Monday, January 31, 2011

Exit Here

How many times do you have to get burned before you realize that if you stick your arm in the fire it's going to wind up the color of a lobster? Apparently, if you’re me, it’s quite a lot. This weekend, against my better judgment, but in accordance with my resolution to acquire inventory on a steady basis, I attended a library sale as awful as many of its predecessors, but with one important exception -- this time I finally listened to my own inner voice and got the message loud and clear.  From here on in I will never attend a library sale with the exception of the one run by my friend Carol, one in a rural area that bans scanning, one far, far away from here, and one very good one run by a committee of exceptionally competent volunteers. Other than that I’m DONE. I will never again subject myself to anything so degrading even if it means (and it doesn’t) that I will never, ever get any quality books and will be driven out of business.  

As you know, I’ve been adding steadily to my inventory by snapping up online bargains and going to estate sales and auctions. The quality of these new additions is high, but the volume frustratingly low, which is what led me to venture out to a book sale in a Cleveland suburb at 6 a.m. Saturday morning. The roads shined like a window pane and the snow fell so steadily that Eric had to keep brushing the accumulation out of the hood of my coat while we stood in line. But we soldiered on and arrived two hours in advance claiming spaces five and six in line. The good part was we went for coffee with our friends Paul, Carol, and Ed which was both sane and fun. Imagine debating whether a specific scene occurred  in Wright’s Black Boy, or in Native Son with intelligent people who actually read! But of course we eventually had to return to our bags in line and try to ignore the gossip,  bragging, and eternal snipping and sniping.

While we shivered in the cold one of the regulars standing behind me suddenly announced that he was really supposed to be in front of me. My patience with this particular character (who thinks it’s hilarious to fake author’s signatures in first editions and donate them to the library) finally hit low ebb. I know, I know, I know --it’s truly bad karma – but I curtly informed him that we had been there a full half hour before he pulled in beside us. His arch enemy, who was also behind us, agreed with me so  he backed off, which though good, did nothing to curb the crush of the crowd which ended up four people across. I’ve never seen this happen with such intensity before and felt almost panicked at the pressure from the back of the line that jammed people up against me on all sides.

But here's the denouement. When the sale finally began  both the original character AND  his arch enemy stampeded in front of me like a pair of starving rats in a dark alley waiting for the restaurants to throw out the garbage!The quality of the books was minus-two on a scale of ten, but you’d  never have known this by the elbowing, book tugging,and frenzied scanning that took over the entire room. One woman actually crawled under a table and out the other side to make sure she wasn't shortchanged.  Suddenly, sharply, a sense of revulsion so profound descended on me that I actually removed myself from the fray and stood against the wall watching human nature at its most unbecoming. This is not the first time I’ve done this, but I hope it will be the last. After the natives grew less restless I did finally look around a bit and unearthed one good book on the general tables and a small, quite good antiquarian set on the “not-so-special” table for just $5. I suppose it could be argued that the sale was salvaged, but that would  be missing the point.

The thing is,  I don’t like to be curt to people and I feel bad when I am. I also don’t want to be part of a spectacle which was held in check only because a volunteer came outside seconds before the doors opened to suggest that a repeat performance of a previous incident would not be tolerated. The whole thing was ugly, degrading, and damaging to the soul.  I will go to the sales worth doing, but if they descend to this level then I will cross them off the list too. Bookselling is an honored profession with standards and dignity and it’s about time to take a stand for both. Certainly, I’ll miss the occasional three-figure book by cutting back even more severely on library sales, but I  think I’ll survive. Or at least my soul will.

Thursday, January 27, 2011

Auction Fever!

Given my recent experiences with auctions you wouldn't think I'd touch another one with a ten foot library ladder, but yesterday found us in the second row at one notorious for its ridiculous prices. I was waiting for it to begin and thinking about the futility of it all when my friend Darwin appeared beside me and said, “So. Is this going to be in your blog tomorrow?” I assured him it most likely would, whereupon he laughed and said, “and you'll bitch about the prices too, right?” I assured him  it was highly likely. But guess what? I’m not going to! This post comes from one very happy auction-goer.

The reason I wanted to attend this particular sale was to acquire two specific antiquarian books – The History of Medina County and The History of the Upper Ohio Valley in two volumes. Past experience has shown that local history books, even in ratty condition, will often exceed retail value at this sale. But the more I  watched both what people looked at hardest and the realized prices of the first dozen or so items, the perkier I got. By the time the books came up on the block I knew I’d score them – and I did. The Ohio Valley set is especially fine – bright shiny gilt page edges, no cracking to the hinges, and pristine pages. Why I picked these off so easily, I don’t know, but I have a hunch that the book gods took pity on me for past pain and suffering.

Encouraged by this outcome, I then dared to think that maybe I might even land one of the three gorgeous celluloid photograph albums they had. These I totally love – love the velvet ones too – and have sold them for years, but if they’re nice they tend to go bonkers. And these were quite nice. I didn’t get first choice and the guy who won the first round took the one I fancied, but in the end I think I wound up with the most interesting of the lot anyway. Not only does it have a pleasing picture on the front, but it sits atop a music box.

Paper items abounded at this sale and, as always, you could have mistaken them for big-screen TVs tuned to the Super Bowl the way they attracted men. The connection between men and paper seems primal, a phenomenon that baffles me as much now as it did ten years ago when I first started buying it. Women look at it in a desultory fashion, but it’s usually me and the guys doing battle to attain it. This time I opted to stay out of the action for postcards, photographs, and magazines and keep my eye on the prize – a skimpy box of odds and ends with just enough junk to camouflage three great catalogs, one of which (a tome on blast furnaces) was hardbound (the best), and a directory and program for the National Encampment of the Grand Army of the Republic in Boston in  1904, replete with a large, fold-out map that’s not even torn. It did get a little dicey – there was one guy who snapped up everything – but in the end he let me have the flat for $35. I couldn’t have been happier than if Kool and the Gang had showed up to sing a chorus of Celebrate Good Times.

