Saturday, October 30, 2010
It’s dark and cold today and I am happy as a clam, though why clams are happy is anybody’s guess. Today I am FINALLY going to hunker down with the new books from the auction, plus the new ones I bought yesterday at the estate sale, and do some serious listing. I did add maybe ten on Thursday, but they were fairly easy, as some of them I already had in my database, so I needed only to change the description and was good to go. The coffee’s on, my favorite mug with the green pear is washed, Eric left for the store, and even my typing is better than usual. All systems shout GO!
Speaking of the estate sale though, it ended up being quite novel and fun. I admit that I can be easily amused, but you have to picture this, as it’s not a common occurrence for these things to be quite so convivial. We got there three hours ahead of start time – well, minus maybe ten minutes as Eric had trouble extricating himself from the store. There’s a strange law about stores. They can be quiet as King Tut’s tomb, but as soon as you need to be somewhere people emerge from the woodwork waving fistfuls of money. By the time we finally got to Akron a long line of cars lined the main street AND a side street. But it was okay to be numbers 28 and 29, as the house was big and the atmosphere that of a party. This was due to the fact that if the goods are worthy this particular estate sale company rewards its potential buyers. In this instance they had set up several contained fires to take the chill out of the air, plus a buffet table festooned with a big pot of hot chocolate, as well as muffins and cookies displayed on pretty trays lined with paper autumn leaves. The sight of it unleashed a tremendous amount of good will.
Also, Andrea, who is one of my favorite booksellers ,showed up, as did Darwin, an antiques dealer and expert on American quilts . I met Darwin back in the 70‘s when he was a big deal in the art world for elevating the Amish quilt to folk art status. I wrote numerous articles about him – one for the Akron Beacon Journal magazine and several others for various antiques publications – so it’s always fun to reconnect. He and I are both trying to use technology to promote our blogs and neither one of us is very good at it, so we laugh about it a lot which is really about all you can do other than buy a Dummies book on the topic, which I did, but I hate reading it so ....
Anyway, the sale abounded with gorgeous high end antiques -- furniture, silver, glass, china, art, huge wall maps, and a travelling dresser set in a heavy wooden case so beautiful you’d lug the thing on your back even if you were off to visit an ashram in Calcutta. Oddly, the condition of most the books fell far below the condition of the other stuff, but I still managed to gather up some nice goodies, including beautiful issues of Frank Leslie’s weekly paper from the 1880’s, three very good gun books (one in particular), a limited edition book on illuminated manuscripts, and a very nice 1871 copy of The Soldier’s Story of His Captivity at Anderson, Belle Isle, and Other Rebel Prisons by Warren Lee Goss. I also bought several old auction catalogs, a gun catalog from the 1920's, and Lathrop C. Harper's 214th catalog.
Lathrop C. Harper was a rock star bookseller back in the day, so this one almost required smelling salts. Of course it wasn’t a catalog produced by Harper himself – had that been the case I'd have been knocked out cold. But even though the 214th catalog came from the business which retained Lathrop Harper's name, it's still a beautiful thing and I think he'd have given it two thumbs up. We'll have to talk about Lathrop Harper sometime, as I have one very cool thing of his that would be fun to share.
So there you have it -- the report from the field. But now it’s time for me to fire up the camera, select a nice stack of books to list and get at it. The sun came out while I was writing this, which is a darn shame, not because I wish I were outside doing something else, but because listing and writing, both things I love, are enhanced by overcast skies and freezing temperatures.
One out of two will have to do.
Friday, October 29, 2010
It’s dark and cold today and I would love nothing better than to hunker down with the books from the auction. I’d make a pot of strong black coffee, get my favorite mug from the dishwasher and wile away the hours in bibliophilic bliss. For me, listing is never a race to see how many titles can be uploaded in a single day. It’s dipping into random pages, reading about things I know nothing about, poring over beautiful plates, taking frequent side trips to google to find out who exactly Lucius Verus Bierce was, or what year Hoover closed their local plant, and of course trying to keep my descriptions shorter than a doctoral dissertation! But there will be none of these pleasures for me today. In an hour and a half we’re leaving for an estate sale so highly touted for its numerous antiques that as we speak dealers are probably asleep on the front lawn from last night
I tried to talk myself out of it. It’s dark and cold (I know I already said that, but it IS) and I hate the long wait. And even with a three hour lead time we may not be amongst the first group to see the books. And the prices are guaranteed to make the national debt look like pin money. And it’s dark and cold. And they won’t give out numbers until three. And it’s dark and cold and ..
But we need to be there. So we are going. Sometimes even when you love what you do, you still have to face the dark, the cold, and the exorbitant. In a perfect world wonderful old books could be ordered by phone and arrive on the UPS truck in a couple days. But given my experience with ebay this week even a pot of dark roasted Arabica couldn’t keep me away from this sale.
Speaking of the ebay experience, I learned something worth sharing after returning the books yesterday. Because I sold on ebay too for a long time I understand how miserable these sellers are right now, so I didn’t rant and rave, threaten their rating, or do anything else to add to their stress. Consequently, every return I had, three altogether, not only turned out well, but provided some insight into why things went awry. In each case I approached the seller politely, complimented what they did right, and then explained the problem and why I wanted the refund. Just as I suspected, all three were “book sellers”, not booksellers, and all three are working under extreme stress.
Seller one lost her job and was selling anything she could get her hands on to make ends meet. Seller two mostly sells other types of antiquarian items, knows little about books, and is worried sick over her mother’s serious illness. Seller three, an elderly man trying to augment Social Security, normally sells vintage linens, but was asked to sell the book for a friend. In each case three very nice, earnest people got in over their heads with a product, or a process, they didn’t understand. All three feared for their rating and all three displayed exemplary customer service skills. I liked every last one of them and gave them each a superlative rating.
Should I have done so? Some would argue no. But after mulling it over all afternoon it occurred to me that anyone can make a mistake and maybe how you handle it is as important as the mistake itself.
I remember one time my younger daughter Caitie ordered something from Nieman Marcus. I forget what it was, but the order totally went amok and she never got it. When she called to complain the customer service department apologized profusely and reordered it for her. Unbelievably, it arrived in the wrong size or color! So she called AGAIN and explained what had happened. This time they not only got it right, but sent her a beautiful silver train case with their compliments.
