BE The Book, West Virginia

Scapegoat Books – Dunbar, West Virginia

The newest bookshop in West Virginia’s Kanawha Valley region is tucked inside an increasingly expanding vendor market in the small community of Dunbar. Owner Chip Smith shares what led him to open Scapegoat Books at the Eclectic Goods Market, his experience working at one of the state’s most fondly remembered indies and how the shop reflects his “eccentric tastes.”

What inspired you to open the shop?

I wanted there to be a local used book outlet that I would personally be excited to stumble upon. Being a book nerd in West Virginia – especially one with somewhat eccentric tastes – can be a bit frustrating, you know? I mean, there are used book bins and decent nooks here and there, and there are rummage piles at thrift shops, and there are library sales where you might get lucky from time to time. But it’s slim pickings overall, with a lot of recycled airport fiction to sort through. You make the most of it, but there haven’t been any well-curated used bookshops in our neck of the woods for the last couple of decades. So I suppose I saw this as an affordable opportunity to fill that void, albeit in a small and perhaps somewhat idiosyncratic way. Or at least to give it a go.    

What history, if any, did you have with bookselling before opening up?

I’ve since had other book-related jobs but my formative experience was at TransAllegheny Books on Capitol Street, where I was a clerk for several years in the early ’90s. The store manager at the time was a brilliant guy named Gordon Simmons (a former philosophy professor of mine) and it was from Gordon that I learned the important stuff – about how to identify and grade modern first editions and how to distinguish antiquarian rarities from common deadwood; about signatures versus inscriptions; about “association copies” and “provenance” and “ephemera” and “fine books” and “ARCs,” et cetera. Of course, this was before the sea change in book valuation that would come with the advent of online bookselling, but the core lessons have held up well enough. It was also during this time that I began to cultivate my own tastes and habits as a collector. I don’t consider myself to be a serious book collector, by the way. I just know what I like, and I still enjoy the hunt. Some people understand what this means, and others find it utterly mystifying. That’s how it’s always been with books, and that’s fine with me.   

Tell me a little about your inventory.

I have an abiding interest in what might very broadly be described as “counterculture” literature (or “outlaw” literature), and I do hope this is reflected in the selection on offer at Scapegoat Books. When I think about book culture in its modern trajectory, I’m most excited by stories of maverick publishers who courted public reprisal and faced criminal prosecution for daring to release “scandalous” titles by guys like Henry Miller, Jean Genet, William S. Burroughs, Hubert Selby Jr. and so many others – many of which have since come to be regarded as classics, or at least “cult” classics. The legendary names here are of course Barney Rosset of Grove Press and Maurice Girodias of the Olympia Press, but the same iconoclastic spirit lived on in so many other independent publishing ventures – from Ferlighetti’s City Lights to Adam Parfrey’s Feral House, right up to the near-present with the late West Virginia native Gian DiTrapano’s Tyrant Books. Anyway, I dig and celebrate that stuff – books that carry, or that once carried, a kind of dangerous aura. I also have an affinity for all manner of literary and scholarly oddness – crackpot manifestos and books on outré subjects: lurid pulp paperbacks, creepy true crime studies, Forteana, esoterica. The weird stuff.

I think there are quite a few interesting books in the current Scapegoat collection. For those who like regional lore and Forteana, there’s a copy of the first Signet mass-market paperback edition of John Keel’s The Mothman Prophecies. Being a pocket paperback enthusiast myself, I’m also pretty excited to display a copy of the rare 1979 Panther reissue of JG Ballard’s infamous experimental novel, The Atrocity Exhibition, along with a bunch of “Black Cat” editions of Jean Genet novels. There’s also a first edition of Katherine Dunn’s Truck, a bunch of biographies of the Marquis de Sade, a decent selection of anarchist literature and generally lots of books that you’re not likely to find at the local Goodwill. I have more collectible items in the offing, too – stuff that I’m not inclined to put out until I have secured a proper display case.       

How do you price your books?

If I had a bigger shop with a more general used book inventory, I’d probably adopt a rote pricing model based on the usual variables. But for this smaller space where light curation is important, I feel I can be a bit more precious in my approach to prices. Essentially this means that I price books – or certain books, anyway – according to how much I personally value them. So if you think the price for a particular item is “too high,” consider that I might have some sentimental attachment to that book and consequently that I might want to ensure that it finds its way to a good home. This isn’t to say that I don’t do research on “what’s market,” and it’s not to say that I don’t “underprice” books that might be of special interest to niche collectors. It’s very subjective and fluid, really.   

How is it going being part of Eclectic Goods Market? Every time I go in, it seems to be growing and growing.

The place really is amazing, isn’t it? It’s funny because even though the Eclectic Goods Market is “growing and growing” as you say, I still feel like it’s sort of a hidden gem in our region – or something that remains to be discovered and appreciated by people who might not venture far from Charleston or wherever they’re nested. Anyway, the people there – and I want to mention Tara and Noel specifically – have been great, very welcoming and supportive. I’m grateful that they let me in as a vendor, and I hope to stick around for a while and maybe even expand my share of the real estate at some point. I’m having fun.

Scapegoat Book is located inside the Eclectic Goods Market, 1401 Charles Avenue, Dunbar, West Virginia. Open Wednesday through Sunday.

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