Wednesday, June 30, 2010
In thirteen years of bookselling we've never wandered too far afield to a book sale. But June 20th was our (insert improbably high number and add "th" to the end) wedding anniversary, so we decided to celebrate in Cincinnati, a city about four hours south. The idea was to visit the art museum, see a play, have one spectacular dinner, hike in one of the parks by the river, and visit the Rookwood pottery. But then on a whim I decided just for fun to see if there were any book sales in the Queen City during our stay.
All it took was a few clicks to find it -- a huge sale at a middle school on the east side of the city. Goodbye Mariott Hotel. Goodbye art museum. Goodbye play, goodbye entire day. Goodbye wind in our hair, goodbye tourists everywhere…
Eric protested mildly, but soon saw the advantage of a working holiday -- part of the trip was now tax deductible. That’s a good thing, but the really good thing was the sale. We stayed at the Hampton Inn about three miles away and were in line by 7:30 the following morning. Start time was 10:00 a.m., but these days it’s nothing to stand for three hours at a book sale so there were already five or six people waiting when we pulled into the parking lot. Immediately I spotted a familiar purple car and laughed out loud. One of my favorite sellers from home had made the trek too! Sure enough, his bags were at the front and he was around the corner of the building reading, a noble occupation for any true bookseller/bibliophile. I indulge in it myself sometimes at sales, but the sun was shining and I was so excited I felt like I’d swallowed Mexican jumping beans.
The very first item I chose was the best – a turn-of-the-century Japanese book fashioned from lovely paper tied with purple silk. Inside, full-page color photos of life in Japan made my heart skip a beat. This one deserves its own post, so we’ll talk about it later. I mention it now only because it launched one of the most enjoyable sales we’ve ever attended. The volunteers at the Anderson Township Library system of Cincinnati, Ohio’s annual book sale are uncommonly friendly with nary a Book Nazi in the bunch. They also constitute a cast of thousands, all of whom know how to run a first class sale. You would think most sale givers would eventually figure this out, but it’s been our experience that they do NOT. Most either allow the sale to be picked over in advance, and/or -- mostly and-- deem common books special and price them through the roof, overprice damaged books equally outlandishly, and have no system for safe book storage.
By securing the large space at the middle school the Anderson Township volunteers avoided stress by insuring that the large crowd would disperse among the many tables. Everything was also CLEAN, nicely sorted, and visibly priced and – oh happy day! – they even had a system for making sure you left with the books you chose. At most sales I stagger under the weight of my selections, get trapped in corners, desperately try to stake out a place for our stash, and then have to constantly watch it to make sure no one takes it. But at this sale as soon as they saw you carrying a couple books they relieved you of the burden, put your name on the pile, and held them for you in the center of their several islands of tables.
Book procurement in the 21st century is not for the faint of heart. It’s more like a land grab than a scholarly pursuit, so to find an oasis of gentility was worth the loss of both the art museum and the pottery. It restorethed my soul. And the one spectacular dinner didn’t hurt either.
Wednesday, June 23, 2010
Many posts ago a local librarian asked me why I had the word cat in my blog title when I never mentioned the cat. Of course it didn't take much to remedy THAT sin of omission, but now it's been brought to my attention that I never mention art and art is in the title too. I love art and even play at something my husband generously refers to as art, but Mary Cassatt I am not. However, now that I've been nudged, I've decided to write about my, shall we say "creative outlet", not only to fulfill the art thing, but because it ties into my love of ephemera and a problem ephemera can pose for book and paper sellers.
Vintage magazines, catalogs, diaries, letters, postcards, brochures, pamphlets, luggage labels, etc. can be purchased by the piece, in collections, and in lots at auction. The problem with the latter is that not all items sold in box lots are of equal value or interest. For example, I may bid to get a stunning catalog featuring atriums from the 1920's and a brochure showing the configuration of various Pullman berths in railroad cars. But along with the goodies I end up with a boatload of torn magazine pages, damaged postcards, stained invitations, and parts of dance cards. None are saleable and yet to throw them away seems like tossing history in the wastebasket. What then to do?