Which do we remember, the problem or the resolution? Long after I have forgotten the three books involved I will remember the kindness of these three sellers. In the meantime though I still have to go to the estate sale (in the dark and cold) because I am temporarily burned out from buying inventory online.
Wednesday, October 27, 2010
I should be moaning, groaning and popping Advil like mints today, but amazingly after a full day of manual labor I am none the worse for wear. As mentioned earlier, yesterday we had to go back to the scene of Saturday’s auction to retrieve the remaining books. Just to be on the safe side after the theft of the two boxes at the curb we got there early and were pleasantly surprised to see that the house was already open and we were the first dealers on the scene. Everything was where it was supposed to be and other than wrestling heavy boxes down the stairs and into the truck we were cheerful as a pair of Pollyannas. Eric got them down and I lugged them to the street, a system that worked like a well-oiled assembly line. For a hundred pound weakling with metal in both wrists from old fractures I can schlep an incredible amount of weight (she says modestly). But of course there was the unloading on the other end, the sorting, and the lifting again. It was all worth it though, as I scored another sixteen books with values in excess of $45 each.
I am not going to belabor the auction any further, as another experience I had yesterday is more meaningful. As you know, we have struggled with acquisition issues since the summer. Although I am no longer an ebay seller due to their Best Match algorithm and other disagreeable practices, I have been buying quite a bit on the site to augment our inventory during the dearth. Yesterday our porch looked like Christmas minus the lit tree and our adorable grandsons spinning around it like little dervishes. We weren’t home when the loot arrived so the mailman piled it inside the screened porch as he so kindly does. By the time I retrieved it all it was late and I was wound down, but give me a package with a book inside and I will snap to life faster than a delayed response plasma TV. I brought the packages inside, piled them on the kitchen island and began unwrapping. WARNING – the results are fairly scary. If you're wondering why the photo above has nothing to do with books here's the reason-- the view of my backyard at dusk after a rainstorm last night is meant to fortify you for the picture to come.
Book one was brand new. Its seller, however, decided that the best way to ship it was unwrapped in a manila envelope – and NOT the kind lined with bubble wrap either. All things considered, the post office should be applauded as the “only” fault was a tear to the envelope which resulted in a corresponding tear to the dustjacket.
Book two was also brand new. This one was inserted unwrapped in a free priority envelope and THEN placed inside an unlined manila envelope. Other than the fact that the post office got ripped off, it arrived fine.
Book three, also brand new, was perfect in every way.
Book four, an antiquarian title for which I paid $80, looked like it had been left outside on the front lawn during a rainstorm. The seller took numerous gorgeous pictures of the pages, but failed to mention the SERIOUS dampstain to both front and back endpapers and to the gilt at the top of the text block. This one was described as very good and the most beautiful copy ever seen by the seller. The latter may be true if it’s only copy she’d ever laid eyes on.
Book five, also antiquarian, had me dancing around the kitchen until I turned it over and saw that the seller had failed to notice that the entire back board had been discolored from previous mold. At least he knew how to wrap a book.
Book six, a rare art catalog – perfect.
There should have been a book seven, if not yesterday, then sometime in the next couple days, as all of these books were purchased last Tuesday. There won’t be, however, because the silent seller just got around to telling me this morning that the book shipped today.
Of course I realize that this is a too small a sampling from which to draw any definitive conclusions, but two weeks ago I also bought a rare ephemera item from another site and pulled it from my mailbox bent and sopping wet on the end that stuck out of the box. That guy, too, was fond of unlined manila envelopes. If only he liked plastic and cardboard as much …
What all this means is that the internet abounds with sellers who are less than conscientious in both their descriptions and their shipping practices. We can look to our own professional standards and perhaps feel smug, but the sad part is that these sellers hurt US every time this happens. Buyers get tired of sending stuff back – consider what I will have to do today – and may eventually stop purchasing books online altogether.
As much as I hate to say it, it kind of makes me understand why ebay has begun acting like the Gestapo. The emphasis is on "kind of" though, as I also find it sad and degrading that so many listings there show good sellers begging, even pleading, for five star ratings so they can afford the fees which these days are based on the almighty stars.
Maybe the real problem is that the "book sellers" outnumber the booksellers.
Monday, October 25, 2010
Uh-oh. The book gods may have smiled prematurely. I'm not complaining, but I am sort of superstitious about acquisition. As I've said before, experience has proven that if I get lucky it will be awhile before it happens again. The thing is, we planned a book buying road trip in November with rather high overhead, so of course I'm counting on it being productive -- and now this happened. "This" is an auction we went to on Saturday. All I can say is, if life were a football game this one would be a Hail Mary pass!
We went with reasonable expectations, as the books' owner had spent her life in a bibliophilic occupation. The ad had touted hundreds of titles and there were indeed that many. They were good books too, just not collectible books. The occasional title did pop out, but not frequently enough to make my heart race. Had I been there alone I probably wouldn't have registered for a number due to the lengthy wait while furniture, glass, silverplate, and framed prints made their arduous way to the block. But Eric needs large numbers of history titles for store stock and is depleted now due to the summer shows and a large event at the store a couple weeks ago. So we stayed, him all jazzed up and me in a sort of auction stupor.
When it finally came time to bid on the books he did so aggressively and won virtually all of them upstairs where the majority had been stored. There were also a few in the dry basement, but I'd seen nothing of interest, so trooped down behind the horde with about as much excitement as I would feel on my way to a root canal. But passing through the living room I spotted a built-in niche that had been formerly hidden by the line of people waiting for numbers. Since Eric was already downstairs and I had no interest in waiting for doll furniture to be auctioned I figured I might as well take a look.
Wowza! All Ohioana, all wonderful and most signed. I knew of three dealers there, one of whom told me he'd been in the business since the 70's, so I figured if I got them I was going to have dig deep. I went downstairs, whispered my news to Eric and waited while he bought six or seven more shelves of books. Finally that done, the auctioneer lead the way to my little stash in the wall. Most people hadn't seen it for the same reason I hadn't, so enough of a buzz ensued that the auctioneer paused long enough to give everyone a look.