By this point I was fairly drunk with joy which led me to buy two more things– a pretty little French inspired occasional table for the antiques mall and a Victorian office chair upholstered  in purple. No, I’m not going  into the antiques business – I just think the little table will be nice in the booth and my miniature set of Ruskin will look quite fetching on top of  it. As for the chair – that one’s for my soon-to-be-redone office. I hesitated to take a picture of it sitting in the middle of the kitchen, but I can’t drag it upstairs by myself and it would look terrible there anyway with the current décor, so you will just have to look at it out of context. I think most of you will hate it anyway (which is why I got it for $35) , so it doesn’t matter. But I LOVE it. I got up this morning at five, sat down on it right there by the refrigerator and swiveled around like Donald Trump buying a new hotel.

Once all gazillion pounds of it are upstairs and the walls are painted a lovely pearl grey – look out. These dispatches will be coming from the Queen of Everything!

Monday, January 24, 2011

Critical Mass?

An email from AuctionBytes arrived this morning and somewhat derailed what I had been planning to talk about today. But I do want you to know that I spent both Saturday and Sunday trying to acquire stock to meet my weekly goal which is why I have been so uncharacteristically quiet. Saturday’s estate sale began in the early hours of a frigid morning and ended in dismal failure ten minutes after it started. When  the “best” book in the place is a fluff-and- feathers coffee-table book about Tibetan temples for $20 you might as well go home and drown your sorrows in dark roast coffee, which is exactly what I did.

Sunday, however, was the Incredible Shrinking Medina Flea Market which actually GREW a little, both in terms of vendors and patrons, and even in suitable merchandise. To my pleasant surprise, I bought something!  Actually, I bought six somethings, one of which, an antiquarian children’s book, I already took to the antiques mall. The others are two old children’s books, a scarce novel of the French Revolution by Swedish author and naval officer Henrik Af Tolle, and two pieces of ephemera – one on home décor from the early 20’s that’s really about selling linoleum (see top book in photo), and the other a 1940’s catalog of home goods. I am happy to report that all earned their keep. In fact, I was so thrilled to have found such goodies that I even sprung for a very cool crate with a cranberry ad on one side to contain my sprawling ephemera items at the mall.

Naturally, I couldn’t wait to take it over, so I processed the one book, shined it up a little, and off we went. You’d have thought when I opened the door to the antiques mall that it was 1968 at the old dance clubs in Cuyahoga Falls. The place rocked and rolled to the oldies music and  customers milled around in every aisle.  Except for the night after Thanksgiving we’ve never seen anything like it. But it gets even better – just like the night after Thanksgiving we chanced on someone in our booth actively buying something.  A lady from Pittsburgh took a dozen early Mary Roberts Rinehart novels I’d had online since 2006. I was so thrilled I would have danced with her had she been in the mood.

But then today AuctionBytes sent the results of their annual seller's survey of online venues and I fell back down to earth with a resounding  thud. Book sites such as ABE, alibris, etc, are not included, but ebay and amazon most definitely are. This year sellers were also allowed to submit the names of their various other small sites, though only a handful of the most popular were included in the final fifteen. This skewed the results a bit – but in the big picture it was only to a minor extent. Sellers were asked to rate sites for their ease of use, customer support, fees, and of course the biggie – profitability. The surprising part was that sellers favored a site I had never heard of called Artfire, naming it number one, and dropping last year’s winner, Ruby Lane, to the third spot. Amazon tumbled from fourth to seventh place while ebay slipped from thirteenth to fourteenth. Even bonanza, which had been a big winner last year in second place, wound up in fourth.

At first glance you might think, “What is this Artfire and do they sell books?” Yes, they do, as well as other vintage items, as does Ruby Lane, etsy, ebay, Bonanza etc… But before you rush to sign up it’s important to look at profitability, which of course includes fees.  No venue received more than 7.6 points out of ten points for profitability and the winner at that number was Webstores, again a site I knew nothing about.What’s interesting is that the high traffic sites actually performed worse than the small ones in profitability (due of course to fees) with amazon at 5.48 and ebay at 4.58. Before we jump to conclusions though we do need to consider that this is a relatively small, though exemplary, study with just 2800 respondents.

I checked out all of the sites I had not heard of, plus another one called Addoway that a bonanza friend is planning to move to, and found them eerily similar. While it’s likely  true that all of these sites have problems, as evidenced by the complaints even the best engendered, and that the larger the entity the more bitter the response is guaranteed to be, I also think that the overarching problem here has less do with the sites than the sellers. Make that the NUMBER of sellers. Whether you deal in books, jewelry, clothing, dolls, or anything else in the vintage market, yours is but one tiny voice crying out in the wilderness. As new sellers pour online every day in our jobless economy, each whisper grows softer and softer. This is because the vast number of listings in every category and on all but one of these sites are LOW END and identical, just as they are on the traditional bookselling sites.

Craig Stark, the editor and sage of Bookthink, warned of this problem months ago in his online magazine.The vintage market, especially in the book trade,which as we all know, is currently battling other forces of darkness, cannot sustain profitability for low end stock. CAN NOT. Just this morning a picker I very occasionally buy from called with a book that sells for $30 in fine condition. Even assuming that hers is as good as she says it is, by the time I paid her $8 fee, listed it, sat on it for what may be a very long time, and paid commission when it sold, it’s not worth the time, money and effort even though I found only a few copies online.

