Wednesday, February 25, 2004

I've been back from Vegas for almost a week now, and things have been hectic. A trip to the suburbs yesterday with my friend and colleague Dan (Sanctuary Books, NYC) was a much needed respite from the stress of the shop and finances. It was a house call, and the owners had a small collection of mostly French books. A few nice bird books, an unusual Marie Antoinette item and a stray volume from a 17th century anatomical work. But almost everything had a least one defect - a loose hinge, a scuffed binding, and worse - a lacking title page. The owner clearly wanted to sell, but he had the disease - internet know-it-all-ism. He'd found Abe listings for many of the books, and assumed that the most expensive listing might compare with the item he had. Wrong. One of the hard learned lessons of my bookselling careeer is that an ordinary copy of a book might bring only a fraction of the price a distinguished copy. A book might be distinguished by being in truly outstanding condition, or in a later binding by a significant art binder. Signed or inscribed copies and associations are similar. I'm lumping an awful lot of categories together here, but the point is simply that an author and a title should not lead one to expect that the highest price listed on Abe is relevant to the book on the shelf at home.

Tuesday, February 17, 2004

It's been a while, but with the death of Samantha's grandmother and the attendant events, I've been a bit off the book track. My work has been mostly packing and shipping. In the midst of all of this lack of accomplishment I now must go to Las Vegas for two days, for a surprise celebration for my Aunt Jean's 70th birthday. It should be good fun, but I'm not really in much of a mood, emotionally or financially to be in Las Vegas.

It's strange because I know of at least two major collectors in Las Vegas, both casino owners. Neither has ever purchased a book from me, but I did sell one of them a few items when I worked for another dealer. I've also sold a few things lately to a collector of American avant-garde film material. The idea of pursuing a collection of esoteric material out there in the desert surrounded by pensioners pissing away their savings. Then again, this is where Howard Hughes spent much of his life.

Tuesday, February 10, 2004

Recent discussions on the Bibliophile newsgroup board have addressed the issue of how to price a book when there is a lack of other copies on the net. The bottom line of the discussion seems to be research and knowledge. This needs to be expanded to include the pricing of books when there are several or many copies on line. The use of online listings as anything more than an auxiliary tool for pricing is not research to be employed by booksellers. Knowledge and experience, a reference collection, colleagues you can count on to turn to when your stuck; these are the indispensible tools of the bookseller.

I was faced with an appropriate illustration of the perils of the current state of bookselling yesterday. I walked into a small local store yesterday, one which has been operating for quite some time. It's a general shop and does not have an "antiquarian" or rare section, but on the wall, in a folded ziplock bag, was a beaten up copy of Beckett's En Attendant Godot, with the wrapper separated from the book, a big chunk of the spine missing and general darkening throughout. It was marked $1000, which would be a very healthy price for a first in such crappy shape. But it wasn't a first, just a 15mille (fifteen thousandth), which was worth perhaps $10 if it had been in perfect shape.

I had a friendly conversation with the person at the counter, who was not the owner, but who was a "cataloguer" for the shop. They had written the listing, and with the owner had priced the book, and neither had any idea how to begin to determine a French first edition. They defended the price by saying that there were other copies of the first on line for $4500. They didn't know that these were mine, nor did they know that the prices were as they were because one was truly fine and the other was a very scarce review copy. They had merely looked the book up on Bookfinder, seen the higher prices and the same date of publication and marked it accordingly.

Did this make me crazy? Yes. It is irresponsible on the part of the bookseller. It makes it appear there are more copies of this book available than there actually are. It reflects badly on booksellers as a whole. Etc. etc.

Bookselling is an exciting trade in part because you never know what you might next have to learn about. I remember researching a fine collection of bird books while working for another bookseller, and a small group of very rare early accounts of the Spanish conquest of America for yet another seller. I knew nothing of these areas when I started, but by the time I was finished with each, I had a general knowledge of the appropriate reference books, had tracked down listings from older dealer catalogues and auction catalogues, and catalogued and priced the books accordingly. Could I have made a mistake? It's possible, but I had done my best at the time and could now feel comfortable defending my research and prices, should a customer or colleague question them.

The tasks of research and cataloguing should be seen as opportunities, not chores. They are part of what makes bookselling a challenge and their skillful execution brings a bit of honor to the trade with each performance.

Monday, February 09, 2004

I'm back to work again today, after four days in Los Angeles to visit our friend Robin and to attend the LA Book Fair. It was a very pleasurable long weekend, with some quiet downtime in Robin's very peaceful house, high on a hill in Highland Park, near Pasadena, with views of the snowcapped Sierras in the distance and a yard filled with cactii and succulents, flowering and fruit bearing trees. The warm weather and green surroundings led Samantha and I to have some serious misgivings about our plans to eventually move to Maine, where our porch plants would spend most of their lives indoors, waiting for their short season.

