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the Bastrop County sheriff of Jenkins’ death, “but it’s not.” Officials ultimately called it a suicide. f course, Jenkins is no poster boy for the profes sion as it once was, or even a fair representation of its seamier underside. But Jenkins, whose addic tions so tragically bled into each other, captured in extreme form many of the qualities that made rare book dealing such a rush before the digital agethe hunt, the gamble, the ego, the intrigue, the competitiveness, the grand gesture, and, maybe more than anything else, the precious worth of individually accumulated knowledge. “John Jenkins worked harder to make a dishonest dollar than an honest one,” says MacDonnell, who managed Jenkins’ literary first editions from 1980 to 1986, “but he was a great bookman.” Despite his problems, MacDonnell continues, he understood that it was a vocation in which, as MacDonnell well appreciated, you not only got to “put your soul on the table and show everyone, `here’s what’s in my heart,'” but “you got to travel, you got to have fun, you got to make some money, and you got meet people.” It was all part of buying and selling books at a time when the vast majority of inventories were unknown. Bilberry of 12th Street Books maintains a conspicuous online presence to complement his walk-in business, but he appreciatesone might say longs forthe good old days. Bilberry entered the rare book business in 1990, the year after Jenkins’ death, as a clerk and later assistant manager of Houston’s Detering Book Gallery. These were the twilight years, a time when young dealers apprenticed their way toward independence by learning the subtleties of the trade through an established master. Bilberry thoroughly benefited from his education under Oscar Graham, Detering’s rare book buyer and a high priest of rare book dealing. But by 1994, having seen thousands of rare books pass under his nose, and having done his bibliographic homework on those books, Bilberry was ready to strike out on his own. Should the year have been 1998 rather than 1994, Bilberry would likely have started by buying books online. However, not having access to such sites as bookfinder.com , alibris.com , or abebooks.com , he raised his stock the old-fashioned way he hit the road. Armed with an Airstream trailer and a modest pocketful of cash, Bilberry crisscrossed the country, culling a collection of books by cold-calling libraries, visiting backcountry used bookstores, perusing thrift shops and garage sales, and, through it all, learning that the best part of the rare book business was when you “played on your luiowledge.” “Playing on your knowledge” is something that seasoned rare book dealers value as sacred. It’s how they’ve traditionally rated themselves and is nothing less than a central part of a dealer’s identity. “It’s really knowledge that comes from the experience over many years of handling books,” Bilberry says. Of course it’s also knowledge that allows you to eat a guy’s Oscar Graham photo by Troy Fields 6 THE TEXAS OBSERVER AUGUST 11, 2006