Thursday, September 27, 2012

A Bookseller's Fantasy Sale

If I could create the world’s best book sale I would paint it all in bright colors with broad strokes using a giant paint brush and messy gallons of paint with drips cascading down the sides of the cans. It would be big too, this sale – lots of space and lots of books all piled up everywhere in crooked stacks on miles of tables and underneath in boxes so heavy you’d need two hands and the strength of King-Kong to pull them out. No one would be obnoxious, or step on your feet with ten pound sneakers and all of the buyers would be freshly showered. I'm not sure how this part would work, but somehow the sale would crackle with energy and still emanate a zenlike peace to soothe our nerdy bookseller souls. Oh – and the books would be priced low too – mostly a dollar, but no more than $10 for the best – and there would be more than enough books to go around so that everyone gets what they want. At my fantasy sale no one is left out, not even the scanners. Wow! Could it be that I’m turning into a nicer, gentler bookseller? Maybe. But it might also be that I’m feeling benevolent after having GONE to my fantasy sale yesterday.

The real thing looked a lot like the above, except for maybe the rain and the darkness of the building in which it was held. But think about it – when does real life ever give you every single picky little thing you imagine? Not often. And sometimes it even gives you something BETTER than you imagined. So let’s look at all the good stuff here. The crowd was great, and happily, readers outnumbered sellers two to one. Scanner people were evident too, but their magic wands likely didn’t get a heavy-duty workout because old books trumped new ones by a margin wider than a football field.(Okay, so much for the everybody gets what they want thing.) But the room WAS cavernous and there WERE lots of books and also a happy peppering of old-school book dealers to talk to. But, best of all, a sale that used to be noted for its pie-in the-sky price tags, magically morphed into the dollar store minus all the cheap Chinese doo-dads. Seriously, books were priced anywhere from a dollar (pamphlets and art catalogs fifty cents) to no more than $10. And even the $10 ones were rare – I spotted only one!

So what gives with this? I don’t know, but I suspect that there was a huge donation from one person involved, as many books centered around medieval and renaissance topics across all genres, including magazines.Either it was an estate or else the inventory of a former bookseller. I am leaning hard toward the latter because I bought some magazines on medieval history and the name of a certain bookseller I was crazy about, but who sadly died a couple years ago, is on the mailing labels. I suppose in the big picture it doesn’t matter either way whether or not they were his, except that it DOES matter -- to me anyway. This dealer was the first one of the “real booksellers” to treat me like I had a brain in my head and might actually turn out to be a “real bookseller” myself some day. Since that finally happened I would consider it an honor to sell his books which is why I’m so fervently hoping that these are them.

Will I ever know? Maybe. Or maybe not. Tomorrow is half price day and the tables will likely be picked over like a turkey carcass the day after Thanksgiving, but I'm going back anyway. To buy books, yes, but also to find out if my theory is right. He lived in the town where the sale was held and ran a store not far from thre, so I think the odds are about fifty-fifty.

Okay, I know what you’re thinking, so let’s lose the sentimentality and cut to the chase. Were the books valuable? Yes. No. That is to say, it was a mixed bag on two different planes. I got a few high two-figures ones on Mennonite history, several exceptional pamphlets and art catalogs, a two year consecutive run of an uncommon magazine, and a fair number of books priced at $25-45 each, all online stock. I also got a plethora of books for the antiques mall which,oddly, are the ones I love best. Something tells me my bookseller friend may have owned most of those and quite likely some of the others too. I’d heard that his son is selling his former stock online, but I also know that some of it has been around for awhile and likely suffered the slings and arrows of wannabe sellers which means that they very well might have been donated to the sale. But there’s no point in speculation. I’ll either find out, or I won’t.

The important thing is that the new season got off to a rip-roaring start (if you don’t count the FOL sale the previous night) which we won’t. For me the official launch was yesterday and all it lacked was a bottle of champagne, a couple crystal glasses and a few rays of sunshine.