"Nothing good here," the experienced dealer said finally. The others mumbled agreement.
Whaaaaaat? I had sold some of these books in the recent past, so I knew I was right about them In fact I was so certain that I actually turned around and looked at the dealer who'd made the pronouncement. But if shock showed on my face it didn't change a thing.You are not going to believe this -- I still cannot believe it myself -- but I got it ALL for $10, less than Eric paid for every shelf he bought. All I can say is, if you don't believe in the book gods, you might want to rethink it.
The big problem was that we now owned more books than could be transported in our PT Cruiser which is normally a bookseller's dream car for storage. So we made arrangements to go back to the store for the truck. But by the time we returned they announced that dealers had a half hour to remove their purchases, or would have to wait until Tuesday. We kicked into overdrive -- me packing and Eric hauling the boxes down the stairs to the curb where he lined them up and then went to fetch the car which was on a side street, but still in sight. Twenty minutes later he trudged back upstairs for more books wearing a face like a thundercloud. Two large lidded plastic bins filled to the brim had been stolen from the curb.The good news is I had hand carried the stuff from the living room at the start, so it was safely stashed.
As it turned out, we did not have time to get all the books out, so will return tomorrow. Hopefully, they will still be there. One of the auction workers heard us talking about the theft and said it's becoming a big problem these days. Apparently nefarious behavior isn't confined to library sales. Sad though it is, I'm not going to dwell on it because I feel very fortunate to be so bookishly blessed in a such an odd way. In addition to the local stuff, I pulled out maybe fifteen other great books from Eric's buys, including a signed Gwendolyn Brooks. ( see photo above for a mixed sampling )
But there IS still the expensive road trip to consider after all.. Which means that I'm currently engaged in tense negotiations with the book gods, hoping fervently to strike a deal. If they will just grant my wish on the upcoming trip I swear I will not ask for another thing.
At least until the next time.
Friday, October 22, 2010
Wednesday night was the quarterly board meeting for the Northern Ohio Bibliophilic Society (NOBS), an event I always anticipate with much pleasure. This time, however, we ran into a roadblock, as it was also the night of a large AAUW sale which was not good last year, but nonetheless called to me this time like the scent of black licorice. (Yes, I know -- black licorice is odd, but to me its ambrosia of the candy gods. So just go with it.) Booksellers develop odd superstitions about sales based on the distant past rather than on the present and that’s how it is for me with this particular sale. ONE time, three years ago, the book gods smiled benignly there as I gathered up several excellent fishing titles, including a very rare one, several fashion catalogs from the ‘20’s, and any number of other very fine things. The year after was good, but not great, and last year, could only be called pathetic. And yet for a week the dilemma raged – which event should we go to?
Acquisition being what it is right now you’d think it would be a no-brainer, but I still retain a modicum of Catholic girl guilt, even though I haven’t been a Catholic (or a girl) for at least 30 years. Besides, I really WANTED to go to NOBS. So I balanced it on the scales and NOBS won, not only because of a sense of responsibility, though that was definitely in there, but because it was a choice between mania or serenity. I could definitely use a little of the latter these days, so NOBS it was.
Not only did we get to go to Cleveland Heights, which I love, but we spent a peaceful and interesting evening in the rare company of booksellers who actually read books. I told them about my Mary Frances book and how quickly it sold and of course they all knew the book and reminisced about the many times they’d sold it over the years. I mentioned that I had seen the cooking and gardening titles from the series at Lillian’s auction in 2006, but wondered if there were any others. As it turns out, there are. I may never see them in this lifetime, but I’m delighted to know they exist and which ones they are. One of the long-time sellers also brought an aromatic bag filled with huge branches of fresh rosemary. Now, I ask you, would anyone gift you with rosemary at the book sale? I don’t think so.
But the big moment came when Andrea filled the top of the coffee table with flyers, both large and small, advertising the 29thannual Antiquarian Book Fair in April. The very sight of that orange-gold paper had me swinging off the edge of the full moon, not only because we did great there last year financially, but because I so loved everything about it. For two days I could pretend that there was no internet, no bad behavior at crowded book sales, no impersonal drop-shipping, no loss of autonomy. For two days I sold books – make that, hand-sold books -- talked to collectors, engaged in literary conversation, browsed other sellers offerings, and reminded myself that bookselling truly does have meaning in the 21st century.
Working alone, as so many of us do, can be lonely and demoralizing at times. As much as I am grateful to be working with books there are days when I ask myself why in today’s crazy, mixed-up, technology-driven world I even bother swimming against the tide. Most of the time I have to admit that it’s probably because, as Louisa May Alcott once said, “She’s too fond of books and it’s addled her brain!”
But then I go to NOBS and come back rejuvenated, anxious to swim even harder against the technological tide. For that alone, Wednesday’s meeting was worth the loss of a book sale.
Wednesday, October 20, 2010
This is not a book review, so what happened in the story, or what I thought about it, is immaterial. I mention it only because in a smaller way a collection of books entered my life as an alchemist too, changing dramatically my identity as a bookseller. Not long ago I wrote about Elmer and the landslide of books which cascaded into our lives because of him. But before Elmer there was Lillian and it was her books -- her family’s books really, as it was a generational collection which came from a house in which the last survivor had lived her entire eighty-something years -- that set me on the path I’ve followed ever since. At this auction I acquired for the first time in any significant number, books that cannot be scanned, books so beautiful and compelling I knew that I would never avidly seek their modern counterparts again. In their pages I found pictures and letters, notes, even a treatise on book collecting written by Lillian’s mother. The books, the family, became “mine” in a way that I cannot explain without sinking into sentimentality and so I will not even try. I will just say that it was so and leave it at that.
