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.


Hilda said...

My goodness! How have you had the time to read so much? That is one of the things I struggle with - I love to read and have these books here - but not enough time to read them all. So I pick and choose. And I know that feeling of having a book in your hand going to the checkout and questioning whether you should buy it or not. Pick it up, put it down, pick it up, put it down-then go for it and hope I am right. Thank you for other's insights into the bookselling business.

tess said...

I really have to make the time, but if I am reading something compelling I will find it. Today I got up at 4 a.m. and read until I had to wrap the orders. Yes, "that feeling" -- it's universal!