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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.

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