[Home] [Weblog] [The Bibliothecary] [Driving the Quill] [Library][Bookmarks]

Tuesday, August 30, 2005

Chapter Twenty-Four, in which The Beggar ponders Life

The question has been asked in a newsgroup: When we have things to do that don't involve books (ie. laundry, shopping for groceries, washing the cat), is bookselling interfering with life, or is life interfering with bookselling?

I suppose the way one answers this question is a kind of self-diagnosis, a way to tell to what degree you have become infected with book fever. Those who say "life" is interfering are probably bibliomaniacs. Say it with me: My name is Jeff, and I'm a bibliomaniac.

But this is one -ism we presumably do not want to cure. And when such a question even enters your mind, I would suggest you are already suffering. Unfortunately, as long as "life" conflicts with bookselling, we will continue to suffer. I intend to relieve my suffering by making bookselling my life.

Friday, August 26, 2005

Chapter Twenty-Three, in which the next Generation of Bibliomaniacs needs nurturing

When I began selling books, all I knew was that I had some books I no longer wanted, and maybe I could make a few bucks off someone who did want them. Those bucks could then be spent on some new books I did want.

After a few years I have learned only a few things about professional book selling. I doubt whether I will ever learn them all. Does anyone ever? Has ever a book seller been born with preternatural knowledge of the business?

In any endeavor in life, one gets better largely by three methods: learning, practice, and mistakes. In order to be more successful at selling books, to try to turn my pastime into my livelihood, I had to start researching the wheres, whys, and hows. Then I had to start buying and listing books. Finally, I had to take a dip, ready or not, which is always the hardest part--so many people are afraid of making mistakes. But that is almost always the result of how we are raised, thinking that a mistake is bad, and something to be avoided, sometimes at all costs. Granted, there are times when making a mistake can be costly, for instance, when cleaning a rifle. The only way to avoid the mistake is to do everything properly and with care. Shortcuts, such as not taking the time to unload the rifle, spell doom. Yet in the majority of cases, a mistake is priceless. It is often the only avenue that leads us to get better. Thus a mistake should be something coveted, embraced, and appreciated. As one songwriter put it, "With every miss I get closer to a hit."

When information is fuzzy or conflicting, learning is infinitely more difficult. Take, for example, the arcane methodology of publishers in identifying first editions. There are so many different ways among publishers, and often variety within each publishing house, that mistakes seem inevitable. When a bookseller makes one, there is little left to do but apologize to his customer, and learn what his mistake was.

I want to encourage us all to look at just such a mistake from the other side, from the perspective of the buyer. If I were to walk into a bookshop eager to see an advertised first edition of Where the Blue Begins, only to find it has been mistakenly identified, what should my reaction be? Too often I find, throughout society, the possessors of knowledge behave in a demeaning, or patronizing, or disdainful manner toward those who have yet to learn.

Think of a teacher who would sigh every time you answered a math problem incorrectly. Where does she get her sense of superiority? I will bet that is one teacher you did not particularly like. Now recall a teacher who was patient, who led you step-by-step through a wrong answer to a correct one, who took responsibility for your wrong answer herself--"perhaps I confused you"--and then praised you when you reached the correct one. This is probably a teacher you liked, and maybe she even made you enjoy geology, though you had thought rocks were boring. The same stories can be applied to parents and supervisors and others throughout our lives.

I ought to take pains to help my fellow book dealer in learning how he mistakenly identified his copy of Where the Blue Begins as a first edition. I should show him ways and means to correct identification of which he might not be aware. And why not offer my name and number and genuine interest in answering any other questions he might have in the future.

Why would I be so free and easy with my hard-earned knowledge? I see two benefits to me. First, I never know what I might learn from this novice. It may not be a piece of new information, but it very likely might be a new perspective--the view from the ground is quite different from the top of the ivory tower. Second, increasing his knowledge of books is good business for me. A more informed dealer will also be a better customer. He, in turn, will be able to better inform his own customers. This web of learning will only strengthen the world of book selling, never weaken it.

Take a moment to think of some bit of bibliosophia you might pass along to a fellow seller. I cannot doubt they will appreciate the gesture. And remember, the young book lover of today will be the one who will or will not buy your first editions when the old generation has passed to the great bookstore in the sky.

