Wednesday, October 23, 2013
I know – I keep promising better behavior over here and never seem to produce it. But perhaps if you understand what I’ve been doing these last weeks you might forgive the Haphazard Blogger her inactivity. Those of you who have been around awhile know my steadfast devotion to the Akron Book and Paper Fair each spring. Well, this year the Cleveland fair, which is also produced by the Northern Ohio Bibliophilic Society, ran into a problem with their venue which ended up taking longer than expected to resolve. Consequently, by the time all systems were GO they had only about eight weeks to get ready for the fair. To put that in perspective we’ve been working on the Akron fair since June and it won’t be held until April. Fortunately, a lot of smart people pulled together, I jumped in and joined them, and off we went, each doing what we could to promote the cause. The fair was held last Sunday and if you didn’t know the back story you’d never guess the above -- it went off without a hitch.
I, on the other hand, did not.. From the start it was a comedy of errors with very few laughs emanating from this quarter. One of my duties was to make the door prize gift basket, something I have done for the Akron show four years in a row and countless other times for various charity auctions. For this show I chose a book about a sea cruise taken by Edith Wharton titled The Cruise of the Venadis. My friend Ginger, a professional level photographer who lives in upstate New York not far from Edith’s mansion known as The Mount, shot a series of eight gorgeous photographs which she turned into one-of-a kind notecards. To them I added an Andre Bocelli opera CD, some tall tea mugs decorated with blue maps, a tin of English tea and various other small luxuries and placed them all into a paper-covered cardboard steamer trunk. The trunk had cording on either side which should have insured that the lid would stay open. But while I was gathering the goodies said lid spontaneously crashed, ripping out the cording and tearing the liner paper on its way down. As you might guess, the descent was greeted by a volley of very colorful screaming. Once I returned to sanity though I realized that the only solution was to re-engineer the entire thing, a process which involved the drilling of holes, the insertion of new cord, the collaging of torn paper, and the inevitable rending of garments. In the end it was fine and the card I made was able to hang from the top as envisioned So I took a deep breath and began packing for the fair.
All week I worked like a maniac readying books, bagging ephemera, and pricing postcards. By Saturday night everything was packed and Eric loaded it all onto the truck. Sunday morning found us on the road at six a.m. headed to Shaker Heights in high spirits. (Well, one of us was excited anyway.) But, alas, even that was short lived. As soon as got our two tables of books set up disaster struck. The huge plastic tub of ephemera sat alone in the basement at home, a full hour away! So get over it you might say -- make do. But I could NOT get over it due to an earlier problem I failed to mention. When I signed up to exhibit I had requested an end booth which would allow me to clamp my ephemera boards to the third table and display paper on both sides. My request had been forgotten though and by the time I realized it it was too late. So I decided to give up one entire table to ephemera and take less books -- which means that without those books I had a totally empty table.
Fortunately for me, Eric is not a whiny husband. With the keen logic of a rocket scientist and with no hysterics required, he grasped the severity of the situation immediately and flew out the door headed for Medina. Meanwhile back at the venue I paced the exhibit hall vibrating like a tuning fork for two solid hours. Promptly at ten the fair officially opened and people glanced at my long empty table and moved on. But very shortly our hero returned, a latter day Superman bearing a Rubbermaid bin. Why, I wondered, did everyone not notice this incredible feat? If ever a man deserved a standing O this was the one and yet they continued to browse for books. Oh well. The sale commenced and people bought things from us, including some of the forsaken ephemera. But was it our best fair? No, it was not. Was it terrible? Well -- let’s just say it was almost respectable and let it go at that.
Ah, but here’s the thing ! We CAN’T let it go at that because one last disaster still lurked in the wings. As soon as we pulled into our driveway after the longest day in book fair history I hopped out of the truck in high heels from a very high seat and twisted my ankle. It seemed a little ouchy, but, basically okay, so I walked a few steps and -- with no warning -- dramatically fell to the ground, slamming both of my old lady knees on the concrete. The neighbors across the street had a wonderful view of this, but at least there were no broken knee caps and no trip to the E.R.. Just a bruise on one knee the size of a baseball and tenderness to both of them.
Did you HEAR that??????
“Just,” she says. JUST!
There was nothing just about any of it.
Wednesday, September 18, 2013
First it was books. All my life I've been a voracious reader. When I was a kid in Akron I took Irish dancing lessons down the street from the Kenmore Library. At the stroke of noon every Saturday afternoon I yanked those hornpipe shoes off my feet and flew out the door and down Kenmore Blvd. like a hurricane. In those days a library card entitled you to four books, which seemed to me grossly unfair given that the better the pickings the less likely they’d last the weekend. It's not as though we had a home library for back-up -- we most definitely did not. Mine was not a reading family unless you count Reader's Digest and Popular Science magazines. But since that's what we had, that's what I read when the stash ran out -- and before long a magazine junkie was born!
Next came what my mother (for some odd reason) termed "the junk." Everywhere I looked something wonderful seemed to turn up on paper -- school essays with bright red A's, greeting cards, postcards from other people's trips, letters from penpals, programs from events, tax stamps (loved those!), snapshots of people I didn't know, catalogs, travel brochures for trips we'd never take, handwritten recipes, booklets and ...
Somehow I dug myself out of that mound of paper and grew up to become a writer -- first at newspapers, then for magazines, and finally on to bigger projects. But in 1997 my true calling came calling and I became a bookseller. Actually it was supposed to be a hobby as I was still writing for the first three years or so. But the day came when "I'm a writer who sells books" morphed into "I'm a bookseller who writes." These days I’m a one occupation woman who loves her job.
