Tuesday, January 22, 2013

Two Booksellers and A Truck

As I write this my garage is packed with plastic bins of books, all bought last Monday from a semi-truck. I promised I’d tell the story of how they got there, so here goes. It’s not especially dramatic, but then again I never in fifteen and three-quarter years in the business bought books from a truck, so there IS at least a novelty factor. Of course the day we made the deal was probably the “noveltiest”. Retrieval day a week later not so much. It’s January in northeastern Ohio which means the air felt like the breath of a Nordic war god huffing and puffing to blow down Britain. By the time we transferred 85 plastic bins of books from the semi-truck to our own truck my toes felt (and looked)like ten frozen grapes. I’m not complaining. Well, maybe I’m complaining a little after climbing four giant ice-slicked steps into the semi, especially given the fact that the second to the last step required a gargantuan two-foot haul to the top!I think I’m entitled to at least a small whine over that. I'm not exactly an Amazonian woman.

But getting back to the beginning – a couple weeks ago an attorney came into our store and inquired as to whether we would be interested in a semi-truck full of books. Eric is game for anything. He’d retrieve books from a donkey cart stuck in a Central American rain forest. So of course he told her we’d love to see them. I, on the other hand, responded with a mixture of excitement and skepticism. Before you tell me it’s not possible to be both excited and negative at the same time, I assure you I wasn’t. I see-sawed back and forth between the two emotions for three days. Depending on who I was talking to it sounded either fun and fabulous or stupid and a waste of time. Interestingly enough, It didn’t turn out to be either.

I don’t know what it is about us. Whenever there are a lot of books ranging in condition and subject from superb to landfill located in a less than charming location the Universe sends them to us stamped Express Mail. This is the fourth time I can think of that we encountered a hoarder situation, but I’ve also probably repressed a couple minor ones. Anyway, the previous owner had the semi-truck in the backyard so when the house got too crowded with the various other things he collected he stored the books in plastic tubs, stashed them in the truck, and there they stayed until he died. His interests were pretty varied, but if pinned to the wall I’d say the primary ones were these: art glass lamps, collectible canes, music and musical instruments, horses, horse racing, book collecting, gambling, guns, antique and vintage cars, home building and, oddly enough, interior design

.The good thing about all of this was the fact that the very best books – and there actually were some – had managed to escape confinement in the truck, though the truck itself was less problem than the way it had been packed. Several good titles landed in the dumpster because their owner had stood them upright in the bin and crammed many more upright at a diagonal around them. Several ended up so warped you could have used them to carry in kindling. Fortunately, we had access to a large on-site dumpster which the attorney understood we would need, but this also meant that every bin had to be opened, winnowed, and repacked. We went from 130 bins down to 84 in five hours.As you can see form the photo above, we have them home and neatly stacked. I’ve already been through not quite half (there are some more down at other the end of the garage by the doors too). But I’m in this operation deep enough now to know that despite the junk and the low end stuff I would never buy individually we will still do fine. Primarily this is because we have a unique three-tiered situation which makes such buys work for us. The best items (which right now amount to just two bins) will go online. The next tier will go to the mall and the rest to the store. I wished on an entire constellation of stars that every book in every box or bin would end up being mine so I can breathe easier for a few months about inventory. But clearly it’s not going to happen.

In order to get the goodies, however few in number, I apparently need to WORK.

P.S. Blogger is still not acepting pictures normally. I had to WORK to get his one here and was reluctant to push my luck with more. So if, and when, it gets fixed I'll show you some of the good books.

Monday, January 14, 2013

Old School Booksellers Still Talking .... PART II

It’s been a crazy week, as we bought  somewhere in the neighborhood of 40-60 tubs of books off a semi-truck. I know – it sounds pretty wacky – but I’ll explain it the next time I post. Meanwhile, back in Sheila Markham’s absorbing book A Book of Booksellers; Conversations with the Antiquarian Book Trade I managed to cull yet more interesting comments from booksellers past and present (mostly past). I loved this book which is why I roared through it as fast as  I did, but what you’re getting here is only a microcosm of the wisdom it holds – a handful of crumbs instead of the whole bag of Doritos.

