Sunday, August 29, 2010

Working With Max

Just so you know upfront -- my blog is not about to be renamed Books, Art, Life and a Dog. I am strictly a cat woman, but I find myself at the moment sharing my office with a very large boxer named Max. Initially it was an uneasy alliance which I agreed to only because my daughter is in her friend’s wedding this weekend and she and her boyfriend are here for the festivities. They arrived late Friday afternoon, got all gussied up, and immediately made tracks for the rehearsal and its accompanying dinner, leaving me alone with the formidably large Max. I had met Max once before when Caitie and Joe were in college and Caitie brought him for a visit, memorable mostly for its short duration. The late, great Mickey took one look at Max and ricocheted off the walls.

But now Mickey is gone, Max is back, and we are left to make the best of it. While I am not by any means panting (pardon the pun, but this dog sounds like a heavy breather on the phone in the middle of the night) for a boxer of my own, I have to admit that Max is actually okay. As dogs go, he’s a real mensch. He sits when you tell him to, gets off the couch when you say “Down, Max!”, shows a remarkable talent for catching flying food in his mouth, and follows me around like a puppy. In fact, we’ve bonded so well that in less than 24 hours he’s shown me two extravagant gestures of affection. Last night he terrorized the pizza delivery man for me. The poor guy stood at the bottom of the steps and held the box out to me, an inconvenience which forced me to go most of the way down, holding Max at bay while juggling pizza and payment, but I completely understood his fright. You’d have thought from the cacophony of barking and growling that I was being protected from a serial killer.

Then this morning I answered the phone, sat down to take the call, and wound up with a 78 pound dog in my lap. There were also two instances of him racing around the backyard only to crash head first into the screen on the patio door, but we won’t get into that. Dogs live large – I get this, I even admire it -- but there’s something so restful about an aloof, lazy cat.

Having worked all day with the Heavy Breather, who is at last sleeping on the guest room bed, I’ve made a few additional observations. Large dogs do not work well in small offices surrounded by teetering piles of books. Large dogs seem to slip around on hardwood floors like wannabe ice skaters. And – here’s the deal breaker -- large dogs (or at least this large dog) do not seem to have a natural affinity for books. A cat will climb delicately over the piles, jump in the boxes, play hide and seek in the shelves, stretch out languorously on a folio sized art book and take a nap, and when all else fails, ignore you. Dogs demand regular care and attention and whimper and whine until they get it. Cats also possess — and this includes the late, great Mickey, who had decidedly thuggish characteristics – the soul of a poet. Large dogs (or at least this large dog) have the soul of an athlete, which I guess in its way has a certain poetic quality too.

Nevertheless, there are many, many very good reasons why booksellers have traditionally opted for cats. Max explained all of them to me this weekend.

Friday, August 27, 2010

Book Inscriptions: Whispers From the Pages

Today I am blatantly borrowing from an idea that Kristian Strom of Bookthink, nicely wrote about in his blog. He knows I’m doing it and I told him to feel free to put a spin on anything I’ve done if the spirit moves him. That’s the thing about bookselling – all of us encounter the same situations, but each of us has a unique take on them. I actually addressed this particular subject last Christmas in one of the posts I used to leave on the Alibris site. I stopped writing over there though, despite the fact that it landed me a spot as featured seller on their antiquarian page during last year’s holiday season (yeah, how good is THAT!), because I never did figure out where they hid the things and how anyone was ever was supposed to see them. It felt like folding a post into a paper airplane and shooting it down the Black Hole of Calcutta. You guys may not talk to me much, but at least my newly installed counter tells me you’re here, which pleases me no end.

Anyway the big question today is this -- to inscribe a book, or not to inscribe? Conventional wisdom has it that collectible books should never be personalized unless the owner himself is a personage of note. An example of this would be a book we once owned about Early American music which was inscribed thus, "From the library of Francis Parkman" and then signed by Francis Parkman. Because Parkman is a renowned 19th century historian, that little scribble pushed up the price far beyond the value of the book itself. Nice, of course, but why should such an inscription by an everyday reader make a book slightly LESS desirable?

I got to thinking about this when a particularly nice copy of The House of the Seven Gables arrived over the counter at the store. On the front pastedown was written, "Purchased at the Tea Room, House of the Seven Gables; Salem, Mass. July 14, 1925. Luna Parker." Immediately I pictured Luna in her drop-waist dress, a cloche hat set jauntily on her bobbed hair having tea at a small round table with crisp white linen-- perhaps a cup of Earl Grey fragrant with bergamot and served in an English bone china cup decorated with roses. To accompany it she may have had a tiny cucumber sandwich with the crusts cut off and a raisin scone with clotted cream. All told, a lovely afternoon for a lady with who shared her name with the moon.

But hands-down, the best inscription I ever read came in a copy of A Little Maid of Old Maine by Alice Turner Curtis. Again, this is not a wildly valuable book, but one look at the inscription and the Little Maid was granted permanent resident status on my bookshelf. I’m sure the reason this struck such a chord with me is that I didn’t get books as gifts when I was a kid and the one time I did (four Kathy Martin nurse books) it never would have occurred to my mother to write anything in them. And even if she had, it would not have been anything close to this:

“To our darling Sophie Ann on her twelfth birthday March 21, 1960. This is one of 6 books we’ve purchased for your birthday. We know how much you enjoy a good book – for a good book is more satisfying than a good meal, as you can always go back to satisfy your thirst for knowledge and pleasure. You have all my heart and all my love. You are like the air I must breathe to keep alive. Love, Mom.”

Every time I look at this I wonder why this book is here with me and not with Sophie Ann who is only a couple years older than I am. Who could part with something so personal and heartfelt? And yet somehow people do part with such books, or the books do their own mysterious parting, and we as booksellers become their keepers. If I have a book with a special inscription I turn it into a selling point because I believe it truly is one, conventional wisdom to the contrary. In fact, at last week’s estate sale the conversation on the porch while we waited for the witching hour turned to this very subject (I swear I didn’t initiate it either) and the consensus was that inscriptions are not only acceptable, but welcomed gems of hidden treasure.

