Thursday, March 31, 2011

A Tisket, A Tasket, A Disaster With the Basket!

The countdown begins for the Akron Antiquarian Book Fair and I am busily scurrying around trying to get my books (as opposed to my ducks) in a row. Because the fair is always held the Friday and Saturday of Easter and I have the kids – both Moira and her family and Catie and Joe -- coming for Easter dinner the day after the fair closes I have to plan a menu that won’t make me crazy and also get the Easter baskets made for my little boys. Oh, and the eggs too – Easter wouldn’t be Easter without plastic eggs filled with treats scattered around the yard. I already have the gift basket for the drawing at the fair sort of done (more on that in a second), but the next big thing for the fair is selecting books and penciling in prices. The books aren’t too hard to do, but I also plan on bringing ephemera which creates FAR more busy-work. But it’s fun work and I’m jazzed to do it all.

Now then, about this basket which you see in the photo above. Disaster struck last night when I was assembling it for the final time and filling in the spaces with the curly decorative shredded paper. I have no idea how I managed to do this, but I dropped the four appetizer plates on the brick floor of Eric’s office. Oh! The sound! The fury! There are not words.

The good part, the amazing part, is that only one plate actually broke, as they landed face down. But here’s the dilemma. Nancy and I chose them because they match the black and white beaded-handled appetizer knives and I doubt they can be replicated, though I will go back to the store tonight and try. If they don’t have any more and I can’t get some that match the knives I’ll revert to my fall-back plan which is to cut the number of plates down to two, use the backing from the original manufacture’s packaging, and wrap them in cello. Does this make me happy? No! It most emphatically does NOT. In case you haven’t guessed, I am a perfectionistic, neurotic who would make you nuts in five minutes. I’m telling you – that Eric is a saint.

Of course the trick to making this basket was to zero in on stuff that would appeal to the widest audience. So here’s what Nancy and I came up with:

4 (or two) appetizer plates

4 pretty beaded appetizer knives

2 goblets with cloth napkins inside

Basbane’s book about books “Patience and Fortitude”

A bottle of Da Vinci pinot grigio

A box of rosemary crackers

A package of cheese

Garlic stuffed olives


A scented pillar candle

The idea is that you go home, settle in with your new book and have a lovely snack by candlelight. Life is good and you are ever-so-happy that you went to the Akron Antiquarian Book Fair!

Of course before I take the basket to the fair the whole thing has to be wrapped in cellophane with the bow attached at the top, not on the basket handle, and the card I made earlier dangling fetchingly from the bow. But if there’s one thing I know from experience it’s that I couldn’t show you a picture of THAT if I spent the whole day trying. Cellophane creates a glare so blinding it would risk your eyesight.

Anyway, there’s the story of the basket. Mostly I’m happy with it, but I’ll be happier still if Marshall’s department store has four more small white square plates the rims of which are decorated with charming black depictions of New York City cultural destinations. It doesn't seem like too much to ask, but I can't even send up burnt offerings to the book gods.  I have it on good authority that they don't consider plates and baskets their department.

P.S. Yes, I already filled in the few spots I missed with the curly stuff.

Monday, March 28, 2011

Picking Up A Couple More ...

Could it be that when it rains books it pours? I don’t know, but after just getting all those gun books last weekend I was stunned almost to speechlessness (and I am rarely lacking for words) by what happened Saturday. As I mentioned some time ago, we lost our picker last year because he decided to quit the book scouting game in favor of agriculture. I don’t think he’s changed his mind, so the sight of him bearing eight banker’s boxes filled with books was akin to Scrooge being jolted by the vision of Marley. But stunning as this surprise appearance was, the whole thing only gets even more astounding. We took the lids off the boxes to reveal – ta-da! --GUN BOOKS! Lots and lots of gun books – in fact, so many gun books that they account for three-quarters of the lot. And get this – the rest of the books are about swords. It would appear that at this moment weapons R me.

You know I love gun books, but really, this is too crazy a coincidence. He’s brought gun books before from time to time, but never in such great quantity. His bailiwick has always been Civil War history, art, unusual cookbooks, and theater which is why I’m so fixated on this. In the good old days he came only once a year, but when he did the air swelled with the sound of carols – “It’s beginning to look a lot like Christmas ….”

Not only were the books GREAT, but there were at least three times as many as he brought this time. We always referred to them as “the 28 boxes” though the figure varied a few boxes either way every year. Sometimes he would even show up a second time in the same year, but you could always count on him in the fall like apples, pumpkins and trick or treat. As much as I would like to think he’s back I doubt very much that he really is. He hadn’t even  been scouting for these – he’d just chanced on them and decided to give it a go for old time’s sake. The best I can hope for is that he’ll chance on some more somewhere down the line. I know he knows how much we appreciate him, so that alone might spur him on during the off-season in agriculture.