While it’s hard to say no to profit these days, however slim,  I did it and have no regrets. My goal, as you know, is to clear out all the low-end books and not replace them with similar stock. The fact that the AuctionBytes survey abruptly hurtled me out of the clouds today is a good thing. I offer it to you as a good thing too.We all need to hear this.

Check it out in detail at at

Friday, January 21, 2011

Stuff and Nonsense

The afore-mentioned cold bloomed like a hothouse orchid and had me down on the couch almost all of yesterday. I say almost because I ran up and down to check emails and orders and respond to same (oh, maybe twenty times or so), but otherwise I was not exactly a high stakes player in the book game. I did, however, make it to NOBS Wednesday night and, in fact, told Eric on the way how much better I was. But then I got there and suddenly that universal sensation my youngest daughter always called “the chilly-willies” came over me and I sat for the duration in a stupor, struggling to make sense of voices that sounded like Charlie Brown’s telephone callers. Yet, even so, I’m invited to another meeting next week about the antiquarian fair, so I’m pretty jazzed.

It does, however, seem to me rather unfair that a person afflicted with a second sickness in the same month should also be plagued with the two things she hates most – numbers and technology. The numbers are the dreaded Ohio sales tax. I don’t mind paying it, I don’t even mind pulling the numbers together. What I mind is being forced to file it online. Every time – EVERY time – there’s a problem and what should take ten minutes takes a whole morning and has me on the verge of emotional collapse. Today it got so bad that I broke down and called them. The first office wasn’t especially helpful, but the second had me chirping like the cricket in Times Square. The woman who answered the phone did everything but offer me a Kleenex and a cup of herbal tea. And the second one did even better than that – she let me opt out of online filing and get on the list to receive a form in the mail. They probably wrote “taxpayer too stupid to comply with request” in my file, but that’s okay. Whatever it takes.

The technology thing actually worked out okay too, but added greatly to my distress. Last week my not-so-old Canon printer required me to bring it to a service center for the replacement of its ink absorber. To say that I hate that printer, which forced me to buy ink (both color and black even though I use only black) at VERY short intervals at a cost of $48 a pop, would be like saying that it’s been a tough winter. Duh! So there was no way I was going to throw good money after bad. Eric and I went to Office Max and bought a compact laser model on sale that only requires black ink, performs to the beat of a hummingbird’s wings, and prints something like four times as many pages before requiring a refill.

All was well until yesterday when I tried to print an invoice provided by one of my sites. I had printed from this particular site successfully twice, but now was getting an error message that said the printer was offline. What did it mean “offline”? The thing was sitting cozily at my elbow humming Sweet Caroline! But I checked the connection, turned the printer off and on again, restarted the computer, upended  the printer to see the serial number, called the help line,  opened  this, closed  that, pressed  this button ten times, another button three times, and stood on one foot and tried to touch the floor. What I didn’t do was try to print something else before I called. Turns out, all of the above was the result of an error on the page!

I know, I know  --  all I’ve done is complain about a whole lot of nothing. But you know how it is with nothing -- it’s nothing as long as it’s not yours. Anyway, something great happened too, so let’s end with that. A couple auctions  ago I bought some wonderful  technical books on the clay products industry. All were in good condition, save one which had a break in the text block, but not at the hinges. I had read how to repair this, but wasn’t sure I should undertake it. Finally I decided today that since I wouldn’t list it as is, it didn’t matter if I screwed up because  I’d still be in exactly the same position. So I carefully measured and cut a strip of light card stock the length and width of the spine, glued one side and carefully inserted into the spine up against the text block, supported the book spine down, and waited for it to dry. Then I tightened the hinges at the top and bottom and – voila! – no more cracking at the center of the book and no evidence of the repair. I was so tickled I actually twirled around a couple times, which given the condition of my sinuses and equilibrium, might have ended in disaster.

Anyway, if you are looking for a take-away message from all this you may have to search under the rug because I’m not sure there is one. The fact that I’m here at all when my head may  implode at any second is probably message enough. In other words, I thought about you today, as always.

Wednesday, January 19, 2011

Cold Hands, Hot Books!

For two days I’ve been flirting with a cold,  but now it would seem that we’re in a serious relationship I already regret. Tonight is my postponed NOBS (Northern Ohio Bibliophilic Society) meeting , but I’m still planning to dose up on cold medicine and go. I have delayed this gratification long enough and  there won’t be another meeting until after the antiquarian book fair in April, so  I’ll just have to try very, very hard not to breathe on anybody.

I also have some new books, but I don’t know how much listing will be happening today. I was going to say that the spirit is willing, but now that I think on it, I’m guessing it’s really not. I think  the spirit would rather have a nice cup of tea, the second volume of Eleanor Roosevelt’s biography and the fireplace. But I did want to at least mention the books, some of which I had had in reserve at the store since the halcyon days of our book overload. Of course I’ve been in the store numerous times since then, but anything more than a foot above my head (which means six feet from the floor) might as well be on the roof of a parking garage on Mars. Eric discovered them some 12 feet north  the other day as he was consolidating stuff to make room for a new project and promptly dragged me down there Sunday to have a look.