Wednesday, August 24, 2005

Chapter Twenty-Two, in which a Reader is wanted for every Book

Days with few or no people are a drag. Yet I can't help feeling full of possibility every time I walk into the store and see all the books on the shelf. "Anything can happen today."

There are people with all kinds of people with all kinds of stories. I have had some come in with purpose, determined to buy. I have had people browse for an hour and leave without anything. I have had students thirsting for classic literature. I have had elderly ladies who consume romance books. I have had obnoxious children question prices and demand to know why I don't have a particular anime title on the shelf. I have had people looking for jobs. I have had people looking to sell some books for cash so they can buy some groceries. I have had other bookstore owners, other collectors, and other local business owners. I have had numerous repeat customers. I have NOT had the mayor.

We bookstore owners often think "Do I have what my customer wants?" If we go out hunting and find books on falcons that we know would be of interest to someone, we acquire them. But let's take a look at a bookseller's life from a different perspective: "What do the books want?"

Books have their own stories, just like people. Unlike some people, books wait until they are invited to share their stories, instead of pouring out everything to anyone within earshot. I look at these books on my shelf, waiting patiently for a reader, thinking, each time someone walks through the door, "I hope they pick me!" And yet, those that aren't picked don't get discouraged, or bemoan their fate, or give up. They bear their stories between their covers and stand at attention, ever patient, ever hopeful.

"Oh, what things I can tell you," promise these books. Many times I have been drawn in by a book, once unknown to me, now discovered. And one of the greatest things about books and reading for me is that I always discover a web of connections, a map of roads less traveled, a revelation of something I didn't know I wanted or was interested in. Aptly named the bookstore called Serendipity.

So do we, as booksellers, have an obligation to find readers for our lesser-known books? When someone tells us that we have brought a little bit of culture to our tiny city, do we have a responsibility to steer people away from Robert James Waller and Jackie Collins, and guide them toward D.H. Lawrence and Thomas Hardy? Or are novels like Sons and Lovers and Jude the Obscure texts better kept secret to our brotherhood and from those who would leap after The Bridges of Madison County if it were thrown from Lemming Peak?

Saturday, August 20, 2005

Chapter Twenty-One, in which The Beggars receive a welcome Visitor

Normally, we bookstore owners are more welcoming to shoppers than visitors. Today our store was treated to a welcome visitor.

This afternoon the former owner of our store, who we will call Igor, drove over two hours with his wife just to visit. This was the first time we had met the Mrs. And they came bearing gifts: more books.

Igor is a gregarious man of wisdom and humor. His business card used to entreat people to "Come in and let's talk," and he is a prolific talker. He also is knowledgeable about book selling, and I am always eager to take in his advice. He spent over nine years nurturing his store before a fine woman gave him something better to do. The foundation of our store remains firmly his, but it has grown admirably since we purchased it.

We had lots of good talk today. He pointed out numerous books that might sell well online. We discussed what could best be called the fuzzy logic of selling and demand. We chatted about selling strategy and operations. And of course he shared some of his supply of jokes and witticisms.

A few items of note which helped to buoy our spirits: he described how he would go crazy at times when there was no one in his store; he reported that when he first started, August and September were among his slowest times, because people are spending more money on school supplies; he shared his belief that it was better to turn a book quickly for a slightly lower price than to have it sit on the shelf for a year at a higher price.

He is no longer in the bookstore business, but that doesn't mean he is no longer a book seller. He can still be found at book fairs, and he still sells a modest amount of books online. He definitely misses the daily interaction with customers, but he still enjoys the other great pleasure of the business: the hunt. That is something I too hope never to have to give up.

Thursday, August 18, 2005

Chapter Twenty, in which The Beggar goes on the Bookstore Trail -- Part the Third

Today we travel south to a college town. Wisely, we called ahead to check the hours of two stores. They would both be open after 10am.

We found the right street for our first store, Babbit's Books. However, finding the store itself was not so easy. There were hordes of eager young students moving into town, tying up traffic, and forcing the partial closure of some local streets. We circled the block twice and finally parked right in front of the book store. One thing is certain: they have a good location.