Anyway, I spent Saturday evening sorting through the offerings and spotted many titles I’d had in the past and could easily reactivate. The difference between this bunch of gun books and those from last week is that these are much newer. Last week’s were the golden oldies – these are as slick and shiny as an oil spill which means they must either be sold in the store or online. To my amazement, the prices had not only held on most, but in a few cases had even escalated, so it looks like most of them will go online. Though it’s all good, I find myself wishing again for a seasoned picker. Someone else tried to do it for us awhile back, but didn’t have the knack no matter how many times I explained it all. Yes, I could have gotten him a scanner, but I am not going to surreptitiously do the very thing I rail about even if I’m not the one wielding it. What I want is a seasoned scout like the newly minted farmer. He takes one look at a book, sizes it up, and there are very few duds. In fact, he even segregates what he considers acceptable, but not faint worthy, in a separate box and charges less for those.

The sad fact is the seasoned picker may well be a thing of the past, an iconic image of bookselling in the Golden Age. At this juncture I’m grateful to have even known the joy of having had a picker -- which of course doesn't mean I've given up on revitalizing him!

Saturday, March 26, 2011

Technically Speaking ...

Yesterday morning found us cruising along at 6:45 headed to a tiny burg with the delightful name of Novelty. I thought initially it was in Amish country, but then realized I’d confused Novelty with the town of Charm. At any rate, traffic wasn’t bad and the drive was fun -- until we got lost. Up and down the same road we flew more times than I can count, each time passing a small sign with the street name we needed. Usually you can just look for the estate sale sign, but there wasn’t one, which catapulted me into a panic thinking I’d read the ad wrong and the sale was actually Saturday, not Friday. But, then, just at the brink of implosion, the elusive street announced itself, we hung a relieved and grateful left, and were soon greeted with the usual line of cars.

For a house so beautiful and filled with so many treasures the turn-out was astoundingly low, but the offerings were largely contemporary which excluded most of the antiques dealers. Books abounded though, as did art. Had I been an art dealer I would have been sending up burnt offerings to the art gods, but as a book dealer, within twenty seconds I knew that no pyrotechnics would be required. One of the deepest pleasures of an estate sale is the lack of technologically enhanced buying, so I was amazed at the sight of two scanners waving their magic wands painstakingly, book by book, over such rarities as pop medical books from the 70’s and Bonanza reprints. I left them to the task and repaired to the lower level, scooping up the boxed case of Sotheby’s catalogs for the Duke and Duchess of Winsdor’s auction on the way. At first glance the downstairs offerings proved to be a mirror of those upstairs. But then I saw them – four beautiful technical titles in a row, snuggled together on the shelf waiting for someone to claim them.

Oh, how I love technical books and not just because the right ones can fetch good prices. I love them for themselves, which is crazy given my strong literary proclivities. I don’t know what is, but the sight of those drawings showing cross-sections of tires and blast furnaces and pages littered with mathematical equations call to me like the sound of Angelus bells. It’s a secret world, magical in its single-minded complexity, a world in which I am a traveler from afar leaning on my walking stick in a sort of bemused wonderment. I took them out one by one and cradled them like babies. They turned out to be as good as I expected too, especially the one about superplasticizers. Of course I haven’t a clue what superplasticizers are, but they have something to do with concrete and I’m all for concrete.

The reason I’m telling you this story is because it points out the need to expand our horizons, step out of our comfort zones, and learn something new. Technical books may not be your Mecca, which is perfectly okay, but try to find something else that leaves you a curious stranger in a strange land (with a nod to Heinlein of course). Maybe it will be books on chess, golf, Netsuke, or Noh theater  – it doesn’t matter. Just immerse yourself in strange waters and see what lies beneath. It could very well be the nucleus of specialization.

By the way, remember The Hot Rolling of Steel? (If not, see the post Angle for Success, February 15, 2011).The goal was to see if I could force a sale with book magic as I did earlier with the angling book and its predecessors. Once again – voila! – sold it this week a little over a month from start to finish.

Wednesday, March 23, 2011

Humoring the Book Gods

I had planned to post yesterday, but it didn’t happen thanks to eleven large obstructions on my family room floor. Perhaps you will recall my comment that the book gods were highly amused that I’d used an e-reader ad to make a card for the gift basket I’m taking to the Akron Antiquarian Book Fair next month. I also said that I was expecting a big pay-off for having provided them with so much frivolity. Well – GUESS WHAT? I got my pay-off and it was almost immediate. I posted the comments on Saturday and Sunday night Eric called from Michigan to tell me he’d just bought eleven large wooden crates of books from a dealer at the show who was liquidating his inventory due to health issues. The squeals of delight from Ohio could be heard in Siberia.