Peter Miller is a man after my own heart. When he said “The look of a bookshop is very important to me. And over the years I’ve got Spelman’s the way I like it –an open fire, pictures on the walls,  and the books standing up like little soldiers”  my heart did a somersault. Oh, how I would love a fireplace in my booth at the antiques mall, but lacking one, I’m still all fuss and feathers every week when I go there with fresh stock. My antiques dealer friend Darwin teasingly asked me once, “Tess, are you a booth decorator, or a bookseller?” The answer is I’m both. I want the books to be irresistible in both appearance and content, but I also want the space to dust off the reader’s worries, mop up the stress,  and provide a tiny oasis of beauty in our upside-down world.

If there were a vote for most fun seller in this book Michael Hollander wins with a Grand Slam.  Here’s his take on book fairs: “Somehow we’ve got to get a new generation of collectors, and publicity is the obvious key. The traditional means of mass communication is of course television, but who can afford it? So you have to think of ways of making news. How about getting a book dealer to immolate himself outside the British Library on the eve of a bookfair? I’m sure I could select a candidate.”
Wednesay evening will find me in Akron at a committee meeting for the 2013 Akron Antiquarian fair, so believe it when I say  this one resonated big time. Notice the reference to television in the quote instead of social media. Clearly, aging collectors were a big problem even then, which of course means that the heat’s REALLY on now! We have two basic choices --  think outside the box or pull a rabbit FROM the box. Either way, it ain’t easy, but if we want the show to go on we better build a better fair this year than the better fair we built last year. Like it or not, it’s not enough to haul in the books and prop open the door anymore. These days it takes a  trick monkey and a soundtrack.

The more I get to know booksellers the more obvious it becomes that there’s more than one way to sell books though. John Walwyn-Jones expressed this truth best with this line, “If I have any strength, I think it’s my ability to look at a book and find new angles of interest. There are 101 ways to sell a book.” Doesn’t that just beg to be a book title – 101 Ways to Sell a Book? The key words in John’s quote are “look at a book.” Not glance at a book, but LOOK at a book. I fancy myself pretty good at that too, but it does take time.

Of course just like the myriad ways of selling a single book there’s myriad ways of selling ALL books --  retail, wholesale, online, in stores, at fairs, at flea markets, by catalog, on the street, by appointment, by whimsy, or some combination thereof. And that doesn’t even count the various techniques, including my favorite – value added. I’ve mentioned this before, but since I effectively  did it over Christmas I’ll mention it again. I had an antiquarian title called Nostrums and Quackeries about the patent medicine scams of the late 1800’s and early 1900’s. I also had a stack of trade cards of the period advertising these various snake oils. So I picked out a couple cards for companies mentioned in the book, laid them in, and – voila! – a book that was good got better because it now contained a tangibile REAL value that illustrates and informs  the text.

As much as I enjoy stuff like the above though, longevity in the trade is my biggest goal. So when Charles Traylen  said, “As for the future, I’ll go on bookselling ‘til I drop” my respnse was immediate and heartfelt.

Me too, Charles.

Me too.

 (Sorry for the lack of photos. Blogger has a known problem at this time. The browse button is missing on the  page for uploading pictures. Fortunately, this post doesn't really have to have one. but if it gets fixed I'll add one.)

Tuesday, January 08, 2013

Old School Booksellers Speak

I can’t believe how quickly I am tearing through my eighteen new Christmas books. So far I’ve read The End of Your Life Book Club which is truly wonderful, a novel called The Color of Tea, which is just okay, and Red House: Being a Mostly Accurate Account of New England’s Oldest Lived-in House which I could not put down given my abiding love for old houses. Now I am reading A Book of Booksellers, Conversations with the Antiquarian Book Trade by Sheila Markham. I started it last night and am already on page 103. I didn’t realize when I asked for it for Christmas that it was primarily about the British trade, but the oversight hasn’t diluted my enthusiasm an iota. The book is a compendium of interviews with various dealers, some of whom have since died. The interviews are rather old anyway, as some of these people died in the 90’s and the book came out in 2007. What I’m enjoying most is hearing these seasoned sellers say the very things I’m thinking right now even though time and inequitable experience divide us.

