Friday, August 23, 2013


I've been asked to write a job description for what it is we do at the Used Books buying desk.  Seems we've never had or required such a thing before.  Remembering that the two of us who buy more or less full-time now are the same two people who were at the desk the day we started seven (?) years ago, this undefined state of affairs isn't as surprising as it might be.  We simply did it.  Not alone, of course.  With the enthusiastic support of executives, management and a few coworkers back in the day, and after what seemed at the time an exhausting number of meetings to sort out things like inventory control, purchasing, hours and the like, we just started buying.  We all went down to Powell's where they were most generous with both their time and expertise.  My then boss and I went to the warehouse and found not one, but two disused counters.  Operations cobbled these into one, L-shaped buying desk.  They bought us some nice, tall bookcases at Ikea, to put the purchased but not yet priced stock into.  Somebody made us a sign to hang above the desk.  The Marketing Department made us a bunch of other signs that said, "Sell Us Your Books!" and we put them all over the joint.  Even made us buttons of the same.  Supplies ordered us a lot of yellow "dots" to mark each used book on the spine, and we got our own tag-printer with yellow price-tags rather than white.  Add a few yellow pencils, some Ronsonol lighter-fluid and razorblades for getting off other people's old price-tags, and we were pretty much in business.

There have been more than a dozen people who have been buyers at the desk since.  We've trained more than that, to work at other branches, other college bookstores.  I've been a guest on a panel at a college bookstore convention, discussing used books.  I've written here and elsewhere about buying.  I've been interviewed about used books for an industry magazine, and fielded questions from booksellers from as far away as England and Norway, booksellers interested in adding used books to their new book inventory, as we did.

Our success was not immediate but real.  It took time to build a new inventory, a whole new business.  People liked our used trade books, liked having a less expensive option.  Still do. It took the two of us, frankly, the two that started the thing, time to find our footing too, but we did.

What my partner in the new enterprise brought to it, beyond her own bookselling experience, was taste, discrimination, a more thoughtful set of mind than mine, a strong sense or organization, a wider interest and a far more balanced and pleasant disposition.  Eventually, the business we were doing justified adding a third to our number, and we became a trio.  He brought us a ruthless practicality, a vast institutional and operational experience of the bookstore, taste very different in the main from either of ours and an impressive erudition, particularly as to history, that proved invaluable.  He was, and is also a writer.  We three became professionally inseparable and personally the best of friends.  I adore them both.  Working with them so closely proved to be one of the very real joys in my working life.  Various additions to our little family were made here and there, other buyers came and went.  We stayed.  It worked.

When I train buyers, I used to say that it wasn't possible, buying used books, to make a mistake.  I don't say that anymore.  The margins are so much better than the margin on new books, even selling a used book that hasn't moved at a discount, even a big discount, can still make a profit.  Mark the book down, go and sin no more.  Then the recession happened.  My mistakes, and some truly lovely used stock started filling up the clearance tables twice a year and, well, I don't say the bit about "no mistakes" anymore.  Live and learn.

I'm now the "Senior Used Buyer" at the bookstore where I work.  I never had even an informal title, I don't think, until we required one for some third party.  (I am not a "supervisor."  I "oversee a task," if that clarifies things for anyone who's curious.)  Among ourselves, we were all equally capable, every bit as necessary not only to the smooth operation of the desk, but also to our mutual equilibrium.  As I say, it worked, rather beautifully, if I do say so.

Then, just this year, one of the points in our triangle left to pursue his writing career full-time.  He sold his novel to a major publisher and he's working on another.  We wished him every success, still do, and have nothing but confidence in his bright future as a novelist.  Miss him at the desk every day.  He brought a light-hearted and giggly good humor to our days.  I miss boy-watching with him.  I miss his explanations of the ancestry of Margaret Beaufort.  I miss him.

Now my original partner at the Used Books buying desk, the single individual most responsible not only for launching Used Books, but also for making a success of it with me, is leaving, in her case after twenty one years at the bookstore.  She and her husband and her animals are finally able to end the commute between their house in town and their place in country, to which she now goes permanently, animals, husband and all.  There she will be surrounded by lavender and blue skies and dogs.  The dogs will have a proper, big yard.  She'll have vegetables and flowers and good, clean dirt on her hands, her beautiful hands, a pianist's hands.  (I should have know when the piano moved from town to country.  Maybe I did, a little, but didn't want to think about it.)  She's yet to leave and already I miss her terribly.  I am however very happy for her.

So it goes in a working life.  People come and go.  I myself have come and gone from more than one desk like this one.  It matters, sometimes, when we go and it certainly matters the longer we stay.  It seems to matter more to me as I get older.  It matters most dreadfully to me now.

So how to describe what it is we do here?  What is required of whoever comes next to this desk?  Not so easy a task as one might think.  (It's also been a long time since I've had to reduce my thoughts to proper bullet-points.  Oh dear.)

It's important to be able to say "no" gracefully.  It's vital that anyone buying used books reads.  (That one seems obvious, but in my experience, you'd be surprised.)  Anyone working at this desk, right by the front door, nowhere to run to, nowhere to hide, has to be prepared to direct people to the restrooms many, many, many times a day.  We're also often the front-line for crazy.  Steel yourself, oh, gentle new buyer, for the monologists and madmen, for the outraged vanity and disappointed expectations of collectors, heirs and fools. Have some sense, both common and of character.  Be cautious but not chary, kind but not a pushover.  Never argue the value of a book, only the price and the cost.  What else, what else, Polonius?

 Oh, I don't know.  What I'd like to say is be as bright and delightful as Jason, as smart and kind as Terri.  But I can't say that.  I haven't any right to expect whoever works here at the desk with me to be family on that first day, or even on the last.  That only happens when it does, when one is very lucky and the alchemy of personality and character mix in just such a way as to make friends.  How can one require the ineffable, or, in all conscience, list love in a job posting?

I know just how lucky I have been.  I don't discount the possibility of it ever happening again.  I don't.  It took time to get the three of us together.  Three less likely musketeers no one might have guessed.

The last to my friends.   Bonne chance!  

Miss you.

1 comment:

  1. Dear Work Husband,
    Your eloquence and words of love have hit my heart. Thank you for such sweet thoughts. Michael and I had just come home from the Jungible (a "dead word" adjective from the 1600's meaning "coming together") Music Festival in Sequim. Michael read your blog aloud to me while I put together a bright purple cabbage salad (I know you liked yours cooked.) He had to stop several times because we were both in tears. Starting and running the Used Books section with you was and has been the best time I've had working these last 21 years, as well as the four previous bookstores before coming to Seattle. I will certainly miss your encyclopedic, bibliographic mind, your amazing sense of humor (including singing Xmas carols to me), and the joy and sometimes frustration we had when pointing out those WOACAs & MOACAs. As if the book world was not wonderful enough, you offered me an entire Universe these last seven years. I will miss you! Remember - that future NY apt/bookstore is still a possibility.