For ten years my answer had been to mindlessly save it all until suddenly I found myself with two huge plastic Rubbermaid tubs overflowing with the stuff. An idea for something had been rattling around in my head, but it seemed sort of sacriligious. Ever since we went to Vermont and I saw at the Shelbourne Museum the charming Hannah Davis bandboxes which Hannah covered with wallpaper and sold to the mill girls in New England, I'd wanted to put a new/old spin on bandboxes. My idea was to skip the wallpaper and use vintage paper, new paper, mixed media, and even "hardware" to create bandboxes with texture, hopefully beauty, and a sense of fun. But to do this meant tearing up the "pieces parts" I'd been saving. Finally, after much sorting and resorting of items it occurred to me that many dealers would have tossed the lot at the start. Could it be that if a portion is saved by transformation, that's a good thing? Yes. Maybe. And so the new/old bandboxes were born.
Above I have posted photos of one made previously and given as a gift to my friend Jessica, who is the quintessential beach girl. What you see is comprised of layers of tissue paper, napkins, sandpaper, ribbed corrugated, paint, part of a letter, advertising, newspaper, a Victorian die-cut and a section from an old greeting card. Though I don't have a picture of it to show you, an earlier box incorporated advertising for a shoe-shine apparatus called a Dandi-Shiner which went to my friend and writer's group compatriot, Dandi Mackall.
In the end, I think it's okay to use old paper to make altered books, boxes, and any other forms of artwork as long as nothing of historical value is defaced. The flotsam and jetsom of our lives tell the story of our culture. To save it, even in scraps, is a gift to future generations.
Wednesday, June 16, 2010
As things have a way of doing, the Chinese autograph book reminded me of another cool thing I want to show you. This one's an old ledger from Sandusky, Ohio dating from the late 1880's. I wish I could take credit for it, but it's Eric who bought it and he who taught me how to read it. Being a bit number phobic despite the efforts of my dear friend Sunday Morning Joe, who is still here after all these years, I tend to run screaming into the night at the sight of column upon column of numerals, marching along page after endless page.
"Why is this so interesting? Tell me!" I pleaded, as Eric hunched over the small leather book the second we got home from the flea market. He looked like Sherlock Holmes poring over clues.
Turns out, he WAS like Sherlock Holmes poring over clues. Who'd have thought it -- the dreaded numbers can actually tell a story! The trick is to watch the dates, look for repetitive purchases, and pick out the unusual ones. Think about holidays and see how, or if, they alter spending patterns. Ask yourself, "What do these purchases tell me about the lifestyle of the ledger keeper? What do they tell me about his values, his economic situation, and his pleasures?" Bearing all this in mind, I took my turn with the small leather book and met young William Stein and his family.
As it happened, Mr. Stein bought the book on Oct. 8, 1883 and paid the Hamilton & Schumacher Company fifty cents for it, but never used it until 1885. Right away it's evident by the amount of butter, sausage, lard, eggs, biscuits and beer purchased that his wife Anna served hearty meals. They ate by the season though so summer brought "straw berries", " water melon", tomatoes, grapes and once ten "pine apples" for a dollar, which seems a bit exotic given the area, though they may not have been the Hawaiian kind. At the story's start William and Anna had one child, Lillie, for whom they bought a bedstead for $4.75, several dolls, a Humpty Dumpty, a pair of shoes and a book.
They didn't own their own home, but they did have a house on Tiffin Avenue and paid $4 a month in rent, $18.00 for 30 tons of coal to heat it, and $1.25 for ice to keep the food from spoiling. They also had no private land transportation, so they took the streetcar and sometimes rented a buggy when needed. Being close to Lake Erie though they did have a boat and William paid $1.00 to keep it on someone's lot over the winter. Life was good with tickets to Cedar Point, an amusement park which still packs in the crowds in Sandusky to this day, to music halls to hear German bands, and once to see a Spanish troubadour. There were firecrackers, flags, and torpedoes for the Fourth of July, and a turkey for Thanskgiving with wine and even French brandy. Christmas brought a live tree for 65 cents, lots of candles, and walnuts and spices (citron, allspice, cardamom, and cinnamon) for baking.
