Barry Levin with Harlan Ellison

Barry Levin (r) with science fiction writer Harlan Ellison.

Interview by Scott Laming, AbeBooks

When I learned that we were going to open a Science Fiction and Fantasy area one of the first things I knew we had to do was talk to Barry Levin. Barry R. Levin Science Fiction & Fantasy Literature has been selling with AbeBooks since 1999 and are considered by most to be one of the top science fiction and fantasy dealers in North America.

He consistently has some of the most interesting books and manuscripts available anywhere and if that wasn’t enough, he has also become as an expert for hire for Hollywood filmmakers looking to make the next science fiction or fantasy blockbuster. A well-regarded book collector in the Los Angeles area for many years, Barry gave up collecting to become a bookseller in 1973.

SL: How did you get started selling?

BL: I was a collector for 13 years before I got the idea to become a bookseller. The idea hit me all at once one day. Gene Bloom of the Cherokee Bookshop on Hollywood Blvd. - the major book row in Los Angles at the time - came into a large quantity of science fiction and fantasy works and asked me to help him price them out. When I had finished the job and was walking out of the store I had an epiphany. I thought if one of the top booksellers in Los Angles was asking for my opinion on science fiction and fantasy pricing maybe I know something about this trade and should get into it myself. So on January 1, 1973, I set up shop. Our inventory, valued somewhere in the range of $20,000, was set in a building we affectionately called "the Raymond Chandler memorial building" as it looked and felt like the kind of place one of his characters would have worked in, with eclectic neighbors and all. Those were definitely the days.

SL: Do you tend to prefer to read science fiction or fantasy?

BL: I’ve read so many different authors and genres over the years it’s hard to pick a favorite. However, these days I would say my preference is hard science fiction or books that are more based on scientific truth.

Featured Books From Barry R. Levin Science Fiction & Fantasy Literature

Watership Down by Richard Adams
First edition of Richard Adams's classic xenofictional tale. Written in 1972, Adams' first book is about a group of dissatisfied rabbits who escape their threatened warren in search of the promised land. £1045.33

True History by Lucian
Published in 1663 and printed for Richard Davis, a bookseller in Oxford. Lucianís True History is considered to be the first known work of science fiction. This work was translated from the original Greek into English by Mr. Francis Hickes. First complete English edition. The original tale dates from the 2nd century. £1309.94

SL: Who’s your favorite author?

BL: Most of the good hard science fiction authors coming out today are from England, writers like Stephen Baxter and Richard Morgan are very good.

SL: What is the most interesting book you have had in your possession over the years?

BL: We have handled most of the influential first editions and manuscripts of the Hugo and Nebula award winners . For a time we were actively seeking these novels and manuscripts and managed to acquire most of those that had not ended up in the trash. It’s much harder to corner the market like that these days with so many more sellers specializing in science fiction than when we started. My personal favorites, though, are the one-of-a-kind items; we always make an effort to try and find the most unique items available. Recently we had some original Margaret Brundage “Weird Tales” covers in, and though I don’t have the exact number in front of me there are maybe 18 of these originals left intact. It’s very exciting to have items like that come into the store.

(Ed.'s Note: Margaret Brundage was one of the first prominent female science fiction and fantasy illustrators, and was considered the first to bring sexuality to the covers of science fiction and fantasy novels.)

SL: How did you get started in the business of being a ‘go-to-guy’ for Hollywood filmmakers?

BL: It’s a fairly long story but the short version is that earlier in my career I was approached by a would-be filmmaker who wanted to know my opinion on the top 10 books that would most likely have crossover appeal with not only fans of science fiction and fantasy but the movie going masses as well. After completing that task the word started to spread about us and over the years we have assisted filmmakers with everything from plot ideas to helping explain the storyline scientifically to make their movies more believable.

Inside Barry Levin's bookstore.

SL: Can you recommend a book on collecting SF & F?

BL: This is a tricky question as I own a very large library of reference materials with bibliographies on publishers, authors, genres, etc. The book you need definitely depends on what you are looking for but a couple of good basic books to start with might be Science Fiction and Fantasy Literature by Robert Reginald and Science Fiction First Editions by L.W. Curry.

SL: SF & F books everyone should read?

BL: For those looking to get started in the genre, especially younger people, I would definitely suggest Robert A. Heinlein who was such a good writer his stories have held up to the test of time. Also the Winston Juveniles are very popular with people, like myself, who read them as children and are now reacquainting themselves with the books.

(Ed.'s Note: ‘Young Adult’ novels were called Juveniles in the 1950s. There were entire lines devoted to Juvenile SF, most notably the so-called Winston (Publishing) Juveniles.)

SL: Any trends you see developing in SF & F collecting?

BL: I have seen the trends in science fiction and fantasy change over the years. When I first started collecting, H.P. Lovecraft was a very hot commodity. However, over time interest waned and no one wanted or collected him anymore. Now Lovecraft is very popular again, and the same thing has happened with Ray Bradbury. There was a time when you couldn’t give away a Bradbury. The trends have always been very cyclical. Lately publishers seem to be concentrating on fantasy and horror books, but I personally hope to see things swing back towards hard science fiction before I hang up my hat - but that is more of a personal desire than a prediction.

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