As I thought about all this at five a.m. when I finished Goodman’s novel it occurred to me that my transformation may, or may not, prove beneficial in the coming years. Already so many of the old books are available free as PDF downloads, or in print-on-demand format. Soulless though they seem to me -- soulless though they ARE – they have their followers and, in many instances, are the more practical option. It also occurred to me that even though no one would accuse traditional library book sales of harboring an embarrassment of riches these days, I no longer “see” the new, the shiny, the trendy, or the popular culture goldmine. For me these things have receded to the point that they may actually be invisible to me. I have no doubt in my ability to recognize exceptional modern books – I have, for example, Birds of America in the Audubon Society’s incomparable Baby Elephant Folio edition and two Chinese art books in a clamshell box so incredibly, wondrously gorgeous (see photo above) you would have to be entirely ignorant of books not to recognize their value, both monetarily and otherwise
But of course these books are not any more readily available than their antiquarian counterparts, so to a greater or lesser degree, most sellers must maintain a mixed stock liberally larded with modern books of the more ordinary variety. Some of these titles occasionally rise from the dead and ascend to the stratosphere for reasons so inane one can only marvel -- $1000 for Anna Nicole’s biography after her untimely death, for example. Most, however, reward their sellers handsomely for only one brief shining moment before taking their inevitable journey south. The window of opportunity for the vast majority of books is the size of a crack. She who fails to crawl through it immediately gets less and less and eventually almost nothing. If the electronic reader continues to grow exponentially there may not even be a crack. It only stands to reason that the number of physical books printed would sharply decline, making their acquisition ever more difficult.
The bottom line is we ALL stand at an interesting juncture – sellers who prefer the old and those who prefer the new. Will one win and one fail? Will neither win, or will we both somehow find a new footing? That’s the question without an answer, the koan we ponder endlessly.
I do know one thing though. If wishes were horses a stampede of antiquarian books would race out of cupboards and ovens everywhere and on to my shelves. In the face of the unknown, win or lose, I still cast my lot with alchemy.
Monday, October 18, 2010
The art of book description is fast dying, growing so spare that my dear friend Sunday Morning Joe once told me that pretty soon my job will be so easy that all I will have to key-in is "Book. Green." I laughed at the time, but he is absolutely right. He was actually rather prescient, as he said this to me a few years ago and it’s spiraled drastically downward since then. In the Golden Age of bookselling sellers produced catalogues – and some still do. A catalogue requires thought and an appreciation for that which is described. A catalogue is a showcase and, if it’s good enough, eventually becomes a collectible in its own right. I have never produced one, so I am not arguing that it’s a necessity, but I do believe that if a book is worth listing it’s worth at least a couple lines of description. The assumption that the buyer magically knows what the book is about is not necessarily viable. Certainly some books are searched by title, but many, many are impulse purchases discovered as one would unearth a treasure in a dusty corner of a hidey-hole bookstore.
It's amazing how many sellers waste so much space in their database descriptions announcing, as McDonald's did for hamburgers, how many books they have sold to how many millions of "satisfied customers." Frankly, as a buyer, I am not interested in self-aggrandizement. I want to know about the BOOK. Like it or not, we sellers aren't the stars of the show, though we do play a nice supporting role as acquirers, curators, describers, wrappers, shippers, and note writers. But the star is the book and, as in both Hollywood and on Broadway, the star gets top billing.
I just acquired a lovely eight volume set, The Memoirs of Jacques Casa Nova De Seingalt (1940) -- here we go with those sets again, but I sold a set of Stoddard's Library on Thursday and had the space -- which consists of eight pristine volumes in two sturdy, but worn slipcases. I logged onto ABE Books to check the price du jour (these days books prices rise and fall like the fate of pork bellies) and discovered only two competitors. The second one, SugarTreeBooks of Orefield, Pennsylvania had a set with exactly the slipcase deficits I have, but the way the owner described it made me laugh out loud at the clever marriage of truth and charm. Check this:
"Slipcases have moderate edge wear, having performed their duty splendidly and having sacrificed their own health for the good of the whole."
Never mind that these books were more expensive than the ones listed above them -- I was charmed. I would bet a first edition Hemingway that this is a seller who loves his or her books. What a rarity it is these days to find sellers who take delight in both their work AND their books. Far too many consider books to be rectangular money-makers to be shipped from Point A to Point B with as little work or study as possible. If that makes me sound my age, then call me "old school" and I'll thank you for the compliment. I didn't enter this business solely for the money. Of course the money pays the bills and is crucial to the overall picture, but it's NOT the sole reason I did it. I could have sold any number of things if I wanted to sell something, but I chose books because books have sustained me, pleased me, and utterly bewitched me since childhood. They are worth my time, my effort, and my constant, underlying worry for their future. So when I see a seller write something like that my heart soars like a kite across an El Greco blue sky.
I love small sellers, small businesses in general. I would rather buy everything from books to coffee mugs from a hard-working individual store owner who is crazy in love with what he or she does and shows it in every aspect of the transaction than I would from a megalister. Sadly, the people with passion are being shoved out of the marketplace in our Big Box world, so when we serendipitously chance upon one we should not only rejoice, but support them whenever possible. And if we are sellers ourselves we should aspire to join their ranks if we haven't already.
Bookselling is not a dispassionate thing. It's intimate. It's emotional. It's love, worry, tears, sweat -- the good, the bad, the ugly and the exalted.
If it were anything less, what would be the point?
Friday, October 15, 2010
I was off yesterday to a book sale and it feels like I just got back from Siberia. The sale boasted 60,000 books, which it probably really did have, but the landscape there was as barren as the frozen tundra. How it is even possible to amass that many books and not have at least a small percentage of great titles? Wouldn't the Law of Averages say that this is statistically impossible? One would think so, but one would be very, very wrong in this instance. At first I thought it was me having one of those out of body experiences where you can't see, can't focus, can't choose. If you're a seller you know exactly the state of consciousness of which I speak. But no, this was not it. There was simply nothing there worth focusing ON. About halfway through the sale I stood beside my friend and fellow seller Paul clutching my three -- yes, count 'em three -- books and saw that he had maybe six. Then I met up with a seller who used to be a rare book librarian at a major university. His take? ONE.