Oh yeah -- and enough high-ranking books on amazon so the scanners get to be happy too.
P.S. Isn't the new photo at the top FABULOUS? I wish I could say I took it, but I did not. It was sent by a reader to whom I am grateful, as it's exactly what I was thinking when I wrote the above.

Tuesday, September 18, 2012

Happy to Be Hauling Books!

It’s not that I have a lot to say today, but here I am because I am so happy to be back out to the sales again after the summer hiatus I’m fairly crackling with joy! I haven’t been to an FOL, but I did go to two productive estate sales this past weekend. After looking at the ads for the mostly disappointing local sales we decided to venture farther afield. So Friday morning we pulled out of our driveway at 6:30 a.m. to be there in time for a 9:30 opening. It was strange to know no one in line, but that got remedied quickly enough because I’m a talker (yeah, really, I am sometimes). The first guy I talked to was a book guy (but not a dealer), so we chatted about industrial designer, Viktor Schreckengost’s, book, a book in his collection that had been signed and inscribed by the author to two different people at two different times, I. M. Pei, and various other fun stuff. I actually even allowed myself to engage in conversation with another guy who IS a book dealer about the state of the book world while we picked. Now THERE’’S a first!

Normally at a book sale I am yakking away in line, but as soon as that door opens I’m focused like a laser But three walls of books, all older, enveloped us and it was just the two of us looking, so we chatted while we perused the titles, showed each other which were book clubs, and ended up having a pretty fun time. Our tastes weren’t the same anyway, so it was no big deal. I bought about fifteen early 20th century theology books in like new condition for the antiques mall, plus three more that wound up being good enough to go online, and three WWI histories, also for the mall. By today’s standards that was a fairly big haul! Meanwhile Eric ran around gathering up some (expensive) goodies of his own. The first was a curio cabinet with a light which we can use at the mall to secure smalls, and should have acquired 22 months ago when we first opened up. Sad to say, it’s beginning to look like I “lost“ an antiquarian set – Memoirs of General Grant – though how a huge, thick, two volume set could be whisked out the door in the summer with no one seeing it is anybody’s guess. But I’m not going to get into THAT. I’m happy today and I’d rather stay that way. Eric also got a gorgeous, very high quality set of bronze bookends, replicas of the Lincoln Monument that weigh twelve pounds combined! In the new lighted cabinet they’re truly DAZZLING, though you might not guess it from the photo above. We were flying out the door Saturday morning to get over there with the new items before it got busy, so I snapped a quick photo on the kitchen island before Eric packed them.

But getting back to the far-away sale …. After we loaded our PT Cruiser with all the goodies (even the cabinet fit!) we headed over to Peninsula to a sale owned by a local artist. Art books abounded -- literally they inhabited every nook and cranny – and yet they were all stunningly common. Many were too new for the mall, so I switched gears and snapped up art catalogues instead. I did buy two art books, one of which was signed by the author at the Boston Mills annual art show not far from there. But that was pretty much that. Still – a very good day and great fun, though I did miss a Rockwell Kent from 1937 that my antiques dealer friend Darwin scored two hours after we left! But it’s okay. I’ve had it before and you do see it from time to time.

At the mall we were presented at the desk with a note from a person who’d stopped by the booth and wanted to sell us some books.I called her and we have an appointment for Thursday afternoon. I have no clue whether or not there will be anything we can use (You will note that I refrained from saying “anything good”, though I came dangerously close!.) She, like most people, said she had “a lot of stuff”, “this and that,” “too much to even remember.” I’m trying not to be negative here, but experience has shown that these phrases are code for “I don’t have a darn thing anybody would want, but I’m taking a shot at it anyway!” We’ll see soon enough.