Kristian also pointed out in his blog – and he is SO right – that electronic readers will never come equipped with such nuggets of personal history. How sad if we are to lose them, because it's people, not events, that make up the fabric of all history. The events are the embroidery that decorate it for good, or ill. So I will remain delighted to open a copy of Treasure Island and see that Aunt Ettie gave it to little Freddie for Christmas in 1919, not only because the inscription evokes a moment of past pleasure, but because it reminds me that we are all part of the human continuum. The voices of Luna, Aunt Ettie, Sophie Ann’s mom, and all the rest who ever took pen in hand whisper to us, "I was here!"

And that, to me, is a reminder to live well on the planet and cherish its pleasures and people while we can. As the old adage goes, the days are long, but the years are short.

Wednesday, August 25, 2010

Waking Up the Sleepers

Okay, then – back to Saturday’s estate sale. We do these frequently, but this one was a totally different experience due to its location in Wooster, a fair-sized college town more or less stuck out in the middle of nowhere. For years we followed what Eric always called the Two Hour Rule. Two hours was the maximum amount of time he was willing to wait for a sale to begin. But then competition increased, lines got longer, and the Two Hour Rule morphed into the Three Hour Rule. Sadly, we sometimes fall short of it though because somebody is ready to leave on time and somebody else is not – and, no, it’s not the way you think it is either! Anyway, this time we hit the road at six-thirty a.m. sharp and arrived forty-five minutes later to find that we were actually FIRST, an event worthy of a rousing rendition of Hail, Hail the Gang’s All Here by the College of Wooster Marching Band.

Fifteen minutes passed and the number of buyers grew to three and in an hour to four. They gave out numbers at nine and there were maybe 20 people then, an hour before Show Time, but the bulk of the crowd didn’t pile out of their cars until minutes before the door opened. Turns out, they don’t have estate sales in Wooster and no one understood the protocol. They thought it was a garage sale in the house. Oh, the house! Rarely do I fall in love with the house -- only once before have I ever had this experience – but as soon as I got on the front porch(the size of the verandah at Tara) my mind shifted into decorator mode. Lose the color of the door, repaint the porch floor, get some big urns for flowers ….

Focus, focus, FOCUS! House love was dangerously trumping book love, so I repeated the word to myself like a mantra. By the time the handsome door swung open I was back in the groove, promising myself a leisurely architectural tour after the books were chosen. The house, a 1920's vintage beauty, was huge, probably 3000 square feet, so imagine the shock when they announced that they would let in five people at a time -- FIVE, only two of whom, Eric and I, cared about the books! This, my friends, is the stuff of which dreams are made. Except there was one small problem -- though large in number, the books were so bad and the prices so ridiculous even Marian the Librarian wouldn’t sing. Here’s a perfect example -- a book club edition of Steinbeck’s Cannery Row with a badly torn jacket priced at $45! And that’s just one. The rest were so banal I can’t even remember what they were. We chose a few so-so titles from the $5 shelves to justify the trip and Eric went to check out while I walked around the house in a Martha Stewart swoon. We met up back in the book room twenty minutes later and were about to leave when I decided to have a second look.

Sadly, the books had not improved while I considered how to turn five bedrooms into three and a master bath, but I did find one that I’d missed the first time. It was a children’s book – series fiction stuff printed cheaply on high acid paper – but it caught my attention for the simple reason that I had not seen this series before. After all these years I’ve pretty much seen‘em all – the Submarine Boys, Danny Dunn, the Little Colonel, Ruth Fielding, Honey Bunch, the Vassar Girls (I do like the Vassar Girls), Grace Livingston, etc.. But Poppy Ott and I had never been introduced. The condition was very good and it had a nice jacket, but still … did I really want to pay $5 for Poppy Ott & Co. Inferior Decorators? Not so much.

“Oh come on, live dangerously,” Eric urged.

I wavered, put it back, took it out again, gave it another look. And this time a small voice in my head whispered, “Yes.”

So I bought it and it turned out to be the only good book we got. Not only is it fairly scarce, but it’s also desirable to collectors of kiddie lit, selling in the $75-$150 range.

Which brings me to the subject of sleepers, books that don’t jump up and down shouting “Pick me, pick me!”, but rather doze languidly on the shelf until something tells you to wake them up. I don’t know what to call that “something”, but it’s worked for me for years if I just be still and let it lead me. Occasionally, I’m wrong, but nine times out of ten the voice – my friend and customer, Sunday Morning Joe, calls it bookdar – delivers the goods.

So then, this story actually has a moral. Always take a second look and keep your bookdar on high frequency.

Oh, and maybe listen to your spouse once in awhile!

P.S. I just noticed something. Isn't the book's title funny under the circumstances? The Universe sent me a laugh and it took me four days to get the joke!

Monday, August 23, 2010

Books, Money, and Intention

I thought I was going to report back on the estate sale, and I will because it was interesting on several levels, but there’s something else that begs to be addressed immediately. After writing my post about the two collections we were offered and my little-kid-at-Christmas excitement whenever I get to buy new books, I have thought quite a lot about books and money. For me it’s a complex relationship because I don’t view books as commodities and yet of course I must choose the most profitable ones if I want to stay in business. It’s a push-pull thing that at times stops me in my glad tracks and forces a bit of ruminating.