The store inside was loaded with books, all the way up to the high ceilings. The front area was given over to non-fiction, while the back held fiction and poetry. The selection had a good representation of older books, those from centuries past, with intricate bindings and folio sizings. As well, there were a good number of ex-library books, mostly in good repair. This was overall quite a nice collection.

We wandered every aisle, alert to our quarry. A young co-ed asked if she could help me find something. "Why yes," I replied casually, "I seem to have misplaced your phone number." Ah, but that is not what we are hunting today.

Without any assistance, I located a volume of Christopher Morley, and several selections on the American Revolution. Prices were very reasonable. A box of ephemera also turned up two small pamphlets on the Revolution.

At the front, two cases provided safe refuge for the pricier books, including many vintage paperbacks. The shelf inside one case had begun to topple forward, and several books were leaning against the front glass, desperate not to fall. As in the other stores, a woman sat behind the counter at a computer. This store has an impressive number of books listed for sale online. As she totalled our sale, I noticed little sticky notes inside some books, which were removed at point of sale. This, I realized after a moment, was a method for keeping track of online stock which sold through the store.

I couldn't help but wonder what booksellers of old did in between shoppers without a computer on which to list inventory, check prices, or blog to no one in particular.

So to the second store. A short drive and no trouble finding it by the large black awning outside that declared "BOOKS". The window displayed the name of the new proud owner. The store was called, simply, About Books.

What an unassuming name for such an impressive place. Here was a store of my own desire. Wide aisles with tall dark wood shelving, a display case in the center, a few lawyer's bookcases, and rows upon rows of old books. This was the most upscale shop we have visited this week, and yet the prices were not THAT upscale.

Everywhere were treasures to be found.

On the main floor, we found a few volumes to add to our private collections. Then we proceeded to the recently opened basement. Here there were similar selections, though displayed on more modest shelving. A few more volumes of Christopher Morley were found, as well as a title on book collecting. And in the corner was the working area, which was also the sale section. Gathered here, as if at a watering hole, I came upon a wide range of quality volumes, all ripe for the taking at bargain prices. I had to stop when my stack in hand reached above my chin.

At the checkout we entered into negotiations with the new owner. I had found a catalogue of the 1933 World's Fair which I already had in my collection, but which had several hand-written notes and typed schedules folded inside. I asked if she would consider selling those items alone, without the book. She said I should just take them. Then there were two book catalogues which were not priced. I kept one of them and returned the second, but once our purchase was totalled, she decided to throw in the second catalogue for nothing. If the silent partner finds out what we spent there, she might end her silence in a rather dramatic fashion.

This store also used the sticky note method to track inventory. This could be a good system for me to use in our own store, and make some of our better stock available off the shelf. We will put a motion before the board as soon as possible.

I could have spent several more hours at this store but, alas, I had to return to open my own store. After all, if I am supposed to be a seller, what am I doing buying so many? Ah, the vagaries of A Bookseller's Life.

Wednesday, August 17, 2005

Chapter Nineteen, in which The Beggar goes on the Bookstore Trail -- Part the Second

We set out in a morning haze north toward our store of the day. The store had come recommended by several people. It stood on the corner of a town known for antiques and had a reputation for taking anything in trade.

The bookmark we had from the store advertised opening time to be 9:30am, every day except Sunday. We arrived about thirty minutes early and, free of any fasting restrictions, enjoyed the treat of a fresh doughnut. Several nearby owners began opening their shops, and the church bells rang the half hour.

We waited on another tardy seller. After fifteen minutes, I set off across the street and tracks for a closer inspection. To my chagrin, the sign on the door announced the store was open only Wednesday through Saturday. I had the misfortune of possessing an out-of-date bookmark.

Since we were already on the road, and didn't like the thought of the day ending so dismally, we set out for the town we had visited on Monday, to visit the bookstore that had been closed. Once again we arrived about thrity minutes before opening, and so proceeded to the far end of town to spend the time browsing another antique emporium.

