Rare Book Monthly

Articles - November - 2014 Issue

Booksellers Speak in a Recently Released Book – A Book Review

A Second Book of Booksellers.

Here is a book you will want to read if you are a bookseller, collector, or most of all, one of those in between – a collector contemplating a venture into the bookselling field. Bookseller Sheila Markham interviewed a group of booksellers and compiled their responses in A Second Book of Booksellers. This, naturally enough, is a follow-up, but this group has weathered the storm of the greatest transition the field has ever known. If bookselling remained remarkably similar for a century, perhaps a couple of centuries, the past two decades have been anything but stable. The planet has been spinning so fast that book dealers have had to hold on for their lives or be flung from their world.

 

The booksellers interviewed are all veterans of the trade, of varying lengths. Their careers range from starting in the 1950's to the early 1990's. Some experienced decades of bookselling as it always was, others came in at the tale end of that era. All had to fight their way through the sudden disruption of their way of life brought on by the rapid changes in technology, most notably, the internet. The internet struck earth like a giant meteor and they were dinosaurs. They had only a short amount of time to become birds.

 

The booksellers interviewed, like Ms. Markham, are mostly English, though a few from other continents do appear (they do have connections to the Isles). It doesn't matter. What they have to say is universal. They recount how they became booksellers, important events in their lives, adaptations they have made, and many give their thoughts on the future and how the field needs to adapt. Their advice is invaluable to anyone in the trade. Their histories are fascinating to collectors and sellers alike, most having become booksellers because of their love of books. This is why we say collectors thinking of becoming booksellers will particularly enjoy this book. So many of these people made that exact transition. Their histories are fascinating and fun to read. Their advice is an education. You won't find many textbooks as entertaining as this one.

 

While every bookseller's experiences are unique, there is a pattern we see over and over as to how people enter the trade. We suspect it's very different from, say, why people become used car dealers. The future bookseller starts with some connection to books in their youth. Either their parents love or collect books, or they are themselves voracious readers. They develop a connection to books, perhaps build an inexpensive collection of their own. They finish college with some general major that does not lead to obvious jobs, or they don't have sufficient interest in academics to go on to college. Their interest in books leads them to get a part-time or entry level job in a bookstore. They learn the trade, move up to greater responsibilities, and after some number of years, generally with virtually no money in hand, throw their seniority away and break out on their own. We see the progression repeated time and again. Occasionally, we find a book lover who made money in another career take the plunge. Anecdotally, we suspect this route is becoming more common today. Once in awhile, someone enters a family business. Still, for most, they start on a shoestring, with some experience as an employee, a love for books, and not much else.

 

How they succeed is hard to fathom. Perhaps the biographies we are reading are the exceptions, the few who made it. We suspect that most used car dealers begin, not from a love of used cars, but because they believe there is money to be made in the field. Most of these booksellers, unlike the typical new business owner, seem to be hoping they can somehow survive doing what they love, rather than making a lot of money doing something they think is profitable. How many septic tank cleaners get in the business because they love the trade? Entering the bookselling business rarely appears to be a financial decision. These are really not normal businesspeople. Those who survive so long must be the ones who develop business skills along the way – they are booksellers who become savvy businesspeople, rather than savvy businesspeople who become booksellers.

 

It's hard to write a review of a book like this because, rather than being a novel, it is a collection of short stories. So, what we will do is collect a few tidbits of wisdom, advice, and experience these booksellers have given us. It hardly scratches the surface. There is so much more, but you need to read the book for all of the rest.

 

Many booksellers had observations about the internet, and its listing site offspring, AbeBooks. Most use “Abe,” but only in a specific, limited role.

 

John Loska doesn't even list his books on the internet. “I believe this makes my shop more interesting for customers.” He also disagreed with the adage people find a book in a shop, then buy it on the internet. “I believe it works the other way around – ordinary books are nearly always cheaper in shops.”

 

Tony Cox observes, “The internet has made rarities more expensive, and common books cheaper.” He sells online only what does not sell in his catalogues. Peter Budek will put unsold lower priced but still collectible books up on eBay, while lesser material goes on the £1 and £2 shelves.

 

Of course, the internet has revealed that some “rare” books aren't so rare after all. Peter Scupham wryly observes, “In these days of the internet, there is nothing so common as a rare book.”

 

Michael Graves-Johnson points out, “It's [the internet] a wonderful medium for buying but hopeless for selling antiquarian books.” Or, as John Windle says, “If you are thinking of spending a thousand or two thousand dollars on a book, would you like to be able to visit a dealer in a shop where he has done business for many years, and can show you different copies of a book, discuss what is available on the market, help to develop your interest in the subject and generally be available for consultation, or would you rather do business with a website that can disappear at the flick of a switch?” I think this is a rhetorical question.

 

Paul Mills noted that some books have remained listed online for years. “Dealers need to be more nimble in how they sell their books.” He summed up the feelings of many succinctly - “...ABE is not the future.”