When I first began in the business in 1997 I never expected to get rich selling books. I did it because to me and Jorge Luis Borges "... Paradise is a sort of library.” More than an expense account, bonuses, and 401K plans, I wanted to spend my life surrounded by what I love most. But our eldest daughter was in college and we had another waiting in the wings to go, so there was no room for romanticizing the venture. If I were to sell books I had to make money -- period. Initially, I wrote and sold books simultaneously to keep the cash flow going, but very soon bookseller trumped writer on my resume. And so, here I am, still contemplating the financial aspect of books thirteen years later

It’s not that I feel there’s anything intrinsically wrong with making money from books. It’s just that I have a hard time mustering respect for those who sell them, but don't love them, whether these sellers are at the top of the food chain or the bottom. I wouldn’t sell jewelry, even though I do delight in a nice pair of vintage Hattie Carnegie earrings, because I don’t have a real passion for jewelry. I like it, but I don’t care enough to put in the time learning about it, seeking it out, identifying it, dating it, and repairing and cleaning it. Jewelry is not my thing, so it's best for me to get out of the way and let the people whose hearts do a back flip when they find a Hattie trembler pin do what they do best. When I make a deliciously wonderful find, especially in an off-the-wall location, I’m thrilled —yes, for the money it can bring -- but also because I love the book and love the idea of rescuing it and putting it in the hands of someone who will cherish it. As corny as this may sound, I walk through my cases of books in the early morning when I’m prowling around the house at five a.m. and actually say out loud, “I love my books!", a sort of prayer of gratitude.

When I find a book that deserves saving I am happy to clean it, repair what can be repaired and protect its jacket in mylar, if it has one. I don’t calculate the time any of this takes – I just do it because it pleases me. The same with wrapping books – I spend a lot of time and money on each package because it gratifies my desire to please the customer and respect the book. What’s sad about it is that because of the glut of books on the internet a seller can no longer get a fair price for wonderful, if less rare, titles as we could years ago.

Just yesterday, I found a lovely copy of Hitty, Her First Hundred Years. But it was only a reprint from the 1960’s, so it had no value. But Hitty DOES have value. Hitty is a classic whether you are a doll lover or not. (I’m not). The read-aloud story was a 1930 Newbery award winner which follows the history of a little doll who was carved from wood by a peddler and travels from Boston to India. Later she’s found hidden away in an attic and gets a second chance to resume her adventures. Not only does Hitty meet Abraham Lincoln, but she even lives with a snake charmer for awhile. I LOVE Hitty even though sellers value her at a dollar in hardback with a jacket. Once upon a time I could have sold her for a reasonable price, but today I’ll never make a dime from Hitty. I bought her anyway though, because she’s charming and so is the book.

So there it is – the conundrum. We love our books, but they are sold today like pork bellies in a capricious market -- value rises, value falls due to an overstocked marketplace and seller indifference and lack of knowledge. But the books themselves are eternal. The delight they bring is no less, or no more, whether a computer program, or an opportunistic seller, (neither of which can recognize the importance of variables), deems them worthy of a penny or a hundred dollars.

For this, at least, we can be glad.

NOTE -- The photo is not meant to indicate that Hitty was ever in this edition worth the amount shown.

Friday, August 20, 2010

Hope Like An Eternal Flame

One of the best parts of being a bookseller is buying a large collection, so when not one, but TWO, people phoned this week wanting to sell “lots” of books I was like Barry Bonds on steroids. Of course I know from frustrating past experience that it pays to ask questions BEFORE you jump in the car, so I made a huge effort to nail down how many books qualified as “lots.” Funny word,“lots.” I’ve seen it mean anything from ten books to 35,000. Yes, really 35,000, which we bought a couple years ago. I also made it clear that we don’t buy pocket paperbacks, recent popular fiction, Reader’s Digest condensed books, musty or moldy books, or books that have been a buffet for rodents or silverfish. Oddly enough, both callers reported fifteen large boxes each, all of which met our criteria. The adrenalin rush almost launched me into another galaxy.

“Now don’t get your hopes up,” Eric warned, as he does every time we’re in this situation. “Most of the time you’re disappointed.”

Of course I am, but for me the spark of hope is like an eternal flame -- it burns red hot until the last dud is turned. Eric tends to be more pragmatic from the get-go which means of course that he’s never as leveled as I am. When it comes to books I’m a thrill junkie who craves the high and lives on anticipation. If and when I no longer feel the spark I’ll know it’s time hang up my canvas book bags and finish writing my novel.

The first appointment was close by, conveniently located on Eric’s way home from the store which is ten miles from our house. Since the caller reported that all of the books were history titles it made sense for him to go without me. Though I am equally comfortable with the category, history and military R him, as his store specializes in history books, antique firearms, accoutrements for reenactment and classes for such things as fine engraving. He can also sell common titles in the store whereas online we wouldn’t bother to list them AND he is less likely than I am to pay too much. So I stayed home and fixed dinner which was no small feat itself -- try turning out a decent lasagna with a butterfly convention in your stomach.

At exactly a quarter to seven two things happened. The garage door went up and the butterflies immediately flew back to their hotel for a stiff drink. It was too early. The books were either no good or he didn’t make a deal. Turns out, it was some of both. The books were as clean and nice as indicated, but VERY pedestrian – two complete sets of Time Life (the Civil War and Western ones) and commonly found history titles by Stephen Ambrose and other equally popular authors. Eric made an offer for the store, but the guy had “looked them up“ and thought they were worth the price of his first-born child. Where have we heard THAT before? Many book owners look up their books on the internet and latch on to the highest price they see even though they’re often comparing apples to oranges. The high priced one may be signed by the author in a special leather bound limited edition and what they've got is a quality paperback in dubious condition, but never mind -- it’s worth at least a hundred bucks.

So, yeah, I crashed a little, but not too much because last night we had another shot at it. This time we journeyed to a Cleveland suburb, the home of an elderly man who was downsizing. Lots of nice antiques and cool collectibles in the house, but strangely we saw no books displayed. That’s because the books had been stored in the garage for, oh, maybe fifteen years or so, but not to worry, he assured us, they’re “great”. “Great,” I’ve learned, is another word like "lots" – very relative. But out we trooped through the kitchen into the garage and there beheld the fifteen boxes as big and full as promised stacked against the side wall.Beyond that let’s just say that the mark of a true bibliophile is the willingness to get your hands dirty.