In the beginning I sold only books because it never occurred to me do otherwise. I didn't even know that all that paper stuff I loved when I was a kid had a name. But once I heard the word ephemera (a word so beautiful that even if you weren't crazed for what it stood for you'd still have to work into a conversation) I became a serious paper pusher. As soon as I had a small stash of goodies from the Chicago Exposition I stumbled across an ephemera dealer online who became my mentor and taught me everything I know. And now sixteen years later here I am -- FINALLY -- with a website for books and now one for ephemera too.
When I first started selling ephemera people would ask me what it was – and likely be sorry they had! Immediately I’d launch into this complicated explanation of something that is really quite simple. Ephemera is everyday life on paper. It’s about where we live, places we go, work we do, pasttimes we enjoy, people we love, houses we live in, and music we hum. But of course it’s about the big stuff too – history, the political environment which serves as our backdrop, and the many milestones that take center stage in our personal dramas -- weddings, births, jobs, college, careers, military service, illness, and death. Ephemera is the tangible history of a people at a given point in time.
What attracts me to it so strongly is its human element . Someone kept every one of these treasures for personal reasons, be they large or small. Of course not every item I buy calls out to me, but I buy them anyway because they will matter to someone and perhaps even to the panorama of our shared past. While book collectors eschew the personal touch (bookplates, names of former owners, and personal inscriptions from authors), the personal deepens ephemera rather than detracts from it. A blank marriage certificate can certainly be beautiful, but how much more meaningful it is to see the names, the date, the place -- and hold a scrap of history in our hands.
Ephemera is story to me and if there’s one thing I’ve always loved it’s a good story. So whenever possible I try to eke one out of each piece I buy. Very often I succeed, but sometimes I can’t do it no matter how hard I try. When all avenues are exhausted I finally stop and wait it out. Sooner or later the right person comes along who either knows the story, or can find it because it’s THEIR story or their family’s story. Sometimes I feel like the Dolly Levi of paper, always looking for clues that will help buyers find and recognize that which belongs to them. Which brings me to the why which follows the who, the what, and the how of my life as a paper pusher. I sell ephemera, life’s flotsam and jetsam, because I love it. But also because it matters.
Wednesday, September 04, 2013
I probably shouldn’t say this, but I’m glad summer’s almost over. Not only do I feel better in the fall, but I like the clean slatiness of cold wind and endless gray bolts of flannel sky. Book sale season begins anew and the winter clothes come out of the dark recesses of the closet which is ever so good for listing books. I finally realized in this season of the four thousand volumes that listing in the summer doesn’t really work for me. For one thing traffic’s lighter, so what’s the point? But the real reason is that in order to hunker down and dig into it with gusto I need lots of very black and very HOT coffee, comfortable sweats, fuzzy socks with little bumps on the soles to keep me from going airborne down the stairs, and less daylight. Yes, I do like a dark day in the winter for listing books. Snow too. I like snow a lot.
So that being said, I’m a bit happier than when I Iast posted – which does NOT mean that I’m over the theft of the A.I. Root catalog from my locked cabinet at the antiques mall. Every time I think of that and count up my losses from thievery over the last two and a half years, I’m buzzier than a hornet trapped in a spider web. But I don’t want to talk about that today. I want to talk about Hawaii. I know – Hawaii is the polar (ha-ha) opposite of what I just said I like, but there’s a reason I want to talk about it. The boxes in the garage (or maybe the goddess Pele) have gifted me with several Hawaiian ephemera items.
I don’t know if I told you this, or not, but my father’s family , who were Portuguese, sailed from the Madeira islands to Maui, Hawaii shortly before he was born. He lived there his whole life until he served in the army in Italy during WWII, married my mother, and wound up in Akron, Ohio. When I was a kid he’d tell us stories about Christmas luaus on the beach, wrapping a pig in ti leaves, pounding poi with a mortar and pestle, playing the guitar and singing Hawaiian songs to the back-up of a pounding surf. Every Christmas two gifts would arrive from Maui, each time the exact same thin g --– a case of Dole pineapple with my uncle’s name printed on the labels and a huge box of fresh fruit. Back then raw coconuts, guava, papaya and pineapples weren’t even a gleam in Kroger’s eye, so for a week or so once a year I was the coolest girl on Kenyon Street. Sometimes the relatives came to visit too -- though we never went there – which was okay with me because at age ten I adamantly decided that I was Irish, not Portuguese. It’s not that I had anything against being Portuguese, it’s just that I didn’t look Portuguese and, more importantly, I didn’t FEEL Portuguese. I guess I probably still don’t on either count, but I’m more interested these days since my sister got her DNA done.
My father died two years after 9-11 and I was left for a lot of crazy reasons to plan his funeral by myself. The funeral home (oh, spare me please from those places!) dutifully played the Hawaiian CDs I bought for the calling hours. At the funeral the next day I gave the eulogy and talked about the deeper meaning of aloha. After the Mass the church bells pealed Aloha Oe which was a surprise even to me. The only sour note was the fresh lei sent from Maui to the funeral home for the calling hours from my father’s sister. It didn’t arrive until after the burial and instead of being around his neck it had to be left on his grave. She has since died too, but I learned of it only by chance on the internet last year. Once my father, the only connection between us, was gone we drifted away.