Even the four figure price tag didn’t faze me because of where they came from. The show’s focus was history and antique firearms, so I knew the topics would all be guns, fur trade and Rev War – and that’s exactly what they are. I especially love gun books – not guns, gun BOOKS. I’ve sold so many of them over the years they’re like old friends when they turn up. Immediately I spotted Hutslar’s Gunsmiths of Ohio: 18th and 19th Centuries, Winant’s book on Pepperboxes, and several of Wilson’s Colt books. The thing with gun books is after awhile you can gauge their value by sight even if you’ve never seen them before. So I immediately got excited over A Treatise on Ammunition and Scottish Arms Makers. Had there been any floor space left I’d have been whirling, twirling and throwing confetti.

The downside was I had to wait a whole agonizing day to finally see them. Normally Eric would have been home Monday morning, but he stopped in Sylvania to help our younger daughter paint the upstairs of her house so they can sell it, as they’re moving to DC in June. All day I felt like a Mexican jumping bean, so when he finally got here I actually followed him in and out of the house like a puppy eleven times! Of course when you get that many books at once the temptation is to cherry pick the very best off the top. But if I’ve learned anything in all these years it’s that cherry-picking is the biggest mistake you can make. What happens is you pull off the good stuff and the middling books become chopped liver by comparison and the low end ones never get dealt with at all. So I refrained. It wasn’t MY fault that a few good ones “jumped the gun” (ha-ha) and landed in my hand.

Monday night we just generally looked them over, but by yesterday it became evident that they had to be dealt with ASAP unless we wanted to pick our way to the furniture, Eric’s office and the back doors indefinitely. So first thing in the morning I got to work and sorted everything into three fluid categories – online, antiques mall, and store. I say fluid because checking online prices even for familiar items meant that the piles shape-shifted and not always in expected formations. It took all day, but I finally can walk through the room again. Eric hauled the store stuff out this morning and I have the antiques mall stuff stashed in the closet and the online stuff up in my office. We won’t discuss the intricate maze this created in said office, but I did list and shelve ten books yesterday. They were easy though because they’re already in my database. All I had to do was change the price and/or description where needed and reactivate them.

I can’t wait to get over to the antiques mall with the new goodies, but will exercise some self-control and deal with the leaning tower at my left elbow first. Besides, I hear thunder and – ohmygod-- the warning siren as I write this. But the book gods did great and deserve a shout-out for their efforts. In fact, I’m wondering if maybe I should perfect a stand-up routine to keep them laughing all the time. Ellen DeGeneres, move over.

Sunday, March 20, 2011

The Art Part

Eric is in Kalamazoo working a show this weekend, so time either weighs heavily or passes in a blissful blur -- the choice is mine. I can clean the house, list the new books from Thursday’s sale and do the laundry. Or I can sit on the basement floor, search through three enormous Tupperware bins filled with scraps of ephemera and make of my choices something new and surprising. The dust bunnies demanded attention, the laundry did too, but in the end I answered the plaintive whispers of the paper.

Of course, workaholic that I am, I had to justify giving myself over to art (do I dare call it that?), but this time it was easy because I actually needed to make something. In about six weeks it will be time for the Akron Antiquarian Book Fair and I have promised to bring a gift basket for the drawing at the end of the show. I decided to build the basket around Basbanes’ book Patience and Fortitude which I discussed here last week. My friend Nancy and I are co-conspirators in basket-building -- I’m the assembler and she the consummate shopper. I’ll form a fuzzy theme and she’ll grab hold of the scraggly ends of it and somehow together we’ll weave whole cloth. And that is exactly what happened yesterday when we hit the stores. There were a few things we couldn’t find so I can’t show you the whole basket yet, but I thought I’d give you a glimpse of the card I made.

I began with a vague notion of books and antiquity, but had no clear picture of what this could actually look like. As always, I chose way more items than I could use which meant a wrenching return to the bin for the enchanting tidbits that didn’t make the final cut – it turned out to be most of them. Once I choose a scrap I’m in love with it, so I have to force myself to remember the old adage about less being more. But in the end self-discipline won and the card is made from only one half sheet of cardstock, fibrous art paper, paint, a piece of corrugated, a torn piece of old Chinese money, small portions of the cover of a Banana Republic catalog, and – I love this! – a fragment of an ad for e-readers! The book gods were so tickled over that last bit they fell over laughing, so I’m counting on being handsomely rewarded for their amusement in the not-so-distant future.

In the end, the card pleases me too, though niggling thoughts of what else might have been created snip around the edges of my satisfaction. It’s always like that for me. When I’m making it I love it, but when it’s done the contentment falls away a chip at a time until eventually there’s nothing left but a sad disappointment. I hope I don’t feel that way when it’s time to take the basket to the show, but it’s likely, so I will try not to look at the card too much until then. The ultimate disappointment though is that I don’t allow myself much time with the paper and paints, even though I love them. For me creating “art” is not really about product anyway because at heart I’m a process junkie. What I groove on is dwelling in that pure suspension of time where anything is possible and the work is both surprise and enlightenment. For one brief afternoon heaven meets earth and nothing else matters.