Sunday found us shivering in the frigid air at the Medina Flea Market where I found three very good books. You can find interesting paper there sometimes, but not a lot of books. One is about Freemasonry from the late 1800’s in excellent condition. The second is a first edition of the housekeeping book Harriet Beecher Stowe wrote with her sister. The condition is good, but not great, on that one, though the good news is that the problems are confined primarily to the spine bands – the interior is clean and bright. The third book is an oversized soft cover local history published in 1906. I’ve never seen it before and can’t find a comparable online. It’s not perfect on the outside, but the inside, other than first page, is clean and bright and it’s tightly bound. The freemasonry already went to the mall, but the other two will go online as soon as I can find out more about the latter.

So there’s my good book news. But there's still one more thing to whirl and twirl about. The bath will be finished today! I extracted a promise – the cross your heart kind -- from WBC so I’m trusting him to deliver. Once he finishes that and hangs the new closet doors in the bedroom the second floor of the house will be mine again. I can hardly wait.

Thursday, September 13, 2012

Reading In Wartime

During WWII shared sacrifice extended to all corners of daily life including how people indulged their bookish inclinations. We’ve all seen older books of the period in a smaller format accompanied by the caveat that the petite size was due to the need to be patriotic and conserve paper. But a smaller size wasn’t the only change in the look of books in the 40’s. Soldiers got oddly shaped paperbacks and Liberty Condensed Books provided readers with hyper-condensation. Each “book” was an oversized pamphlet of about 16 dense pages designed to be read in a single evening. Both text and cover (such as it was) were printed on cheap rag paper and came with a crossword puzzle on the back in case you were a fast reader and had some time to kill before calling it a night. Those of you who’ve been around awhile may recall that a few years ago we bought from the estate of a guy named Elmer an incredible number of books (35,000 in the first go). God love him, he hoped to one day haul them all out west and open a store, but he died and never got the chance to run up a whopping trucking bill. Anyway, Elmer was an equal opportunity book buyer. He bought what he liked and he liked a lot of things – the superb, the good, the bad, the ugly and the quirky. It’s that brave show of quirk that I liked best about Elmer.

These Liberties, of which I have around fifty pieces , give or take, came in their entirety from Elmer’s stash. For years I’ve had them stashed myself in the closet for the simple reason that I can’t find out anything about them. But I do think they’ve overstayed their welcome so the whole lot is off to the mall to be sold as a single unit if at all possible. Notice that one in the main photo on top was written by the famous Gypsy Rose Lee, though as I recall, her fame had little to do with writing.

I DO know about the yellow and red paperback in the picture below though and thought I’d share some info in case you ever run across one, or two, or three of them. Some of them used to be fairly collectible, but I wouldn’t hold my breath on it now. Still they’re an interesting piece of history. Ever wonder why they are wider than they are tall? What’s with THAT? Why not just print a regular paperback to fit in a knapsack and be done with it? Wartime economics – that’s why. These books were printed on rotary magazine presses designed for a larger format, so they’d print two books simultaneously (they called it printing two-up) and slice the page in half horizontally. I did a little fact checking this morning and learned that between 1943 and 1947 123 million rolled off five presses. But there were only 1322 titles involved, which sounds like a small number to an avid reader, though may actually be a lot when you consider how little leisure time the audience actually had.

I got to wondering this morning how the books for troops program got started, so I poked around a little in that other book up there in the picture (the green one ) and learned that it was the bright idea of an army officer named Ray Trautman who headed the Library Section and a government graphic art specialist named H. Stahley Thomspon. The pair hauled the idea over to the Council on Books in Wartime which was comprised of the leading publishers of the day. The publishers offered to help, but extracted an agreement that the project was not to include text books, science or technology. In the end it ended up being an amalgamation of bestsellers, classics, genre fiction, history, and poetry. The books were distributed by the government which bought them at six cents a book plus ten percent with a half per cent royalty going to both the publisher and the author. One patriotic and better heeled author, Irving Stone, offered to give up his royalties for the cause, but the Council turned him down flat because most authors needed the money!