Yet as I look through all these Hawaiian ephemera items from the garage I am struck by how much I have absorbed about Hawaii without realizing it. I am struck too by how much these small items please me. The thing that called to me the loudest before I even knew anything about it was this little booklet covered in brown sueded cardstock. It’s called The Hawaii I Loved and the author is Dorothy LaVerne Drake of Columbus, Ohio, a young woman who graduated from Miami University (Ohio) and signed up immediately to teach in the Territory of Hawaii. It was 1945 and Dorothy sailed on the first ship from the mainland since WWII. There she joined four other teachers at the ocean’s edge in a breathtaking liitle place called Laupahoehoe . For a while it proved idyllic but then came the morning of April 1, 1946. At 7 a.m. Dorothy and three other young teachers, plus nineteen children, were swept away by a tsunami and their bodies never recovered. This booklet was published in 1948 by Dorothy's family as a remembrance. Robert Drake, then with the Cleveland Plain Dealer, edited it from Dorothy’own words On the title page of this copy a handwritten message reads, Presented by Ethel & Leland Drake (Dorothy's parents). A permanent memorial to the victims of Laupahoehoe can be seen on YouTube. Dorothy’s name is near the top.
When I began writing this I wasn’t exactly sure where any of it was headed, but it’s pretty obvious A part of me has finally made peace with my Hawaiian/Portuguese background. And for that I can only say mahalo. Thank you.
It’s about time.
Wednesday, August 21, 2013
Where does the time go? Sounds like an old song I vaguely remember, but it’s a real question. I have never worked harder in all my years of bookselling and yet it seems like I’m trying to juggle a dozen books in the air without breaking any bindings. I am definitely fried these days, so much so that I’m getting crispy around the edges. Part of that is the arrival of the second half of the 4000 books from the Cleveland sale. I got them about a week or two ago (time is complicated – who knows?) and have made only a small dent in the unpacking. Most of my time has been spent stocking my new ephemera site which you can see at www.garrisonhouseephemera.com It’s a very slow process because I have to do it one item at a time, but I did reach the magic number of 100 “products” today. Why that’s magical I have no idea, but it feels like a milestone somehow.
As I write this I’m waiting for a guy who bought a book from me on Abe to come by to sell me half a dozen books of his. They’re good, so I’m pretty happy about it, but I don’t know. I am really, really wound up, vibrating like a buzz saw, and have been since I last wrote. I also see that I lost a follower too which doesn’t surprise me. Why hang around the Dead Zone? I truly am trying hard to get over here more frequently and I hope that will happen, but for now I’m doing the best I can. I also think the ephemera site is not going to attract an audience as easily as I’d hoped. I put a link on both it and my book site so you can easily switch back and forth between the two, but my book trraffic is not paying much attention to the ephemera. It looks like that will have to find its own audience.
I spent some time yesterday designing a flyer which I hope won’t be a waste of time. Eric’s going to be selling for the store at the Great Trail Festival in Malvern for the next two weekends and he said he would put a flyer in every bag with every sale if I made one. So I gave it a go and he called just now to tell me it turned out very well. I’d show it you but I won’t have it until tonight.
Another thing that’s been bugging me these days is the antiques mall. Traffic there has been quite slow compared to other summers, though I did just sell a set of 95 Louis L’ Amour novels which I immediately replaced with 116, plus a photograph book. That should take another year to sell which is how long the first set needed to find a home. My big issue right now with the mall though is another theft. You won’t believe this one! I didn’t believe this one and I still can hardly grasp it. We were over there Sunday restocking when Eric says, “Oh, look, you sold that nice A.I. Root beekeeping catalog. The worker forgot the ticket though.” Sure enough, the catalog was missing from its space on the top shelf. Eric unlocked the glass door and removed the ticket which I then took to the desk for their records. Imagine my shock when they said it hadn’t sold! Apparently, somebody picked the lock, snatched it, and locked the cabinet back up with no one being the wiser. And now I’ve lost this scarce 1916 local interest trade catalog priced at $45. The chances of getting it back are minus-zero.
This post is definitely a downer – I know that -- but I have always told you the real deal, good or bad, so this time is no different. Sales were strong for a while, but ever since last weekend have really dropped off and this is with me listing every single freaking day! So add it all up and there’s no whirling and twirling over here.
And definitely no confetti.
Saturday, August 03, 2013
As we speak, books in white banker boxes dance with books in brown cardboard cartons in the garage, a sight I have not enjoyed since last winter when we found ourselves tramping through the dark heart of January to buy books on a semi-truck.. At least this time there was no climbing involved, no shivering, no hands the color of boiled lobsters, no skating over glazed tree roots, and, the best part of all, no uglies -- just the good, the bad, and the very good. It may not seem like it, but this is HUGE. We always get some uglies – remember Ugly House a couple years ago? Well, this time we finally bought our books in a sedate and pleasing atmosphere. And get this -- none of them smelled bad or littered the floor with pieces of themselves. Now that’s what I call PROGRESS!
Of course all these books weren’t free and we did spend a lot of money, but it was a great deal and I have zero regrets. I don’t know how many boxes we’ve gone through because Eric unloaded quite a few and transferred the books to the shelves in the garage. From there I’ve listed 58 online and taken 32 to the antiques mall. So far I’ve sold two – one at each venue – but both were decent sales, if a bit odd. I have beautiful architecture books, a special limited edition of the 1937 Audubon Birds of America in mint condition, a slipcased pristine copy of the first modern printing of Catlin’s Drawings of the North American Indians as they were rendered in pencil with their accompanying notes in his sketchbook., and much Ohioana and ephemera. But what did I sell? A book about the New England Society in Cleveland from the early 1930’s and another about the Pittsburgh Glass Company, also from the early 30’s. The latter was a thing of beauty though – fabulous pictures. I sold it once before a few years ago on ebay, but that was back in the day when the bay knew how to play nice with others.
