Rare Book Monthly
Ken Leach Reflects On Over<br>35 Years Of Bookselling
by Michael Stillman
If you ever have a chance to see one of Ken Leach's catalogues, it will quickly transport you back to an earlier era of book collecting. Ken Leach has been publishing his catalogues for thirty-five years now, and while the book trade today has little resemblance to what it was in 1970, his catalogues are virtually unchanged. They are not flashy. While one of Leach’s specialties over the years has been fine bindings, these catalogues are bound with paper and staples. His descriptions aren’t novels, but are straight to the point and often contain anecdotes gathered from his many years of experience. And while prices are no longer quite 1970, Ken Leach does not price his books for the 22nd century either. They represent solid values.
Bookselling is one of those livelihoods that people tend to stumble into, rather than prepare for. Ken Leach's first career was in the food business. By the 1960’s, he had risen to supervisor for a chain of A & W Root Beer stands in western New England, running from his home state of Vermont through Massachusetts and Connecticut. Summers are mild in this part of the country, but anyone who has lived here knows that root beer floats are a hard sell in winter. The stands would close down when the weather turned cold. Ken Leach had time on his hands, and looked for something that could provide some side income until spring returned. He began buying and selling various items, books, broadsides, and stamps, in his spare time.
Meanwhile, the competitive environment became more challenging for A & W. McDonalds moved into his territory and with better pay and shorter hours, Leach found it difficult to hold onto good store managers. And so, with $3,000 in cash and three boxes of books, he made the break to become a full-time bookseller in July of 1968. This has been his profession ever since, and at 77-years of age, Ken Leach has absolutely no thoughts of retirement.
There are two things you need to be able to do to be a successful bookseller: locate books to sell and find customers to buy them. Traversing the back roads of New England to locate stock became a full-time job. Leach worked seven days a week, putting in 80 hours through the 1970s, until marriage forced him to cut back. “I slowed down a little and just worked 60,” Leach comments. In those days, supply was plentiful, competitors few. He would hit the flea markets, antique shops, and country auctions looking for books. The antique shops would always have a few books but never knew how to sell them. “I’d go in and clean them out,” he noted. Often he would be the only bidder for books at auctions and would walk off with everything they had. Despite the long hours, Leach thoroughly enjoyed his new profession. “I didn’t have to put up with bosses,” he points out.