 

What is the future? Many agreed it is with the young. Elizabeth Strong says, “We have to keep trying to get young people to look at books and aspire to own them. This is the role for book fairs and shops...we are not libraries or museums.” Tim Bryars explains, “I am always very welcoming to students who come into my shop and are interested in material they cannot afford to buy. I remember my own student days and how much I enjoyed the opportunity to browse in bookshops.”

 

John Windle explains it, “The challenge of the book trade is to introduce young people to rare books and foster an appreciation of the importance of books as cultural artifacts.” Tony Cox notes the awestruck reaction of some young people in touching a very old book. “It might not happen to more than one in 10,000, but perhaps the antiquarian book trade doesn't need more than this percentage of the population for its survival.”

 

Pom Harrington entered the trade from a different vantage point than most. He joined his father's going concern with a business perspective. “Most booksellers are not businessmen first; they're book lovers. They trade in something they love and try to make a living at it.” Harrington emphasizes the importance of informative, accurate descriptions. Prices on the internet vary widely. “We want customers to trust there's a good reason for the price of our books.” Harrington notes he “can't stand” shops where the books are locked up and nothing is priced, like an “old-fashioned library.” Their shop has a “smart appearance, and visitors receive a warm welcome. Everything is priced, catalogued, and guaranteed.” Harrington also has an interesting observation about the electronic reader, a device to throw fear into the hearts of book lovers - “People tell me the Kindle is the end of the book. It's not; it's the end of the paperback.”

 

Sophie Schneideman notes that while her customers are high achievers, they don't buy for investment purposes. Their passion is seen in their “intimidating” depth of knowledge. “Some of my collectors can tell you what William Morris had for breakfast on a given day.” Larry Ilott points to the importance of describing the book as “an art object.” Edward Baynton-Coward confirms, “I am quite confident that books as objects will not only survive this period of great upheaval, but be held in growing esteem.”

 

We will give the last word to Alfredo Breitfeld, of Argentina's Libreria de Antano: “I cannot imagine a time when one of my clients will tremble and perspire holding in his hands a first electronic version of Don Quijote de la Mancha. Rare and beautiful books will disappear only if beauty itself disappears from our existence. While humanity still has a soul, the book will remain in its present physical form.” No, we will give one last, counterintuitive final comment to Michael Graves Johnston - “...the future of our trade has never been rosier.”

 

If you don't find a copy of this book locally (it is a limited edition of 500), you may send your inquiry to sheilamarkham@hotmail.com