To say that I feel a sense of optimism right now is a massive understatement of the highest order when the garage is so pleasingly full and only half of what we bought is even here yet. We have to go back and get the rest next week or maybe the week after. Meanwhile I love the way I look at a shelf and immediately pick out maybe two good titles and then later go back to the same shelf and awaken several sleepers. A perfect example of the latter is my favorite ephemera piece – a scarce item about the Mayflower Hotel in Akron. My parents had their wedding breakfast there in 1949, but for me it’s forever linked with summer when the Soap Box Derby came to town. The press, WHLO radio, a band, and pretty high school cheerleaders and majorettes gathered outside the hotel and as each racer pulled up in front (in those days they were all boys) music played, the girls kissed the would-be conquering heroes, and Akron’s biggest summer event was officially launched. The building still stands, but the grand Mayflower receded into history which makes my wonderful find all the more meaningful.
In the midst of this joy, however, my husband’s secretary of 36 years suddenly died, so there were a few days of shock, incredulity, and sadness. But with it came a monumental sense of NOW. At the service the rent-a-minister (who was quite icky) said over and over that the woman he had never met “squeezed every drop out of each moment.” I wish it were true but I don’t believe it. None of us really do that, but some of us try hard. I’m a trier and I’m going tto try even harder now, though I must say that my work as a bookseller has been the most fulfilling job of my life aside from raising my children.
And that’s precisely why I’m either whirling, twirling and throwing confetti, or whining like a gnat in your ear!
Wednesday, July 17, 2013
Well, here it is high July and I am so foggy from fibro I think my brain has turned into mothballs. In the past two weeks these things have taken place:
Our youngest daughter Catie married her boyfriend of eight years, Joseph Han, in a very sweet and simple ceremony at which, by Catie’s request, her father and I renewed our vows after 43 years almost to the day. The Fourth of July quickly followed so the newlyweds stayed on and the Michigan crowd came back to participate in further merriment which included tons of food, a yardful of friends and family, and the city’s hands-down best fireworks show EVER. And that was just the 3rd. The Fourth found us at our family lake (as opposed to the one behind our house) where we did the same stuff all over again only with a whole new cast of characters.
The third -- or is it the fourth? -- thing that’s gone on is nothing I can snap a picture of because it’s hard to take an after picture when you neglected to take a before. So you’ll just have to take it on faith that I have worked like a demon diminishing the piles of books on my office floor in hopes of making room for some new ones. And speaking of new ones, somewhere in there I went to two estate sales – one in a 5000 square foot Tudor mansion built in 1927 and the other in a cute little Western Reserve farmhouse built in 1830. Between them I got 12 California prints, one Ohio book for the antiques mall and a giant box filled to overflowing with spools of ribbon -- additions to what my friend Darwin always calls my ribbon collection. Anymore that’s about what it is too, as I have enough ribbon in the basement to wrap up a good-sized library. Name your color and I’m good to go.
Most of the books on the floor proved disappointing, though there WERE a few bright spots, but the fact is I have way more ephemera than I do books. I am trying to get my second website for the ephemera up and running, but Chrislands is holding a sale and are likely swamped, as I haven’t heard a peep from them.The good news is there are two sales tomorrow. One is in Cleveland, the estate of a former bookseller, but I’ve heard that his son may be reopening his late father’s business and has already retrieved what he wants for stock. If true, I don’t think I’ll have to worry about whirling and twirling with joy, which I suppose is good because foggy as I am I’d probably crash into the stacks anyway. The second sale is that rural one I like that forbids scanners. Two sales ago I got a very fine book, there, but the last sale proved drearier than usual – my total outlay was around $20.What keeps me going back is a single memory -- seven dark oversized books with shiny gilt on their spines spelling William Vollmann, Rising Up, Rising Down. It was four years ago but those babies remain branded on my brain. I bought them, sold them in a month for a three-figure price, and never saw another set since.
The other thing I’ve done these past weeks is continue to thin the herd, aka the books in my inventory, which I do believe is a worthy use of time. I raised a few prices, dropped many more, and delisted all the low end stuff I don’t like. It’s paying off too as I made at least six very good sales on previously dead stock. A few things such as these:
I squirreled away in the closet because they’re fine books no matter WHAT people online price them at. Both are in beautiful condition – a hard cover first edition from the 60’s and the paperback from the fifties marked first Japan printing. I guess I’m getting a little cranky in my old age, but I hate it when beautiful, finely made books with serious content are treated like bottom feeders. I wonder if those sellers even know who Lafcadio Hearn was.
Overall it's been a fun, if somewhat foggy, time, but the bottom line is this -- sales are slowish this month even for summer. If the chat board at ABE is any indicator I sense a lot of company. I’m okay(ish) online, but my mall sales are very disappointing. There’s an old adage in the antiques world – “in July you die.” But at our antiques mall July is usually better than Christmas. Thanks to travelers passing through for the Fourth and the Medina Antiques Show, July rocks and rolls.I don’t know what happened this time, but both weekends bombed. It’s the worst month I’ve ever had in two and a half years there. That being said, I’m not realy worried about the big picture, just rather miffed about the small one Besides, I have something to blame it on.
Somebody bought the chair and now there’s nowhere to sit!
Thursday, June 27, 2013
Sunday night was so much fun I wrote a post about it Monday afternoon. I had no time to upload it though, so I did it yesterday morning and somehow managed to delete it in the process. Where have we heard THAT before, huh? I had no time to rewrite it yesterday because I had a speaking engagement in the afternoon about bookselling which I will tell you about another day. But for now I am committed to trying to reconstruct the lost story.