Both the Army and the Navy got the final say before a title was approved, but the broad guidelines included the following: nothing offensive to the Allies or to any racial or religious group, and of course nothing that would aid the enemy. Other that it was supposed to be fair game, but of course there was plenty of political nit-picking over what that meant. One of the books that got the boot was Zane Grey’s Riders of the Purple Sage for attacking Mormons. Later, Robert Taft, who was running for office at the time got a bit of legislation passed that caused censorship to rear its ugly head. In the end seventy tiles had to be abridged to -- as the Irish so colorfully put it -- “take out the mucky bits.” These included everything from Moby Dick to Forever Amber. If I’m not mistaken the Catholic Legion of Decency didn’t care for Amber too much either. I bought a copy in Ireland back in the 70’s and enjoyed it greatly while holed up in a nice hotel in Killarney with the worst sore throat of my life.

But that’s another story and I already told it here anyway. So what do you think was the first book shipped out to the troops? Bet you can’t name it! I couldn’t either. Anybody ever hear of The Education of Hyman Kaplan by Leo Rosten? I thought not. It certainly didn’t make the fan faves list which included Betty Smith’s A Tree Grows in Brooklyn and anything by Louis Bromfield and Kenneth Roberts. The reason some wartime titles became collectibles is the fact that they appeared in print for the first time in this format – two of which include Faulkner’s A Rose for Emily and Other Stories and the Selected Short Stories of Ernest Hemingway.It’s strange how so many red and yellow books were printed and yet so few have survived. It’s been attributed to action on the battlefield and abandonment when the soldiers left the war zone to return home. In fifteen years I have only seen the occasional title and ALWAYS on the “specials” table at an FOL sale, but I never bought one. So how then did I get this one?

Elmer – of course!

P.S. I just had an email from a military historian who tried very hard to get the robot who keeps watch over my comments to let him through, but it refused. So here it is: "An advantage to the Armed Services Editions was that the short spine didn't crack or break when stuffed in a pocket." Good to know that economy reaps unexpected rewards!

Sunday, September 09, 2012

Falling Back In Line

Woke up this morning to cold air wafting through the open window, a sign that fall with all its pleasures will soon be here. I love the leaves, cold weather food, winter clothes, blankets, knitted afghans that don’t match the rug, red wine and cozy nights reading by the fireplace. Oh, and book sales. I still like book sales. Saturday’s mail brought two reminders of upcoming library sales, the sight of which fills me to the brim with cockeyed optimism. I know, I KNOW. I rail about the scanners and the “race to the bottom” and all that other bad stuff that turns me into a grouch. But the thought of tables and tables of books, most of which I know will not be “good”, might possibly hide a treasure that I alone will recognize. Always, always, as long as I live I think fall will trigger that deep pleasure in hiking the book trail.

The word “good” does bother me though. When I was a kid “good” when used to describe books meant something altogether different. A “good” book was the one I couldn’t put down, the one I HAD to read no matter what dreaded math test loomed tomorrow. Betsy and Tacy, Jennifer Hill, Little Women, Katie John, Beezus and Ramona – I loved them all. Today at the sales these are not “good” books. They’ve all fallen out of too many closets, enjoyed too many reprints, got in the hands of sellers who didn’t appreciate them, and were devalued. In a monetary sense, unless they are first editions (and in some cases even THAT’S iffy), they are not “good.” I really hate it when I make that value judgement, when I say “they had a lot of books, but none of them were any good” because it’s not true. LOTS of them were good – Alice Hoffman’s The Probable Future, The Guernsey Literary and Potato Peel Pie Society, anything by Richard Russo, Wally Lamb, oyce Carol Oates, Robert Hallenga, and Gail Godwin are VERY good. I loved them when I read them and I and love them still. So this year I want to stop saying that there was nothing good at the sales when good books were so plentiful I tripped over them.