Rare Book Monthly

  • Ketterer Rare Books
    Auction May 27th
    Ketterer Rare Books, May 27:
    K. Marx, Das Kapital,1867. Dedication copy. Est: € 120,000
    Ketterer Rare Books, May 27:
    Latin and French Book of Hours, around 1380. Est: € 25,000
    Ketterer Rare Books, May 27:
    Theodor de Bry, Indiae Orientalis, 1598-1625. Est: € 80,000
    Ketterer Rare Books
    Auction May 27th
    Ketterer Rare Books, May 27:
    Breviary, Latin manuscript, around 1450-75. Est: € 10,000
    Ketterer Rare Books, May 27:
    G. B. Piranesi, Vedute di Roma, 1748-69. Est: € 60,000
    Ketterer Rare Books, May 27:
    K. Schmidt-Rottluff, Arbeiter, 1921. Orig. watercolour on postcard. Est: € 18,000
    Ketterer Rare Books
    Auction May 27th
    Ketterer Rare Books, May 27:
    Breviarium Romanum, Latin manuscript, 1474. Est: € 20,000
    Ketterer Rare Books, May 27:
    C. J. Trew, Plantae selectae, 1750-73. Est: € 28,000
    Ketterer Rare Books, May 27:
    M. Beckmann, Apokalypse, 1943. Est: € 50,000
    Ketterer Rare Books
    Auction May 27th
    Ketterer Rare Books, May 27:
    Ulrich von Richenthal, Das Concilium, 1536. Est: € 9,000
    Ketterer Rare Books, May 27:
    I. Kant, Critik der reinen Vernunft, 1781. Est: €12,000
    Ketterer Rare Books, May 27:
    Arbeiter-Illustrierte Zeitung (AIZ) / Die Volks-Illustrierte (VI), 1932-38. Est: €8,000
  • ALDE, May 28: KIPLING (RUDYARD). Le Livre de la Jungle. – Le IIe livre de la Jungle. Paris, Sagittaire, Simon Kra, 1924-1925. €3,000 to €4,000.
    ALDE, May 28: NOAILLES (ANNA DE). Les Climats. Paris, Société du Livre contemporain, 1924. €50,000 to €60,000.
    ALDE, May 28: MILTON (JOHN). Paradis perdu. Quatrième chant. S.l., Les Bibliophiles de l'Automobile-Club de France, 1974. €2,000 to €3,000.
    ALDE, May 28: LEBEDEV (VLADIMIR). Russian Placards - Placard Russe 1917-1922. Saint-Petersbourg, Sterletz, 1923. €1,000 to €1,200.
    ALDE, May 28: MARDRUS (JOSEPH-CHARLES). Histoire charmante de l'adolescente sucre d'amour. Paris, F.-L. Schmied, 1927. €1,500 to €2,000.
    ALDE, May 28: TABLEAUX DE PARIS. Paris, Émile-Paul Frères, 1927. €2,000 to €3,000.
    ALDE, May 28: LA FONTAINE (JEAN DE). Les Fables illustrées par Paul Jouve. S.l. [Lausanne], Gonin & Cie, 1929. €4,000 to €5,000.
    ALDE, May 28: SARTRE (JEAN-PAUL). Vingt-deux dessins sur le thème du désir. Paris, Fernand Mourlot, 1961. €1,500 to €2,000.
    ALDE, May 28: [BRAQUE (GEORGES)]. 13 mai 1962. Alès, PAB, 1962. €3,000 to €4,000.
    ALDE, May 28: MIRÓ (JOAN). Je travaille comme un jardinier. Avant-propos d'Yvon Taillandier. Paris, Société intenationale d'art XXe siècle, 1963. €1,000 to €2,000.
    ALDE, May 28: MAGNAN (JEAN-MARIE). Taureaux. Paris, Michèle Trinckvel, 1965. €3,000 to €4,000.
    ALDE, May 28: PICASSO (PABLO). Dans l'atelier de Picasso. 1960. €15,000 to €20,000.
  • Sotheby’s
    Modern First Editions
    Available for Immediate Purchase
    Sotheby’s, Available Now: Winston Churchill. The Second World War. Set of First-Edition Volumes. 6,000 USD
    Sotheby’s, Available Now: A.A. Milne, Ernest H. Shepard. A Collection of The Pooh Books. Set of First-Editions. 18,600 USD
    Sotheby’s, Available Now: Salvador Dalí, Lewis Carroll. Alice's Adventures in Wonderland. Finely Bound and Signed Limited Edition. 15,000 USD
    Sotheby’s
    Modern First Editions
    Available for Immediate Purchase
    Sotheby’s, Available Now: Ian Fleming. Live and Let Die. First Edition. 9,500 USD
    Sotheby’s, Available Now: J.K. Rowling. Harry Potter Series. Finely Bound First Printing Set of Complete Series. 5,650 USD
    Sotheby’s, Available Now: Ernest Hemingway. A Farewell to Arms. First Edition, First Printing. 4,200 USD
  • Forum Auctions
    Fine Books, Manuscripts and Works on Paper
    30th May 2024
    Forum, May 30: Potter (Beatrix). Complete set of four original illustrations for the nursery rhyme, 'This pig went to market', 1890s. £60,000 to £80,000.
    Forum, May 30: Dante Alighieri.- Lactantius (Lucius Coelius Firmianus). Opera, second edition, Rome, 1468. £40,000 to £60,000.
    Forum, May 30: Distilling.- Brunschwig (Hieronymus). Liber de arte Distillandi de Compositis, first edition of the so-called 'Grosses Destillierbuch', Strassburg, 1512. £22,000 to £28,000.
    Forum, May 30: Eliot (T.S.), W. H. Auden, Ted Hughes, Philip Larkin, Robert Lowell, Seamus Heaney, Ted Hughes, & others. A Personal Anthology for Eric Walter White, 60 autograph poems. £20,000 to £30,000.
    Forum, May 30: Cornerstone of French Enlightenment Philosophy.- Helvetius (Claude Adrien). De l'Esprit, true first issue "A" of the suppressed first edition, Paris, 1758. £20,000 to £30,000.
    Forum Auctions
    Fine Books, Manuscripts and Works on Paper
    30th May 2024
    Forum, May 30: Szyk (Arthur). The Haggadah, one of 125 copies, this out-of-series, Beaconsfield Press, 1940. £15,000 to £20,000.
    Forum, May 30: Fleming (Ian). Casino Royale, first edition, first impression, 1953. £15,000 to £20,000.
    Forum, May 30: Japan.- Ryusui (Katsuma). Umi no Sachi [Wealth of the Sea], 2 vol., Tokyo, 1762. £8,000 to £12,000.
    Forum, May 30: Computing.- Operating and maintenance manual for the BINAC binary automatic computer built for Northrop Aircraft Corporation 1949, Philadelphia, 1949. £8,000 to £12,000.
    Forum, May 30: Burmese School (probably circa 1870s). Folding manuscript, or parabaik, from the Court Workshop at the Royal Court at Manadaly, Burma, [c.1870s]. £8,000 to £12,000.

Article Search

Archived Articles

Ask Questions