 As you know, I  gnash and rend endlessly over the difficulty of finding books for stock. Turns out I’m not alone, as evidenced  by this quote from Peter Eaton, “I was talking to the librarian of Rochdale, where they had a statue of Hitler in the town square and people used to throw books at Hitler for a waste paper drive. The librarian picked out one or two incunabula like that. There were a lot of pickings in those days.”

Simon Gough also shared my feelings about booksellers when right out of the chute he declared , “All booksellers are lunatics.” Of course we are – why else would educated people stand in lines turning their toes purple in  sub-zero temperatures to buy other people’s stuff in hopes of finding a treasure amongst the weeds when they could have a “REAL” job with  health insurance and paid vacation? I prefer, however, to think  our lunacy is ignited by our white-hot passion for books and the pleasure they bring to life.

Another sentiment I think today’s booksellers would give a nod to is Sam Fogg’s assertion – “I enjoy being my own man.” Amen to that! I enjoy being my own woman too. I love the solitude of bookselling, the autonomy, the scholarship, even the tightrope on which it forces us to dance. We’re  it – masters of our own destiny. It’s scary I suppose, but not really to me. I love sorting it all out, figuring out what to do next, reinventing myself. -- all of it except the dreaded Ohio sales tax! But even that is nothing more than the price I pay for the best job in the world. (I know – I complain bitterly  twice a year about having to send it electronically and of course I'll l be doing so again in a couple weeks!)

I’m not sure when exactly Anthony Rota made his comment, but it certainly has a déjà vu quality: “With the recession and so much redundancy  there will be more small firms starting up – maybe collectors selling their books, either from choice or necessity -- the tendency for one-man firms will certainly continue …”  Sound familiar? Absolutely! When the recession hit hard in 2008 the number of amateur sellers wielding scanners exploded. Many have come and gone since then , but some have also hung on and new ones keep joining  the ranks, though likely in smaller numbers. I wonder what Rota thinks about bookselling in Great Britain thse days and if it’s the same as the cattle call which has become the Great American Library Sale with  it’s armies of  galloping scanners!

A comment that’s  pretty funny and one that I agree with on the days that my computer is throwing temper tantrums was made by Eric Korn who said,  “I’m reluctant to see computers  in a prominent position in a bookshop. It’s rather like turkeys cultivating cranberries.” Ah, yes, but those turkeys have an amazing ability to cultivate book sales, do they not?

And then there’s Sally Edgecombe, a woman after my own heart. There were not many women IN the book trade back then and those who were had to jockey to keep their heads above the roiling sea of testosterone. But Sally said this, “Apart from the customers, I suppose my other great love is  buying. It’s rather like gambling and I find it very exciting!” Oh yeah, Sally – sing it girl!

How many times have I hovered over a book waiting to see if my internal "bookdar" would shove me to the check-out line or back to square one? And  how many times did it fail to kick in either way and leave me with only my own wits to make a decision?  As every bookseller knows it’s in this gray field  of consciousness that good books are lost and duds are carted home. But oh, the thrill of it all! Just last week I sold a book I might have  told you about -- A Complete Dictionary of Dry Goods and the History of Silk, Cotton, Linen, Wool and Other Fibrous Substances Including a Full Explanation of the Modern Processes of Spinning, Dyeing and Weaving, 1892. Try as I might, the arrow on my internal guage didn’t budge much either way. I was standing in front of a cabinet next to the door in cramped quarters three feet from the check-out line and people going in and out and all I had was a mild hunch that it might be worthy. It was – to the tune of $150.

I used the term “old school” in the title and throughout this post on purpose. It’s faintly derogatory when used by someone who believes that “that was then and this is now.” Of course that WAS then and this IS now, but here’s the thing – the past can inform the present if we listen. I will be sharing more old school booksellers' comments as I wend my way through the pages of Shelia Markham’s delightful book. I look forward to it.