Two of our favorite booksellers came for Sunday dinner (bearing wine!) over which we talked a blue streak about the world of online bookselling in this crazy year of 2013. It’s kind of interesting that they were seeking info from me because they aren’t exactly new kids on the block. One of them worked in bookstores for many years and has a degree which affords him the chance to specialize in an excellent genre. Given his depth of knowledge he could end up OWNING this genre! His partner likewise has a great specialty, so together they are one dynamic duo infused with passion, intelligence, a love of books, impeccable social skills, and the ability to wrap a decent package. And -- get this – their holdings are about triple mine at the moment.
But even with all that in their favor, I do have one thing with which I can help them and that’s what I aim to do. The only reason they lack this one thing is because of when and how they entered the book game. I arrived online in 1997 via Advanced Book Exchange while they came on the scene a little later through the Amazonian portal. By the time they got there the Big River was already polluted and I had long since waded out of its muddy waters. In amazon land many people start selling with no real business name – a la our friends. At ABE you had to have one from the get-go which of course in the fullness of time leads to an independent website, social media accounts, blogs, book fairs etc. – all the stuff needed to crank a business up to the next electronic level. By now I’ve acquired all that stuff, for better or worse, so pretty soon they will too. But even without it they’re already in a better position than I am at the moment.
I could be depressed about it. I could be a hell of lot depressed about it in fact.But I’m not. If I were depressed you’d know because I would tell you. Part of the reason why I have such a low inventory right now is the acquisition problem we’ve struggled with these past couple years. But it’s also the result of a good thing – our phenomenal sell-through over the years and the Great Purge I’ve embarked on this summer. But all this month a steady stream of decent stuff flowed in here – nothing stellar but certainly good enough -- so I am optimistic that better will follow. I also firmly believe that despite the oft-quoted comment I heard in line at a book sale years ago --“You don’t gotta know nothin’ to sell books!” – the truth is that he or she with the most knowledge wins the book game. Interestingly enough, I just ran across a great story told by Canadian antiquarian bookseller, David Mason, in his wonderful new memoir,The Pope’s Book Binder. It’s so illustrative of what I just said you’d swear I made it up, but I swear I DIDN’T—look on pages 115 and 116 and see for yourself..
One night Mason and a gang of inebriated booksellers were weaving their way to the next watering hole when one them picked up a box of pamphlets lying at the side of road in wait of the trash truck. An alcoholic haze had descended to a greater or lesser degree over them all, so they didn’t examine the leavings until they were safely ensconced in the next pub. The little booklets – there were many -- were all written in what they agreed was the Russian language. Mason concurred, but when he got his chance to take a closer look he immediately spotted something everyone else had missed – the imprints. Though written in the Cyrillic alphabet, Mason knew from having researched some of the little booklets in the past that two of the imprints were Winnipeg, Manitoba and Toronto respectively. He also knew enough Canadian history to know precisely why the box had turned up where it had. Immediately he offered the finder fifty dollars for the entire thing, a bid which was snapped up faster than you can say LaBlatte Blue. Mason carted his treasures home and right away sold several for $300 and $400.
I’ve had my share of those kind of lucky breaks and had the wits to use them to my benefit, so I have good reason to believe I’ll do it again. Right now it’s enough to be happy for our friends. They’re going to be great. They already ARE great.
They’re just going to be more visible.
Tuesday, June 04, 2013
Blogging, like a lot of other stuff I can think of, is not as easy as you’d expect. All weekend I was dying to tell you my latest adventure, but lacked the time to do it. So early this morning, the second I slapped the last label on the last order to be shipped, I was in here banging away on the keyboard. I wrote a good half of it before it finally dawned on me that it had about as much zip as the legal notices in the classified ads of the newspaper. So I hit the delete button and started again. Now an hour has slipped by and I’ve hit delete not once, but TWICE. So here we go a third time. At the very least I guess we can judge the veracity of that old saying about the third time being the charm.
As you know, I was jazzed up like a player piano to get to Saturday’s book sale because last year I made two great finds there. Of course I know all about lightning never striking in the same place twice, but when a bookseller imbues a sale with magical thinking there’s not an adage in the world that will disabuse her of the notion. As I took my place in line three words looped around in my brain like an endless tape – one fine thing. All I wanted was one fine thing. There we were basking under a Cleveland sun at the end of a week that consistently predicted a 70 per cent chance of morning storms. Our favorite sellers were all grouped around us which made short work of the three hour wait. AND the crowd was noticeably smaller than usual. All omens looked good!
The first thing I noticed when we entered the sale room was the lack of an antiquarian and collectible section – the favorite of my favorites -- so I headed to art instead and immediately scooped up a few books and catalogues. They did have some specials , but I had a hunch that the one I wanted wasn’t a good idea -- which proved to be dead-on right. Eric told me later that a scanner zapped it and it was overpriced by $125!!!! Today is reduced price day and I’m going, but you can bet that even if it’s a full half off (which it won’t be) I won’t be selling a gorgeous kimono book any time soon. But getting back to Saturday’s sale, I wended my way through architecture, music, cookbooks, children’s and Ohioana buying one book here and two there, all of which were nice enough but still not my ONE FINE THING. Even literature bombed and I love the literature section. I couldn’t even scare up a nice set of classics for the antiques mall.
By this time the only place I hadn’t been was religion, a topic I’m very picky about so I rarely get anything other than Judaica which I do like. But instead of making tracks over there I spent awhile talking to Keith, the nice bookseller I met last summer at a Cleveland estate sale and suddenly keep running into a lot. Since neither of us felt much urgency we talked as we desultorily looked for stuff we might have missed in the children’s section. After that I finally did hit religion, but I never really looked at the offerings because right away I ran into my friend Patrick who asked me how I was doing.
“Not all that great,” I said. “I got some stuff, but nothing really good.”
