimeographed letter from the seller's wife, which explained that Mr. Michael was already in the Army, the books you wanted had gone to someone else, and he had sent you the best of the books he had at that time.
You'd been had, Buster! You might see his advertising again but you were wiser now, and weren't going to give him a second shot at you. You wrote off the six bucks and forgot it. Michael was working so many suckers he didn't use individual letters, just form letters that could be used month after month. I've been a book dealer since 1948 and he was giving all the dealers a bad name. Mostly I just ignored him like everyone else -- that's how he managed to stay in business.
By the early 1960s, I had become a Director of the National Fantasy Fan Federation (the N3F), and I began hearing complaints about Mr. Michael. These all followed the established pattern: every month he went back into the Army and a few more young fans lost six bucks. So I decided to do something about it. At the 1962 Worldcon I approached Cele Goldsmith, who was editor of Amazing then, and asked her why she accepted advertising from a man who was practicing fraud. She told me they had never had a complaint, but if I could document any problem she would refuse future ads.
Given that promise, I asked people in the N3F to send me copies of their letters, and provide details about their complaints. I sent these on to Cele Goldsmith, and later she sent me a copy of her letter to Michael refusing to deal with him any more. I advised all of Michael's victims to contact their post office and file charges of mail fraud against him. Some of them did so, and at that point I dropped out of the loop.
About a year later I received a letter from P. Schuyler Miller (book reviewer for Analog), with an enclosed newspaper clipping. It had turned out that Michael had, in fact, been caught by the postal inspectors. He had drawn a fine and one year of jail time, though I later discovered he had actually served only 30 days and then had gotten out on probation. Frankly, I didn't think that was enough. His defense at his trial had been that Sputnik had ruined his science fiction book business, and his actions were necessary in order to make enough money to live on.
With that, I thought I had heard the last of him, but no. A year or two later his adverts began appearing again in other magazines. He'd changed his operation -- his list would say "Publishers Edition Sold for $7.00. My Price $2.50." What he was offering was a book club edition that originally sold for $1.00. However, it was legal this time; you can charge any price you wish for an out-of-print book. The difference this time was that if you ordered a copy of Zotz, you got a copy of that book, not some cheap substitute.
I kept my eye on him for a few years, and eventually his adverts quit appearing. I suspect that he'd died, but I never really knew. I suppose that he's been roasting in hell these many years, and when I get there I'll be happy to turn the spit a few times. The old time book dealers never made much money, and most of them are gone now -- from that period Don Grant and I may be the only ones left. We all looked after each other, which is maybe why I decided to go after Robert Michael. When I heard that Sam Moskowitz had died, I remembered that he was supposed to have gotten a disreputable St. Louis book dealer jailed in the early 1950s.
All this brings to mind a warning from a fanzine in the early 1940s. Buyers were warned never to pay more than ten cents for used monthly magazines and not more than twenty-five cents for the quarterlies of the 1920s and 1930s. You have to wonder if the writer of that advice had Robert Michael in mind!
All illustrations by Kurt Erichsen