P.S. In answer to a reader's question, the book on the left is raised and was made entirely by me from a small piece of cardboard which is on top of the larger raised portion which gives the card three "levels". The spine binding on the big book wraps around to the side of the card and even has a title box. The brown book labled "Poe" was also made by me with corrugated providing the spine bands which I gilded. The other books came directly from the e-reader ad.

Friday, March 18, 2011

Are the Book Gods Irish?

Lest you think I actually wrote a post about a day in which there were no books involved, let me clear that misconception up immediately. We began our St. Patrick’s Day merriment at 7 a.m. yesterday at Sully’s where the Guinness flowed like the waters of the River Liffey. At such a tender hour even the lighter Jameson’s or Harp didn’t entice me, which could I suppose, call my essential Irishness into question. Now THERE’S a disturbing thought. Let's not dwell on it. I more than made up for it in my enjoyment of the music anyway. There's nothing like a rousing chorus of Finnegan’s Wake to get the blood dancing a Haymaker’s Jig in your veins, no matter what the hour.

Later in the day we stopped off at the antiques mall to bring some new books and tidy up the place a bit. I dragged over a 19 volume set of mysteries written from the 40’s to the 60’s primarily for two reasons – A.) if I listed them online someone from Europe would be dying to have them shipped for $14.95 air mail and B.) the bright red bindings called out like the blast of a siren song at two a.m.. We displayed them on the top of a bookcase where I hoped they would grab some attention over the weekend. But guess what? They won’t be there over the weekend, as they turned up on the sold list last night. Amount of time in the store – a record six hours. Had I known they’d be THAT popular I’d have hauled them over strapped to my back in in the frozen depths of January.

By late afternoon we were off to the rural wilds of Ohio to a book sale of dubious distinction. We got there early to find exactly one person in line, an ebay seller who wondered what he’d been thinking to have made an almost two hour trip to such a hole in the wall. By starting time the line had grown to a magnifcent fifteen people, only five of whom were dealers and that includes both Eric and me. Seconds before the doors opened a very nice man made an announcement – no scanning allowed. Oh joy! Oh rapture! Oh sublime bliss! Never mind that one guy cheated and scanned on the sly – the atmosphere was so rare that someone truly should have snapped a few photos for the Smithsonian archives just to prove that at least once in 2011 a book sale occurred at which the participants were polite, calm, and even jovial.

As for the books, they didn’t immediately blind me with their light, but because the crowd was small and the atmosphere that of a neighborhood diner it was possible to go slowly and really look at the offerings. The prices were crazy good so Eric loaded up on lots of nice new-looking books for the store while I, like Ramona Quimby’s cat, was, even more  picky-picky than usual. Nonetheless, I wound up with one fairly big box full to the top, seven books of which are headed to the mall. None are WILDY good, but all are good enough and these days that alone is impetus to pay homage to the book gods. My favorites are the three pictured above on my Connemara blanket purchased in Ireland in 1974 – a first edition Daddy Long-Legs from 1912, a 1956 facsimile of the first edition of Dickens’ A Christmas Carol published by Columbia University Press with color illustrations and a slipcase, and A Yankee Trader In the Gold Rush; The Letters of Franklin A. Buck, a first edition from 1930. And get this – we parted with only a hundred dollars and acquired 77 books.

In all these years it has never occurred to me to question the ethnic heritage of the books gods. If pressed, I would have said Greek or Roman, but after last night I’m beginning to think they may have formed from the eerie mists of ancient Connemara on the night of the summer solstice. Either that, or I was blessed with the luck of the Irish on St. Patrick's Day.

Wednesday, March 16, 2011

Irish On My Mind

It’s damp and drizzly today and as gray as old underwear, the perfect weather for St. Patrick’s Day tomorrow. I’m in an Irish frame of mind today – a sort of melancholy racousness that wants to party and at the same time cry in a pint of Guinness (well, pinot grigio). That’s how it is with the Irish though. We’re a strange people – forever laughing on the edge of desolation.

Anyway, tomorrow is the big day and for once we are going to do something celebratory that I didn’t make myself. My husband, God love him, will never be accused of being a party boy (we SO would never have gotten together had I known him in high school), so to drag him to a crowded, noisy bar to hear Irish music would be the equivalent of tossing him in Mountjoy Gaol with poor Kevin Barry who was hanged as a rebel. A few times when the kids were little we trekked up to Cleveland for the annual St. Patrick’s Day parade. Though Eric found it palatable,  I am not as enamored of it as I was when I was a kid and marched in it dressed in my embroidered Irish dancing costume. The sleight of time’s hand cruelly diminished my memory of its pageantry and I’m still pouting about it.

When the girls lived at home I made St. Patrick’s Day myself from corned beef, cabbage, colcannon, and soda bread (with raisins) garnished with what we always called a “hooley in the kitchen”. This consisted of cranking up jigs, reels and hornpipes on the stereo and dancing in front of the sink. Well, I danced and sometimes Catie danced with me, but Moira and Eric were content to watch (with pleasure of course) in their mutually quiet way. My set piece was the hornpipe (hard shoes a la Riverdance), one step of which invariably brought the house down even though the secret to its success was just to stomp as hard as possible on the two opportunities to do it.