“Did you see the signed Robert Frost?” he asked.
The WHHHAAAAT???? No, I hadn’t seen any signed Robert Frost -- which might be because it was buried in a box that looked like another buyer’s book receptacle. Immediately I ran over and asked the woman working there who knows me well from the old antiquarian section if she still had it. Yes, yes, yes – NO! Just as the worker she sent to fetch it reached for it another buyer picked it up and added it to his stack. And just like that -- the gig was up.
“Wait -- don’t leave,” the antiquarian category woman whispered to me. “Just wait and see what happens. There’s a good chance he didn’t see the price and will flip out when he hears it’s $200.”
I doubted it, but dutifully waited. Whole Ages passed as he continued to browse, looking at this book, looking at that one, and adding a few more to his box. I can’t recall why I didn’t see him check out, but Eric told me later that he did exactly what the woman predicted he would do. In a just a few seconds, I got my one fine thing after all.
Later that evening I thought about all this and suddenly remembered a side conversation I ‘d overheard as we waited in line. I can’t remember what brought it up, but one of the scanners, whom I initially liked until he went over to the dark side, was explaining how dealers can manipulate prices and with cunning and laser sharp timing wring big money out of a given book whether it’s worth it or not. I listened for a moment and quietly said to Peter, “I really don’t like that.”
“I don’t either,” he said
Which is not to say we’re saints, you understand, though we do respect the books, play fair with the customers, and even help each other. But we’re also competitive – to say otherwise would be lying through our teeth. Just stand on the sidelines of a sale and watch what happens when the doors open. All along the line conversations fall off in mid-sentence. If words were tangible the ground would be so littered with them you’d be kicking them up on the way in like dry leaves in autumn. But, even so, many booksellers have shared their knowledge with me over the years and I try to return that same generosity of spirit.
As for the Frost book, I’m thrilled to have it. I’m practically giddy over it! But I’m also pretty sure that the world would have kept spinning even if the other guy got it.
The second Patrick told me where to find Frost I had my one fine thing.. It just it took me a while to get it.
Wednesday, May 29, 2013
Three days and counting to one of the biggest book sales of the year. You’d think by now I’d have the sense God gave a gnat to know better than to act like I’m expecting to find a previously unknown original of Shakespeare’s First Folio on the specials table priced to sell at $15. It’s absurd and of course getting more absurd with every passing year. But all it takes is one lucky find, however many years ago, and a bookseller’s common sense packs its bikini and heads south.This year, I’m embarrassed to say, is no exception. Mine snagged a cheap flight to Mexico and flew out of Akron-Canton this morning.
Believe it or not, I'm so jazzed up I actually dragged out our bags an hour ago and put them next to the door like I might be in danger of forgetting them. All I need is a rabbit’s foot, a four leaf clover, a horse shoe, a St. Jude medal, and my lucky underwear and I’m good to go. I know. It’s crazy – of course it is – and yet here I am tossing salt over my shoulder and crossing my toes as well as my fingers. So far I have not succumbed to the desire to chant incantations in the backyard under the quarter moon, but there’s always tonight.
Frankly, I assign at least some of this madness to the glitzy card that came in the mail touting 80,000 books. I mean REALLY – out of 80,000 volumes something must be good, right? Wrong! Not only is it very possible to come up empty, but it’s also very possible to pay too much and wish you HAD come up empty. Past experience has hammered this home to me many times. But here’s the thing. Last year – oh, hallowed, glorious last year! – the number of books had visibly decreased and yet I made the best two finds ever. EV-V-V-E-E-E-E-E-R. The first was a four volume leather-bound set of Don Quixote in great condition illustrated with engravings and published in Dublin in 1795. The second, a slim innocuous -looking volume titled Some Letters of Edgar Allan Poe to E.H.N. Patterson of Oquawkwa, Illinois With Comments by Eugene Field published by the Caxton Club in 1908 in limited edition. See what I mean? Toss a bookseller a couple bones and she’ll follow you anywhere.
Okay, I’m exaggerating a little here about my craziness over this sale. But not much. Four years ago on the day before this very same sale I tore my rotator cuff when I accidentally tangled my foot in my capri length pajamas and fell up the stairs. For a few seconds the pain actually winded me and by the time I caught my breath I was shaking like an aspen in a hurricane. But did that stop me? No, it did not. Honestly, it never once crossed my mind to skip the sale. I tried to go – I really, really did, but I finally had to admit that I couldn't get dressed even with Eric’s help. Ah, but wait! I DID show up on Monday during a raging thunderstorm for reduced price day after sending him to Kohl’s for an over-sized shirt that buttoned up the front. I also went that same day to the see the collection in Bay Village that took me three years to finally acquire.
Was it worth it? I don’t know. Probably not. But that’s beside the point, as are the long lines, possible rain, too much time waiting around, the odds of inadvertently buying damaged books, paying too much for must-have books, paying too much for so-so books just to have something to show for the effort, and years of heartfelt avowals to never, ever again go to the preview. Which, by the way, starts at ten. We’ll be there by 7:30.
Now all I have to do is remember my lucky number (do I even have a lucky number?) and follow the exact same path I took around the tables last year and I should be fine. But just to be on the safe side if anyone knows of a reputable supplier of eye of newt do let me know.
Monday, May 20, 2013
I love when life serves up a little serendipity, so I was over the moon to have chanced into The Bookseller Inc., a cozy shop in west Akron, yesterday afternoon just in the nick of time to have one last look at my favorite thing there. Or at least one last look in that setting anyway.The shop’s showpiece item has been purchased by Kent State University for their Special Collections and is soon to depart to Kent in the next few days. It had been sold online once, but the buyer was from Australia so -- surprise! surprise! -- the extreme weight and shipping squelched the sale.