And yet, even as I mentally rejected the fifteenth printing of Peyton Place, Wayne Dyer’s Pulling Your Own Strings and The Bobbsey Twins at Snow Lodge the spark of hope burned steady. I KNEW there was something of value in there somewhere – and there was. In the third to the last box I found a true first edition of From Here to Eternity – its letter A standing up proud as a peacock on the copyright page -- and anguish poured over me like a hot rain. The book looked like its owner had run over it with his riding lawnmower, so far beyond redemption you might as well bury it. Why, why, WHY do people not take care of their books? I’ve mourned the fate of so many over the years I could hire out as a professional keener at funerals.

But at least we didn’t go home empty-handed. We bought three books – a first edition Like Men Betrayed by John Mortimer (1953) with a nice jacket, a Lithuanian cookbook, and, a 1926 foreign title Jugoslavien Slovenien, Koratien, Dalmatien, Montenegro, Herzegowina, Bosnien, Serbien by Kurt Hieschler. By some miracle all had escaped imprisonment in good condition and the latter is comprised primarily of exquisite full page sepia photographs. I know they don't look sepia in the picture, but you're just going to have to take it on faith. It's a cloudy day and it's the best I could do.

I admit it -- I was deflated last night when I walked into the house easily carrying my three books. But looking back, it wasn't a bad evening, just not the Christmas party I’d hoped for. Actually, it was an interesting adventure and I truly love the books I got and am glad to have them. Tomorrow is another day and there's an estate sale at nine. We;ll be on the road at 6:30 a.m., one of us flying high once again on crazy hope.

Wednesday, August 18, 2010

So Big, So Small, So Strange, So Old!

Well, this is embarrassing. Only a day has passed since I thought I lost my cache of miniature books and now this morning I thought I’d done it again! I was thinking about all the memorable books that have crossed our path in 13 years and decided it might be fun to categorize some of them in a list of superlatives. So I went back to the children’s section to get the box of miniatures and, again, they weren’t there! Two seconds of panic later and several words we will not discuss, I remembered that I’d put them with the boxes of ephemera so that all boxed things would be together. Jeesh!

Okay then, we can FINALLY move on to the list which was great fun to compile. I probably have forgotten something which later will strike me as being infinitely superior to whatever I chose, but such is life. This is my list and I’m sticking to it.

LARGEST BOOK – This one’s a slam dunk! Webster’s New International Dictionary,Second Edition Unabridged, G. & C. Merriam & Co. 1939. It weighs as much as my youngest grandson – 16 pounds, 10 ounces!

SMALLEST BOOK – In this case it’s a set of wee books, replicas of an old series. We have The Teddy Bears in a Smashup; The Teddy Bears in Hot Water; The Teddy Bears Come to Life and The Teddy Bears on a Lark; Published by Merrimack, no date. They measure 1-1/2”x2”

PRETTIEST SMALL BOOK – Without question this would be a Victorian Book of Common Prayer dated 1868. I measured about 4-1/2” tall and was bound in black velvet with brass edges and a working brass clasp at the side. It was published in London by Oxford Press

STRANGEST BOOK: Hands down this award goes to Numismatic Aspects of Leprosy; Money, Medals and Miscellanea by Roger McFadden and Dennis Marr; D.C. McDonald Associates (1993). My copy was signed by both authors and sold faster than you can spell numismatic. People collect this stuff? Who knew?

BEST ASSOCIATION COPY: Songs and Ballads of the American Revolution by Frank Moore; Published by Appleton, 1858. The book itself is okay, but nothing special. What brought it to the fore was the fact that it was owned by and SIGNED by the historian, Francis Parkman. When it sold my husband nearly broke down and cried.

BEST SIGNED BOOK – No contest here! Unfortunately, I had never entered it in my datebase because I sold it immediately on ebay, so I can’t give you specifics, but it was not only SIGNED by Ulysses S. Grant, but Grant had written a lengthy rant on the fly leaf about one of his opponents! Sure wish I could recall the details, but it’s been a few years. I do remember that it was a plain blue book which by itself would have been very easy to pass by and I WOULD have passed it by! The only reason I got it is that it was brought to us by a picker, so no gold star for me on this one.

COOLEST EPHEMERA ITEM: Okay, this one’s tough, as we’ve had some great things over the years, but I’m going to go with this one because it’s the first ephemera item I sold for $50, a benchmark I had been eager to reach in those days when I was learning the art of selling ephemera at the feet of the incomparable Lee Kirk who owns The Prints and the Paper -- Earl Carroll's Tenth Year Souvenir Program (plus Huge Menu & Large Unused Postcard), 1948. At the time I listed this you didn’t see much ephemera online, at least not in the listings of book sites such as Advanced Book Exchange or Alibris, so you really had to do your homework. When this sold I felt like I had finally joined the ranks of the paper peddlers!

OLDEST BOOK: This one's an add-on. I had already posted, but when my husband heard the topic he practically begged me to include this one because he and our six year-old grandson, Tyler, think this is the best book ever. The boards are original, but the spiffy spine is a nice redo. It's abbreviated title is: The History of That Victorious Monarch Edward III King of England and France and Lord of Ireland and First Founder of the Most Noble Order of the Garter. (If I'd included it all it would be so late by the time I got done we'd have to send out for Chinese.) It was written by Joshua Barnes and printed by John Hayes for the author, 1688. The bookplate on the front pastedown indicates ownership by Edward Montagu Stuart Granville, Earl of Wharneliffe.

So, there you have it. I thought about adding the most beautiful book, but there were too many to choose from. Ditto the ugliest, though who can even remember them? So I think I'll stop right here and open up the conversation. It would be fun to hear about YOUR finds, so add to one of my categories, or make one of your own, but keep those "cards and letters coming". (I know -- that dates me)

Anyway, let's play Show and Tell!

Monday, August 16, 2010

Stress and the Modern Bookseller

Whenever we go to Michigan to see our little grandsons for the weekend there’s invariably a price to be paid on return. Mostly it’s a good one in the form of a large stack of books to wrap and many emails to send. Happily, the orders showed up in respectable numbers -- a minor miracle given the current state of things – but this time they were accompanied by Murphy and his stupid law about how if it CAN go wrong it will. In the end, after much gnashing and rending, it worked out about as well as it could given everything that transpired. But it did get me to thinking about that fine line between being a conscientious bookseller and a neurotic-bordering-on-psychotic one.