Don’t laugh. I took Irish dancing lessons for years and used to compete in the feis (pronounced “fesh”) in Chicago, Akron and Toronto where I won enough medals to at least keep my head up. My grandfather was an extraordinary Irish dancer who could make his feet sound like a typewriter. When I was four he started teaching me in the basement of his house on Saturday afternoons to scratchy old 78 rpm records cranked up on the Victrola. The reward for learning “the baby reel” danced to the tune of The Girl I Left Behind Me was a tiny glass of beer ringed with pink elephants and the admonition to keep its existence to “meself”. I know, I know … but it didn’t kill me. I’m still here, aren’t I?

Since the kids flew the coop I have occasionally danced by myself just to make sure I still have the old Irish mojo (I do), but that’s been about the sum of St. Patrick’s Day these last years. When I was a child though St. Patrick’s Day officially dawned with a sunrise Mass at the old Carmelite monastery in Akron. The mystical chanting of the monks singing plainsong (Gregorian chant) in the dim chapel redolent of incense haunts me still, as does the memory of my grandfather dressed like the lord of the manor with a carnation in his lapel in remembrance of his mother and wafting fumes of Cashmere Bouquet talcum in his wake. After Mass we’d head to breakfast at the Ancient Order of Hibernians and then to Cleveland for the parade. Most of the time I had to “dance out” in the evening (which was what we called performing at various venues), but a few times we partied hard and late at either the Hibernians or the West Side Irish American Club in Cleveland. All of it now seems far, far away, as I am no longer Catholic, nor enmeshed in the Irish culture. Of course the fact that it WAS long ago and far away may have something to do with it too.

But this year, I have found a way for Eric and me to celebrate St. Patrick's Day that he will actually like and I won't have to concoct out of potatoes, flour, corned beef and recorded music. Tomorrow, dressed in kelly green (me at least), we are heading down to Sully’s Irish Pub early in the morning for their big Irish breakfast. There will be live music, little girls dancing as I once did, and hearty Irish fare washed down with a cuppa or two. Maybe -- if I get very, very lucky -- I'll even glimpse that Celtic magic, that in the end, was the good part of the bad old days of my childhood.

Monday, March 14, 2011

Salvador Dali's Golden Cookbook

Let’s pretend we’re in kindergarten and today is Show and Tell. I’m in the front row sitting cross-legged on the floor, hand flying in the air, (“Pick me! Pick me!”), so excited I’m coiled up tighter than a Slinky. What I brought today is gold and shiny with bright colorful pictures and big words that make grown-ups laugh. I’ve been holding this treasure for several years and have never listed it because I refuse to pay anyone a commission on it. Last spring I took it to the Akron Antiquarian Book Fair where it garnered numerous admirers, some of whom visited it multiple times, but, alas, it found no takers, due to its bright, shiny price tag– which is actually reasonable at $350. Even though I still don’t plan to list it, I do think it’s high time I shared the outrageous glory of the thing.

The book is Les Diners de Gala by the one and only Salvador Dali, published in France in 1973 and named for his wife Gala. The art is a Muligatawny stew of drawings, paintings, collage and photos, each more jaw-dropping than the next. Collectively it leaves even the most psychedelic reefer dream ever recorded dusty and gasping for breath at the side of the subconscious. By his own admission Dali loved “everything gilded and excessive”, so the book more than fits the bill of fare from its glittering golden dustjacket to its back endpapers which explode with visions of wine bottles, grapes, apples, oranges, cherries, lettuce, bones, and body parts. Interesting body parts.

But diners and cooks do not live on images alone. They also need  prose, in this instance ladled up in great splotches of purple and oozing rivulets of honey and vinegar. Chapter Two, les cannibalisms de’latiumne, begins, “The Crayfish of Paracelsus has to be served along with the heads or torsos of small hot-blooded martyrs as a gesture of homage to Gilles de Rais (Giles of Retz) whose most delightful ejac….” Well, let’s just let it go at that.

This IS kindergarten, after all.

Saturday, March 12, 2011

Lights, Books, Camera!

I know I’ve been quiet, but except for one loooooooong lunch at Sully’s Irish Pub with Cheryl I have been buzzing like a worker bee trying to wear out my little red Nikon camera. These new slim digitals seem like toys to me -- give me a camera with heft any day. I guess that goes back to my first newspaper job in the 70’s when I not only wrote the stories, but took the pictures too. In those days you lugged around a camera that not only meant business, but entered the room before you did. Every time I look at this lame little thing (and its many counterparts) I feel like it ought to say Made by Mattel. But this isn’t about camera technology – it’s about photographing books, a job you either love or hate.