I was about ready to give up when I remembered the game Kristian Strom wrote about in his blog where you go back through everything at the end and challenge a friend to see who can find one good thing that everyone missed. So I figure I've been standing outside freezing for three hours (well, I did go to IHOP for coffee and I did read a couple chapters of my novel (The Cookbook Collector) in the car, but I still did stand a long time and I WAS freezing and that doesn't even count the fact that it wasn't even light out when we pulled into the parking lot. So I played the game with myself for lack of anyone with whom to play. Kristian, I wish I could tell you that I won. But I did not. I failed miserably. In fact, the only thing I accomplished was finding a copy of Merton's The Seven Storey Mountain and moving it from fiction to religion where it belonged.
So I gave up in frustration and went to the check-out where Eric stood waiting for me with maybe eight or ten books for the store. Normally I would use the time in line to fill in my check, but this was not a check-worthy event. A twenty dollar bill did the trick with $3 change! So instead I looked around at the piles and mounds and heaps of things being carted away by the other 200 sellers and did a double take. Here are some examples -- a full set of encyclopedias circa 1960's, a boatload of beat-up romance novels, ex-library copies of very common novels, and lots of everything-you-ever-wanted-to-know-about (fill in the blank) books. We couldn't believe it, but I swear on a teetering stack of Danielle Steeles that this is exactly what we observed. The big question is, how in the world do you stay in business selling THAT? I don't know and I really don't have the energy or interest to contemplate it. Just consider me a puzzled bystander fighting the winds of change to bring you the latest news from the Ohio tundra.
On a different note I am very excited to have sold my beloved almost-an-antique ( 98 years old) Mary Francis Sewing Book. In case you've forgotten, this is the children's book that had me wanting to whirl, twirl and toss confetti all over the library last week. It sold on its first day out, dealer direct for three figures to a woman who phoned in her order. Her first words to me were, "I love this book and I hope you still have it because I promise you I will love it for the rest of my life." I am dead serious. She said this. Sales are not that great right now and acquisition is even worse. But I am a happy bookseller today because Mary Frances found a very good home. AND I just reaquainted myself with my winter gloves and, if I do say so, that fake lepoard fur is tres cute!
Wednesday, October 13, 2010
I’ve never been a big fan of ex-library books, but I will upon occasion buy them if they are scarce, topic specific, in excellent condition, and will provide the reader with a cheaper -- but not too cheap!:-) – opportunity to acquire a valuable book, or set of books, without having to take out a second mortgage. Thus was the case last week at the library sale at which I got the amazing children’s book that had me practically dancing around the library. After I had perused the specials area and bought the Mary Frances Sewing Book and the four volume history of nursing set, I took one single stroll through the multi-scanned stacks and found for $5 an absolutely pristine set of ex-library books on Islam copyrighted in 2003. The only indicator of library ownership is one stamp to the top edges of each volume.
Appearance-wise it doesn’t get any better than that. The amazing thing is that at this particular library sale it’s often possible to find such treasures. But every time I do I remember a story told to me by a long-time dealer who has since retired. Some years ago – I want to say maybe five or six – he sold an ex-library book on amazon which resulted in a brouhaha not quite the equivalent of a political scandal, but almost. As with all the books I’ve ever bought from the sale mentioned above, his did not bear a Discard stamp. A vigilant customer duly noted it, shipped the book back to the library of origin and reported him to amazon as a book thief. I forget how it got resolved in his favor – probably the library vouched for him -- but eventually he fell back into grace and never had another problem. I’m not telling you this to make you afraid of unstamped ex-libs. It’s just that I thought of it today when I listed the Islamic books which then led me to think of book thievery in general, a crime which is hardly new. Bear with me here, as it's late and I'm tired and hungry, but I want to tell you all this stuff because I won;t be here tomorrow (book sale) and anyway I'm thinking of it TODAY.
In recent years I can recall at least two high profile cases of book theft in the U.S. – the ebay guy who forged authors’ signatures and the very respected East coast rare map dealer who, due to dwindling possibilities to legitimately purchase the rare maps that had made him a respected figure, resorted to slicing them out of rare books in university libraries. In both of these cases the books and maps weren’t stolen as a result of bibliomania, an uncontrollable love for books, even though I suspect that Mr. Smiley,at least, loved his maps very much. The primary illness was retailmania, a bug of an entirely different variety.
What’s utterly astounding though is that the largest book heist in modern times WAS the result of bibliomania. Stephen Blumberg not only loved books, but thought they were being held captive as the result of a government plot to keep them away from the citizenry. To him, the books were the equivalent of Salome doing the Dance of the Seven Veils. They whispered, “Come hither,” and he eagerly crawled through ventilation ducts and elevator shafts to liberate them from museums and libraries – 23,600 of them, in fact. The whole story is spelled out in Nicholas Basbanes’ marvelous book A Gentle Madness, Bibliophiles, Bibliomanes and the Eternal Passion for Books, (Henry Holt, 1995) which is one of my favorites in what I have recently come to call my books about books COLLECTION.
It all began in childhood when Blumberg took a fancy to Victorian residential architecture. At first he stole books relating to his topic, but later the mania escalated and pretty soon such literary gems as a first edition Uncle Tom’s Cabin beguiled him as well. In 1988 he even had a brush with the law close enough to have scared the hair off his chin, but apparently didn’t. He was found in the rare book room of the University of California Library at Riverside after hours trying to pass himself off as a professor whose library card he had stolen! The result was a charge of trespassing and possession of burglary tools and a fine of a thousand dollars. Bad, yes, but to a bibliomaniac, not nearly bad enough.
Blumberg’s undoing came two year s later in 1990 at the hands of a “friend” who turned him in to the feds. But here’s the kicker -- the “friend” had often accompanied him on book liberating junkets across the country. Blumberg got a sentence of 72 months in prison, of which he served four and a half years, plus a $1000 fine, and the friend got $56,000 in bounty money. Worse, yes, but to a bibliomaniac in full bloom, not worse enough. In 1996 he got nabbed again!
Monday, October 11, 2010
To buy, or not to buy book sets – that’s the question. Not only are they much harder to wrap and ship, but the cost of shipping itself is enough to make customers vanish leaving you stuck holding the load. And yet, just last Friday at the book sale I bought 58 Agatha Christie cozies. When Agatha comes calling in such a generous mood, and even includes her autobiography, I’m still happy to pour the tea, serve the crumpets, and seal the deal. But that doesn’t mean that I’m not fully aware of the problems sets pose.
