Kurt Sanftleben: The Third Career
- by Bruce E. McKinney
Kurt Sanftleben, at 63, has already retired from two careers. In 1994, he retired as a lieutenant colonel from the United States Army with a little over twenty years of service, and in 2012 he retired once more, the second time from a civilian position as the Director of the United States Marine Corps Research Center. Now, he has become a serious bookseller and since 2013 a member of the American Booksellers Association of America. What went wrong? We were dying to know.
The answer: nothing.
He is a restless intellectual with a master’s degree and doctorate, who takes on substantial challenges and masters them. That he’s a rare book dealer today tells you he likes challenges. Who would give up a well-paid job to embrace the uncertainties that collectible paper embodies today? Not many I suppose but Kurt did, and it is quite apparent that he made a good decision.
So what’s his story?
Although Kurt had been selling used books on a part-time basis since 1998, he only began concentrating on antiquarian material a dozen years ago at the age of 51, and at the time was unencumbered by memories of the days when buyers knew less, broad assertions often went unchallenged and prices were higher. “Today” he told me, “most of my customers understand the field, understand rarity and importance and understand value. This is the way it has been for me from the beginning, and I’m comfortable with it.”
The rare book field is a magnet for gifted intellectuals. It isn’t that they often strut their stuff but many have the goods and it’s most noticeable in how they select what they buy and describe what they sell.
The field today is complex with potholes and opportunities cheek by jowl. Categories that were once thought to be rare and robust have been exposed on the Internet as unbearably common. Pre-Internet we had only anecdotal evidence. Today we have hard numbers and declining prices in many sectors.
But if you became a dealer post-Internet you were aware of these inventory overhangs and had the opportunity to seek categories and niches that, even post Internet, are authentically rare and desirable.
And that’s what Kurt has done. The ABAA is a bookseller’s association but it provides a broad umbrella under which other categories of printed and related objects find a place. For Kurt, the category is what he calls, “personal narratives: diaries, journals, photo albums, correspondence collections, scrapbooks, and similar paper items that provide unique perspectives on American history or culture.”
And I asked Kurt to tell me how he came to sell what he does –
As a kid, I read a lot of series books like Landmark, Chip Hilton, Clint Lane, and the Hardy Boys, and the bookshelves in my room were packed with them. So, I guess the collecting bug may have bit me way back then although the infection pretty much laid dormant until resurfacing when I was in my early forties. At the time, I was still on active duty, and while on a temporary assignment in Portsmouth, England as a participant in a NATO wargame, I happened to visit a flea market during some free-time. In one stall, I stumbled upon a cache of large Kubasta pop-up books and was immediately hooked by their bright artwork and clever mechanics. I bought them all without even haggling over price, and for the next year or so I purchased better pop-ups and movables wherever I found them. With time I realized that when I came across nice duplicates while out hunting, I could buy them for resale to support my habit. One thing led to another, and, almost before I knew it, I was a part-time book dealer selling children’s books, illustrated books, American history, and advertising ephemera at antique shows around DC and eventually book fairs in the Mid-Atlantic area. When eBay came along, I jumped on board and shortly thereafter began listing my stock on AbeBooks as well.
Around the same time, and understanding full well that I was going to have a long life after I left the army, I completed a doctorate with a concentration in higher education at the College of William and Mary while still on active duty. I’d already earned a master’s degree in the humanities, and at the time, I thought a doctorate might help me land a teaching job at a junior college after I hung up my uniform. But that didn’t happen. Instead, after I retired, I was very fortunate to be selected to serve in a dual-hatted civilian position as a Vice-President at the Marine Corps University and the Director of the Marine Corps Research Center where, among other responsibilities, I oversaw the operation of the Library of the Marine Corps as well as the U. S. Marine Corps Archives and Special Collections. While there, I became fascinated with our collections of personal papers and manuscripts, and I began to wonder if others might be interested in adding similar types of material to their collections. That led me to ask my customers, and I found, to my surprise, that most of them, especially the younger ones, didn’t consider themselves to be book collectors. Rather, they collected topics that interested them or were important in their lives. Sure, they bought books, but they also collected photographs, sheet music, tacky souvenirs, advertising, prints, and almost anything else related to whatever their topical focus might be. So, around 2010 I began to add things like that to my inventory and soon found they outsold my books . . . by a lot. Unique items, especially diaries and photograph albums that told a personal story, were especially popular.
Manuscripts are a broad category that intersects every field, be they fiction and poetry, science, history and even crimes. Place us in your world –
Absolutely, but again, it’s not just manuscripts but other types of personal narratives as well, things like photograph albums or scrapbooks full of ephemera. For me, it’s not just any diary or album. They have to have some type of hook. I look for items that tell a story about some facet of their original owners’ lives and also provide insight into some aspect of American history or culture.
For example, I recently sold a collection of detailed manuscript notebooks written by an ardent Unionist from Alabama who was conscripted into the Confederate Army, sentenced to death for mutiny, served time in several military prisons, had his death sentence commuted by Jefferson Davis, escaped during the confusion of Sherman’s attack on Atlanta, and soon thereafter enlisted in the Union Army. I can’t imagine that even those who don’t give two hoots about Civil War wouldn’t find this narrative riveting. I figure this man’s story is good for a non-fiction book, a novel, and possibly even a screenplay.