I actually don’t mind snapping the images. I don’t even mind putting them on my own website because it’s so easy and you don’t have to rename them so they can be matched with the right books. On Advanced Book Exchange , however, you DO have to do this and it’s a tiresome and laborious process. I know it would be easier if I sent the file via FTP which I could do if I knew how, but the truth is I don’t really have much desire to LEARN. Control freak that I am, I want to see those pictures actually attach so I know the job is done and done right. Of course it would be a fine thing to get all these images on every site I sell on, but I am not inclined to do it. First of all, the small sites are disappearing faster than Borders stores -- ABE just snatched Choosebooks and will soon be absorbing it which means I’ll have one less place to upload to. I suspect there will come a day where the 3As not only dominate, but will be the last book sites standing other than the personal sites of indies like us. I wouldn’t even be surprised if Amazon alone ultimately stood on a heaping mound of books waving a spear like a victorius warrior king -- unless of course ebooks totally obliterate the physical book in which case they’ll give booksellers the heave-ho faster than you can say “Ahoy, matey!”

Actually, I am to the point where I really don’t care much about what happens online. My goal is to pare it down to Advanced Book Exchange, my own website, and my secret site. Yes, that means goodbye Biblio and alibris. I don’t really have anything against them – I just don’t think they fit my new business model. I do sell older things on them from time to time, but their buyers seem wedded to the almighty ISBN. ABE, for me at least, rules. So I’m thinking maybe I need to focus on just the three sites and give them my all instead of spreading myself so thin I’m like the last of the peanut butter clinging to the jar. There’s no question that the antiques mall has played a huge role in shaping my thoughts these days. I know it’s not for everyone, but even with the theft of my postcards, I am madly, crazy, over-the-moon in love with it.

But getting back to pictures, I think it’s imperative that we upload images, especially for books that don’t get matched with a stock photo which is about ninety per cent of my inventory. I have been doing it (some) for the past year, but am really ramping it up now. As I mentioned before, I am also in the process of paring down my inventory to get rid of books that have worn out their welcome. I would rather see a tight, controlled, small inventory than a sprawling, unfocused mess which is what time has left me holding after fourteen years. Once I get rid of all the dead wood and photograph everything that’s left it should be easy to keep in A-1 condition as new books come in.

There’s no question that photos sell books. When I sold on ebay I shot photos with merry abandon and managed to achieve and keep power seller status for three years with an inventory that never maxed out at more than 350 books and usually ran around 250. I realize that ebay draws from a huge pool of buyers, but that doesn’t mean you could just coast either. Photos and detailed descriptions were what sold the books.

So, if you haven’t already become a shutterbug you might want to give it some serious thought. Actually, forget thought. As Nike would say, “Just do it.”

Tuesday, March 08, 2011

The Only One In Ivy

Alas, the book gods said no. No, you cannot have a reasonably good collection at a reasonably good price. In fact, you can’t even have a reasonably good collection at ANY price. You are not in ivy, so don’t even think about clover, missy. The only living thing in ivy around these parts is the deer.

Yesterday’s trip to view the “collection” has to rank as the all-time worst ever. Before I tell the story you have to know that I always ask questions before we agree to look at books. Also, the first thing I tell sellers who phone is that I buy very little fiction and NO popular fiction. I also buy very few books with ISBNs unless they are significant and focused. In other words, I do not buy the equivalent of Everything You Ever Wanted To Know About American History In One Complete Volume. To be sure we were on the same page I even asked this owner a second time if the books were older and he assured me that they were. I asked, too, how many books he had and was told “a lot.”

So imagine my amazement when the second we walked in the door piles of novels -- Mary Higgins Clark, Stephen King, etc. – greeted us from both the floor and the table. The few old books included a handful of Harvard Classics, a libretto from the Metropolitan Opera, and four cheap novels from the turn of the century by a no-name author. There were probably a hundred items in all if you count a small box of Harvard classics and a partial set of Annals of America as two. Oh, how I hate when this happens, especially when the sellers are so nice and have two cute dogs and share my liking for the color blue. I hate being the bad guy who says, “No, I’m afraid these won’t work for me.” As always, they were amazed – stunned even -- that their treasures were found lacking. Eric, sensing my anguish, offered them fifty cents apiece for the fiction for store stock, but they declined, figuring they’d sell it themselves online. All I can say is, “Good luck” and I am not being sarcastic. I would bet the house that this will not prove to be a fun new hobby for them.

All the way home I lamented the whole fiasco and tried to analyze how it even happened. In the end I came to the conclusion that it’s all relative. I say older and he thinks they ARE older. Good grief, some of them are twenty years old! I say antiquarian and he thinks, yep, I got some of those too – those Harvard Classics are dynamite. I ask how many volumes there are. He thinks “a lot”. But what really is a lot? This time “a lot” was a hundred, though when pressed earlier he thought it more in the neighborhood of a couple hundred. One time "a lot" turned out to be about a dozen, but that was okay because the owner brought them to the store. And of course I will never forget the one memorable time when “a lot” meant 35,000 volumes. (Oh, to have THAT happen again!)

