Why Some Books At Half-Price Books These Days Aren't Exactly Half Price

The reason I called Steve Leach, the so-called "buy guy" at Half Price Books, yesterday was because I was wondering: What's up with the expensive assortment of signed tomes sitting under glass at the Northwest Highway mothership? I was there Sunday morning and noticed, among other things, a John F. Kennedy-inscribed copy of Profiles of Courage selling for several thou; a limited-run book about and signed by Albert Einstein; a Martin Luther King Jr.-autographed copy of Stride Toward Freedom; and We Seven, autographed by all of the Mercury astronauts.

It's not rare for Half Price to offer up pricey collectibles, but to see so many in one space begged the question: What's up?

"Funny you should ask," Leach says, before explaining that about a year ago, "by pure coincidence," several Half Price locations around the country "happened to buy unusual collections of signed items." (We Seven, he says, was sold locally.) "We decided to bring them around to different stores and have talks about them. They ended up gathered here. I was intending to get them auctioned at Heritage or somewhere. We do have people who come in and look for that, but since we don't have a big online presence, we decided to bring them here and try to decide what to do with them."

At the moment, he's trying to procure letters of authenticity for each piece. He says that, yes, most were bought after Half Price checked to make sure they were legit, but auction houses have a higher standard than a store that offers pennies on the dollar for used books. Leach also says that most, if not all, were sold to Half Price by people who knew what they had, though that isn't always the case. He recalls many instances of bargain-hunters walking out with dollar deals worth quite a bit more -- like that Twin Peaks fan and SMU grad who, in October, bought a signed Maus for a mere eight bucks.

"We've always had a thriving community of resellers and dealers come through for years and years," he says. "They're not looking to buy thousand-dollar books, but a three-dollar book they can resell for $1,000. That's happened quite a few times. The most notorious one I can think of is a guy found a first edition of David Foster Wallace's first book on a clearance cart for a dollar and sold it for a thousand."

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