Along about that first Christmas though several visits to the doctor and repeated unexplained expenditures for medicine popped up and continued into the New Year of 1886, only trickling down to nothing after July when a new baby, a boy named Eddie, arrived. For the delivery William paid the midwife, Mrs. Schneider, $6.00 and also forked over seventy cents for a laundress while his wife recovered. After that there was lots of "soothing syrup" purchased, but the question of who needed to be soothed is up for grabs. Was it a colicky baby? An exhausted Anna? A jealous little sister no longer the star of the show, or Papa William kept awake by noisy nocturnal feedings? Whatever the case, by the time the holidays rolled around "soothing syrup" was off the list and William seemed content as he logged in $7.83 for "Christmas presents for my wife and children."
The Stein family rang in the New Year of 1887 with beer, candy, sausage and yams, blissfully unaware of the changes awaiting them. But in March hand-drawn crosses bracket the notation that Grandmother died on the 17th at the age of 81. William
and his family paid $2.00 towards the flowers on the 18th and then buried her on the
20th at a cost of $2.75. The next month he noted that Mr. C. W. Byington had moved into the family's rented home and would be paying a dollar a month for his room. Maybe the new baby had strained the budget, or perhaps he was only helping out a friend. But either way, William still played his harmonica, enjoyed his beer, and bought the occasional book.
The story abruptly ends in 1888 (no more pages) with the arrival of a third child, a boy, born at 4:55 a.m. October 25th. The brown calf boards close, protecting a fragment of an ordinary German-American midwestern family's life in the late 19th century.
It's alway been magical to me the way stories lurk everywhere we go and in everything we touch. But it took my husband's eye and William Stein's careful records to show me that sometimes they can hide even in the scariest places!
Monday, June 14, 2010
In my last post I mentioned an autograph book from Chester, Connecticut we acquired as part of a collection. Ever since, I've found myself thinking about it until nothing would do but I find it again, buried in a pile of books yet to be listed. It's a dark, dreary day and the battered old black book beckoned like a ship filled with exotic spices and rare silks. Who had owned it and why are there so many photos of young Chinese men mixed in with those of Yankees from both Chester and Hoadley, Massachusetts?
The year it began was 1878 and most entries are from that time, but a few date from 1881-82 and one from 1901. A few pages also appear to be missing, so if there was ever an ownership page it has long since fluttered away, leaving in its wake a mystery now more than a century old. Beneath a photo of a young Chinese man is written "Portrait of Uncle Y.C. Wong", oddly dated 1901, but not located on the last page as one would expect since it's the most recent entry and the only one not signed by the person in the picture. A few pages later I found another photo, undated, which reads "Your cousin, Lew Yuk Lin, Xaing Shan, China." So then. The owner of the book was Chinese, most likely male.
Because the entries by Chinese men are scattered among those of New Englanders it took a second reading to notice something else. While many of the Chinese entries state both Chinese and American locations, all of the ones dated 1881 are signed with only a Chinese address and almost all make reference to Christmas Eve.
"Such is life, F.W. Loo, Sinn Wai, China, Christmas Eve 1881".
"Remember your first Christmas in Tientsin, Che Sun Chu, Canton, China December 24, 1881."
I had been vaguely wondering whether Chester's river location and shipbuilding history played a role in the presence of these young Chinese men in New England, but the reference to Christmas suddenly seemed like a game changer. Quickly I googled "American missionary activity China 19th century" and sure enough up popped an article explaining an evangelical fervor to convert the Chinese to Christianity. It sprang from the work of Hudson Taylor who had arrived in China in 1854 at the age of twenty-one under the auspices of the Chinese Evangelization Society. Six years later he was back in England in poor health, but with no slackening of religious zeal. Article after article flowed from his pen inspiring legions of missionaries from both England and the United States to head for Asia. Could it be that the book owner's family back in China had been converted and then sent their son to America to train as a missionary himself?
The answer of course is elusive, forever lost to time. But the fact that the last photo was added thirty years after the first ones made me think that whether he was part of the Protestant missionary movement, or not, he did not return to China to live. Then again, maybe he did and the last photo was added by someone else and the book's original owner was none other than Uncle Y.C. Wong!
Of course my first guess might also have been right and the owner had descended from a Chinese sailor who had signed on to an American whaler or come to work in Chester’s shipyards. Since immigration from China was not prohibited until 1882, this was legally possible even though Chinese sailors were not as plentiful as those from Portugal and Cape Verde and I could find no reference to Chinese shipbuilders in Chester. Or maybe, as so many Chinese immigrants did, this family had arrived on American shores hoping to find work constructing the transcontinental railroad.