So what to do? Frankly, I don’t know. In the past I have asked for actual titles, but very often the seller doesn’t know any because the books were Grandpa's and they’re now at Aunt Gladys’ house and she lives the next town over. Even when exact titles are available it can sound promising and still turn out be an utter failure due to condition. Sadly, condition is also a relative thing. I say I need them to be in good to very good condition. They think, well, they smell a little bad, but old books smell bad. Just last week a woman told me that very thing and was confounded to find out that mustiness is not endemic to the species. I think that without alienating the seller before we even connect there’s very little I can do beyond what I’m already doing, which means of course that some days I’ll land in ivy and some days it’ll be scorched earth.

Like it or not, the price of doing business is sometimes having to say no to nice people with cute dogs who share your fondness for the color blue.

Saturday, March 05, 2011

Patience & Fortitude

As I write this it’s pouring rain and we are under a flood watch – again. The last one, a few days ago, proved uneventful for us, but not for everyone. Having experienced flooding up close and personal a couple years ago the very word fills me with anxiety. But instead of wringing my hands and gnashing my teeth – my usual modus operandi for anything upsetting – I am choosing to shift my focus to Nicholas Basbanes’ amazing book Patience and Fortitude; Wherein a Colorful Cast of Determined Book Collectors, Dealers and Lbriarians Go About the Quixotic Task of Preserving a Legacy which I bought in hardcover in 2001 when it debuted, but never read because it was so beautiful I couldn’t bring myself to do it. Not long ago though I found a reasonably broken-in paperback copy, so ten years later I’m finally lost in its pages.

I got up at five this morning to read it, peaked outside at the rain, and immediately locked eyeballs with an enormous deer who kept sentinel duty while his two companions made breakfast of our English ivy. We see deer in the backyard a lot – we even see them strolling down the sidewalk in the middle of the day – but this one startled me. I observed him for awhile and then settled in with Basbanes and his stories of booksellers past and present. As I read about one who at age nineteen borrowed $40,000 from his parents to buy a fabulous collection which immediately launched him as a major player I got to thinking about how books are a lot like deer. They used to be much rarer than they are now. Of course rare books still surface – it’s just that rarity is rarer these days thanks to the internet.

Yesterday though a guy called the store and asked Eric if he would be interested in a first edition of The House of the Seven Gables. The first printing was limited to slightly more than 1600 copies and yet a relatively significant number are available on Advanced Book Exchange alone with prices beginning at $3000-plus and working their way downward to $1500. Eric called me around noon wondering what he should look for in ascertaining its validity as a first edition. I wish I could say I knew, but having never seen one, I had to drag out the reference books and explore the internet. Once I had the date, the particulars about its appearance, and its points of issue I phoned back and gave him the details. This stuff fascinates me no end. I love doing sit so much that the outcome is almost immaterial to me -- just learning about it is a trip. In fact, I was so caught up in the scholarship of it that I never called to find out what happened and didn’t hear the verdict until he came home last night – carrying the book.

Together Eric and I cover all the bases of bookselling, but we are not the same kind of seller. We both love books and love selling them, but Eric is not a stickler for condition and doesn’t really care all that much about editions. What excites him is putting books into the hands of people who want to read them. I like that too, but I care very much about condition and I love old books and paper far more than I do their slick, shiny counterparts. Last year, on a hunch, I bought an early Mark Twain not knowing the points of issue for the first edition. All I knew for sure is that it was possibly right and that the condition was excellent, both of which made me feel reasonably sure that I would make a profit even at the fairly steep asking price and even if I ended up being wrong. Turns out it WAS a first and I sold it handily at the antiquarian book fair in Akron the following week.

The House of the Seven Gables, however, would win no awards for beauty even if it were the first printing, which it was NOT. The spine leaned like a skateboard ramp, there was evidence of previous insect damage, and the corners were frayed to the boards. But the REAL problem was that even though the previous seller had written first edition on the front pastedown it failed the test on EVERY point of issue. There were no ads bound in, the endpapers were the wrong color and the broken type on the last words of the first two lines of page 149 was not broken at all, but rather misaligned as per the later printings. Unlike Eric, I wouldn't have bought that book at ANY price. In fact, the only thing that kept me from passing out cold in the kitchen was the fact that  I knew without even asking that he'd gotten it for a song, which he did – pocket change and the owner even took it out in trade.

