Thursday, June 9, 2011

Eeyore at the Shops

Gentleman came in to the Used Books buying desk this morning with two big shopping bags full of very old books. Even after all these years, I still find this sort of thing terribly exciting. There are no guarantees, of course, but one may always hope. One bag had three or four obsolescent baseball books, a couple of battered old books of Peter Arno cartoons, sans dustjackets, and some "One-upsmanship", "Peter Principle" and like hilarity from a generation gone to Glory. Nothin'. Second bag seemed more promising. Again, mostly there were dead books by dead writers, with a few potentially interesting titles, but condition undid them all, with one exception. Right down at the bottom of the bag, up came a first edition of a novel by Frank Norris.

Norris, for them what don't know, was an American realist on the Zola model. He was the author of The Octopus: A Story of California, a stirring indictment of railroads, ranchers, etc. Seniors used to read it in high school civics, as I remember. Equally famous, if the word still applies, for McTeague: A Story of San Francisco, the story of a dentist gone horribly wrong. Later this was made into one of the epic disasters/masterpieces of silent cinema, "Greed", by the brilliant maniac, Erich von Stroheim. The director's cut of the movie originally clocked in at nine hours. The studio cut it to a little better than two. Cinephiles everywhere are still rending their garments about this. As for the novel, it, and The Octopus are both still in print, so far as I can tell, though I've no idea how widely read anymore.

The Norris in the bag was neither of these, but another novel I admit to never having seen or heard of before. Very nice copy, unlike everything else the man brought in; tight binding, handsome, clean, and a true first. When I looked it up online, I found the least expensive copy in this edition to be about forty-five or fifty bucks, depending on the shipping. As described though, the first one online was in pretty bad shape. The prices thereafter climbed pretty steadily, the top of the line coming in at a few hundred dollars. I debated buying this one book for some time.

My hesitation had nothing really to do with the book. I believe, eventually, the store would have found a buyer for it, or rather a buyer would eventually have found us. I would have priced the book at something less than two, and something more than one hundred dollars, at least to start. If my bid had been agreeable to the seller, the book would most likely have had to live at the buying desk until it sold. We have a very limited display of expensive titles in locked cases at the desk, and other expensive items behind the desk, on top of the storage bookcases, though those spots are usually reserved for larger art books and the like which can be seen from some distance on the sales floor. The book would not have ended up in the general fiction stock.

The first problem then would have been finding the book a safe home, but that could have been done. The real problem would have been sitting on the thing until it either sold online, or a customer for it came in the store; a collector, or more likely, an antiquarian dealer.

In the end, I didn't buy it. I kept the book aside, and when the seller came back, I thanked him for bringing in all the books, but did not make him an offer on any of them. I did however show him something of my research, and suggested that he take the one valuable book in the lot to a real antiquarian, like the good dealers at Wessell & Lieberman, downtown. I've mentioned this shop here before. They are good people; honest dealers and appraisers, friendly, though in the more reserved style of a high-end enterprise, at least until one gets to know them. They've always been very good to me, despite the fact that I can not afford to buy much of anything in the joint, and would be entirely too embarrassed to accept their very kind offer, made more than once, to negotiate some accommodation suitable to my thin purse. Very gracious, that offer, and tactfully made, but I still blush to think of it. I sincerely hope today's seller takes my suggestion and makes the trip downtown with his nice Norris book.

This evening, due to a car-fire or somesuch on the freeway, I decided not to sit listening forever to NPR on the radio and pulled off when I had the chance and went to a very different sort of used bookstore. (Yes, yet another busman's holiday. What of it?) Hadn't been in the place for months, if not years. I paid four dollars and change to park, as, it being after six o'clock, there was nothing available on the street. That was the last money I spent this evening. I will try to be as delicate about this as I can, as I have no interest in griping about some other fellow's shop, but to be honest, I found the place so depressingly slapdash, the stock so lacking in interest and frankly ill-used, that I left in even a worse mood than I arrived. There were great sloppy heaps of stuff everywhere, in no order whatsoever, the shelves crammed with trash and the busted up wreckage of once good books, delicate old dustjackets left in tatters between books, and worst of all, in a way, some wretched, third generation punk caterwauling from the sound system no matter where I went. Frankly, it felt more like a shelter than a shop. I fled.

I bring all this not just to draw the obvious contrast between one shop and another. I don't know that either set up would suit my talents or my taste, should I ever find myself again in need of alternative employment -- and assuming either establishment would have or have need of me. I am confident that there will always be just such used bookstores though, come what may. I certainly wish both operations well, and would hope to see them both still on the scene for years to come.

That ought not to sound so surprising as it might. I still believe, the more bookstores in this world, of whatever description, the better.