The first problem to emerge was an alibris order, which I couldn't fill because I didn't have the book. I very clearly remembered the circumstances, so there was no need to even embark on a treasure hunt. A couple weeks ago a woman from Canada had ordered it on ABE, but it was over-sized and required extra postage, so I had to send a request for additional shipping through ABE’s message system.Ever since the economy went south these requests are more frequently refused than they had been previously, so I’m always reluctant to remove the book elsewhere until I’m sure it’s actually sold, especially if it’s not a hot title, which this one definitely wasn’t. So – I’m sure you can see where this is headed – by the time she accepted the postage increase I’d forgotten I hadn’t deleted it which meant that I had to hit the cancel button on alibris. As if the cancellation itself doesn’t make you feel bad enough alibris tightens the screw by turning the order button from a bright cheerful green to failing red just so you get the picture of how badly you performed.

Next came problem two. The last thing I did Friday before leaving for the trip was send an upload of new titles to all my venues. One of these was a genealogy about a specific family with a most unusual name. No one had a copy for sale anywhere online, but it was possible to download it free as a PDF file, so it didn’t appear to be anything worth worrying about. Yep – you got it -- multiple orders for this one! I accepted the ABE order, canceled the Biblio, and marked up a second strike-out.

And then came problem three. This one was an order from ABE for a lovely little miniature, leatherbound The Rubiyat of Omar Khayyam. I knew I had it, so no problem there – except that I couldn’t FIND it! We had taken all of our miniature books to the Akron Antiquarian Book Fair in April. All were in the same box, which meant that if there was no Rubiyat there were no minis PERIOD -- fifteen or twenty little charmers forever lost. That was it! Instantly I morphed from anxious, crabby bookseller into a basket case, convinced I had left the box at the show.

“No, you didn’t,” Eric reassured me. “I KNOW you didn’t. I went back and checked everything in our space before we left and there was nothing there. I also distinctly remember you holding the box in your lap on the way home.”

“Then why can’t I FIND it?” I wailed, tracing and retracing the same path through the stacks like an expectant father in a 1950’s maternity ward. My heart pounded, my stomach knotted like a macramé plant hanger from the 70’s, and I literally wrung my hands while Eric shined a bright light across every single shelf. But, alas,no box.

To put this anguish into perspective you have to know that I came down the chute at birth a classic Type A personality. I could rattle off enough instances to prove it your hair would stand on end, but I’ll keep it to a single example. Once in fifth grade the hateful Sister Ina informed me that I had not turned in a geography notebook. Not only I had I turned it in, but it was the Cadillac of geography notebooks! It was to geography what Chunky Monkey is to Ben and Jerry’s. Was she CRAZY? ME fail to deliver? Not a chance. But instead of risking failure, I went home, and turned out another one even better than the previous. By the time I got done the sun had risen on Kenyon Street and ravaged National Geographics lay strewn like dead bodies in a war zone around my small bedroom. Proudly, I bore it off to school, only to be told by the hateful Sister Ina that she’d found the first one yesterday after she’d talked to me. No apology, no marveling at the sight of a second one, nothing but a shrug and business as usual. Most people would have been filled with ten-year old self-righteousness. Me? I was very relieved.

Which brings me back to yesterday. Finally, Eric convinced me to pull all the other orders, have some dinner, and try looking for the box again when I’m calm (ha-ha). But it did sound like a reasonable plan, so I went to the children’s section and pulled a copy of Sorche Nic Leodhas’ 1965 Caldecott winner, Always Room For One More. And there, out of the corner of my eye, came a vision of such wonderfulness that I immediately ran upstairs and ate a celebratory bowl of ice cream right on the spot. After the book fair I’d put the box of miniature books on a shelf in the children's section. But after the book sale in Cincinnati in June I’d stacked a thick three volume set horizontally IN FRONT of it.

I have no explanation for this, but it doesn’t matter. The important thing is that I wound up with two strikes from three crazy-making events and more anxiety than any of it was really worth. I’m sure every seller reading this can match this story and maybe even trump it – it’s certainly not unique. What MAY be unique is my extreme reaction. I admit I’m a slow learner, but at 59 I truly do intellectually know that all any of us can do is our best. We are not perfect. We are not going to be perfect. All, we can do is care passionately about our work and do it with care. After that, we have to let it go. Alibris and any other site on the net can pop up enough red buttons to make a clown suit, but in the end only WE can separate what we’re responsible for from what is clearly garden variety bad luck.

Which means, of course, that I really only struck out once because I had no control over a double order for the same book. I could live with an occasional mistake I think were I not also dogged by those pesky little yellow rating stars, which by their very nature are bad for the health and well being of Type A personalities. As it is, I'll probably remain neurotic-bordering-on-psychotic until the last book is sold.

Thursday, August 12, 2010

Decadence, Visionists, Medievalists -- Oh My!

I have been anxious to show you these magazines (I have two) since I bought them in June, but I was in the throes of the Chinese Autograph Book Mystery at the time, and somehow never got back to them until a couple weeks ago. When I spotted them at the book sale everything I knew about them would have fit into a thimble with room left over -- the cover art was nice, the handmade paper of high quality, I recognized a couple contributors (Bliss Carman and Ralph Adams Cram) and the print run had been severely limited to a mere 500 copies per issue. Even so, had I been Qwilleran, the hero of Lillian Jackson Braun’s “The Cat Who …” series, my luxurious mustache would have been fairly aquiver. As it was, a few welcome prickles danced on the back of my neck.