Of course some of them were already DOA – the shelf life of books in the world of the penny seller is two and a half seconds – but I did find a couple goodies, most especially a scarce local history from 1911 by P.P. Cherry about Akron’s Portage Path, one of Ohio’s early Indian trails. This is a small, innocuous looking book with a purple cover so nondescript you wouldn’t notice it if were the only book in the room. But don’t underestimate it, as it sells for $65, give or take. For the bookseller there are two things to be learned from it. The first is don’t automatically reach for the glitz and glam -- dance with the wallflowers too. And the second is, forget the naysayers who tell you that local history isn’t worth your time because the online audience for it is too statistically small. Not true! I recently sold a book on the history of  Akron breweries to an Akronite living in Texas and another time a postcard showing a real photo of an infamous 19th century Medina murder trial to a guy in England who collects anything relating to criminal cases of the period. Of course all local history is not created equal, so it’s wise to do some serious study of the genre before spring book sale season.

I also just yesterday got a book I bought on ebay last week entitled Marbled Paper -- It's History, Techniques and Patterns by Richard J. Wolfe and am over-the-moon-crazy about it. Books about books, or about the book arts, are for me the equivalent of literary black licorice. And if you’ve been hanging around with me for any length of time you know what THAT means! I will probably sell it – there’s a handsome margin to do so – but first I will spend considerable time with it, as it’s a serious treatise with much information and illustration. I mention this book because it too has a message for booksellers. You can add valuable books to your inventory by shopping judiciously online and not just on ebay either. I routinely buy a particular title on ABE every time I see it in nice condition at a good price and turn it around on one of my other sites almost immediately. For some reason it’s always undervalued on ABE and beloved elsewhere. If you haven’t explored adding stock via online shopping  it’s a good thing to check out, especially during lean times. I have to say it got me through the summer of my discontent in 2010 and is helping me meet my goal of steady acquisition this month too, especially after Saturday’s disastrous auction. Yes, it’s certainly more expensive, but if you choose well you can do well.

And now having shared all that and answered a phone call and three emails I am going to repair to the couch. Hobnobbing with NOBS requires energy and mental acuity and I have exactly six hours and forty-one minutes to acquire some.

Monday, January 17, 2011

What I Learned At the Auction

Just when I think I’ve told you every possible variation on auctions and sales something new pops up. Such was the case this weekend when we attended our fourth auction presided over by my favorite singing auctioneer. As always, I had read the bill of sale multiple times and checked the website twice to study both the original photos and the later additions. And yet that old familiar feeling that we were about to plunge blindfolded into the dark abyss overcame me Saturday morning as we hit the road heading south. As it turns out, it was not without provocation.

For some odd reason estate sale companies and auctioneers do not like to photograph individual books, preferring instead the quantity approach which entails jumbled photos of heaps and mounds of books on the floor, shelves of books taken from dueling distance, or rows of small book lots lined up on tables under glaring lights. Descriptions consist of the actual titles of two or three books (most of which are never the books you’d want anyway) and then a generic catch-all for the rest such as “lots of books,” “large book collection”, or “many old books.” “Many”, “large” and “lots” are words as loaded as  cannons in The 1812 Overture – they make a lot of noise, but in the end they usually go up in a puff of smoke.

In this instance the auction company photographed two indivdual books -- a two volume military history and a turn of the century, rather common, volume on the Spanish American War. I already have both, but they weren’t bad looking, so I thought perhaps they were a good omen. It’s always wise when going to an auction that has books to check out the other offerings as well to get a general feel for the quality of the sale. I did that too and was pleased to see that it was much better than usual. In fact, I had my eye on a chair, a  Victorian era print in its original frame showing the progression of a woman’s life, and two paperweights, one featuring the likeness of Andrew Jackson etched on babbitt metal and so incredibly heavy you needed a forklift to pick it up. All were for the antiques mall.

But did I get any of these things? No, I did not. And here’s why. The crowd was huge and right from the get-go when the first item, a set of sterling flatware in its showcase wooden box, hit the block and sold in a spirited round for $1500, the mood shifted to a new level. You could feel it in the air as palpable as cottonwood seeds during a Michigan spring. Everyone knew that if you wanted something badly you’d better plan to dig deep -- which is fine of course if you are buying for yourself, not so fine if you are a dealer. One by one I lost every non-book item I wanted even though I overbid in a couple instances and was relieved to be saved from myself.

Before I tell you what happened with the books you need to know that most of them were about antiques and included out-of-date price guides (all price guides are out of  date by the time they come off the press) but these were from the 70’s and 80’s. The only goodies were two antiquarian children’s books, one of which was offered up with two pedestrian titles in a lot. The book I wanted would sell for around $60 retail– the other two were essentially worthless.

So then -- up comes the first book of the day, A Catalogue of American Antiques, a book so common that on Advanced Book Exchange alone there are 163 copies, most of which are available for $3-$5. This one practically screamed “loser!” into a megaphone, but the crowd had whipped itself into such a frenzy it failed to hear it. By the time the gavel went down several bidders had pushed the price to $65. Yes, really -- $65!!!!!! And that was just the beginning. Several encores of this performance ensued in rapid succession until finally Eric and I stood as one person and departed in a shocked stupor.This wasn’t the first time we’ve witnessed such a thing, but it never fails to send me reeling. I have no way to prove anything here, but it’s been my observation that the more rural the area the more likely it is that books will go crazy if the crowd is large.

Once I saw a Dover paperback reprint on American Indians sell for $40 on a choice-out and another time stood back in horor while a guy vastly overpaid for the 1909 two volume set, Personal Memoirs of U.S. Grant. The auctioneer announced that both volumes were signed by Grant, which they of course were not except in facsimile. An Akron dealer in antiquarian books politely pointed this out and I seconded it, but the auctioneer said, “Well folks, it’s up to you to decide who’s right.” The crowd went with the auctioneer and the winner paid TWICE what he should have, which is amusing insofar as he would have stolen them at that price if they’d really been signed.