A sign directly inside the door directed people in search of books to the basement, and that's where we headed. There we found seven or eight bookcases with a hodge-podge of books from several different dealers. A few volumes caught my eye, and I selected them based on the good condition of their vintage dust jackets, all on speculation. There were more to be had, of course, on a good hunch, but our hunch budget was severely limited. Up to the main floor we went with a handful of books to continue our hunt.

Every few stalls there was a smattering of books. The main floor offered nothing special. The second floor is where we found, tucked into a corner in the shadows, a volume of Christopher Morley. In the same section we also turned up a survey of colonial American publications representative of the difference in the colonies just before the Revolution. This, too, made a nice addition to my private collection.

The pain of payment was great, but the thrill of desire greater. If any of you would help me, do not let me go out hunting again. And yet resistance is futile. This is what we do; this is who we are.

So to Books n' Bits. What looked promising from without, within was somewhat a letdown. Here was two large rooms, the first arranged with shelves merely half full of paperbacks, the second arranged mostly with tables upon which hardcovers and trades stood up in boxes, like filecards. Such a display was not browser-friendly. I looked around in vain for something appealing, something of promise to lure me into fingering through these books one by one.

For the second day, our best catches had come, not from book stores, but from antique stores. But this will not deter us from following our plans for another day.

One thing we have learned, and would suggest to any other book hunter who would roam far afield: call for hours of operation before heading to any book store. We should have known better, as even our own hours have recently changed. And yet, if the first store had been open today, would events ever have led us to the antique store where we found our biggest prize?

Tuesday, August 16, 2005

Chapter Eighteen, in which The Beggar goes on the Bookstore Trail -- Part the First

We decided to take a little tour of the bookstores in the surrounding area this week. Each day we will provide an account of our adventure. Monday (Day One) went like this:

The day dawned with sun and a blue sky painted with brushstroke clouds. We were on our way some fifty miles to a store that reportedly had discounts every Monday morning. I thought I was told they opened at seven. We arrived at eight. Either we were given the wrong information, or we heard it wrong, or we had found the wrong store.

The Book Market bills itself as a Paperback Sales and Trading Center with over 100,000 new and used books. Through the window could be seen a six-foot pile of books ready to topple over at the bump of a spider. This business had obviously been thriving for the last twenty-eight years. The hunting grounds looked promising.

With two hours to enjoy before the store opened, a daily newspaper came in handy. And what better time to find a small cafe and relax with a cup of coffee and a muffin, and maybe read whatever book we have at hand? Unfortunately, a health checkup scheduled for later in the day required that we fast for the morning, and we hadn't brought any books with us, because we were going to get some. It's a good thing the newspaper is filled with plenty of irrelevant stuff.

A lady strolled into the store about ten minutes after the posted opening time. Inside we discovered more books than could reasonably fill the alloted space. The main room contained six rows of approximately fifty feet of shelves, filled, with books lined across the floor in front of each aisle, and books stacked on top of those. In a back room another ten aisles of about twelve feet each was likewise overflowing. Again each aisle had piles of books on the floor, one had a small mound that had either toppled over at some earlier date, or had simply been created out of frustration, and the last aisle had boxes piled over the head to one side, limiting admittance to the Thin Man.

The selection is heavy on paperbacks and fiction. We happened upon a paperback edition of The Wizard of Oz, containing critical essays and the original drawings, which was just what one of our clients was looking for.

So, to make our purchase. Behind the counter loomed the great mountain of books. The lady had been working dilligently on them, but it seemed like a hopeless task, and I wondered where one would even begin to process all the books waiting to be properly shelved. One can only imagine what gold a miner might dig out from within that mountain. But, alas, it is far too prone to avalanche, and the risk too great. We pay for our book, and thank Gutenburg to have escaped with our lives.

Back on the road, and to another town off the highway where two bookstores await. This is a town with a mild reputation for antiques, and an appropriate quaint downtown section. It is here, within two blocks of one another, and the city library, where we will hunt next.

The first store turns out to be closed on Mondays. The second store is on the corner, with a narrow A-sign on the sidewalk to lure us in. From outside it has a clean, upscale look, quite different from our first stop.

Buy the Book offers a wide selection of items as well as books, such as greeting cards, accessories, stationery, and art supplies. They have a mix of new and used books, and the selection is thin and shallow. What is available for purchase is nicely displayed.