It’s not that the magazines are wildly valuable -- my book guru, Jim Best, The Bookman of Kent, thought I should list them at around $40-50 apiece which is quite good, though of course not bell-ringing. What makes them worthy of show-and–tell is their place in the larger scope of American periodical history. As you can see, both were published in 1892 in Boston by Elzevir Press, clearly named after the famous Dutch booksellers and printers known for their volumes of exquisite quality. During the late 19th century Boston had become a hub for the chap book movement which resulted in a rash of alternative small literary magazines eager to speak out against the evils of materialism and the loss of beauty and lofty ideals. This example of one of the movement’s many magazines, The Knight Errant Being A Magazine of Appreciation, was the brain-child of a sub-group of “medievalists” inspired by Charles Eliot Norton, then considered the most cultured man in America. Norton held “evenings” to discuss Dante, the pre-Raphaelite poets, the views of Ruskin and the ideals of medievalism.

One of Norton's most ardent devotees was none other than Ralph Adams Cram, the architect who designed the cavernous Gothic Cathedral of St. John the Divine in Upper Manhattan near Harlem. In the premier issue of The Knight Errant, he wrote “The general tendency of society for the last two centuries and more has been away from the spiritual and imaginative and towards the mental, the intellectual, and now at last, the hopelessly material.”

But get this -- Cram and associates charged a staggering $3 a year for four issues of The Knight Errant, a price which did not escape the notice of its critics, of which there were many. Part of the problem was its lack of illustration compared to its competitors, but the fact that its writers couldn’t stay on the same page was a problem too. In one issue Bertram Goodhue, who designed the attractive cover, cautioned against the socialism of William Morris, only to have Walter Crane, who greatly admired Morris, urge readers of a later issue to pay heed to Karl Marx and have faith in labor! But the really sour note was this -- after its debut, the New York Times called The Knight Errant “a novel venture in quarterly reviews, and one with a somewhat amateurish pre-Raphaelite twang.” Ouch! Many of those who created and/or contributed to it, had earlier been involved with the The Mahoghany Tree, a successful homage to the Decadence Movement.

But twang be damned, The Knight Errant is still downright fascinating – and here’s another reason why. Many of the talented and famous poets, writers, artists (and architect) instrumental in its creation, or at least hanging out in its deckled pages, also called themselves “Visionists.” In a private hidey-hole on the third floor of a secluded Boston building that Cram dubbed “disreputably decadent” the male members (though poet Louise Imogen Guiney showed up a time or two) met to commune with the spirits, explore the occult, read poetry into the wee hours, and conduct ceremonies involving wildly colorful costumes. Never mind that every member was either Roman Catholic or High Church Anglican – they would often leave a meeting after communing with the dead and repair to an all night restaurant before trooping off to Sunday Mass!

As for the The Knight Errant, it only lasted a year – four issues with a cumulative print run of 2000 magazines. A failure? Yep. Probably. But it inspired later magazines to hold themselves to a high literary standard. One of these was The Chap Book which Bliss Carman edited during its initial four issues. The Knight Errant is also a piece of both late 19th century Bohemian Boston history and American periodical history that’s scarcely seen, yet contains the names of a dazzling array of talent still revered more than a century later. Check out the second picture and look up the names if you don't recognize them.

Bottom line -- though the prickles on the back of your neck won't do a jitterbug over The Knight Errant, they'll definitely waltz.

(NOTE I: The juiciest info I gleaned about all this came from David Weir’s awesome book Decadent Culture in the United States: Art and Literature Against the American Grain 1890-1926; State University of New York Press, Albany, New York, 2008)

(NOTE II: I am off to Michigan this weekend to see my little boys, so will not be back here until Monday. As Gilda would say, “Talk amongst yourselves.”)

Tuesday, August 10, 2010

Read, Believe, Sell; The Message of Stuart Brent

Somehow it had escaped my notice that Stuart Brent died in late June at the venerable age of 98. Since his book The Seven Stairs was originally published in 1962 and signed by him in my 1989 edition, it never occurred to me that he could still be alive. But as I was researching something entirely off-topic on google yesterday up popped the news that this legendary Chicago bookseller had reached his final chapter.

The names of rock star booksellers of the past rattle around in my brain like loose marbles, so Stuart is more familiar to me, perhaps much more so, than most of the acquaintances I’ve accumulated over a lifetime. To hear that he had died sent me flying to the bookshelf for my copy of The Seven Stairs. Once I had it nothing would do but to sit down and visit with its author – never mind that I had new books from the weekend estate sales to list and had done nothing last week while I took care of my sick cat. Stuart is such a kindred spirit – so naïve, hopeful, perfectionistic, anti-corporate, and passionately in love with books and readers it could make you curl up in a ball and weep. But the thing about Stuart I love most is the way he clung to his chosen profession like a squirrel on a limb in a windstorm, Even when his accountant told him early on that bankruptcy loomed Stuart would have none of it. “Pretend you never told me that,” he said.

The story of how Stuart Brent came to open his original little bookstore (think 15’x9’) reads like a fairy tale – comforting, romantic, nostalgic and absolutely terrifying. Fresh out of the military after WWII he took out a G.I. loan and with three hundred dollars and “a pocketful of dreams” stocked his first shelves. The funny part is he named the store for the seven steps that led to it only to find that he’d miscounted them and there were actually eight. The first time I read it, the strongest thing I took away from the book was the image of Stuart in 1946 sitting in his tiny empty store, listening to Mozart on his phonograph, engrossed in a lofty tome (no beach reads for this guy) in front of the burning fireplace as he waited for someone to come buy a book. All he lacked was the velvet jacket he had imagined himself wearing and, of course, the customers who would engage with him in literary conversation that flowed like the richest wine, the color of the heart. Whenever I experienced a momentary slump in sales over the years this image would drift up from the ether to calm me (well, as much I am EVER calmed).

So I returned to the book yesterday expecting to be lulled by his eventual success which branched out in as many directions as Longfellow's spreading chestnut tree. I was not. Instead I got what you would get if right this minute you licked your finger and stuck it in a light socket. In fact, it was nearly impossible to read it without body armor and a hard hat. Sentences not only refused to march lockstep across the page – they got downright militant.

