The Tasmanian ‘Book Detective’ reunites clients with long-lost books and beloved childhood titles

Hidden in the heart of a busy city is a man who can find what’s close to heart but hidden.

“You could call me a book detective,” says Toby Wools-Cobb.

“I specialize in finding books that you can’t find with a simple Google search – it doesn’t show up, but you know it exists somewhere.”

Some visiting Mr Wools-Cobb in a colonial-era building near Launceston’s Brisbane Street Mall are looking for long-lost children’s books that have been casually discarded at a flea market.

Others seek provocative works that have been erased from history, or that have vivid memories of books but not their titles.

“I’m taking the information and I want to get back to him with the book within seven days,” said Mr. Wools-Cobb.

Toby Wools-Cobb says even a book of questionable literary merit is worth keeping.(ABC News: Lachlan Bennett)

Search for long-lost titles

Mr. Wools-Cobb uses the investigative skills from his career as a librarian and the archaeological expertise from his studies in Egyptology to locate copies of books from his Quixotic Books store.

Special algorithms help him scan the millions of titles listed in publishers’ databases, but he also needs to understand the “life cycle of books to figure out where they might have ended up”.

Mr Wools-Cobb said a single book had multiple editions that entered the world in a variety of ways, from online marketplaces and major booksellers to specialty stores and promotional events.

Books are purchased by individuals, schools, libraries, and businesses, who then resell them, give them away, or leave them on dusty bookshelves and cluttered storerooms.

Toby Wools-Cobb carefully pulls out a large old book in his bookstore.
Toby Wools-Cobb worked as a librarian before opening Quixotic Books.(ABC News: Lachlan Bennett)

Understanding how books moved in and out of the world helped Mr. Wools-Cobb find a special edition young adult novel that “hadn’t hit the second-hand market.”

“I managed to find some information that the author worked with a book chain to run a promotion,” he said.

He located the store and asked the staff if any promotional items had been left in the storeroom.

“They said, ‘Oh, we don’t have it in stock in our system’, but actually they go out and come back embarrassed and say, ‘We have a whole case of it’.

“It was a super proud moment.”

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