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.
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.
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.”
Even bestsellers are threatened with extinction
While many who visit Quixotic Books are desperate for obscure titles, even bestsellers can be jeopardized.
Mr Wools-Cobb said that when a title was ubiquitous, people felt little need to keep their copy, thinking they could always buy another one from their local bookshop.
“But if everyone does this for many years, books printed by the millions could disappear,” he said.
In addition to his detective work, Mr. Wools-Cobb also saves weird and wonderful books that are on the verge of extinction.
He searches through huge spreadsheets of unsold books returned to publishers and imports any title that catches his interest.
“It is the most difficult and most enjoyable part of my job to make my selections. It might take me three months to go through all these titles.
“In the first year of business I looked through over 280,000 titles.”
A second life for unusual books
Through this process, Mr. Wools-Cobb has given books like Survival of the Pretties: The Science of Beauty and The Thackery T Lambshead Pocket Guide to Eccentric and Discredited Diseases a second chance.
And while it may be sacrilegious for a librarian to say so, Mr. Wools-Cobb thinks it a mistake to try to salvage every single book ever printed.
“So if you’re trying to save 1,000 books, you probably won’t understand through all that effort that 100 of those books are the actual, valuable hardcovers.”
But to Mr. Wools-Cobb even a book of questionable literary merit is worth saving if it has a strong effect on the reader or sentimental value.
“As long as the book means something to you in general, it’s better than hoarding books for books’ sake.”