Take for example these: “Most of the things I learned to value are being systematically undermined in an economy based on the ‘bottom line’ and a culture devoted to the coarsening of taste. But I have never lost faith in my calling as a bookseller. Quite often I feel that I am crying in the wilderness.”

The type rose up off the page, zinged around the room like a poltergeist, dislodged a beam in the ceiling and sent it crashing down on my head. Then almost immediately these six sentences curled up together, formed one hard little ball, and took out the window behind me.

“Does experience teach? Is it possible that a human being may be altered or set free by the written word? Are books important? Is it important to be a bookseller? Even though you are going broke? I had been turning like a worm in an apple for so long that it seemed a little more turning could scarcely hurt me.”

If you are a bookseller – a REAL bookseller (and you will know this with no need for further amplification) – get this book. If you are a reader who aspires to a different dream, perhaps music, or art, or inventing a better type of concrete, get this book. Then go somewhere and have a cup of coffee, maybe a nice turkey and artichoke sandwich at the neighborhood Panera with Stuart, and see if you aren’t better for having done it.

In a world and an economy that threatens our belief in who we are and what we do, there is an enduring message here. It's not that change doesn't happen -- Stuart readily admits that change is inevitable. It's not about magical thinking. It's not even about positive thinking and all that Norman Vincent Peale stuff.

No, Stuart Brent had a different card up his sleeve. It's simple, direct, yet almost Shakespearean in its insistence on being true to "thine own self." His trick is that even though he held very strong views he doesn't preach about a darn thing -- no self-help, not even much specific insider info on how to sell books. It's his story, who he is, that does all the heavy lifting. Philip Roth once called him a cross between a Chicago intellectual and a Persian rug dealer. I love it!

In the end, Stuart had to close his shop, a victim of the tsunami of megastores that wiped out so many independent bookstores in the 1990's. At the time he called himself an anachronism and perhaps he was. But what he was not was a failure. Stuart Brent survived the slings and arrows of bookselling for half a century, a feat worthy of the Purple Heart -- or at least a velvet jacket.

Friday, August 06, 2010

My Wild Irish Rogue

The best cats, I think, are the ones who find you, the ones who turn up bedraggled and pitiful with faces only a mother could love. That was certainly the case with our Mickey. One evening in June 0f 2002 Eric and I went for a walk. By the time we huffed and puffed a fast three miles around the neighborhood it was already dark. Back then we had an orange and white cat named Jazz who came to live with us in 1992 against my better judgment. Somehow I had folded like an origami crane to the pleas of our younger daughter, Catie. And as fast as you can say Fancy Feast the Queen of Everything was ours. So when I heard an inordinately loud, insistent meowing as we walked up our driveway I thought for sure the Queen had engineered an escape and was having serious second thoughts.

But as soon as I began searching for her behind the plants at the front of the house, Eric cried, “Whoa! Look at THAT!”

Flying like the wind down the middle of the short street that intersects ours almost in front of our house was an enormous mangy-looking cat -- the sort of cat you’d find roaming the docks of Dublin, hanging out with stevedores, and tossing back pints of Guiness. But there he was in suburbia cutting a sharp diagonal across our street with no heed to traffic. Up the driveway he ran, still hollering like a dock hand.

“Well, look at YOU,” I said, leaning down to scratch his ears. The next thing I knew 18 pounds of hairy beast had jumped into my arms. I admit I was a little flattered, but his fur felt like an old bottle brush and probably harbored enough fleas to start a circus. I set him down, petted him awhile and bade him a good evening.

He didn’t bid me one back. Instead he started carrying on, one minute rubbing up against me, the next keening like a banshee. He even tried crooning a few bars of "I'll Take You Home Again Kathleen" and when that didn't work, broke into a rousing chorus of "Finnegan's Wake." Finally we reached a compromise. We’d provide kibbles and water and prop open the door to the screened porch so he could come and go at his leisure. He, on the other hand, would enjoy a short vacation and then shut up and go back to wherever he came from. We lived up to our part of the deal. The Irish thug did not.

The next morning I went out to get the paper and there’s HIMSELF ensconced on one of the wicker chairs. Every day for a full week he’d go off roaming for awhile, come back with a nice present – a dead mole, a dead bird–– deposit it in front of the door leading into the house, and then lie down on one of my antique wicker chairs again like he owned the place. After seven days and nights of this he wore me down. Once again I folded like an origami crane, hauled him off to the vet, gave him a flea bath, and ushered him into our lives -- his missing teeth and middle age not withstanding.

The Queen of Everything, however, was not amused to be sharing her digs with a hooligan. Every opportunity she had she’d hiss viciously and whap him across the nose. He’d whap her back and the fight was on. I spent most of that June playing referee to Beauty and The Beast. It all came to a head at the end of the month though when we woke to caterwauling so loud the inhabitants of the cemetery at the far side of the lake behind our house got up a petition. But this was the KO round and I knew it. On the stairs between the first and second floors it ended with a bleeding scratch across the Queen’s nose. After that the War of the Roses turned into the Cold War and remained as such until the Queen passed on to her castle in the sky a few years ago.

For his part, my wild Irish street thug grew beautiful – silky soft and handsome as a rover with formidable white whiskers, a spring in his step and a crook in his tail. He could always be counted on to entertain guests and workmen and when new books arrived he immediately jumped into the boxes and sniffed out their worth. No matter how many times I’d tell him to keep a civil tongue in his head out would come the sandpaper to lick my hands and face. At night when I read in bed a huge paw would creep up under the book as though to mark my place. And I rarely took a bath when he didn’t parade around the edge of the tub until I gave him handful of bubbles to bat around.

He loved the fireplace, the Christmas tree, people, a snooze in the sun, an evening on the porch to scope out the wildlife (we called it kitty TV), and did I say people? He LOVED people. That’s not to say that his manners would ever have impressed Emily Post. He nipped -- well, make that BIT when he got a got bug in his ear about something, but never hard. He was a messy eater, scratched so furiously in his litter box it looked like a dust storm at the O.K. Corral, and did not share my love for my miniature grandsons. But he loved ME with all his huge Irish heart and I loved him back the same.

