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January 10, 2010

News & Features

Need a manual for a '75 Corvette? A small group of collectors just might have it

Special to NWautos

Alex Voss

Alex Voss runs a Columbia City store that stocks more than 40,000 automotive books. (Photo by Cody Ellerd Bay)

Most people probably will never want to know which upholstery colors were available for the 1964 Studebaker Avanti, or what types of lubricants the factory recommended for a 1960 Dodge Dart. But for those who do care about such matters, a lively cottage industry of auto-literature dealers has them covered.

Alex Voss is one of them. The Seward Park resident began collecting and selling Peugeot manuals while working as a mechanical engineer for General Motors in Detroit. Now he operates Books4Cars.com, a small retail bookstore in Columbia City that stocks more than 40,000 automotive books. Everything from rare, vintage shop manuals and dealership brochures to glossy coffee-table books is available at what Voss says is the only such retail shop in the country.

His customers range from those trying to restore a classic car as accurately as possible to fanatic fans of a particular model who just want a piece of memorabilia.

"We're kind of like matchmakers," Voss says. For every title in his stock -- obscure or otherwise -- he likes to think there's someone out there looking for it. He counts among his customers former President Bill Clinton, who bought a manual for his 1967 Mustang, and Frank Colacurcio Jr., the infamous owner of Rick's Nightclub in Lake City, to whom Voss supplied literature on Colacurcio's Lamborghini.

If someone is looking for something Voss doesn't have, chances are good that he can find it, either by working his network of industry insiders and collectors or just by dumb luck. Recently, for example, a man came in seeking the manual for a Case 530 backhoe. Voss didn't have it. Later that day, upon rifling through a box of books someone had left on his doorstep, he discovered the manual. But the customer had not left his phone number. "Who else are we ever going to sell this to?" Voss wondered.

Lon Lloyd of Olympia, a pharmacist who collects and sells auto literature on the side, says the hunt is part of the fun. "It's like the hunter-gatherer thing," says Lloyd, who specializes in factory literature through the early 1970s and sells his wares at local swap meets. "You're out there looking for that rare find and you really want to get to it before the next guy."

Prices for books like these can range from $20 for a reproduction of an out-of-print repair manual to a few thousand dollars for rare sales literature, such as a dealership upholstery album for a collector's car. Lloyd says that such a book is probably useless to its owner, other than for show.

"When some of those rare cars from the 1930s sell for half a million dollars by themselves, a guy isn't going to be too concerned about dropping a couple thousand on stuff that goes with his car," Lloyd says. "He's got to have the whole collection."

Most auto booksellers are like Lloyd and Logan Gray of Portland, who run Vintagemotorbooks.com. They sell at swap meets and online out of huge collections that take up entire basements. And most, unlike Voss, are fairly specialized, dealing only in books pertaining to one type of car or a particular era.

One collection, The Old Car Manual Project, exists only online. The nonprofit Web site allows contributors to scan and upload their materials, and others are allowed to access them for free.

Lloyd, who inherited his book collection from his father, says he wouldn't want to quit his day job to sell auto literature full time -- but it subsidizes his car collection.

"When you can't figure out where that screw goes and you can look it up," Lloyd says, "man, those manuals do come in handy."

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