Near the register there is a shelf with "Old Books" and that is where we head first. There is nothing spectacular there, although I did spot a herd of Sabatini volumes. One book did appeal, an historical biographical look at emminent Europeans, and the price was right, so we decided to buy it on speculation.

The one unique feature of this store is that it apparently is in an old bank building, so behind those heavy vault doors is, appropriately enough, The Book Vault. Inside this small space are most of the used books, but the total footage is perhaps only twenty feet. The remainder of the store space is occupied by new books and the other merchandise.

The day's scheduled stops were now complete. But before we made it out of town, an antique store was spotted in the bushes along the side of the road, and we veered off to take a closer look.

Ol' Fiddle Stix is your common conglomerate of dealers under one roof. There was a smattering of books seen napping here and there, but nothing of interest. Then at last, leafing through some old magazines, we uncovered a catalogue of Official Photographs from the 1933 Century of Progress World's Fair. What a feeling of euphoria to locate something new for one's private collection! And, best of all, at a reasonable price. A fortuitous finale to our first day of bookstore hopping.

Saturday, August 13, 2005

Chapter Seventeen, in which an Interlude of Quotations appears

"The greatest public benefactor is the man distributing good books."
--William E. Gladstone

Books are quiet. They do not dissolve into wavy lines or snowstorm effects. They do not pause to deliver commercials. they are three-dimensional, having length, breadth and depth. They are convenient to handle and completely portable."
--Lucia Mouat

When you sell a man a book you don't sell him just twelve ounces of paper and ink and glue--you sell him a whole new life."
--Christopher Morley in "Parnassus on Wheels

Saturday, August 6, 2005

Chapter Sixteen, in which The Beggars celebrate another good Hunt

As we stood in a long line of people waiting to get in to last night's venue, I realised that booksales (locally at least) are one of the few places remaining in America where people can go carrying suitcases and big duffel bags and totes and not be searched or subjected to interrogation. Let's hope we don't lose that liberty.

The results of the sale look very good. Despite the Silent Partner's feeling that there was nothing special, we brought home several hard-to-find and classy items. There is a review copy of a scholarly book on psychology; a special edition Merck; a virtually unknown book on Celtic Mysteries; and two more boxfuls of items to sell online.

Inside the store we have added a huge volume in slipcase on wine, several banned books, as well as some nice modern first edition fiction.

Our personal collections had some additions as well, highlighted by a folio on the Revolutionary War, and a special edition Bicentennial Almanac.

Finally, since it seems one can always find another good book, there will be more hunting tomorrow and later in the week.

Friday, August 5, 2005

Chapter Fifteen, in which an unexpected Guest appears in the Store

A new window display goes up this morning. We have removed the travel books, of which several sold. In their place goes a Back-to-School theme: textbooks, books on education, books for teachers, and references. We have a college in town, which has an acclaimed nursing program, so we hope to derive some sales from there, and we have focused on stocking any material which nursing students will need or find valuable in their education.

While dusting off the shelves and corners, i tiny little lizard leaped from an artificial plant. Where he came from, or why he found the plant so inviting I don't know. Perhaps he was surviving on spiders found in the cracks at night. He brought a smile to my face, and I escorted him safely across the street and into the foliage where I hope he will live a long and uneventful life.

Wednesday, August 3, 2005

Chapter Fourteen, in which a Client builds a private Collection

We now have our first client who wants us to help her build a collection.

About two weeks ago she came to us with a long list of titles in the Value Tales series of books for children. We did not have any on the shelf, so we helped her order five titles. Some of those have arrived and some (though I'm not sure exactly why) have not. In the mean time, I uncovered a box of several more titles in the warehouse which I didn't even know we had. So our client came in again today to purchase those titles we found. And she officially declared that she is looking to collect them all, and wants our help. We even discovered that there is a difference in sizes--she only wants the smaller--and difference in condition--she wants only fine copies, and seems likely to take what she can get when she can, and then trade up if something better comes along, just like a well-seasoned collector.

The best part about building a collection for someone is that we have nearly guaranteed sales.