Of course that doesn’t mean I don’t want to find treasures. I do. Of course I do. But I have to tell you that selling books at the mall has been wonderful for my perspective. I’ve sold three-figure books there and ten dollar books there and have loved both ends of the spectrum, something which is not true online. It pleases me when someone finds a good book they can afford and enjoy as much as I enjoyed choosing it. I love that I can scoop up something that catches my fancy with no worry about what’s happening online, or will happen an hour after I list it. At heart I don’t really think I was cut out to be an online seller -- which is not to say that I don’t love getting lots of orders and wonderful thank you notes from customers. I love all that good stuff. Maybe what I mean is this -- I WAS cut out for it the way it was in the beginning, but am less so now. I do have it worked out better now though – no more selling on any sites that make me break out in hives. These would be (in no special order) ebay, amazon and alibris. I’m happy to keep it simple these days with Abe, Biblio, my own site, and my secret site. It’s enough. And it has renewed my pleasure in being online greatly.

So then. Book sale season begins in a week and a half or so. It’s time to ferret out my Friends of the Library membership cards, my canvas bags, my favorite book sale jeans and sweaters, add a pair of reading glasses so I can see what I’m doing, and prepare once again for the fifteenth consecutive year to take my place in line.

Friday, September 07, 2012

Naked Books

It’s a rare time when I am without words, but this summer may be one of them. It feels to me like time is stuck, like the hands of the clock got cemented to its face. Every day it’s the same thing – house, house, and more house. The work drags on and while it IS progressing there’s still a lot of stuff on the list. I suspect I will be living with World’s Best Contractor for at least another month because every job takes three times as long as you would expect and of course I’m not his only client. I think all those TV shows where they make over a house the size of the Biltmore in a week raised my expectations and atrophied my brain. As a result, I’ve refrained from blogging on the grounds that I am simply too boring at the moment.

The antiques mall seems to be humming along though. We’ve already made the new higher rent plus a profit, but it’s important to note that half of it came from things that are not books. Wednesday we sold a four-point Hudson Bay blanket Eric bought at an estate sale AND that gorgeous blond cabinet that’s really a cedar chest. Oh, the angst when I saw that the latter had sold! I have a hunch that I priced it too low and it was snapped up by a dealer. But I doubled my money and sold it in less than a week, so I really can’t complain. What’s bothers me most is that it gave the booth a dash of panache and made a great display piece for books and now there’s nothing there but a gaping hole. Great antiques, like great books, do not sprout out of the ground. Most of what’s out there is either primitive, common, and/or dreary. I look at that stuff and it makes my teeth hurt. I spent an hour scouring Auction Zip yesterday in hopes of finding a decent auction to go to, but in every single instance all it took was a glance at the pictures to nix that idea.

Believe it not, I need books again too. The forty boxes Eric brought me before he left have all been swiftly dealt with and provided me with only a small boost in inventory. Sixty per cent returned to the store, thirty per cent went to the mall, and ten per cent landed online. I remember the day when the whole shebang would have gone online and created a nice bang in return. But that was then and this is now. I tell myself that a lot these days.

Anyway, I don’t have an abundance of books left after dragging so many to the mall, so I am mulling over the idea of slamming something really good on ABE and Biblio. Speaking of Biblio, I had a whopping twelve – TWELVE – orders from them last month. It’s unprecendented. It’s practically unheard of. It makes me sound like a pathological liar. But it really did happen. Since then, however, there have been a measly two. (Sigh). So, here I am considering what I have squirrelled away and what I might part with without having a meltdown. For sure it will NOT be the Frank Lloyd Wright goodies under the guest room bed. That stuff is the gold standard to be trotted out at next year’s Akron show just in case it’s the only decent stuff I’ll have. So that leaves me with a three-figure book on kilims, the second copy of the Savoy Cocktail Book, or a first edition of The Ambassadors by Henry James WITH the linen dustjacket. I was leaning toward the James.

But then I read that Henry liked it best of all his books and that made me feel like maybe I should wait and take it to the show too. I don’t know. At any rate, I thought I’d at least take it out of the closet, as you might want to look at it in case you ever spot one. I have to tell you though it’s not exactly a book that jumps off the shelf. I didn’t know I had it until I unpacked that collection we bought this spring in Cleveland. And even when I first picked it up I still thought it didn’t have a jacket! As you can see in the photo below, the dustjacket is made of linen and fits the book like a second skin. Very cool, especially if, like me, you like the look of naked books.