For years and years I had been aware that the ever-popular My Book House set once came in a wooden box shaped like a house. I had sold the books any number of times – the black edition, the blue edition, the rainbow edition and once even the white edition which doesn’t charm me – but I had never laid eyes on the house itself and its smaller set until I went to The Bookseller for the first time. We weren’t in the door five seconds when Eric homed in on it like a pigeon with a GPS. It’s funny really how I even knew about this house at all. A casual anecdote buried in some long forgotten book popped off the page and lodged permanently in my brain. The author had gone antiquing with her mother, found both the house and its books in a dusty shop in New England (of course – where else?) and bought it to replace the one she’d had as a child, but had somehow lost.
Lost?????!!! I know it sounds ludicrous, but it happened, which is why seeing one of these little wooden houses is about as likely as spotting a great snowy owl in the backyard.You know if you were a certain kind of little girl that you would absolutely HAVE to take the books out and turn the house into a dollhouse with curtains at the windows. And maybe if you were a boy it might even serve as a handy garage. Either way, the house/garage became a toy and the books landed in the bookcase. Even keeping the books together must have been a challenge judging by how many stray volumes turn up at book sales.
My Book House was created in the 1920’s by Olive Beaupre Miller who formed an entire industry around them. What I love most is that it was an enterprise entirely run by women. Instead of selling the sets in stores, Olive decided to sell by subscription and hired a coterie of women sales reps known as The Book House Ladies to knock on doors and sign people up just like encyclopedia salesmen did for Colliers and Britannica. Eric and I bought a set of Britannicas that way back in the early 70’s and we still laugh to this day at the salesman’s extravagant pitch.
“Right in here,” he proclaimed, thumping a sample book, is “every thought, word and idea!” Hmmmmmmm. Wonder what he thinks of the internet.
But Olive created a small dynasty from subscription sales and it continued to grow. The red set was the first to expand with the addition of a new volume for a total of seven, but by 1932 the original six from the 20’s had doubled. I’m not sure when production stopped, but I know I sold a very nice rainbow set from the 50’s once. Door-to-door sales may seem a little cheesy in today’s world, but My Book House was no schlock product. The books are bright and attractive and offer a smorgasbord of fiction and nonfiction which for the most part transcend time. The art too, is stellar, as artists include William Blake, N..C. Wyeth, Caldecott, and my favorite, Willy Pogany, who illustrated my pet edition of The Rubaiyat of Omar Khayyam in 1909. The later sets also included a parents’ guide. Below you can see a few volumes of a 1937 rainbow set, so named because the books are bound in different colors.
As best as I can tell, the My Travel Ship series that shared the wooden house never expanded beyond those original three books. I never purchased them with a set and never even all together, though I’ve sold all three many times. They include Little Pictures of Japan, 1925 (the best I think); Tales Told in Holland, 1926; and Nursery Friends From France, 1927. I have all three, but they aren't shelved, so I have no idea where they are and I just created several small avalanches trying to find them.
Scarce as the wooden house is though, there is still one last My Book House holy grail that I would love to see. Well, maybe two because the house was fashioned of cardboard at one time also, rather like Richard Scarry’s library set , so that would certainly beinteresting to see and maybe even to buy. But there is also a rare miniature tin house that’s about 3”x5” and contains small books bound in flexible boards. I saw a picture online and it's priced in four figures.
Given that, I suspect it will take a lot more serendipity for me to gaze on the tin house in person -- it's really that rare .But who knows? Serendipity played more than one role with the set at Booksellers already. Not only did I get to visit the wooden house before it departs, but the canceled sale to Australia proved to be more blessing than bane. The sellers paid no commission and avoided a complex wrapping job. AND the books will remain right here in northeastern Ohio at a university that already boasts a stellar childrens’ book collection and a renowned library science program.
Sooner or later it will go on exhibition too, which is just about as good as it gets!
Wednesday, May 08, 2013
Well, I have officially been selling online for two weeks now following my self-imposed hiatus. I know I whined about how the bloom is off the online rose, but I seem to be enjoying the attar and ignoring the thorns these days – at least for the moment. Nothing has fundamentally changed in the book business itself, so I can only attribute it to the fact that some good stuff has happened lately.
The first big thing is that my website is no longer owned by ABE/Amazon. Some time ago they bought Chrislands, the company that built my site years ago and has continued to host it even after the sale – with devastatingly awful results I might add. As with most corporate buy-outs, everything you loved about the original disappeared and in its place came constant technical difficulties topped off by no option to process credit cards. I had just been thinking that the time had come to light a fire under my computer guru and get him to build me a new truly INDEPENDENT site when the former owner of Chrislands announced that he is once again its owner. YESSSS, Jaymes bought his company back from The Man! How cool is that? Of all the third party sites I like ABE best, but some things, website building and hosting among them, should be left to the little guy with the brains and passion to do it right. I’m so happy about this that I even played around with the new Chrislands templates (they were actually there before, but I didn’t care) and created a new look. Check it out at www.garrisonhousebooks.com. I may change it again if he offers some other options, but it was time to shake it up a little. Kinda like it’s time to shake me up a little too.
The other good news is not quite as huge, but it did my heart good anyway. Last Wednesday we went to a library book sale that used to be GREAT back in the good old days and was still one of the better one in terms of content even in the recent bad old days. I steeled myself for the expected lunacy, but there was no need – I wound up having a wonderful time. The crowd was pretty big, comprised mostly of recycled scanner people, but they all stampeded for the inexpensive room leaving the handful of serious dealers and collectors to their own devices. How lovely to walk slowly and contemplatively up and down the tables browsing, taking the time to look at copyright pages and condition issues, and accumulating small treasures along the way. I didn’t find anything that would knock your socks off, but I did get this lovely set pictured below, among other good finds, including a signed first edition of Christopher Morley’s The Haunted Bookshop for myself.