Honestly, even with my time today in a typical Seattle traffic jam and time wasted in an unhappy bookshop, to say nothing of my own rather typical melancholy turn of mind, I ought not to be feeling so glum, really.

After a staff meeting today in which we discussed, yet again, the economy, changing technology and the impact of the internet, etc., and the need to accommodate these dizzying changes to the business of retail bookselling, I was reassured as to the truly noble commitment on the part of my present employers to not just soldier on -- and keep us all employed and insured -- but to adapt, to integrate new and different stock, to try new things and learn new ways. It was, in the end, heartening not only to hear management be not only blunt but comforting, but also to hear my coworkers, young and old, seasoned and supple, express their willingness to change, to learn, to go where we might be needed and do whatever was necessary.

Whatever our gripes and our fears, our frustrations with the pace of institutional change and our anxiety to do something, well neigh anything, to make a better bookstore every damned day, we know, I think, that we are lucky to work where we do. I certainly know this myself. Glad where I am.

I've never worked in a shop like Wessel & Lieberman. I've shopped there, of course, in a very modest way, and in like establishments. I enjoy, frankly, just being in such well appointed surroundings, just handling good books and fine bindings and the occasional over-priced volume for whom I can not honestly imagine an actual buyer. I like the idea of tradition and expertise and the confidence such bookshops inspire in the continuity of good books. I've been in many an antiquarian shop that suggested much less; shops that wreaked of trust-funds and platinum cards, places where the furniture was worth more than the booksellers, where the prices were not just shocking, but absurd. It is nice to know that there can still be dealers above my pay-grade who know how to do this sort of thing right.

I have worked in more than one lumber room full of mess, dust and the literary debris of forgotten bestseller's lists. More than once, for embarrassing wages and no benefits, I've organized shelves, labeled cases, corrected yards of misidentified books -- Santayana does not belong under "Rock Music" in case anyone might be suffering under that misapprehension -- and tried to improve the buying, when I was able, to improve the quality and condition of the stock and, to use a snobbish old phrase that would have probably offended my employers at the time, had I been so foolish as to express such opinions before them, raise the tone of the bookshop in which I happened then to work. Some times, my efforts contributed something to the profitability of the business and were appreciated, if seldom compensated financially. I won't say that that was not the point, but clearly I did what I did anyway, just because even then I would rather not have worked in a dump.

Where I work now, there are still coworkers who can not quite appreciate that used books do not sell in the same way always as new, or that the people who seek out used books may do so for reasons that are not exactly like every other customer who comes into a bookstore with a review of new fiction, or a list from a readers' club, or looking for a graduation gift. Building this side of the business in a setting long used to the sometimes antithetical expectations of the traditional customers for new books has been, I will not lie, something of a struggle. Things are better, mind, than when the beloved work-wife and I started this up together, a few years back, and with I hasten to add the enthusiastic and unflagging support of our bosses. Much, much better. But the anxiety that is palpable throughout the books business nowadays is likewise present even in the best bookstores, even in grand old institutions like the one I get to work in every day, and confident as I am of used books playing a significant role in contributing to the overall health of the business, and it's continued (and unquestioned) viability, I am not such an ass as to think that old books can answer every new issue in the marketplace, or that used, or mixed inventory bookstores are immune to the changing habits of consumers, the temptations of home-shopping, gizmos, corporations selling new books at a loss, chain discounts, ridiculously high prices on new books, and all the other factors currently contributing to the uncertainty of selling books in an actual bookstore in America.

I do wish I was able to justify more of the kind of buying I did not feel confident to do this morning. I do think there should be a place for Frank Norris, in a first edition, in the bookstore. I wish I could say that I was wrong not to buy that book, but I don't know that I was, or that I would be right in buying the next such book I happen to see in the bottom of a bag of unsaleable old books. (Even some of the most respected and substantial bookstores in recent years have had to reconsider their investment in fine editions and the like. I know this for a fact. So, perhaps it is best left to specialists, at least for now.) I can't say what I think about such things is ever going to be policy where I work, or that I have anything like the brass to suggest that it should be or that I know what I'm talking about. Maybe I do, maybe I don't. Remains to be seen.

If I don't, of course the day may come when, hat in hand, if there isn't a position available dusting the shelves in a fine shop like Wessel & Lieberman, maybe I can still get a job in some junk shop.

Come to that, I would hope nobody will mind if I alphabetize a little on my own time, and change the fucking radio station.

Happily, despite my inclination to hope for the best and expect the worst in every situation, I needn't think about such things for a long time to come. Hopefully.

1 comment:

  1. I bring in unusual books from time to time. I always appreciate it when the folks working the used book counter let me know that what I brought with me is worth some money in the right places. I know, before I come in, what the books are worth; I don't always feel like going through the ebay-amazon-private sales dance though.