Reluctantly, I closed the book resigned to not knowing. There’s a peculiar sadness in that of course, but the little black book imparts an important lesson. We can't rely on technology to serve as a bridge to the distant future. Blogs, emails and digital photos can all be lost in a heartbeat. If we are to meet the next century and insure that it meets us we have to leave a hard copy. Though I never learned the name or the fate of my book owner, I met him nonethless in the admiration of his many friends. I, for one, would very much like to be met like that. Wouldn't you?
Thursday, June 10, 2010
There's nothing like buying a large collection of books to rev up the internal engine. For weeks after we've boxed and trucked it home I'm up before the crack of dawn to get the orders wrapped so I can poke around in the boxes and play with the books. Collections tend to contain a motley mix of the good, the VERY good, the bad, and the downright ugly, largely because we make it a rule not to cherry pick and leave the previous owner with a bunch of duds that can't be sold. We offer one price for the lot and deal with it as it comes. Sure, it's a lot of work -- imagine the summer we had 35,000 volumes! -- but it's good work, fun work, work that's not really work at all, though I'm sure if he were looking over my shoulder Eric would have something to say about THAT. The division of labor around here goes something like this -- I'm The Decider and he's the Book Mover.
Anyway, our current collection was bought in April after the antiquarian show in Akron where we, along with all the other dealers, were approached by a man needing to sell his mother's books. He'd moved them from Connecticut, but was now himself moving out of state and having nightmares at the thought of hauling them a second time. It's a relatively small collection of 2000 volumes, give or take, mostly focused on early American history, New England history, and genealogy. What keeps it interesting is the occasional surprise -- an old blacksmith's ledger from the
1850's, an autograph album with tinted photos of teenagers from Chester, Connecticut in the 1870's, made all the more fascinating by the addition of pictures and signatures of young Chinese men living in China!
Like all collections, this one is not without its quirks. I actually found it sort of charming that two whole boxes contained nothing but commmon books by Kenneth Roberts, six or seven of each title, a testament to the collector's admiration for her favorite author. Fortunately, there was one rare title in the mix -- but of course there was only one copy of it -- which we already sold to an antiquarian dealer in Germany. We also have lots of customers at the store who can't get enough of Roberts, so it's easy to be magnanimous about the excess.
What I am NOT finding charming, however, is the quirk pictured in the photo to the left. Don't for a minute think it's photo-op I set up, or a nuisance confined to a few books. I swear on a stack of Harvard Classics that absolutely every single one of the 2000 books is stuffed with slips of paper and post-it notes. Every. Single. One.
Don't get me wrong -- I am very grateful to have this collection, but I'm struggling to find an upside to the post-it notes. The best I can do is this. By buying these wonderful books I learned something very important which I will pass along. Post-it notes are not always compatible with certain kinds of paper. The only salvation is the hair dryer to slowly loosen them without damaging the pages. Very soon I'll be at Target shopping for a new hair dryer though. Our old Conair burned out this morning.
Monday, June 07, 2010
Ever since kindergarten when it became apparent that there are gradations of perfection in coloring and pasting I've been a Type A obsessive workaholic, so the fact that these traits have followed me into my fifth decade (okay, almost sixth, but let's not talk about it) is probably no big surprise. I do bookselling like I do everything else -- by total immersion. So to take a weekend off to go to Michigan to see our oldest daughter and her family, whom I love beyond words, is a classic push-pull situation if ever there was one.
We hit the road early last Saturday, Eric looking ahead to the festivities and me fretting over not shipping orders. But, as always, as soon as he popped an audiobook into the CD player at the Ohio Turnpike I was transported to Michigan mode. The problem with Michigan mode is that I'm fine as long as there's nonstop activity, but give me some downtime and I'm on Moira's laptop checking to see what's happening in the book world. This time I did pretty well though. No sneak peaks until after Tyler's soccer game, we'd swung on the swings at the park, visited with Mary, Moira's mother-in-law, and Dylan at age one had been hugged, kissed and played with until he fell asleep face down on the family room floor from sheer granny exhaustion. Only then did I log into my web server to check my email. Four orders from ABE, one from alibris ....
"Don't do that, Gran! We're ordering pizza and I want you to watch Karate Kid with me."