The fair was much more promising than any of perhaps the last ten fairs I've attended. For those who have looked to this fair as an indicator of business to come, sellers seemed relatively upbeat about the level of sales and attendance and morale were, in my view, up significantly. My own buying was modest, as I'm trying hard to stay focussed on eliminating my older accounts payable, but I did find a handsome Pontus Hulten designed exhibition catalolgue from the Moderna Museet in Stolkholm as well as a few reference books. The highlights of the fair were many. Here are just a few selected purely subjectively:

John Windle's booth held a copy of an old favorite of mine, The First Six Books of the Elements of Euclid, (London, 1847), designed by Oliver Byrne, which uses colors and shapes to simplify the mathematical explanation of the work. I first ran across this work in Rauri Mclean's Victorian Book Design & Colour Printing, and have sought it out at book fairs ever since, just to spend a few minutes with one of the most beautiful of 19th Century books.

While Ursus is best known for art books, particularly the grand livre d'artistes, their counter case held a small, unspectacular volume which on closer inspection was a presentation copy of Madison and Hamilton's Federalist. All I can say is wow.

Ars Libri, with David Stang manning the booth, had a wonderful selection of important art material, including illustrated books from the Roumanian avant-garde, and a collection of material for an unpublished livre d'artiste by Jim Dine, which was marked sold by the time I got to the booth.

For poetry, James S. Jaffe had the booth to visit. Samantha and our friend Robin spent more than a bit of time admiring the manuscript poem by Emily Dickinson and corrected typescript of Sylvia Plath.

My old employer John Wronoski of Lame Duck Books had distinguished copies of books by Nietzsche, Kant, Thomas Mann, Rilke, and his spectacular collection of manuscripts and inscribed books of Jorge Luis Borges. I had seen most of these items before, but he was offering for the first time a very pretty copy of Garcia Lorca's first book, Impresiones y viajes (Madrid, 1918), an account of a trip to Castile with his art class.

Antiquariaat Forum of the Netherlands has stunning early books, but I was most interested to see the complete three-volume edition of their magnificent catalogue, The Children's World of Learning, 1440-1880, that they have been working on for many years. The complete set is over 1500 pages, with nearly 1200 illustrations; it is now the indispensible reference work for early children's literature, and includes an essay comparing the new work to the previous standard in the field by Gamuchian.

Collegiality at the fair was as appropriately high as the prices, and it was very nice to see some friendly faces from the European fair circuit, including Torgny Schunesson and Borje Bengsston or Antikvariat Kulturbryggarna in Sweden, Julius Steiner of Asher Rare Books, Charlie Unsworth of Unsworth Booksellers in London, Laurens Hesselink of Forum, and many others.

For my good friend Dan Wechsler of Sanctuary Books, NYC, it was his first ABAA fair, one for which he had prepared for some time. His planning paid off, and pre-show sales were excellent, including a handsome first of Jane Austen's triple-decker Pride & Prejudice, a first of Gone with the Wind, and signed first of Abbie Hoffman's Steal this Book, which he had purchased from me the night before the fair after a meal and some wine. Dan's experience encouraged me to expedite my application to the ABAA. While I don't expect my experience will mirror his, mostly because of my specialization, it's got to beat the other fairs which remain good places to buy, but lately haven't been good for much else.

All in all, this years LA Book Fair was one of the most upbeat fairs I've attended in a few years. One can only hope that the big fairs are finally pulling out of the slump incited by the economic downturn and reactions to the chaning role of the internet in the business. We'll have to wait and see what happens in April in New York.

Tuesday, February 03, 2004

The final of three "Restaurant Week" lunches put me in a mood which has shaped the rest of my day positively. This one was at Bolo, Bobby Flay's old Spanish stand by on 22nd street. Some searching downtown led me to an inscribed first of Abbie Hoffman's Steal This Book. A fine, first English language edition of A.R. Luria's Working Brain was a nice find too, if not as valuable as the Hoffman. Lately it seems as if the good finds are coming in quickly, which they are. Some scarce avant-garde catalogues from Galerie Gmurzynska in Zug, and some scarce references on Futurism and French Psychoanalysis.

Thursday Samantha and I leave for LA, where we'll visit her friend Robin and spend some time at the California International Book Fair. We'll dine with some friends, hopefully visit a few book shops, and perhaps gets a bit of rest in between.

Sunday, February 01, 2004

The various book newsgroups usually provide me with fodder for my daily griping and little else. While I post books for sale, I have only once sold a book to someone who found it on the newsgroup, and in that case it was to a customer I had known previously. Much of the traffic seems to be in the "What's Spam?" or "Should I trust customers from France?" or "How does one abbreviate 'page'?" vein. Samantha has had it with listening to me gripe about what a bunch of boobs the other booksellers are, so I try to keep it to myself. Just when I think the newsgroup has hit a new low ("how does one abbreviate 'page'?), I find a truly useful piece of information passed on by some like-minded soul who must also be gritting his teeth at most of the pablum that gets served up.

Today, it was a story from The Economist on the persistence of Latin in today's world. Buried within the story is news of a weekly Latin Radio show produced by the Finnish Broadcasting Company. Nuntii Latini, is a five minute news digest, spoken entirely in Latin. Since some of the news they announce is local to Finland, the show includes a strange mix of Latin and Finnish.