For some dealers it’s an easy call -- they can’t stand the things. But if, like me, you love sets, it’s hard to turn your back on their beautiful selves, and perhaps it's not even necessary. Postage rates, overseas especially, have scaled heights that could have even the most ardent set-seller lugging them off to the nearest thrift store (it’s not unusual to have the cost reach three figures these days ), but the fact is that some customers know they’re going to get zapped and decide to pay anyway. Twice this year I sent huge sets across the pond, one to England and one to Germany, each bearing over $150 in shipping charges.
Every time I do it though I bemoan the “good old days” when it was cheap to send sets via the late great M-bag system offered by the U.S. postal service. In its early incarnation the post office WANTED M-bag boxes to be heavy, so if you didn’t reach the right poundage you had to add fill – phone books, a brick, whatever did the trick. I was never forced to do this myself, as my weighty sets happily snailed (yes, snailed) across the ocean in their own company, taking in the sea breezes on the excruciatingly slow journey. Customers expected a long turn-around time though, so for the most part were happy enough to get the books sent at a bargain basement price. Later, the postal service combined packages of over four pounds all heading in the same direction in one big sack which also worked well. Only once did M-bag ever fail me – and it wasn’t really me it failed. It was the large credit card company which shared my bag that took the hit. Not only did my customer get her set of art books, but she also got way too many copies of the credit card company’s annual report! I have no clue how that worked out.
Of course some sites make it difficult to sell sets, primarily alibris and amazon. I don’t sell on the latter, but have been known to charm alibris into seeking and obtaining additional postage for the domestic shipping of sets. The good news is you can always opt out of shipping overseas on amazon and build the domestic shipping cost into the purchase price without alienating customers.
But, as we all painfully know, transportation isn’t the only factor to consider when buying sets. In a world where the single physical book is getting less and less welcome, how will we find buyers for books that arrive with their entire clan? Are sets already passé? I have no defnitive answer to the first question, but I suspect it WILL eventually be a problem. I had an ebay buyer early this year offer me a ridiculously low price for my antiquarian Francis Parkman set on the grounds that he knew people “don’t won’t those big sets cluttering the place up.” Could be, but my answer was still no. And, yes, I still own the set, but I don’t care because it’s gorgeous and I will cheerfully keep it until hell freezes over, if necessary. A month ago another buyer on ABE tried to dangle a low price my way for a weighty, oversized history set and I likewise refused. That one sold for full price on ABE two weeks later.
As to the second question, are sets already passé, I truly don’t think so --not yet anyway -- which is why I cozied up to Agatha’s cozies. I’ve sold at least half a dozen large sets this past year in addition to the ones previously mentioned. I also have a standing order for the next set of My Book House in the black bindings I can find. Collectors still collect and one of the hottest areas is children’s series books from the days when the Stratemeyer Syndicate ruled the field of kiddie lit. There are successful dealers who sell ONLY these books, mostly as singles, to begin or enhance their customers’ collections, but sometimes in sets, or partial sets too.
The bottom line is this: buy sets if you know you can sell them. Buy sets if you are willing to wait out a slow economy. But most of all, buy sets if you like them and won’t mind them moving in with you forever. Francis Parkman may do that with me, but that’s okay -- he can keep me company in my dotage. Agatha, on the other hand, needs a home of her own. Much as I admire her, I can't afford to keep her in crumpets forever.
Saturday, October 09, 2010
Just when I thought I might be tentatively liking book sales again the one last night roundly disadvised me of the notion. The crowd was actually down a good bit, but the high drama was definitely not. Histrionics abounded which meant I was in and out the door in under twenty minutes and that included a chat with the benevolent Queen of the Book Sale who shared my displeasure. I bought 58 Agatha Christies in the black covers, a set of the Oxford dictionaries in the slipcase with the magnifying glass, and four other books, none of which I’m terribly excited about. I will not bore you with the tiresome details, but offer instead one observation and then I will move on to a more pleasant topic. As I looked around the room it occurred to me with a sudden jolt that local library patrons were scarcer than quality books. I mentioned this to the Queen and she agreed that it was so.
Apparently, they can’t tolerate it any better than we can. Sad, isn’t it, that the local community whose tax dollars fund the library can’t enjoy the book sale.
Anyway, I want to show you some fascinating magazines I bought not long ago (not at a book sale) and haven’t had time to examine until now. They’re called The Ohio Messenger and there are seventeen of them, all chronicling the women’s temperance movement in the state from 1911 to 1940. I had never seen this publication before and copies are very scarce online -- I only found two from 1925 which probably is due to the newspaper–like quality of the paper on which it’s printed. It’s not newsprint – it’s coated – but it’s thin and easily torn and probably just as easily tossed as one would toss the daily hometown paper. The magazines were published of course by the Ohio Chapter of the Woman’s Christian Temperance Union which, interestingly, got it’s start right here in the Buckeye State in the 1870’s. I know in the beginning they refused membership to Catholic, Jewish, or African American women, so am hoping I can find out if that had changed by 1911.
The temperance movement in the U.S. is a very collectible topic, especially in the early days, but clear through to the repeal of Prohibition. This of course makes the latest of my issues much less valuable, but nonetheless interesting if only because as late as 1941 there were still 216,843 card-carrying members nationwide. Believe it or not – I was bowled over by this one – there were actually 50,000 members as late as 1989! Of course the WCTU didn’t just concern itself with King Alcohol or the Demon Rum in later years. It served up an entire buffet of moral issues, including the playing of golf on Sunday, so members might have joined for reasons other than the obvious alcohol issue.
Paging through the early magazines, especially the one from 1911, is like watching a mental movie. A phalanx of zealous women rallying in the streets, banners waving, long skirts swishing as they march down the middle of the street fierce and proud. Fiery rhetoric shooting orange flames to the sky. Bands filling the air with hymns (maybe Onward Christian Soldiers). And voices ringing out with chants, emphatic agreements, and ditties penned to the tune of well known songs. In Portsmouth, Ohio they actually sang an entire song to the tune of Yankee Doodle. The first couple stanzas glorified the town for its efforts, but this middle one creatively combined temperance with suffrage:
We want a chance to vote it down.