One look at Tyler's six year old face puckered with consternation and I closed the laptop without even confirming the orders and put in my own order for a veggie with everything. By the time the pizza arrived and the movie was ready to roll, even Baby was ready to party. I never thought of the books again until I was ensconced in the guest room several hours later without a book to read. In the throes of my early morning angst over not shipping I'd forgotten to pack my book. I could borrow one, but I knew from past experience that the offerings on Warwick Drive were confined to the definitive works of Anne McCaffrey and Nora Roberts. Given THAT, what could a bookseller do but contemplate the precarious future of bookselling until she fell asleep?
The next thing I knew Moira was at the bedroom door informing us that the tornado sirens had sounded and we needed to hit the basement -- NOW. So off we flew, two sleeping little boys in tow, to sit on the old leather couches in our jammies and watch omnious red splotches on the TV screen. By the time we got an all-clear forty-five minutes later I was quietly freaking out. A year ago we'd had a mini-flood and lost some of our inventory. What was happening in Ohio? Torrential rain? Tornadoes? A plague of locusts? HELP! I NEED TO GO HOME NOW!
Back in the guest room I inwardly had two nervous breakdowns and one general meltdown while Eric snored beside me. "Do you think everything's okay at home?" I whispered when I couldn't stand another second of solitary hysteria.
The fact that he answered immediately was less than comforting. "I don't know. It crossed my mind that we could have trouble."
I thought about the flood, books floating, the roto-thingy guys stopping work to argue over who was going to kill a #$%@% spider .... Oh God. We need to go HOME! But then I thought of Dylan's birthday party the next day. My sweet baby turning one. How often will THAT happen? If the books were going to get wet they were probably already wet, so going home wouldn't change a thing. Yes, but the mess and the not knowing was too awful... Back and forth it went until around two a.m. when a baby who smiles like Charlie Brown trumped the books, wet or dry.
In the end I decided to pull a Scarlett O'Hara and not think about it until after the party. And for once that's exactly what I did which is how I came to have these cute pictures. As for what went on in northeastern Ohio while I was fretting about biblical weather -- nothing.
Thursday, June 03, 2010
My love affair with ebay has been over since the big 2008 restructuring, yet I have hung on tenaciously, perpetually hoping that this change, or that one, would restore balance to our relationship. Then in March 2010 they announced that all sellers, whether they offered Buy It Now listings, maintained a store, or conducted auctions would get equal visibility. Right on cue the sultry voice of Etta James crooned "At Last" in my ear as I waltzed around my office intoxicated with joy. So much joy, in fact, that I sprang for a premium store.
Never mind that previously I had been promised the moon for having a Top Rated Seller Badge only to wind up with not even a crumb of green cheese. But really, I asked myself, what did a tiny betrayal like that matter in the larger framework of love? Nothing! Just a little blip. Ebay had erred and was now ready to attone. Besides, ebay and I had a HISTORY. We'd connected immediately the first day I opened my store and within no time were a power couple. I even had the little icon to prove it.
But enough of the past. Launch day was in April, so early that morning I fired up the computer. Voila! Three nice sales rained down like a fountain of champagne. "We're back!" I shouted over the phone in my husband's ear. "WE'RE BACK!" Yes, we were back all right -- for about three days and then we really fell back -- to nothing. I downgraded to a basic store and waited out the rest of the month. Had it not been for a three volume history of Martha's Vineyard and a collection of WWI pamphlets it would have been the worst month in my history with ebay. As it turned out, it was the second worst month.
At first I was shell-shocked. Then I sprang into action, typing in my own book titles only to be informed that there were zero copies. A little message flashed to alert me of a close match, then disappeared, sending me down, down, down past the list of ads where I discovered that it was actually an EXACT match and -- are you surprised?-- it was MINE. And so, just like that, ebay and I broke up.
My feedback and my Top Rated seller ribbon are still there because ebay gives you 30 days to reconsider. But truly there's nothing to reconsider. The fact is I'm tired of the endless changes and rules, the stress, the rising rates billed as the lowest ever, the betrayals both large and small, and the paternalistic attitude that sapped the lifeblood out of what had once been fun.
Besides, I'm already seeing somebody new. It's not serious yet, but I am reasonably committed and hopeful, if for no other reason than the fact that this one at least has a sense of humor!