But here's the thing -- while internet sellers chop prices like firewood a parallel universe exists off-line. Neither reflects reasonable value and yet in this crazy world both “work.” What does it   mean? I suppose you could spend vast amounts of time and research figuring it out, but to me the simple message is both clear and hopeful. Books and antiques may indeed be dying just the pundits say they are. But I think it's also safe to say that it's a bit too early to plan the funeral. Plan instead a new approach to selling them.

Thursday, January 13, 2011

Gentle Words and Aggression; Voices Past and Present

My daughter was telling me the other day that our 18-month old grandson has determined that reading is a shared activity. He wants his mom and dad to read a page to him and then he wants to “read” a page to them. What he hasn’t figured out yet is that reading is also a gentle pleasure. When he wants the book back – wham! – he slams it shut on your finger. I was thinking this morning as I perused the nonsensical listings on ABE to determine a price for some new books I just got that it would be truly sublime if books did exactly the same thing  to the fingers of sellers who don’t love them. No, I’m not going off on a rant here – don’t worry. It’s just an observation that the number of sellers who regard books as commodities may have hit critical mass and that a little self-protective aggression on the part of the books might actually trim the herd.

What also gave rise to this thought  was a treasure I resurrected yesterday. I know I’ve mentioned Lillian in the past and how a couple years ago we bought from her estate so many lovely books from which fell photographs, letters, and memorabilia that I wound up with a strong connection to her which I have never before, or since, felt for a previous owner. I bring this up again now because very soon after we got the books I’d  found an essay written by Lillian’s mother about books and her love of them. I had put it aside so as not to lose it and somehow still managed to lose it.  But during the ongoing Great Book Purge I found it again standing upright on a shelf behind a row of books. Had you peeked through the basement window at that precise moment yesterday afternoon you would have seen a crazy woman twirling and whirling around the basement hugging the manuscript as though it were the Dead Sea Scrolls.

On the cover of the envelope in which I  originally got it one of her children had written “Mama’s essay on collecting her library”. Sadly, I don’t recall seeing a single book mentioned in it, but I know that the best of the collection had been donated to the University of Akron to which the family had strong ties. This of course is a good thing and the “second tier” books I got pleased me so much that more, or better, would have been superfluous to the intense joy and wonder I felt that day. Of the many boxes of books I got,  I kept just one volume – the architectural drawings of Stanford White  -- chosen  because his story is one of such unbelievable drama and because I have a soft spot for architecture. It has joined the collection in our formal living room which is used only for company and for sitting quietly at the end of the day with a glass of wine watching as the light that inspired Monet tenderly bathes the books we love in an indirect  wash of streaming gold.

Of her own collection Lillian’s mother waxed equally poetic"

"It is an interesting and reminiscent job the dusting and arranging of one’s books, old in the sense of being possessed, and let us hope, used. Here is the corner for my English authors: a very fine set of Scott, the earliest of one’s loves, bound in dark green half leather, gilt edged and gilt lettered, the paper ivory in color with a large clear text and beautifully engraved illustrations. A book agent – he lives no longer – taught me the distinguishing features of a good book. He was familiar with publishers and editions, and knew the art of bookbinding. He introduced one into the select circle of the limited and rare editions. He satisfied one’s taste and stimulated one’s interest in all books, and taught me  how  to appreciate and value books as well as how to choose and buy ….Good books are a luxury, but after one has acquired them, they do not bear false witness.”

On reading she had this to say:

“How then shall I estimate the effect of my first reading of Anna Karenina? Its realism was a revelation; it’s vital passion and tragedy not so much a lesson as a warning, an echo of the inner longing, the secret conflicts that evolve a destiny. Have we not all suffered vicariously in some contemplated future? Love was ever a certain obsession with me, though never have I in a dream world forgotten the real world, nor confused the inner with the outside tangible. Books have never misled, never harmed me, never distracted, nor deluded. They have only given me vision and the power of reason.”

Perhaps now, having heard the words of a true bibliophile who was at once collector and reader,  you will forgive my earlier fantasy of books as snapping turtles.  

I remain, however, wholly unrepentant.

Monday, January 10, 2011

An Exercise In Frustration

I have been trying all morning to get over here to no avail and now I don’t have time to do the post I’d intended. So I will give you a sort of state of the union for the day and hopefully something interesting will emerge. One of the reasons I’m late is that online sales were unusually strong yesterday which meant much wrapping this morning. But of course today the book police stand sentinel at the gates of every site I sell on to make sure no additional orders get out after I’ve been so bountifully blessed.  

But I’m not really complaining  because I’m very encouraged by the results at the antiques mall for Saturday and Sunday.  In the first week we sold more than enough to pay the monthly rent, but the weekend really gave it a good strong push. I went out yesterday and bought some attractive baskets to contain the ever-growing mound of ephemera. I got two medium sized ones that were perfect, but the large one is too shallow. I put what I could in it and let it go, but I do need to find something else. While I was there though I  met the antiques dealer next door who was just moving in. For about a week now that  booth has been empty and I have been eyeing it covetously because I would love to expand, but can’t for lack of stock. The booth I have is far from full (which is why I am so dazzled by the sales it’s produced), but I would definitely hurt the bottom line if I rented a second one at this juncture, as the  combined bill would be a whopping $520. So  regretfully, I let it go with the hope that when I’m ready, it, or the one on the other side, will magically be mine. Yeah, I know all this magical thinking is  rather naïve, but I do enjoy my little fantasies, so don’t say anything. You can think it though.