Some men think that is shocking
But til they get us equal rights
We’ll just keep on a talking!
In those early years these women came loaded as guns with zeal and righteous indignation. They may not have had the vote, but they displayed remarkable political acumen and command of the language, as evidenced by the caliber of the articles published. But by 1940 the timbre had changed significantly. Men had been been granted membership privileges and the moral issues extended to the availability of “obscene” literature in public libraries, “debasing moving pictures,” deceptive radio advertising, political graft, and injustices “of all kinds”. Instead of inspiring admiration, even from a wine sipper like me, it all sounds rather prissy.
The WCTU had lost its juice.
P.S. I have no idea why the size of this type either wants to shrink or expand to fill the room, but there you have it. More glitches I guess. Hope you can read it!
Friday, October 08, 2010
I no longer sound like Typhoid Mary, so will be off tonight to my favorite book sale, a twice a year event managed by the Queen of Book Sales. This woman is a seller herself which should send red flags flapping in the wind like sheets on a clothesline in Dorothy’s Kansas, but doesn’t for the simple reason that she knows her stuff and plays fair at the book sale. When she prices books for the specials table it’s with thought, research, and loyalty to both the library and the bookseller. While it may not seem possible to serve both masters, she has proven that it is. I have many times paid $50 for a book and once paid a high of $250 for a set and in all instances came away happy. The library nets a fair price and booksellers net a decent profit margin. Win/win. It doesn’t get any better than that.
Of course this makes it a popular sale, so that means we’ll be out of here at one to arrive at two for a sale that starts at five. Yes, a lot of downtime here, but we’ve adjusted to the new reality. Besides, it does give me a chance to read for awhile (Annie Dillard’s The Maytrees), visit with my favorite sellers if they’re there, and read some more if they’re not. The library is also located across the street from a scenic urban park with WATER, so a nice leisurely walk in the sun might by on the agenda too. Win/win there too. So all told, I’m feeling pretty chipper today.
It’s actually funny that this sale occurs right now because my thoughts lately have strayed to paperbacks which I doubt I’ll be buying too many of this evening. Though I might. You never know with paperbacks. I love the quality paperback – love it – but dare I confess? I do not love the little pocket paperbacks. Why that is I don’t know. There’s not a thing intrinsically wrong with them and yet I don’t gravitate to them. I think maybe it’s because – okay, this going to sound weird – when I was a kid my best friend Izzie’s older brother left them scattered around the house. The lurid images on the covers -- not x-rated, but to a ten year-old somehow dangerous – caused me to recoil like a snake that just spotted a very large net. Silly I know, but there you have it – proof postitive that I can be given to flights of irrationality.
Anyway, this is not about that. It’s about the idea of paperbacks and what I DO love about them. Paperbacks democratized book ownership. You could sneer and call them books for the masses, which is exactly what they are, but this is the very crux of their charm. Of course you can read hardbacks for free at the library which I still do because my love affair with the library transcends economics. My sister, who could buy any book she wants at any time, also wears out a library card a year, so somehow the library thing must be hidden in our DNA. But paperbacks level the playing field, are immensely portable, and at least in their quality format are quite fetching – those smooth covers almost like baby skin, the spine uncreased and perfect – I could go on and on about them in their new state, but I even like them in their used state because then the onus is off. No longer do you have to worry about inadvertently dipping them ever so slightly into the bath water or spilling coffee on their pages (I’m guilty of both. See the coffee ring on the cover of the Robert Helenga above). Used, they’re like old familiar friends – you can invite them over and not tidy up the house first. In the picture above are some of my favorites, all bought new, but few looking their shiny best.
Paperbacks seem so intrinsically American, but actually they’re not American in origin. The credit goes to Britain where Penguin Books debuted in 1935 with an array of small volumes printed on cheap paper and sold at nontraditional places such as Woolworth stores. (Remember those? When I was a kid we called them the “the dime store.”)The trend caught on and within seven years Penguin had sold a whopping seven million copies, none of which were first issues.
So, it was a great idea and one that’s cool today too. I pop one in my bag to kill time at the dentist or the book sale and tote them along on trips without worry. I might lose them – I have lost them – but here’s the thing. I can lose a paperback, or I can lose an electronic reading device. Which would be the biggest calamity?
Thursday, October 07, 2010
Woke up yesterday with a rip-roaring head cold, logged on to blogger, and thought for a second I was hallucinating. All your lovely icons and photos under the followers section had disappeared overnight. In my confused and congested state my first thought was, “What did I SAY to have cleaned house this thoroughly?” I reread what I wrote, but still came up puzzled. Did you not want to hear bad news? Was I too negative? Didn’t know. So, as I always do in both good times and bad, I made some strong, black coffee and jolted myself back to reason. Unless I had dropped a bibliophilic bomb of massive weight it’s statistically impossible to have lost everyone the very same day.
A little exploration around the site showed that you were all here – yay! – but the question was where were you hiding and why? I clicked, I refreshed, I did everything but send out a Search and Rescue party, all to no avail. Finally I found a site that reports problems with blogger. The very first message at the top read in bold caps “MY FOLLOWERS ARE MISSING!” Turns out, this was a common occurrence, along with a host of other problems. I had had trouble getting my photo uploaded on the last post and that had been mentioned as well, as had problems with comments. If you tried to leave a comment and ran into a brick wall please try again.
I still don’t know whether we’re good to go yet – guess I’ll find out when I post -- but you’re back and I’m very happy to see you all this morning. Without you there would be no reason to spill as many words as I do into the ether. So let me take this opportunity to thank you for being here, for reading my musings, and for enlivening the conversation with your posts. It’s been an incredible journey and I’ve enjoyed it immensely. Hope we can keep talking until I run out of words – which I warn you could be a very long time. I’m a heavy-duty talker. Ask anyone.
Today though, in my cold-ridden condition I am not exactly brimming with ideas, so I will keep this short and do better tomorrow. Consider this one a Valentine from me to you.