And THAT’S how I got the provocative title for this blog which is probably boring and for which I apologize. Eventually the sawdust will clear and so will my thoughts. I promise.

Saturday, September 01, 2012

A Little Store To Call Our Own

We did it! We moved into the new booth at the antiques mall on Thursday. As I believe I mentioned, the window of opportunity to launch it this weekend had barely cracked open, as Eric had to go back to Malvern for the second phase of the Great Trail Festival. We had called and asked if we could get in earlier if it was vacant and they kindly said we could and they would even let us know the minute it happened. Day followed day though and no call, so Wednesday night I resigned myself to the possibility of a mid-month move.

The glass wall and shower door were due to be installed by the glass people on Thursday morning anyway, so I let the mall go and turned my attention to the house. Well, actually I turned it to the books we just got. If you recall I was worried about not having enough to fill the new space. Well, early in the week a long-time seller (he’s been around longer than our fifteen years) came into the store with forty boxes of books to sell. For a variety of reasons, not the least of which is his utter disgust with what the business has degenerated into, he decided to close up shop. Eric loaded up the car with them and surpised me Wednesday night. World’s Best Contractor (WBC) was still there sawing crown molding in the driveway, but I whirled and twirled around him like a pinwheel. He already knows I’m like that anyway. I jump up and down like a pogo stick very time he creates something wonderful.

Thursday morning I was having a blast sorting through all those new books when the glass guy called me and WBC in to see the finished product. One look and my vocal chords froze like an exposed pipe in the dead of winter. WBC turned so white I thought he’d keel over. They’d custom made both the door and the wall with the wrong glass! It was supposed to be clear so you could see the tile in the shower – an important design feature for this small space. But instead it was opaque with sort of a rainfall look. When my vocal chords finally unlocked I mumbled something about it not being what I expected, but I supposed I could live with it -- which was not even a little bit true. WBC’s eyebrows shot to the top of his head at that, so I just shut up and stared miserably at it.

Fortunately, the phone rang.

It was Jean from the antiques mall. The booth was ready and we could come right this second if we wanted. I wanted! Oh, did I want! I called Eric and in fifteen minutes he and the truck were here and an hour later we were rambling down Rte. 18 loaded with books and furniture. Before we left home WBC assured us that he was taking the glass situation to the mat.

As soon as we were in the mall excitement splintered into a cross between stress and elation. The clock was ticking and we had only five and half hours to complete the task. It sounds like a lot, but it’s not because people come by and talk to you. Also ideas that worked so well in your head don’t always work that well in reality. You move something from here and end up dragging it over there. You pull all the books out of a case and distribute them in narrower categories. I felt like we were competing in a reality TV show. Just as they sounded the end-of-day warning about selecting your items etc. etc. we called it a done deal. But even so I looked over my shoulder at it until it fell out of sight. It reminded me of the first day of kindergarten when I left my babies in the hands of strangers.

WBC was still there when we got home so that abruptly shifted me into house mode. He was fairly shimmering with excitement to show us his latest handiwork. He’d grouted the tile on the foyer floor. Blue, grey, green and brown tones glowed in the late afternoon sun, so beautiful you could weep. And yet try taking a picture – it can’t be done. WBC also told us that a new door and wall were being made of clear glass and we are welcome to use the rainy one while we’re waiting. We also owe not a penny more. I was so tired (more from the stress than the work), but I still whirled and twirled a few turns over so much good news. Later I remembered that I’d never taken pictures at the mall and, in fact, had forgotten to take the camera.

So today Nancy and I went over and I got to unveil my little store – it DOES look like a little store (Andrea even said so and she HAS a store). We took a ton of pictures of which the one on top is the best for getting a handle on the long view. Of course there’s much more I want to do, but for now I am a very happy and hopeful bookseller.