To the Conscientious Autograph Hound

ca apr_75The bottom line is now’s the best time in recent memory to keep your eye out for books signed by directors and stars you like.




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Since I’m a huge film fan and have been virtually all of my life, a common question I have to field is if I must collect the trappings of movie fandom—posters, props, and, especially, autographs. Thankfully, the answer to all of the above is no—that’s a money pit that I’m happy to have not fallen into—but in my adult life the autograph thing has seemed particularly foreign to me. I’ve had the good fortune of being in the presence of some of my favorite filmmakers, and in some cases have been even luckier in being able to directly interview them, and I’ve never felt compelled to ask any of them for an autograph. One instance that struck me in particular was when I attended the press conference for Star Wars: Episode III at the Cannes Film Festival in 2005. When the conference was over a couple dozen professionally-accredited journalists bum rushed the panel getting whoever they could to sign their press books and what have you—it was particularly off-putting.

That said, in recent years I’ve softened on one specific way of obtaining and keeping autographs—in books. It’s so much more dignified that way. And I’m not talking about dedicated autograph books here, as were popular several generations ago, but more generally memoirs and things written by filmmakers and getting them signed at some designated event. Granted, most of the people who are interested in getting autographs in the first place want them from movie stars like Chris Pratt or Margot Robbie, who are too young and new to have written anything, but if your love of cinema extends beyond what’s currently at the top of the box office, you have a lot of options.

ca apr_200For starters, I’d guess that anyone reading this who has shopped for autographs in recent years has done so primarily on eBay, which makes sense—where else would you go? What you find on eBay is primarily photos, even of people you wouldn’t expect anyone to want a photo of (for example, as I write this there are two separate auctions on eBay for a signed photograph of my favorite cinematographer, Christopher Doyle—do his fans generally even know what he looks like? Do they care?), and in most cases these photos are either A) the result of this person being accosted on the street by an autograph seeker, or B) fake. So, you’re either basically paying someone to invade this star’s privacy, or you’re being ripped off. Sounds like an awesome deal. However, you’ll find on many eBay auctions that the seller will also post a picture of the autograph-signer actually signing the thing you’re buying—pay attention to the surroundings and the expression on the signer’s face. A lot of autograph seekers are something not far off from paparazzi in their hounding of celebrities in public places—it takes planning and intel to have glossies of the exact person you run into handy, not to mention Sharpies—and the person you admire enough to covet their autograph isn’t getting anything out of it. No kickbacks, nothing. Why support this?

Meanwhile, if you know where to look, it’s easy and cheap to get books signed by filmmakers, especially if it’s a brand-new book you’re after, and it’s a lot less invasive for them besides. Usually the type of filmmaker I’m interested in will sign books at Strand Books in New York City and/or at Powell’s Books in Portland, both of which stores I’ve sung the praises of here before. Powell’s will list their upcoming book signings a month or so in advance, so all you have to do is pre-order a copy. Sometimes that’s how it works at Strand, too, but being that they’re in the heart of Union Square in Manhattan, another thing that happens is people just stop by and sign their available stock (keep an eye on the list of newly signed editions they keep on their front page.) In all of these cases just described, Strand and Powell’s sell the books at regular old cover price, so if you were going to buy the book anyway, it’s basically the same price to grab a signed one as it is an unsigned one. In the past six months alone between these two stores, people such as John Cleese, Sophia Loren, Patton Oswalt, Cary Elwes, James Franco, Mark Mothersbaugh, and Miranda July have all done formal signings.

If it isn’t a brand-new book you want, generally your best option is AbeBooks, where you can do an advanced search and flag signed copies. Really, it seems like just about every filmmaker with any kind of following has written a book, and if they’ve written a book, they’re all but sure to have signed some of them that are out there.

You a world cinema fan? People such as Jean Renoir, Federico Fellini, Pedro Almodóvar, Werner Herzog, etc. have written memoirs, novels, books of short stories, etc. and signed them. Or you’re more fixated specifically on Golden Age Hollywood? Everyone from Edward G. Robinson to Ingrid Bergman, Jimmy Stewart to Veronica Lake, Frank Capra to Charlie Chaplin wrote and signed books. When Alfred Hitchcock signed books, he tended to draw his signature line as a silhouette of himself alongside his autograph.

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Sometimes neat association copies of books surface—books from Cary Grant’s personal library are floating around on the market. As this article is going to press, Bonhams out of New York is auctioning Lauren Bacall’s estate, including her library. Sometimes books once owned by people still living turn up for sale. In recent years, I’ve seen a decent chunk of Peter Bogdanovich’s library available for purchase, and he had some high-profile friends—books inscribed to him from the likes of Orson Welles, François Truffaut, etc. Why would he get rid of these in his lifetime?

But all of that stuff can veer drastically out of an affordable price range. The bottom line is now’s the best time in recent memory to keep your eye out for books signed by directors and stars you like. In addition to the internet making the endeavor a lot easier, as sales of print books have been going down, some authors and publishers will sign books at a centralized location and then ship them to stores all over the country on the day of release. This has led to cover price signed copies of Amy Poehler’s Yes Please available at Target, or Not That Kind of Girl signed by Lena Dunham in stock at Left Bank Books.  It is a win-win for everyone involved—you aren’t promoting a ridiculous industry of bottom-feeding autograph seekers, the author and publisher is seeing more copies of their book sold, and you get the book you were going to buy anyway, signed, and often for no more money than what you were going to pay anyway. So why wouldn’t you support this? | Pete Timmermann

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