Sunday, March 14, 2010

Better You Than Me

One of the best local dealers made a very good buy, and I've been, as a regular customer, the beneficiary. Some good stuff on those shelves lately, some really good stuff. An estate-sale, I think it was, yielded up a bounty of beautiful, serious books, as well as a whole wagon-load of just good, clean old stock. I've been to admire some of the best things the booksellers have been kind enough to show me, and I've been buying quite a few books from the lower end of this lovely new inventory; all kinds of beautifully preserved little books, like Haydon's autobiography, De Quincey's memoirs of The Lake Poets, and little 19th Century volumes of English poetry, and essays and the like. Every few days, I check in, and sure enough, there are more small treasures just waiting for me. (The little book of Dryden's Latin translations that I've been reading, with some difficulty and with two pairs of glasses on my nose, came from this batch of books. And just yesterday, I made my most expensive trip yet, coming back with three more volumes of critical essays from the Oxford World Classics series, a couple of small novels, and Walter Savage Landor's Pericles and Aspasia, in two volumes, which was reasonably priced, but still too expensive for me, at twenty five dollars, but I bought it anyway, on plastic.)

I'm not often jealous of what's sold to other used dealers. I admit I've been a little envious of the good things the neighbors have been putting out lately, but only because I've wanted so much of it for myself. I'm just greedy, really. But I know, good things come to us all, and as a regular visitor to most of the other shops in the city, I find my share of what I wasn't sold. In fact, for a certain kind of collectible book, or if I'm offered a truly rare and valuable book, I usually send the seller to an antiquarian. We don't really trade much in the finer things. We don't turn valuable books away, but we are not looking to build "a collection" at the bookstore. Our business is more market driven. It is not about investing in expensive inventory. Everyone in the business wants books they can sell, of course, but we want books we can sell quickly, efficiently, and without the necessity of too much explanation -- we just don't have the time, the display space, the online presence or the clientele for that, yet. The bookstore I work in is the oldest in the city, but our used books business is still new, and our customers come to buy books, new and used now, but not to look at lovely old things in handsome old cases. I'm very grateful to the good dealers, like the one down the street, who know what to do with a big buy, and who don't neglect the likes of Landor, trusting that somebody, somebody very much like me, for example, will be along sooner or later to find him. I have the greatest respect for that kind of traditional bookselling, and the people who do it well. I depend for much of my reading on just such bookshops. But that's not how I earn my living, it's just the way I spend it. I don't work in that kind of store. (I have, but then I discovered the wonders of health insurance and a 401K.) I sometimes wish I had just such a bookshop of my own. Nearly everybody in the business of selling books fantasizes having just such a shop. Someday, maybe... or maybe not.

I've known too many used booksellers, some of them quite good booksellers, many with far more experience and knowledge than I have, but with too little expertise or education, who've decided the Internet, and their experience selling old books, is sufficient to deal in rare books and fine editions. Everybody likes nice things. Me too, obviously, though I'd say my interest tends more to the rarely read than the rare. As a book collector, in a modestly budgeted way, I'm always looking for great used bookstores. But as a used books buyer in a store that is still known primarily as a general independent bookstore, meaning we sell more new books still than used, I just can't afford to indulge in too much extravagance when it comes to buying books to resell, not if I want the used books sales-figures to continue their slow but steady rise, and boy howdy, do I. That's my job security, those percentages, that's what pays my bills, and lets me buy my eight dollar Dryden.

If one owns one's own shop, it is a very different business from the one I'm in. I'm sure it is an exciting thing, to start one's own business and make a success of it, but it takes a daunting amount of work, seven days a week, and a tenacity and patience I don't know that I have. With the right instincts and education, and the right kind of high-end inventory, priced carefully, displayed attractively and listed in the right places, anybody, if they can afford to get in the game, can eventually make an antiquarian. Meanwhile though, there's the rent or the mortgage to be paid, etc., and many a book dealer has gone out of business, sitting on thousands of dollars worth of rare books.

I worked briefly, in a good used books shop, with a bright guy who'd decided he was ready to go out on his own, as an antiquarian dealer. He'd worked in a lot of bookstores, good and bad. He learned from that. He'd studied the auctions, he worked the shows, and he studied his specialties: western Americana, mechanical illustration, rare prints. He knew his stuff. He was already making money with his books online. He was, frankly, tired of working for people who could not appreciate just what it was he might have provided them as an employee, or as a partner, had they been interested in something other than what was just a nice little bookstore. I sympathized with his frustration, but...

Anyway, he did it. He went out on his own, and tried to make a living from rare books. For awhile, I think he did okay. He worked even longer hours, and he worked every angle. He gambled on what he knew, what he'd collected and carefully saved and the books he'd accumulated, and he worked his listings online and his connections off. He worked his ass off, is what he did. And then, he fell flat on it.

Before he went bust, he was already working again, part-time, in a chain bookstore. Eventually, he had to sell of most of the best books he owned, at prices considerably lower than their value, to pay his debts. I've no idea if he ever tried again or what he's doing now. I still admire him, for having made the attempt.

I could offer other cautionary tales: the coworker who gave up his own shop and now works with me and sells us lots of good stock now and again, from storage and or scouting, but has no plans to open on his own again, the woman I worked with briefly who, rather than open the bookstore she'd talked about wanting, evidently for years, instead sold all her books to the owners of the shop where we both were working, and then disappeared, the retired dealers I met at their garage sales, because they just couldn't quite retire, but had no one to keep their business going, and on and on. But just one more, and then I'll let this end for now.

I met a wonderful bookseller once, with one of the best used bookstores I've ever been in, and learned from a third party, some years later, that he owned, besides, at least two houses, full of books, in one of which, he and his family were meant to be living, but couldn't because there simply was not room for them anymore. Like some legend of lost gold, my first thought on hearing this story was not kind. Rather than sympathizing with the man's storage difficulties, or even shaking my head over such a reckless obsession, I must admit, my first thought was, "I wonder what's in there?"

It better I work where I do, don't you think?

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