Another great thing is the set pictured above at the very top of this post and the red book next to it. After so many disappointing estate sales I FINALLY got something good at one last Friday. I paid more for the set than I would like, but I also got the red county history cheap because it’s not local, so it all balanced out in the end. I’m quite tickled with them, especially the Ohio history set by Galbreath, because I haven’t had one in three years. According to my database I bought the last one in May, 2010. But lest you think things are looking up at the estates, be assured that they are not. The very next day we went to one that advertised “lots of good books” when what they really meant to say was lots of cheap common books that you could smell before you saw. They did come with free mold though.
See? I told you I'm feeling more optimistic. I’m even making my dreadful little jokes again, though that may be because of two more good things. Yesterday morning I got a call to see a book collection which we will check out tomorrow. And right after I hung up the phone I sold a first edition of The Ambassadors by Henry James!
Thursday, April 25, 2013
(Okay, let’s see how long it takes me to recreate the blog post I just finished and was ready to upload when I accidently hit the delete button with my elbow. On the clock – ready, set,GO!)
Technically, I’m on vacation. That is, if vacation means sitting in front of the computer swilling black coffee while rain drums relentlessly against the window pane. My books are offline and will be until Monday, but I am working like a speed demon continuing the job of weeding and pruning my online inventory. I began this last year, as you may recall, but got distracted by buying the collection-on-the-truck and getting ready for the book fair. Today, however, I picked up the pace in earnest due to a few events of the past two weeks and a couple realizations.
The first thing to dawn on me (again) is that the prices of even nice books are being set by the people who know the least about them. Of course many established dealers (me included) have old stock that’s seriously inflated but, that aside, some of these new prices are still truly ludicrous. Having just finished the Akron book fair it’s clearer than ever that online pricing is crazy on both ends of the spectrum. Anymore even the better sites are so strewn with shoddy listings the pages look like fire sales. It seems to me these days that quality books don’t even belong on the third-party sites anymore. Their emphasis is on pricing – never mind condition, special attributes, research etc.. All they care about is moving the product. I’ve decided that unless a collectible book is extremely specialized it will never be introduced to the internet except on my own site. As hard as it is to get anything good these days I’m much less inclined to fork over high commissions on three-figure books.
My second epiphany is this: to stay profitable I need to be ruthless in dumping old stock. There’s no point in keeping a listing for which I cannot reasonably expect to get $20 and I don’t even want too many of those. With rent to pay on multiple sites, commissions which often are based on the purchase price INCLUDING shipping, sites which refuse to pay a decent shipping price (I’ve ditched all of those), acquisition problems, escalating prices for inferior books at sales, and the cost of mylar jackets and shipping materials, it’s impossible to win on the low end even if I discount my time. Besides, the only truly controllable thing on the list is supplies and that’s where I draw the line. I know I’m on the very high end when it comes to time and money spent on repairs and wrapping materials, but that’s a choice I will not compromise. Being the bookseller I want to be requires more of me, not less.
I haven’t been out to any traditional book sales since last fall, so I’d sort of forgotten how they can make me as sour as an old pickle. This time even my favorite library accomplished it. The night of the preview for this usually good event we were third in line which was great except for one thing -- five seconds before the sale began the lights went out and it was canceled. That meant we had to haul back up there the next morning (far) in a monsoon, but at least we landed fifth in line. For awhile. After the scanner stampede not so much. It didn’t matter – I know that, but I am fed up to the eyeballs with rude, crass behavior which I can hardly relate to this profession. We ended up being the only people in the specials room, though a fat lot of good that did. The books were fewer in number, not nearly as desirable as in the past, and priced much higher than normal. I understand that the Friends need to make hay out of whatever they get, but that didn’t mean I loaded up. I bought just a couple things there and found one very good ephemera item in the regular room. On the way home we bought five books at an estate sale, one of which was better than the best from the sale.
Onward then to Bookstock last Sunday, a Michigan charity sale that can go either way. One glance and it was obvious that both donations and quality were way down while prices held steady. But that’s not what got me all riled up. The crowd was not nearly as big as normal and it seemed that most of those wielding scanners were newbies. Not only were they champion sprinters, but had no compunctions about mowing down competitors. On the bright side though, the feeding frenzy was short-lived once the reality of $4 (and higher) hardbacks hit like a tidal wave. They couldn’t fathom such a thing, especially after they’d paid $20 to get in! The good part was that after they’d rummaged through the tables and stirred up the stock they left behind a first American edition of The Alice B. Toklas Cookbook from 1954 which I found lying face-up on a table.
But here’s some examples of what we overheard in line. It might help you understand why I am so disheartened by the state of online bookselling in 2013.
Exhibit A: “I just stick my earphones in my ears and listen to my music while I scan. Easiest damn job I ever had.”
Exhibit B: “I travel all over the country buying books. The worst people live in Connecticut.”
When asked how long he’d been in business this one replied, “Six months, but I’ll tell you, I’m fast – in and out. All I want is 50 good books today and I’m gone.”
Hmmmmm. Really? Define “good.”
But there you have it -- the state of electronic bookselling in 2013. As much as I detest it maybe in a preverse way this stuff does me good. It’ll either change my online game or I’ll go offline permanently and sell only at the mall and the book fairs.
Either way it beats a state of stasis.
(P.S. it took an hour.)