Time With Steinbeck at Swan’s Fine Books

Jim laughingly read the fortune from the newly-cracked cookie. “Good books are friends who are always

ready to talk to us.”

We’d just grabbed a quick bite at the new Chinese place around the corner, having locked up the store

after our first evening discussion group. Jim (formerly known as James M. Dourgarian, ABAA), had

shared with the group the story of his journey into the world of book-collecting, and from there into the

world of book-selling. He’d developed a passion for John Steinbeck’s works in high school, and the rest,

as they say, is history.

john steinbeck pictureWe took a quick journey through Steinbeck’s works, discussing along the way the major influencers on

him and answering the questions posed in our invitation. (There was one trick question – Steinbeck

ATTENDED Stanford, but never graduated – he left early to pursue his writing career.) The Q&A session

at the end was lively and brought up interesting facets about Steinbeck – that his works have not only

been banned, but have even been burned. That the FBI and the IRS kept files on him, and watched him

for years hoping for a misstep. That, although fully sympathetic to the oppressed, he was not, in fact, a

communist but a patriot who eventually was “allowed” to be a war correspondent during WWII.

Jim succeeded in not only teaching us all about John Steinbeck, but made him more human in the


Regarding collecting, his words of advice, learned from years of being a collector, were: “Buy the best

copy you can afford. Condition is critical, books I bought for $250 years ago (which was a lot of money

at the time) are worth ten times that today. BUT – don’t buy books as an investment. Buy books

because you LOVE them, because they sing to you – because they are your friends when you return

home at night and look at them sitting in the bookshelves”.

Which brings us back to that fortune-cookie…

Why do we buy books? The pretty jacket or binding? The famous author? The catchy opening line?

The internal need to answer questions, either simple or life-changing? A way to pass time? Because it’s

signed? Because they fill up those empty shelves, and really, what ELSE would we put there?

My personal opinion (which may be worth only the paper this is printed on) is that, as human beings,

most of our decisions are complex and based on a multiplicity of factors, some of which we may not

even be consciously aware of. I believe there are likely to be as many reasons to buy books as there are


We all need to answer the question for ourselves. It has been fascinating to talk with the various

people that have visited our shop: we’ve had doctors, musicians, artists, moms and dads, students,

bankers. While the singular motivation is different for all, the common element seems to be the thrill

of discovery: either a new fact or writing about a well-loved author or subject, or a brand new, totally

heretofore unknown work that knocks one’s socks off!

Dave Kellett so aptly phrased as “Nothing can do what a book can do. (It) lifts you out of your life…to a

whole new world, (to a) whole new perspective. A book is like a dream you’re borrowing from a friend.”

So, here is a toast to great masters such as John Steinbeck, to all that he has given to the world and

by extension all he has given to each one of us. And at the same time, it’s a toast to you all who have

visited the shop, for your excitement, your curiosity, and your spirit of adventure.


by Laurelle Swan

Swan’s Fine Books

1381 Locust Street

Walnut Creek, CA   94596


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