Getting back to why I am slow to post, the real reason is not wrapping, but FRUSTRATION. I got a few books listed as planned and then realized with a jolt that I’d forgotten to change my shipping rates on my various sites in accordance with the new postal rate increase that went into effect January 1st. If you haven’t done yours either you will want to get on it. Fortunately, I didn’t lose too much on what I shipped, as there were only a couple overseas orders and all were sent in the flat rate envelopes. Still, it’s a two dollar loss, give or take, for each one, but my average sales price is around $48 this month which helps, though that figure is a  bit skewed due to the Francis Parkman set for which I got the full freight, plus insurance.

Anyway, postal rates were only the start of my frustration. Next came a phone call requesting that I search for a list of books  with titles so similar it would make your head spin around on your neck like a whirligig. This is for a  guy who hates his computer and would rather have me do it – which is fine except that he can never remember what books he already has, adds more just when I think I’ve wrapped it up, and then has me cancel orders because of some error he made. We don’t even want  to get into the ugly details of today’s transaction. Suffice it to say that out of eight  titles I have found one that pleases him. Yes, I do charge him for doing it, but it’s a pittance when you consider that my hair is one third grayer today than it was yesterday. And the worst part is, I’m not done. No, the worst part is that my formerly tidy desk is buried under books, magazines, and a mound of paper filled with notes about his books.

So on that note (ha-ha)I will take my crabby self back to the task at hand. Who knows? Maybe if I get lucky the book police will go out for donuts.

Saturday, January 08, 2011

Business -- GONE!

Okay, the title is definitely a cheap shot, but I hope it got your attention. My business is not gone, thank heavens,  but my business SECTION is. As I mentioned a few posts ago, the time has come (the walrus said) to shed old, dead listings in as vast a quantity as fuzz from a cheap  sweater. The first place I headed was the remnants of what in the early days used to be a strong, viable category for us, but is now as stagnant as muddy water. I have not added titles to this section in years, so why on earth did I allow it and its three hundred-odd books to remain active? The easy answer is inertia, which though viable, is not as compelling as the second answer which is that I had no need to think of it. Books cascaded in here so fast and in such incredible volume that for several YEARS I went to maybe three sales a year, no auctions, and virtually no estate sales. Over a period of two years we bought the contents of a store in La Porte, Indiana, two massive estates (40,000-plus books), an extremely nice collection from an Akron estate and acquired the picker we lost this year due to his sudden interest in agriculture. Even as I write this it becomes painfully obvious what ails us these days  – we got too comfortable.

Well, we’re not comfortable now  that’s for sure. Take last night for example. We found an auction that advertised a “a large book collection, many first editions, including Dante’s Inferno with Gustave Dore illustrations.” I had spent the day with my new/old friend Cheryl exploring the changes to Westfield Center, the picture postcard village in which we met back in the early 70’s. Cheryl still lives there, so she knows everything about everything and gave me the cook’s tour. Much fun and lunch out, so I was in a happy mood when Eric and I  braved a snowstorm that got increasingly worse the closer we got to the auction. The second we walked in my “bookdar” took such a precipitous nosedive it’s a wonder it still functions. When you can’ t spot the “the large collection” upon entry you don’t even NEED “bookdar” to tell you you don’t have a winner.

The “large collection” consisted of twenty-odd books, all of which sported badly broken bindings and smelled like a wet basement. The Inferno was a cheap edition to begin with and had not improved an iota with age. So we turned on our heels, headed straight out the door without registering, and crept back in the snow to Medina. My mood by this time was a tad grizzly, but Eric made his trademark spaghetti for dinner which cheered me up immensely. (Never underestimate the curative powers of one’s husband’s cooking.) Anyway, the take-away message from the whole wretched experience, we agreed, is that we have been spoiled. The hideous waste of time we had just endured  is the real world  -- stark naked. There’s no choice but to accept the fact that in the real world  sometimes you win and sometimes you lose. So, we concurred, we need to get over ourselves and just get on with it.

Which is exactly what I am doing with the current Great Book Purge. I had always hated seeing my book count drop, but not anymore. Suddenly it feels good to me to clear out the old in an attitude of expectancy of the new. I saved one banker’s box of titles that are viable enough to give to our local literacy program, Project Learn, for their used bookstore which should reopen in a couple weeks following a recent leak in the roof which caused enough damage to shut them down temporarily. The rest – three enormous garbage bags full – are so obsolete they’re scheduled for the recycling center. As much as I hate to see books buried in a mass grave, it can’t be helped. Not even a miracle could save this bunch.

Interestingly enough, the first thing I did this morning was open my email copy of Craig Stark’s wonderful Bookthink newsletter (  which arrived a couple days ago. The first couple sentences made the  timely suggestion that it would be smart to get rid of low-end duds! Not only did this resonate, but it was also supported by a learned article by Kristian Strom, a smart guy who  upon occasion has been known to turn up in the comments section here. Kristian writes about how to turn duds into cash via various book buying sites including Amazon, Powell’s, Better World and a plethora of smaller places. Between the antiques mall and our own store (and the recycling center) we probably won’t need to do it, but it’s good to keep in mind and may be really helpful to some of you. You can find these places at . As a crucial adjunct I would also suggest you take a look at BookThink though. Even if you’ve been around a long time, or a relatively long time as we have, there’s always new info that may pay off. It has for me many times.

So then, here I am with three pristine empty shelves, each 43” long. What will they end up holding? That’s the burning question. But also the beginning of a grand new adventure!