Wednesday, January 02, 2013

A New Year In the Book Biz

I’m happy to report that I’m in a much better frame of mind since I last wrote. Christmas snuck up on me December 29th when our house filled to the rafters with family and friends. Because both of our daughters live out of state we had to delay the family celebration this year to accommodate work schedules. As you know, after Newtown I thought for sure the Christmas spirit had eluded me this year, but  miraculously it hadn’t. In fact, when it finally showed up it brought with it a bit of wisdom. Christmas, I learned,  is not about the date on the calendar. Christmas is when people you love gather under your roof watching football, eating endless cookies, sharing dinner, opening presents, chasing kids and laughing as though all’s right with the world – which in such sublime moments it IS.

Of course with Christmas delayed this year New Year’s practically collided with it. We stayed home New Year’s Eve, had a nice dinner, and read our new Christmas books. I got an astounding eighteen – yeah, really -- EIGHTEEN books, a handful of which are in the photo above along with the Pomegranate and Green Tea  given to me by my  oldest grandson who just turned nine and is a gift giver of the highest order. I even woke up long enough to watch the ball drop in Times Square.

New Year’s Day, however,  found us at an auction with the deepest pocketed people in three counties. Everything I wanted passed me by, including a turn-of-the-century game so fabulous that the thick edges of the folding board looked like the spine of a fine book when closed. It had the spinner, the pieces, the original box and even the directions which were pristine. I bid to $130, but it sold at $275. The next thing I tried for was a short stack of early Harley motorcycle magazines from the 20’s and 30’s. I went to $250, but THEY went to somebody else for an eye-popping $650! Our antiques dealer friend Darwin was there and invited us to mend our wounds over dinner that evening, so I made some homemade gingerbread and we headed to Akron for pork and sauerkraut with wine and my dessert. Whatever red wine it was he had I strongly recommend  as an antidote to both pricey auctions and fiscal cliffs! (Turns out it was Spellbound, Petite Sirah 2010, California)

Another cool thing that happened over the holidays  is a trade I made with my friend Cheryl with whom I reconnected  last year (or was it the year before?). Cheryl and I were friends back in the 70’s, but lost track of each other when I moved to Medina. We reconnected decades later in the parking lot at Buehler’s grocery store at River Styx in Medina .Cheryl can sew anything – I mean the woman could make a tuxedo for a gorilla -- but instead she is making fun aprons and pillows which she sells on etsy. Cheryl made a transfer of my website’s logo seen at  www.garrisonhousebooks.com and – voila! – my girl in the red chair was immortalized on a pillow. In exchange I gave her  a book -- The Sewing Book; Containing Complete Instructions in Sewing and Simple Garment-Making  for Children in the Primary and Grammar Grades, published by Butterick in 1913. Because the drawings of the kids in their spiffy outfits are in the public domain  she can now resurrect them with a modern spin. To read her take on what happened in our crazy trade go to her blog http://csturgeo.blogspot.com/
Today I’m back to work and glad for it. This was not the best year I’ve had as a bookseller, but it was still  a good one with online sales chugging right along without ebay and alibris both of whom  I shed ( sort of like a snake’s skin )– ebay in 2010 and alibris in the summer of 2012. In fact, I had a better Christmas this year than I did last. The antiques mall performed well too over the Christmas holiday and it, too, exceeded last year. So I’m charged up and ready to move into my 16th year of  bookselling. I am always tempted to make resolutions, but they have a sneaky way of both inflating and spawning even more resolutions which I also inflate. I can't just say I will increase my inventory. No, I have to vow to  buy collections so dazzling they’d blind the average seller. Nor can I say that I will sell more books in the New Year. Nope. I've gotta sell 'em  at a clip that would scare amazon.  I can't even promise to write more frequently on my blog. Somehow it always turns into "I will  effortlessly turn out a blog post A DAY so captivating  that my followers will be numbered in legions.” And there goes any semblance of a lasting New Year's resolution!

So this year I’m not making any resolutions. I’m just going to work hard, learn more than I know now, and gratefully do what I love best – which is exactly what I've done ever since I entered the book biz.