Wednesday, June 24, 2009

The Pimp and the Antiquary

We are still buying, despite being unable to list what we buy until after our inventory on Sunday. For the next three days, everything we buy will be cleaned, priced, and stowed away, the retail value recorded to be entered separately from the rest of our stock. I can't sell any of these books until after the inventory, so instead, they sit. I do not much care for this. Our business model is premised on the quick turn of good books. That's the trick of it, for the used books buyer, getting the books and getting them out there on the sales floor, working. I do not often buy books for the store that I don't think will sell quickly. If that sounds a bit pimpish, well, there it is. I'm just a bookseller with used stock, not anything quite so grand as a dealer. I do not move much in the more rarefied atmosphere of auctions, estates and specialized clientele. I just sell books, new and used, for a living. The store I work in is quite a remarkable place: big, beautiful, comprehensive in many ways, more than one hundred years old. It is a local institution. Even so, as just the used books guy, while I'm not quite the rag & bone end of the business -- with bins of tatty dollar paperbacks and dusty stacks of any old thing piled on the floor -- mine is rather a down-market expertise, and my contribution to the bookstore and the community it serves more democratic than prestigious. What I'm not, you see, is an antiquarian.

As I mentioned only too recently, for years now I've been going downtown to visit a beautiful set of Ronald Firbank. It calls to me. This five volume treasure, The Works of Ronald Firbank, "London & New York: Duckworth & Brentano's, 1929. Limited Edition," in addition to being lovely, has "an introduction by Arthur Waley, a biographical Memoir by Osbert Sitwell" and the glorious, dusty smell of real quality. All the publication details mentioned above, I have all but memorized from my visits with the books, though I take them tonight from a website. These books live in a beautiful bookshop, full of beautiful and rare things. Like nearly everything in the place, the Firbank I've come to think of as mine, despite the impossibility of ever having the money to buy it, would seem to be waiting for just the right buyer, and while spiritually, romantically, I'm sure that would be me, practically, I know it's not. Aisle after aisle and case after case in Wessel & Leiberman Booksellers, Inc., would seem to be crowded with just such patient sirens, each book disdainful of any reader but the right one, content to drowse prettily until purchased. My Firbank (!) seems to tolerate my attentions, a grand courtesan indulging the regular, lusty pining of a passing punter, but I don't think those books ever expect to shelved on painted pine boards, between an ex-library copy of dear Daisy Fellowes and a cheap reprint of Ford Madox Ford's The Fifth Queen. Imagine the cheek of even daydreaming such books on my shelves! Ronald would be shocked to his clocked socks, in so appropriately fine an edition, to find himself otherwise represented by remainders.

Just today, I had the opportunity of looking through a big box of rejected library books. Most, nearly all, in fact, were good old books, but spoiled by the usual disregard of librarians and card-holders: pasted pockets, stamped and stained pages, broken hinges and numbered and painted spines. There were a few minor tragedies, like what was once a very nice edition of The Rubaiyat with color plates, but for the most part, these old books, having already served their purpose, deserve nothing better now than an uncomfortable retirement among the literate poor, where bibliophiles like me will be glad of a damaged but well-made one volume edition of Milton. I didn't buy anything from the box for the bookstore. Our standards, in terms of condition, preclude most if not all ex-library books, as not quite nice enough to sell on a shelf next to new. There were however just a few genuinely rare books in that box, two beautiful books in French, with exquisite color plates, still covered with tissue, handsomely bound if worn, and to be sold at a price prohibitive for the likes of me as a collector, and probably no time soon by the dealer who takes them on. I sent the wonderful woman selling these books to Wessel & Leiberman. I send sellers with fine books to them regularly. I know the sellers will be given a fair price and that the good dealers at that good shop will be able to find the right buyers for the best books.

Meanwhile, I was just grateful for the opportunity to handle and look at such beautiful books. This is one of the joys of my job. If, now and again, I allow myself to buy a handsome set of Shakespeare to sell from our one glass case, or a good set of Dickens that can be displayed at Christmas time, I am only too aware that this does not make me a dealer of the type best represented by such honest shops as Wessel & Leiberman. There one doubtlessly will find the expertise and taste, and the patience, required for selling to the antiquary, as well as the odd, dusty beauty to tempt and torment even so poor a suitor as myself. I don't actually mind though, knowing my Firbank is still there, on the same shelf where it has been since I first moved to Seattle, if not longer. I know at least where it is. I can visit and admire it at least. Until some enviably solvent queen carries it off. I selfishly rue the day, but I don't begrudge either the dealer or the next lucky owner the pleasure of that still potential transaction. Firbank, after all, deserves no less than fumed oak and a houseboy to dust him. Here he'd just be exposed to an unhealthy atmosphere of cigarette smoke and eager fingering. Well beneath his dignity.

But one can dream...

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