Thursday, January 06, 2011

Magical Moments With Richard Scarry & Francis Parkman

Every once in awhile a day offers up wonderful surprises. Yesterday, for me, was one of those rare days, as a series of interesting events made me an even more ardent believer in book magic than I’d been before. It all began with a phone call to the store from an elderly man wishing to sell “a lot of books”. After talking with him for awhile Eric determined that there would be nothing of interest to me in the collection so he would go see them on his own, which he immediately did. Though he ended up buying them for store stock, he could only get half in the back of our trusty PT Cruiser, affectionately known as Petey, so today he will be retrieving the rest.

“There’s nothing to get excited about,” he assured me on the phone after the first trip. “Honestly, you won’t like them.”

Ah, but I MIGHT. Or I might like one, or two. Or I might not like any. But it doesn’t matter because if there are books I am impelled to see them. Even if they were coated with coal dust from being stored in a basement next to a old cranky furnace I’d  have to see them, touch them, peruse them, commune with them, cover myself in their dust. I would just plain HAVE to. You’d think Eric would know this by now, but he apparently doesn’t, as I had to wheedle an agreement that he would leave them in the car and bring them home so I could  “end up rejecting them.” Actually, to be fair, he is a very good judge of what will please me and what will not, so in the aggregate I would say he made a pretty good call. The books were all older, but very commonplace. Even so, I did pull out a spiffy 1940’s title on making 40’s fashion accessories that sells for $35 and a nice copy of The Wall Chart of World History in facsimile which I’ve had before and which sells for around $40.

Even if that had been the end of it, it still would have been worth unpacking and repacking the entire twelve boxes because the books were pretty well kept and fun to experience  in a funky 50’s/60’s sort of way. But then around about box six I opened what appeared to be an entire set of Childcraft. If you’ve seen one such set you’ve seen a dozen, so I started to close the lid  without looking further.

“Not so fast there, cookie!” a voice in my head demanded. Whoa! That was rather rude, I thought, and contentious too given the serenity of my mood. Clearly, there was nothing to do but pay attention to it, or pay later with regret.

One by one I removed the Childcraft volumes to reveal one final layer of books. Immediately, even face down, I recognized them -- Richard Scarry’s Look and Learn Library which I had been searching for since 1999! Even with all four volumes, they’re not worthy of the dancing and screaming which ensued, so  to understand the dancing and screaming you have to know that for twelve years I  have also been holding something that changes everything – the rare and super-cute  slipcase in which they were originally housed. When I bought the case at a sale  I thought I could easily find the books – Scarry was a popular guy in his day – but I thought wrong. Over the years I’d spy one volume here, one there, but always scribbled, crayoned, torn, and in one instance, taped up with unsightly yellowing tape. But  now, seemingly out of the blue, four resplendent volumes lay on my family room floor waiting for their own snug house. The set in its charming box sells in the $145-150 range.

What makes this story even more fascinating is the fact that it was preceded by a magical moment in the afternoon. A customer made an offer on a complete set of Francis Parkman, which I subsequently countered with a considerably higher price.  He accepted and then called with his credit card number. Immediately, we not only “clicked”, but zoomed off on a tanget about our mutual love for the physical book. He then told me that  he hadn’t even been looking for the set until he found it on page five of his Google search about Parkman and also had never heard of the site to which Google led him. So when my counter-offer exactly matched the number he’d pulled out of the air as his top price it had felt like kismet.

Oddly, while we had been negotiating, unbeknownst to him, a second guy approached me via email about buying them too. I could have gone either way at that point, but something told me to stick with the first guy even though it was an offer rather than a straight sale. As it turned out, buyer two was willing, but wished  the former owner’s name and the date 1897 had not been written inside. Like me, buyer one considered  the  signature the gilding on the tome.

“You know, I’m not much of a believer in magic,” he said as we were about to hang up. “But the exception is books. With books magic really does seem to happen.”
Yes, Virginia, it does. And yesterday it DID when two unlikely souls, Francis Parkman and Richard Scarry, converged to make it happen.

Tuesday, January 04, 2011

Clean House!

 I received an email from a reader yesterday which caught my interest immediately, especially at the start of the New Year. She expressed great surprise that I would be willing to admit we’d had a tough year and that some of it had to do with choices I’d deliberately made. I don’t know whether my candor is so unusual – maybe it is – but if we are going to get real about this business in which we find ourselves then honesty either prevails, or else there’s no point in this torrent of words I spill every other day (yes, I’m back on schedule!). I don’t have a problem talking about problems because sooner, or later, we’re all going to hit bumps in the road. Some will be boulders, some pebbles which cause our ankles to bend, or our feet to slide out from under us, but they’re all as inevitable as postal rate increases. No business operates over a long cycle unscathed and  I’ve had a damn good run for thirteen of my fourteen years. So now it’s time for me to lay the cards on the table and make some corrections, which I am in the process of doing.

At the risk of sounding simplistic, I do believe that an attitude of hopefulness, creativity and joy in the work can do wonders. All summer and fall I worried, fretted, gnashed my teeth and rent my garments, and for what? It didn’t change anything and it made me more stressed than I already was. Things didn’t take a turn for the better until I took action. Two of the best late year things I did were take the Dayton trip and opening the booth at the antiques mall. Now with the New Year I feel clearer and more positive to begin making other changes.

Yet another simplistic, but very real, way to attack problems is by cleaning house – both literally and metaphorically. As I mentioned, I am going to be gradually decommissioning  dead stock, a process  which is already proving to be a fine idea. Yesterday at the antiques mall I sold two books I’ve had in stock for more than ten years and both netted their original listed price in just three weeks and one week, respectively. I’m also cleaning out two storage closets filled with books that need to either be listed, or be gone. With this busyness comes a sense of order and peace, as well as freed-up room for all the new acquisitions I will make in the coming year. The cleaning process feels to me like an act of faith – in myself and in the future..