Today my Mickey died.

Wednesday, August 04, 2010

Sad News ...

I know I’ve been quiet, but quiet is all I have been able to be these last days. Our cat Mickey is really sick. Eric took him to the vet early Monday morning and brought back the news that he has diabetes. The vet thought it might be controlled with pills and that everything could work out pretty well.

Against all odds, we allowed ourselves a crazy kind of optimism even though everything in me said we weren’t getting a pass on this one. So I truly wasn’t surprised when the phone rang this morning at eight with bad news. The diabetes is much worse than the quick test showed it to be. He’s old and his quality of life is compromised. We can try the injections twice a day, or we can, as they euphemistically say, “put him down.” Our decision.

But how do you decide? Do you hang on no matter what and watch him fade slowly away, or, worse yet, suffer? Or do you let it all be over now before any of that happens? I don’t know what’s right. I will never know what’s right.

He lets me hold him now, something I could only do briefly before. He would sit on my lap, sprawl out on top of me if I lay on the couch, but no carrying or holding, please. His gaze is sad and steady. Mine is filled with tears.

Mickey will be leaving us on Friday, so I will not be here until then. Time is short and after all these years I owe him a prolonged goodbye. But then, when it’s over, I want to tell you his story. It’s a good one. So is he.

Sunday, August 01, 2010

A Row of Heavy Stones

The house is quiet this morning. It’s seven-thirty and Eric decamped to the dreaded Litchfield Flea Market, so I am alone, wrapping books and thinking about their future. I’m in a decidedly contemplative mood this morning, so I apologize in advance if this post takes a more somber tone than usual. A couple days ago I went to a board meeting of the Northern Ohio Bibliophilic Society (NOBS), host of the annual Akron Antiquarian Book Fair. You may recall that in April I displayed my books there for the first time since I opened my business in 1997. I was one of the new kids at the fair and am definitely the new kid on the board. Don’t laugh, but in a away I really AM a kid at NOBS because it’s a decidedly older group. There are only three of us “kids” on the board and every single one of us teeters on the brink of our sixties! (NOW you can laugh.)

I mention all this because age is germane to what comes next. The fact is, like it or not, the physical book is “old school”. In its August newsletter Americana Exchange reported, “Over the past three months, for every 100 hardcover books has sold, it has sold 143 Kindle books. Over the past month, for every 100 hardcover books has sold, it has sold 180 Kindle books. This is across's entire U.S. book business and includes sales of hardcover books where there is no Kindle edition.“

In that same issue Americana Exchange also revealed that Andrew Wylie, a major New York literary agent, recently cut a two year exclusive deal with Amazon to publish 20 classic titles penned by his agency’s clients (including John Updike) in Kindle format with no inclusion of the publisher in the deal. It doesn’t take too many brain cells to discern that the figures on Kindle sales hit traditional booksellers right between the eyes, but the second story is what makes it a one-two punch. At first glance it seems that Wylie’s deal is only the publisher’s problem, but look again. The symbiotic relationship between bookseller and publisher insures that the publisher’s problem BECOMES the bookseller’s problem.

And so we can only ask the obvious questions. What happens when publishing is no longer profitable? Do the floodgates open and anyone with a computer “publishes” his or her own book, uploads it to amazon and sells it as an e-book? What happens when there are no gatekeepers to differentiate books of literary and scholarly merit? Without editors and publishers how will we find the best books in the noisy current of rushing words? Will the Emily Dickinsons, the John Updikes, the Stephen Hawkings of the future be lost because we can’t hear them over the roar of the rapids? How will authors make a living when their royalties are falling like late summer crabapples? How will booksellers sell “real” books if no one’s publishing any? The answer, of course is that we don’t know yet because we haven’t a clue how it’s all going to play out.

What we do know is that, fortunately, there are still people who love the physical book and are still buying it. As I write this I am enjoying a marked uptick in sales these past two weeks after the slowest summer of Garrison House Book’s existence. But I do believe that the buyers of these books are, for the most part, older. It’s a rare day when I talk to a customer on the phone who is under forty. At the NOBS meeting the owner and founder of Akron’s oldest used and rare bookstore spoke at length and with great passion about his fears for the future of books and bookselling. Oddly, no one responded with the same vigor. While I made it clear that I do not have, nor do I plan to buy, an electronic reading device, I failed to give voice to the overwhelming sense of loss I felt in that moment. The thought of a world without books and bookstores, of libraries flanked by computers instead of books, renders me mute. There are simply no words for it.

I’m sure some would argue that I’m being melodramatic and that we’re a long way from the loss of the physical book, but the truth is that technology is on a rampage, careening us forward at breakneck speed. I agree that it’s too soon for rending of garments and gnashing of teeth, but the indications of clear and present danger flash like a lighthouse beacon -- we ignore them at our peril. As a bookseller who has nurtured this business like my third child, I need to position myself for any eventuality. As a writer I must find a way to somehow be heard above the din of competing voices.

But, as much as these worries keep me awake at night, they‘re personal, and in some ways, venal, concerns. The loss of the physical book far transcends both the venal and the personal. Whether we realize it, or not, we are the preservationists of our time and culture. Already we have seen the loss of the personal letter, first to email and now, even more dangerously, to texting, a loss the depth of which has yet to be realized, but which will ultimately leave glaring holes in our understanding of the minds of the brightest writers, artists, scientists, and historians of our generation. We simply cannot allow further erosion on our watch. To keep safe their ideas, voices, and stories solely in rows of pixels is risky business at best, tragedy at worst.

And so gargantuan tasks line up before us, a row of small gray stones weighing heavy on the heart. But before we can even begin to chip away at them we have to find a way to to lie down with the lion. E-books are not going to go away, so wasting time and energy railing at them is clearly not the answer. The only reasonable choice is to find a path to peaceful coexistence. I have little doubt we can find one for the short term. It's the long haul that adds a boulder to the row of stones.