In Patience & Fortitude, however, even in the early days of their bookselling careers, dealers skipped right over purchasing a significant book every now and again and went straight to buying enormous collections of very fine books for sums of money that would make your hair curl tighter than a New Year’s Eve noisemaker. In every case they had to go into grievous debt to do it, but the gamble invariably propelled them into the antiquarian game like cannonballs. Of course all of that was a long time ago, all of it occurred in or near major cities, and for every one who succeeded so easily there were probably a dozen wannabes who either washed out altogether or found themselves forever mired in the second or third tier of sellers. Even in my wildest fantasies I don’t anticipate ever routinely handling four-figure books. But tomorrow we ARE off to see a collection which I hope will be reasonably good.

It seems to me that over the years I've demonstrated a tremendous amount of both  patience and fortitude. My expectations do not exceed my grasp, and my knowledge, while not stunning, is likewise reasonable. So to ask for a reasonable collection at a reasonable price seems  reasonable to me. Now if only the book gods agree I'll at least be in ivy tomorrow, if not in clover.

Wednesday, March 02, 2011

Petty Postcards

In a world where internet fraud is rampant I can count on the fingers of one hand the number of times I’ve either been a victim, or an almost-victim. The latest of course was the would-be attempt the other day on a five year old sale (see Who’s Confused? in the blog archive), but in the end all it took was one call to ABE and a firm note from me and the whole thing disappeared.

Some years back though a scammer posing as a children’s book dealer from Great Britain ordered a set of My Book House saying he would be sending a check via his American bank account. Not a problem, except that when it arrived it was for $5000 when the total sale including shipping was a little over $200. This was in the early days of the infamous scam where the perpetrator tells you that his secretary made an error and requests that you cash the check, take what’s owed you, and send the rest back to him in a check drawn from YOUR account. Even though I’d never heard of this ploy then, it didn’t take an MBA to recognize larceny outfitted in a sandwich board. I phoned the bank from which his check was drawn and asked for the fraud department. Sure enough, he had no account there, but they were very familiar with him and asked me to forward all communications from him via email. I don’t know what happened in the end, but the funny part is he kept writing to tell me how safe it all was which meant of course that the bank and I carried on an extended and lively correspondence!

I did, however, fall victim to fraud on three wide-spaced occasions. The first time was in 1997 the first year I opened my business. I sold a book to a professor from an Ivy League university who immediately after receiving it ordered another and asked me to please send it ASAP as he needed it yesterday. In those days ABE did not collect payment so it had to be handled between the dealer and the buyer (I’d still rather have that way actually). I took credit cards, so I hesitated for a second when he said he preferred to send a check and have it and the book cross in the maiI. Something told me not to agree, but I ignored it because we’d successfully done business by check the first time. I think you can guess the sad outcome.

My second encounter was for a book on pop music, the title of which eludes me. This order came through via TomFolio and was to ship to Singapore. As luck would have it, t arrived early in the morning as I was getting ready to go to a book sale. I had a little time and figured I might as well process the card, wrap the book, and ship it on the way along with the previous day’s orders. While standing in line at the sale a long-time dealer asked if anyone had gotten an order from Singapore through TomFolio. I said I had and he replied, “Well, whatever you do, don’t ship it. TomFolio sent out a warning about it right after I got mine.” Turns out it was a stolen credit card. The book, the shipping, and the bank fees exceeded $100.

Sadly, my third situation was a repeat performance of the Great Singapore Scenario. A guy from California ordered The Vincent Price Cookbook, which at that time sold for $150, and called me with his credit card number. I found him very personable and remember chatting a little about cooking, so was totally blindsided when I got notice that this credit card was stolen too!

I tell you these tales because this week I experienced the downside of retail in a whole new way. Monday night I took a box of books over to the antiques mall as planned. It was late, they were about ready to close, so I quickly tidied up the books that had migrated and shelved the new ones. But just as I picked up my empty banker’s box and started to leave I caught a glimpse of the small chest on which I showcase special small items. A couple weeks ago I had noticed that two hand-colored real photo Japanese postcards from the 1940’s were gone and figured they’d been purchased. When they failed to to show up on the nightly sold list I filled out a missing item report thinking that perhaps a buyer had changed his or her mind and returned them to the wrong booth, a very common occurrence. Once we found two of our books on a table down the aisle and another time discovered someone’s huge trophy sitting on our ephemera table along with a second dealer’s stereoptican cards.

So, what was missing this time? Postcards again -- three -- and from the exact corner where the Japanese cards had been. I used to call it my lucky corner because I sold several unusual and hard to find local interest cards from it before the Japanese ones disappeared. I tried to ignore the feeling that washed over me, telling myself that they were local interest cards just like all the ones I’d sold, and they’d turn up on the nightly list. But of course they didn’t. The total for the five very uncommon and highly desirable cards is $80. Dealers work harder than ever these days to get unusual items and pay more for them in terms of both cost and overhead, so a hit like that stings.

But oddly enough, the money matters less to me than the fact that someone took them knowing that mine is a small business. I also have the sinking feeling that the same person filched them all which makes it even worse. I think I’d rather have five random people snatch five postcards than one person take two and then deliberately come back later for three more. I know it’s not really personal, but it sure feels that way.