Wednesday, June 02, 2010
Eric and I have been online booksellers for thirteen years, but the 2010 NOBS (Northern Ohio Bibliophilic Society) book fair in Akron marked the first time we packed up the treasures and put them on exhibit. Each year we were asked whether we would set up a booth, but always I demurred, mumbling something about it being “too hard on the books.” The truth was much blunter -- I flat-out wasn’t ready.
I had devoured enough books about bookselling in the grand old tradition to know that even being a voracious reader does not bestow qualification. The bookseller’s path is long and arduous with few markers along the way to measure enlightenment. Even now I haven’t a clue whether or not I know enough, primarily because I still can’t define “enough.” All I know is that this year when the application arrived I felt like maybe it was okay to show up and hang a shingle.
Whenever I try to describe the show itself it’s easy to veer toward the histrionic, so I’m going to make a big effort to contain myself here. Let’s just say that, for me, the fair was a giant coming of age party. From the moment I stood back and admired our books all shined up and ready for perusal I was zapped with an endorphin jolt that lasted the entire two days. Think Christmas when you’re six, falling in love, the arrival of your children, skyrockets on the Fourth of July -- and then put a party hat on the whole shebang and pop a champagne cork. Better yet, just imagine yourself in orbit!
From the first sale of the show, School Architecture; Or Contributions to the Improvement of Schoolhouses in the United States, to the last, a first edition Mark Twain, we engaged in conversations that ranged from my crush on Elbert Hubbard to the Lost Generation with a leisurely segue into Salvador Dali’s cookbook and the beauty of machining catalogs from the 1920’s. What exquisite pleasure it was to turn off the internet for awhile and connect in person with readers, among whom I discovered two online customers, one from Georgia, and the other from right next door in Wadsworth.
In several ways the fair reminds me of that famous line attributed to Goethe, “Boldness has genius, power, and magic in it.” In today’s electronic world it is supremely bold to offer three-dimensional books for sale in their time-honored state, yet powerful too, as we quietly assert the need to hold the wisdom of the human continuum in the palms of our hands. As for magic, the books themselves are magical to those who love them. Books inform, entertain, comfort, embolden and inspire us. But I must admit that I did notice one other sneaky little magical aspect that is a bit less lofty. Books that are packed up to go to the fair, no matter how long they’ve hung around, are imbued with immense desirability for online customers once inside a packing crate. Ditto on the return of the unsold ones. But transfer those same books from the packing crates to their former shelves and –poof! – no more fairy dust until next year.
Tuesday, June 01, 2010
I knew I would not be winning any perfect attendance awards, but I was shocked when a.) I could not remember how to access my own blog and b.) I finally got on it only to find that the last time I wrote was September, 2008. Oh, the water under the dam since then! Or is it over the dam? I never can remember that damn phrase, but no matter -- I'm here now resolving to be more constant than in the past.
Perhaps the best thing to do is to catch up (like anyone remembers what needs catching up on). I am still a bookseller -- thirteen years now -- a writer finally dabbling with a novel, and Gran to a new baby boy named Dylan who just flew in from Korea on angel wings in April to join his big brother Tyler who somehow got to be six despite my fervent wish for him to stay small. Since I last wrote we also bought several large book collections, most of which are gone now, and I was asked to be a board member for NOBS, acronym for the Northern Ohio Bibliophilic Society. The latter is so very pleasing to me, a sort of rite of passage which makes me feel less of a wannabe and more of a player in the world of serious bookselling.
Of course the world of books has turned on its ear since I last wrote, but then the whole WORLD has turned on its ear, so why shouldn't the book world keep it company? Sometimes I am as afraid as I was in September 2008 when I wrote the last blog about cooking for the kids running the Obama campaign here in Medina. But mostly I try to be hopeful about the world, the babies, the books and the future. That's all we can do I guess -- have hope, share both the bounty and the necessities, and enjoy life's pleasures even though there are e-books and free books, electronic readers and all sorts of new gadgetry that may put me out of business. I will comment on them later, but suffice it to say that for now I am happy to still be a bookseller of the "old school" with a little help from technology and my younger daughter's marketing degree -- which, I might add -- was paid for by the BOOKS.
So, anyway, I'm back and hoping to stay a little longer this time. There's always an endless pot of coffee -- black and hot the way God intended -- and endless things to talk about. So if anyone wants to join me please do. I'll even provide sugar and cream if needed.