Tuesday, October 05, 2010
But as we all know, sellers come in a vast array of flavors. There are those selling off their own books; hobby, or unemployed, sellers loading up on high-ranking Amazon titles part-time to bring in extra cash; and those like me who work it full-time for a living. Among these groups inventory varies greatly, as does inventory size, freshness of inventory, and the average price per book listed. So when we look at these polls we have to remember that they rarely compare apples to apples. (Why are so many things measured by fruit anyway? I’ve always wondered about that.) A seller reporting skyrocketing sales can make your heart plummet to your feet until you remember that it’s all relative. Last year he may have sold an average of five books per month at five dollars apiece and this year sold an average of ten books a month at six dollars apiece. Wow – exponential growth! Uh – maybe not so much.
The truth is, when you’re dodging as many arrows as booksellers are at this moment it’s difficult to know where to lay the blame for our economic woes. But I do believe that the economy itself is a huge factor. My husband has been on the road for a month now selling books from a bookstore in a tent while donning colonial storekeeper garb at two large historical events (see his handsome self in the photo above). Normally, sales average at least a thousand dollars a day for the first week at both events and then gradually decline during the second week. This year the record held only for the first two days of each event and fell off a bit faster to a new low of $300 per diem by the end. Lack of interest, e-books, and print-on-demand had nothing to do with it. People wanted to buy, came back repeatedly to visit their favorites, but in the end could not justify the expenditure. They had allocated so much money to spend on books and that was it. When the cash ran out there was no reaching for plastic.
Yet even as interesting as this story is, we need to be wary of placing too much emphasis on IT too. While it does shine light on the hardships people are facing in this economy, there are also huge differences to consider. WE are selling online. He was peddling a carefully selected mix of new, used, and antiquarian books in person to a highly targeted audience, most of whom are male, middle aged or older, not enamored of computers, though they may be very adept at manipulating them, and motivated by a strong desire to buy from HIM because they know him, he’s the only big bookseller there, and he offers a huge inventory of hard-to-find- titles they want. We, on the other hand, sell books to a diverse population which encompasses the entire world while thousands of other booksellers nip at our heels. But I do think we can safely take away from the story the message that we are all to some extent being slammed by the economy which seems to be taking a bigger toll this year than last.
Of course that doesn’t us let us neatly off the hook. We can’t just sit back and wait for things to get better. Not only do we have to work, but we have to work harder than we ever have for less return. AND we have to take a hard, dispassionate look at our own unique situation and see what other factors are playing a role. If the economy is a problem you can bet those other factors – and there ARE other factors -- are compounding it. For me the big one -- but not the only one -- is acquisition. The steady stream of high quality titles I’ve enjoyed over the past several years is no longer rushes like the waters of the Mississippi during flood season. As you well know, it's down to a trickle. I also made the decision to leave ebay, so I’m paying for that too in some regards, though not enough to eat crow and return.
I would venture to say that some booksellers are faring quite well even in this economy. I doubt anyone is as happy as they were a few years ago, but I suspect some are reasonably happy. In fact, I’m so sure of it that I would take a deep breath and spend to get a great collection in here were I offered one. Good books have always sold and I believe they still do, but even good books won't sell themselves these days. Like it or not, the "sell" in bookseller has become a verb.
Sunday, October 03, 2010
The stairway to antiquarian heaven rarely leads down, so when we were directed to the basement at yesterday’s estate sale all hopes of leather bindings and paisley endpapers drifted away on the rich tones of the antique music box playing in the living room. Sure enough, all it took was a single glance at the single offering and we were back out on the street heading for the car. The familiar green bindings and gilt titles of the Delphian Society Course beg the inexperienced seller to come hither. But she who surrenders to seduction is guaranteed to regret it in the morning, internet pricing to the contrary. The Delphian Society printed these babies in huge numbers for the edification of women on all things cultural and commanded a big price for the privilege which is why so many sets have survived.
All we could do was head home in the cold, drizzly gloom. Of the seven estate sales in the greater Akron area this weekend the one we’d just left was the only one in which the word books wasn’t bracketed in the ad by two flashing warning lights. Nothing cools my ardor faster than the words toys and DVDs sharing a sentence with books. For at least ten miles the car filled with lamentations (mostly mine) worthy of a full-out Greek chorus.
But then -- like Brigadoon rising from the mist -- came a wondrous sight. On a hilly road bordering the Metropark in a tiny flea-sized town, emerged a scene that stopped me cold in mid-complaint. A tiny flea-market, yard sales like mushrooms, AND a library book sale all within walking distance! Cars, cyclists and pedestrians swarmed like honeybees, but no matter what the outcome would be this was pure nectar from the gods. The book sale had been underway about forty-five minutes, so we started our adventure there. At first glance it seemed dubious, but with only three other browsers, a refreshingly casual and congenial staff, and bargain basement prices, far be it from me to whine. So we settled in, took it book by book, and wound up with three nice volumes– a treatise on farrier science, a book on making a violin with laid-in patterns, and a brand new, recently published, Civil War book signed by its author. Total outlay -- $1.50; competitive retail value $85, most of which was claimed by the violin book.
From there we headed to the mini-flea market which hosted maybe fifteen dealers. We didn’t buy a thing, but Eric gets an immediate adrenaline hit whenever boxes of rusty things turn up and I relish the novelty of doing Normal People Things on a Saturday. For 40 years Eric has been chained to the store, so Saturdays at country festivals rarely occur and when they do it’s like playing hooky from school. Even the yard sales, which normally don’t thrill me, seemed ringed with Christmas lights so when I snagged the entire 13 volume hard cover set of Lemony Snicket’s A Series of Unfortunate Events in their original slipcase for $8 the lights actually twinkled.
By the time we’d inspected everything from a portable drill with no battery pack to plants dug up from the backyard, sloshed through a pumpkin patch, and checked out the old houses, my feet had frozen inside my sodden shoes (yes, THOSE shoes pictured a couple posts back), my nose resembled a stop sign, and my hands were welded to the inside of my pockets. But never mind -- we returned home happy as squirrels laden with winter bounty. And the best part is we’d sprung for a loaf of homemade cinnamon raisin bread. Eric sliced, I made coffee, and we settled in for a late breakfast just like Normal People on a typical Saturday.
And then we both went happily to work.