The other thing I’m doing is cleaning up my basement wrapping area which looked like a tornado had blown through it leaving half of Kansas in its wake. No wonder I can’t find  my black Sharpie, or the box cutter. No wonder little bits of sandpaper and Absorbine pads turn up in the stack of credit card receipts and pepper the surface of the counter. Everything is now in its place though – priority boxes in the bottom cupboard along with mylar shelved by size, and everything else is either on the workbench top, stored on the shelves above, or on the bookcase on the opposite wall. With the phone, credit card machine, heat sealer, radio, and book press all being necessary bench-top accoutrements there’s no room for extraneous stuff when you’re trying to wrap orders or repair books. The pictures may not be pretty, but they depict an area dedicated to bookselling’s messier aspects

Yesterday I did all of the jobs listed above, listed 14 new books, and designed a new invoice. It was  a great day too, both in terms of making order out of chaos and in both online and antiques mall sales. We sold some nice books in both venues, as well as some lower end glad-to-be-rid-of items at the mall. Of course every day will not be that perfect, but I remain optimistic, excited, and ready to clean house. Make that CLEAN HOUSE!

Sunday, January 02, 2011

Running Into 2011 With A Map!

Happy New Year everyone! After two weeks of on-and off merrymaking it’s time to “hit the books” again. I, for one, am glad, as working never fails to get my creative juices bubbling like the contents of a mad scientist’s smoking beaker. I also bought an array of new books yesterday at an auction held by my favorite auctioneer, Don Wallick, the king of auction patter, so am anxious to list them and officially launch the 2011 bookselling season. Looking back on the year, this one has been the bumpiest of my fourteen in  business.  I emerged a little banged up and scarred, but  thankful to still be operating in the black, as well as excited and looking forward to a blank new calendar.

My biggest challenge this year was acquisition, as you know. We made only one significant purchase right after the Akron antiquarian book show when we bought a collection from a show attendee. Other than that, it’s been a few books here, a few there, and some ebay buying. But this year we’re committed to being much more aggressive in our pursuit of stock by employing all venues and setting a goal requiring steady, weekly acquisition.

Many of the other problems we faced are endemic to us all – the competition from e-readers, free PDF downloads, print-on-demand, inexperienced sellers manipulating prices downward, and the massive influx of hobbyists crowding FOL book sales. I don’t scan – never have, never will – and am confident in my ability to choose books, but the sheer number of scanners guarantees less access to what few really good books are available.  Consequently, FOL sales have taken a backseat to other modes of acquisition, though we will still attend some this year, perhaps even more, but with a new acceptance of their realities and more modest expectations.

The other body blow of 2010 for us was the loss of ebay. Yes, I quit of my own volition, turning my back on both power seller and preferred seller icons, but ebay’s  best match algorithm coupled with their ever-escalating fees presented as “the lowest ever” – not to mention the arcane rules which emerged from a new attitude of corporate greed – gave me plenty of impetus. I miss the old ebay dearly, but I stand by my decision to leave the new ebay. Yes, my bottom line would have looked better had I stayed, but not significantly enough to have endured the stress. The other downside which emerged from the loss of ebay was the decision to sign up with Bonanza, an exciting, attractive new site which, frankly, did not work for me. Why this is I don’t know. I worked it intensely – too intensely – and ended up not spending enough time on the sites that perform well. So that, too, ended up being a bad move. I signed up in June, realized in October that it was time to let it sink or swim on its own, and have not looked back.

On the plus side, we displayed our books at the Akron antiquarian show this year for the first time and enjoyed an enormously successful outcome which revs up our enthusiasm for this year’s show. We also opened our booth at the antiques mall and  showed a profit for both of the two accounting periods. Of course we opened during the holiday season, so it remains to be seen what happens now that it’s over, but at this moment I feel a sense of growing optimism. Eric showed a marked uptick in used book sales at the store this year and that, plus our experience at auctions, convinces us  that there is still plenty of interest in the physical book. It could be that our emphasis may shift more toward local sales. I don’t know this for sure of course, but it’s a possibility and one which may be just fine given the ridiculous price structure for most online books, the ever-increasing cost of shipping them without adequate remuneration, and the independent bookseller’s eroding  autonomy in cyberspace.

Either way, there’s no question that we will remain online. In fact, I’m considering a new website design right now. Internet selling is essential for moving quality books of very narrow, specific interest which constitutes a good portion of our inventory. However, my attitude toward online sales is undergoing a sea-change. I am actively, though gradually, decommissioning old stock in an effort to rebuild a quality list, rather than clutter my website with books that won’t sell there given today’s realities. Rather than lower prices to meet those of the “penny sellers” we will either move decommissioned inventory to the mall or to the store this year.

All  told, 2010 won’t win a spot in my Bookselling Hall of Fame, but we’ve been supernaturally immune to difficulty since we opened, so I guess it was our turn to hit the bricks. In some ways it’s  been a good thing because it’s forced me out of my comfort zone, made me think of myself and my business as a brand, and challenged me to lose, or transform,everything that doesn't support that brand. If you haven’t done so already, I urge you to do an end of the year summation too, whether you are assessing your business or life in general. The worst thing any of us we can do is go forward with a “business as usual” attitude because the fact is there IS no business as usual. In today’s world  information doubles faster than the speed of light. To keep the pace we need a detailed map, a good detour plan, and a pair of heavy-duty running shoes. Mine aren't too comfortable yet, but I'll be breaking them in tomorrow morning around five.