An Old Fashioned Book Seller: An Interview with Harold Nestler
HN: How and why did I start being a book dealer? [Long pause.] Well, when I was a kid, I was born with a hernia and was not allowed to run around, play ball, et cetera. As a consequence I did a lot of reading. I got interested in the local area of Poughkeepsie, and started picking up books and pamphlets on the subject. Then my family moved to New Jersey, first to Patterson, then eventually here. I took all of my books and pamphlets with me when we moved.
At the same time, I then subscribed to The Rural New Yorker, an agricultural magazine, to stay in contact with New York State. I saw an ad from a fellow in Cape Cod who wanted old historical books. I wrote to him. He wasn’t interested, but he gave me the name of a man who would be interested. This guy came to the house. This was in 1952. He bought one book from me, for one dollar – a local history book of some sort. Then later on I went to his house to look at books, and I bought a book from him for one dollar. (No, not the same book!) So this fellow said: why don’t you follow me, maybe you can make some money. So I did. Together we went to library sales, house book sales – no bookstores at that time. I was then concentrating on buying Evangelical religious books, in keeping with my faith. I started to make up lists and I sent them out to bible schools, religious colleges, et cetera. I figure I made around three dollars a week on the average selling books at that time.
AT: Did you have a full time job at the time to back you up?
HN: Yes. At the time I was driving a milk truck, delivering milk house to house. This was a very difficult and demanding job. The book business was just a part time avocation. For fifteen years or so I drove that milk truck. Then one day, my daughter wanted to go to visit Houghton College, a Wesleyan Methodist college, as she was looking at universities. And my boss at the milk company wouldn’t let me off of my milk route for a day to take my daughter to visit this college – so I quit. Then I went and took the Postal exam, and soon I was delivering mail house to house. This was like a walking vacation compared to the milk route, which was really tiring.
Meanwhile, I was still buying and selling books on the side. This is from approximately 1952 to 1970. Finally, my daughter finished school, we paid off the mortgage on our house, and then sometime in the 70s I quit the Postal Service and went full time into book dealing.
AT: How did you advertise and build up your business in those early days, particularly when you were working at other jobs simultaneously?
HN: Cataloguing or creating catalogues was (and still is) my main form of advertising. Over time, I had slowed down on religious books and had moved mostly to American history and Americana. I also was an early advocate of local history, issuing catalogues about New England or Pennsylvania or the South West. But back then I dealt in almost anything: dog books, Communism, you name it. My lists were very eclectic, to say the least.