Tuesday, August 2, 2005

Chapter Thirteen, in which Youngsters are encouraged to try this at Home

Bookselling will always be around in some form--it will never completely die out. But how to keep it vital? Someone I read recently said we have to get more young people involved to keep the business alive , growing, and thriving. Here are some thoughts as to how to do this:

1. Bookseller Fantasy Camp. It's done in sports all the time. A bunch of old-timers or wannabes pay to spend a week pretending to be a real athlete. Why couldn't a prominent seller like Fred Bass of The Strand do the same thing? Bring people to his store for a week and put them through the whole deal of selling, buying, supervising, cataloguing. Maybe he will offer me a discount on the first one, since it's my idea?

2. Television Coverage of Book Auctions. Look what television has down for Texas Holdem Poker. Coverage of major events, with pieces about various buyers, as well as the owners and estates, could create a real buzz. Competition around the gavel is as fierce as on any gridiron.

3. A Major Ad Campaign. Pork: the Other White Meat. Got Milk? Beef: It's What's For Dinner. These are all successful campaigns run by overseeing organizations for the benefit of everyone in that particular field. Why not the same sort of thing sponsored by the American Bookseller's Association? Picture this: Angelina Jolie luring readers and collectors with the line, "Books are sexy." Martha Stewart (or Bob Vila or a gang of Trading Spaces designers) assuring young home buyers and old redecorators that "Books make a house a home."

4. Reality Television. Dump seven book buyers into the middle of Hay-on-Wye with one thousand dollars in hand and see who comes out with the biggest bargains. One week they search for Dickens association copies, the next for signed Woolfs, another they must make the best restoration of a damaged book, and so forth.

Other ideas are brewing, but I will hold off on revealing them until I pursue them a bit myself. Until then, if anyone else has more, better, or expanding ideas, let's hear them.

Chapter Twelve, in which personal Collections are celebrated

Back in 1933, Grandpa Buerchner made a scrapbook of A Century of Progress World's Fair. Newspaper clippings, tickets, brochures, and the official program were among the articles included. It was made in a homey/crafty way, not professional by any means, and with his own personal touch. Somehow it became mine, and I have kept it despite having any special interest in that fair, or World's Fairs in general, though I can appreciate the beauty of the buildings that have survived (such as the Field Museum). I kept it with the feeling that it was a genuine account from that time, and it was something that Grandpa made, and so that little bit of him (among others) remains with me.

What prompts book collectors to collect the books they do? Why does one favor Lincoln and his generals over Lee and his? Why falcons and not eagles? Why pop-up books but not lift-the-flap books? Usually there is some passion for the subject (such as Newton's fondness for everything Johnson), and often there is a seminal event that sparks the desire or lays the foundation. Whatever the motivation, a good collection is well-defined, sharply focused, and the more unique it is, the more valuable it is. Collectors of Lincoln are everywhere, which does not mean those collections are not of value to their collectors. But, unless we are talking about something famous, the collection of pop-up books would likely command more interest on the open market.

I first decided to begin collecting something in particular (as opposed to just building a general library) after reading Parnassus on Wheels and The Haunted Bookshop, both by Christopher Morley. I gathered up whatever copies I could find (that were also within my budget). The jump to all things written by Morley was easy. Now, (does it just seem this way or is it real?) I rarely find books by Morley in the places I used to. Because of which the successful hunt is each time more rewarding than before. A chance acquisition of a few other first editions has put a couple other authors on my list to collect, new authors who amount to pure speculation as far as value goes, but lots of reading pleasure. Inspired by a friend's interest in the foundations of the United States, I began collecting books on the American Revolution--not yet sharply focused, but still in the building stages and fun.

Recently I wondered what else I might collect, as the appetite for such madness only grows when fed. Perusing my books, I realised I already possessed the basis for a new collection, one that is well-defined, sharply focused, and that I have not heard about before (though my hearing might not be all that good any more). Grandpa's scrapbook is the first piece, one which no one else in the world has. By luck, two catalogues from the fair had also fallen into my possession through the purchase of the stock of another bookstore. And just to confirm my decision, and make it official, I bid on two more pieces (only one of which I won). Thus a new collection is formed, and a relationship with my Grandpa continues.