A Remembrance of Les Sample,
Science Fiction Fan & Seattle Bookseller

by Jessica Amanda Salmonson

   

Les Sample was a Seattle bookseller who's heavy-handed pencil will be haunting book collectors for decades to come. He worked throughout the 1970s for Horizon Books, where I first got to know him so well. Horizon is still one of the leading used bookshops of the city, & Les ran it practically singlehandedly when the owner spent months at a stretch in Boston with his sweety. Les was from South Carolina, where he had been very active in Science Fiction Fandom from early in the 1960s & contributed to a few fanzines. He got out of S.C. thanks to the Army, which took him as far as Texas. When mustered out, he arrived in Seattle to score his job at Horizon because the owner was (& still is) a long-time science fiction fan himself.

The fannishly famous Nameless Ones had long met in Horizon ever since the demise of Bill Austin's 1950s book shop The Wolf Den. The journal of the Nameless Ones, called Cry of the Nameless, edited by Nameless leading lights Elinor & F. M. Busby, received the Hugo Award, & the members even organized a World Con in Seattle, oh, must've been 1961. The Nameless met pretty much continuously from the 1950s through the early 1990s, & had actually a longer history than that if one counts the 1940s precursor s-f group at the University of Washington, calling themselves The Night Crawlers because Bill Austin had found methods of crawling through underground ducts from one campus building to another, & a handful of campus science fiction nurds took to midnight sorties together, crawling from place to place underground. But that was well before Les's day. Still, his association with Horizon, & his hosting the Nameless Ones during the 1970s while the shop's owner was in Boston, pretty much guaranteed Les a little rub-off fame as a minor figure of s-f fandom & major figure in Seattle's used bookstoredom. Somewhere around 1990 the Nameless Ones moved to Kristi Austin's shop in the University District, which was an apropos location since the Nameless was founded mainly by her father. When Kristi's store closed, the half-century history of the Nameless came to an end.

My own association with the Nameless began in 1972 & continued until nearly the end. Quite a crowd would gather once a month at Horizon Books, standing twixt bookshelves having intense conversations about all manner of things. For at least a decade, I lived only a block or two from the shop, & really looked forward to these gatherings a short saunter from my own front door. Local or visiting authors were frequently in attendance, as well as future authors of merit. I'd sometimes stay until the bitter end until only Les, myself, & one or two stragglers remained at two in the morning.

For part of the 1980s Les ran his own Sample Books next to a noisy tavern. Sample Books was one of the worst names of all time, inducing at least one visitor a day to ask where he gets his samples. At one point he lived in a crawlspace above the shop, accessible via ladder through the ceiling of the janitor closet. I asked if I could look in at his "apartment" once & he let me climb the ladder. It was extremely claustrophic, with no light of any kind, & smelled of urine & pot. In his laconic monotone he said, "It saaaaves me a lahhhht of money sleeeping uhhhhhhp thehhhhhhr."

Later he was to be found lurking in the dank dimly lit leased basement of The Seattle Book Center when SBC was downtown (it's still Seattle's best antiquarian bookshop though no longer downtown — Les's basement was decidedly not where the best stock was found though I've a few treasures from down there). Eventually Les had to be booted out with enough hard feelings to go around. In the 1990s he started a television specialty bookstore in the University District where his decades of used bookselling expertise were sufficient that he failed miserably, eventually abandoning his shop with all the books still therein, to avoid back rent.

A friend called me up to help take out the stock to her own Shakespeare & Martin book company, having purchased the abandoned books from the landlord to clear up part of Les's rent debt. A few important books were missing & I thought perhaps Les had saved a few things to try again someday, but turned out a bookseller down the street had gotten in there & taken them before Gloria & I could clear the place out — nothing was ever done about that, it was too much a hellish sorrowful mess at all quarters to make a big deal of any one part. I was amazed how excellent Les's stock was — never occurred to me Television could be that interesting a specialty — & had he issued catalogs or been hooked into the Net, I think he could've done quite well. Alas his idea of running a book business was sitting in a shop glowering out the window, looking like scary street riffraff to people who never worked up the nerve to enter beneath that gaze.

After this tragic capper to a long career in the book trade, Les grew his beard into a big enough bush to hide his entire face, intentionally alienated the last of his friends, & prematurely ended life forgotten in a care facility due to never having been careful about his diabetes, which had made him look seventy-five when he was fifty.

I always liked Les — because he was exactly the kind of "character" that makes the used book trade such a wonder. Love 'em or hate 'em, booksellers are frequently quite memorable, & Les was like a figure in a blackly comical book. He looked awfully like a scurvy sailor with the beedy eyes of a muskrat never blinking, & a vile rubber ball filled with continuously recycled happy-smoke near to hand. At the two independent bookstores he failed in, he would sit near the door glowering at people with his glassy sharp little eyes, all visitors being perceived as inevitably shoplifters, & before they'd have even one whole foot through the door he'd startle them half to death with that sepulchral monotone: "Can i helllllllp yoooooo."

He was an intelligent fellow so I never quite understood how he couldn't pull himself together for the success anyone would deserve. Long ago, in my Feminist Karate Union classes, I sparred with Les's girlfriend, & I always felt he had at least the good luck to be loved, but toward the end even she could not stay with him. I remember when a friend called to ask me about Les, as he'd put me down for a reference, & she was in a position to hire him at a book distribution warehouse. I said I thought Les would be fine, but after a few weeks of the company trying to track down why so many bookstore orders were being filled improperly, the problem turned out to be Les, who seemingly was packaging orders not on the basis of titles requested, but on the basis of book covers being the same color as the title requested. I wondered if he was losing his sight, or if his incompetence was intentionally passive-aggressive, the job being so amazingly lame to start with. I got crabbed at for putting my friend in the position of having to fire Les, not her favorite part of being a manager.

Like a dog passing amidst the bushes, Les has left his mark on all that came his way. With dark black pencil he would deeply gouge the price on the front flyleaf, evidently fearful someone would otherwise erase the price to make it cheaper. When the books were still unsold after a few years, he'd take a hard eraser & rub a hole in the corner of the flyleaf, then gounge a new & higher price under the hole. When he was working for himself he would also leave a crookedly embossed "L.S." under the price just to make sure you knew he had once lived & passed a hand over that book. I have many very nice books thus embossed by Les's pencil, & it makes me sigh with remembrance every time I encounter another item that somewhere along the decades passed through his hands.

   




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