Friday, March 25, 2011

Happy Hour

A good day, a good hour, at the Used Books Buying Desk? It's all about the books. In an hour's time, a lot of good books can come in, a whole lot, whole lots, come to that. For the buyer, a day's worth of good books can all come in in an hour, good used books. That means sound, clean copies of titles we may need, first and foremost: popular, new titles, also not quite new books with established followings in book clubs, and or solid critical reputations and sales, and new, full review copies -- meaning the finished book sold to us by reviewers, not "advanced readers copies" which we can't really sell and probably wouldn't if we could. Not only because these tend to be ugly, unfinished paperbacks, usually printed from uncorrected galleys, but as a bookstore that still sees publishers' reps, who give the frontlist buyers ARCs for the whole staff to read, not to sell, ethically, we won't go there. Besides, in my experience, other than a very few truly devoted collectors, nobody likes to pay for a book clearly never intended to be sold. Not worth the shelf-space. In a good hour's buying, hopefully, we may also see not a few interesting titles we may not have suspected needing until they come across the desk. Nothing too whimsical, nothing too hopelessly obscure or eccentrically bound, nothing so rare as to require gloves and a temperature-controlled-environment, as that sort of thing, however thrilling it may be to handle such books and look at them, that is not the business we are in, or that most used booksellers, most bookstores, are really meant to be doing. Sixteenth Century maps in Latin, rare early books, the private correspondence between geniuses, first editions of anything before, say, 1850, these are not the stuff of bookselling, but of specialists; antiquaries, auctioneers, the kind of dealer who sits behind Louis Quatorzième bureau, with nothing on it but a paperweight and a lamp, and waits. Bless them, but I do not have either the knowledge or the front for that business.

In a good hour at the Used Books Desk, we will pay a fair price for just the books that we think we can sell -- if only to me. The sellers will leave contented with either their cash or their credit, and credit is always better, and with all the books we did not buy, promising to return with more good books to sell us soon. As a used books buyer, it is not my responsibility to make the sellers, be they scouts, reviewers, reps, heirs or readers, happy. Experience in this, or any other kind of retail teaches one quickly enough that there are some sad, sorry souls who can never be made happy. My job is to buy books at a fair price. If I've offered to do that, and the offer failed to meet the seller's expectations, or was insufficient to pay the light bill, or was not worth the drive in from Issaquah, or took too long, in the seller's opinion, or not long enough, I'm genuinely sorry, but I've done my job. There is no haggling. There is no appeal to a higher authority. There is nothing for it, as a used books buyer, but to thank them for their time, and to wish them well. No one is required to sell their books to us, and we are not obligated to buy anyone's books, anymore then we are obligated to pay anyone what they feel the books to be worth, or anymore than they are obligated to accept our offer. So long as I know the bid was fair, I've done my job. We will explain the offer, to an extent, but our time is valuable as well, and if the explanation, or the bid is not enough, then we are done. There will be other books. There are other bookstores and other buyers. Godspeed. This, if the buyer is honorable, and most are, this is the best anyone should hope. Most of the time, nearly all the time in fact, this is enough. In a good hour, none of this will even factor. (It is hard not to remember the disputatious, the rudeness, the suspicion, but so long as we've been courteous and fair, while any such disagreement can spoil an otherwise satisfactory day, not even the worst interaction can really ruin the good hours, as there just is not time to dwell.)

In a good hour at the Used Books Buying Desk, we may have time, between buys, to actually clean and price some of the books we've just bought, if they are special somehow, but generally the books we will process first, good times and bad, are the books we bought longest ago. When we do clean and price books, in a timely fashion, and get them out to the floor so that they can be bought, that can be a good hour's work as well. Not quite as interesting as buying good books, but satisfying. In fact, when everybody working at the desk has the opportunity to really get going, to concentrate on processing books, specially as now when the bookstore's physical inventory is fast approaching, the more usual, commonplace kind of buying that happens every day, day in and day out, can actually feel like something of a distraction! We do tag a lot of books every day, where I work, and while the vast majority of the books we handle may not be, of themselves all that interesting, and while the processing of books is not an inherently interesting task, the data-entry alone being, at best, meditatively same, the business of the thing has its own fascination, for me at least, and for the people with whom I work almost every day. The books that we sell, even the books we hope to sell, when taken en masse, or when tracked by category, quantity, price, provide in a way, for the bookseller, unless he or she is just living off of an allowance or the family's investments, or unless the bookseller is a fool, far greater interest even than any individual title that may come across the desk. Oddly enough, for a business that seldom seems to attract individuals of a mathematical or a business cast of mind, it is the business of selling books, and not just the books themselves, that must ultimately provide the most consistent excitement. Otherwise, one is not a bookseller, but rather just a hobbyist willing to go broke, or at least face unemployment, with a really impressive collection of whatever it is one most covets in the way of books, waiting to be sold again, at no profit, when knocked down to some anonymous third party at an auction at the storage facility for which the rent has not been paid on time. Bookselling, new and used, is a mug's game for the true bibliophile, unless and until the day he or she learns to calculate percentages and read a sales report.

But the good hour at the desk, I'll say it just the once more, is really the hour spent buying good books. Without the confidence that that is what we are doing every day, and the numbers to back that confidence up, none of the rest matters at all. Do that, I still believe, and you're in business. Buy good books, as many as there are coming in, do it carefully, and to the satisfaction of one's employers, customers and sellers, and that's a good hour at the desk -- and hopefully, get at least some of what's already been bought processed and out onto the shelves, 'cause that's where the money is, remember, and everybody likes money. Doesn't have to be complicated. True, some good buys require more thought than others; more research, more money and risk, more time, but the hour spent with more interesting books, whether the books are bought or not, can still be an hour well spent. Keeps it entertaining. As do the conversations and the kibitzing and the emails and the hunting and, yes, even the arithmetic.

Truth be told, despite all that business about the occasional haggler or huffiness at the desk, most hours at the Used Books Desk, for me at least, are still happy hours. True, I don't really know at this point how to do much of anything else, so I may not be the best judge of just how much fun might be had in an hour's time in a law office or as a dental hygienist, or make it more glamorous and say an hour on the set of a major motion picture, or in the Oval Office, but none of that can I quite imagine. Used books I know. Used books I like. Some of the happiest hours of my life -- though not all, I hasten to interject, lest the reader think the rest of my life utterly devoid of interest -- I spend buying books for the bookstore where I'm privileged to work.

(The rest of the time, I read, mostly, just in case you were picturing something really enviable.)

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