Some of my other recent sales include a 1920s photograph album that documented a patient’s stay in the then-cutting-edge Georgia State Tuberculosis Sanatorium at Alto, a 1910s photograph album documenting life on the Colville Indian Reservation in Washington that was compiled by the young female leader of a three-member team from the U. S. Allotment Service living there while they parceled out homesteads from tribal lands to individual Native Americans, and a 1940s collection of large, personal, humorous, hand-painted envelopes that the first Bozo the Clown, Pinto Colvig (who was also a Disney animator and the first voice of Goofy, Grumpy, and Doc), used to mail letters and home-made greeting cards to a close friend.
Oh, before I forget, I probably ought to mention that we do sell some books too, they just aren’t our main interest.
Tell us how you sell. In our discussion you mentioned that broadly speaking you are doing about a third of your business from direct quotes and catalogs, another third at shows and a further third from online sales at your website, AbeBooks, Biblio, and eBay. Selling is an art. How does that truism translate into your experience?
For me to sell the type of things I do, I first have to understand exactly what an item is. Most of the time, this takes a little research. I don’t mean looking up items in bibliographies, although that can be helpful. I’m talking about traditional research, and that usually requires some combination of in-person or on-line visits to academic libraries, archives, or museums as well as the use of interlibrary loan resources and electronic data collections like EBCO, Gale, or JSTOR.
Of course, writing the description is important too. At their best, I want my write-ups not only to describe an item fully but to also relate the originator’s personal story in a way that makes it clear to potential customers, both collectors and institutions, why that item is important and why it should become part of their collection. That holds true, whether I’m trying to make a sale at a book fair, through a catalog, or on-line. I know that some people think that selling on the Internet is a rather static and effortless way of doing business, but the truth is that for on-line sales, especially eBay sales, I converse just as much, if not more, with potential customers by email and message as I do in person at fairs or by telephone for direct quotes or catalog sales.
I understand that your wife is your partner in this business. You do shows together and she organizes the business side of the house. Tell us about this aspect of the business.
Sure, Gail retired shortly after I did. She’d been a civilian plans and logistics officer within the Department of Defense for over 35 years, and her last job was as a Deputy Director within the Office of the Assistant Secretary of Defense for Health Affairs. She was a little envious my free time after I retired and had really gotten to hate her grueling 90-minute one-way commute both to and from work on I-95 each day, so leaving her bureaucratic headaches behind and joining me in the book business made perfect sense. She went to CABS, the Colorado Antiquarian Book Seminar, after she retired but doesn’t get too involved in the book-side of our business. Instead, she puts her logistics and management experience to work maintaining our spreadsheets, organizing stock, packing it for shows, and coordinating our travel and transportation. She also keeps tabs on how we do at each show, what types of things sold and what didn’t, and then adjusts what we take the next time around. While we’re at a show she’s usually the one who goes out scouting while I manage the booth, and she always manages to find some interesting things.
Something else I should mention is that Gail came up with our trading name, Read’Em Again Books, twenty years ago when I was first starting out At the time, I had an inventory of a couple thousand collectible children’s books that I sold to adults, primarily nostalgia sales, at antique shows, so it made a lot of sense. Now that our inventory and business model are dramatically different, we’ve discussed changing it but, for the time, decided to keep it because we have so many customers that know us that way.
You have a history of persistence, demonstrated by your pursuit of education, your military service, your executive experience in higher education and library management, and now in the field of collectible objects. How does it feel and what does the future look like to you and Gail?
That’s an interesting question, especially the part about “persistence.” To me, persistence implies sticking with something that is difficult or unpleasant. Of course, I’ve worked hard and been in some challenging situations, and there were times when I’ve been frustrated , but to be honest, I loved my time in the military, my time as a student, and my work in higher education and library administration. I have to say that all of it was very enjoyable, satisfying, and fulfilling.
As for the future, I like to think that Gail and I will be able to keep on selling the type of things we do now. Although the topics that sell best will certainly change with time, I think that whatever their interests, collectors will continue wanting to add unusual and unique items to their collections. Also, I think that institutions will want to continue to offer their users original source material with personal details that students, faculty, and other researchers can use to flesh out and enliven theses, dissertations, and publications. That’s what we offer now and what we plan to offer in the future.
I suspect that the well of hard-copy, as opposed to digital, personal narratives won’t run dry for a number of years, and, to mix metaphors, we’ll be able to mine nuggets of diaries, albums, correspondence, and scrapbooks from the hidden crevices of auctions, eBay, estate sales, and antique malls for a long time. Gail and I both enjoy what we are doing now and plan to keep doing it for the foreseeable future. We’ll “continue the march” as long as we continue to have fun.
Rare Book Monthly members and readers, in total more than 20,000, will be interested both in your story and in your experience. We all think we can sell a book or two. You’re finding a path to a third career and buying very interesting things. RBH members here now can follow various links
To the Read’Em Again Books website and (in Kurt’s words, “sorely neglected”) Facebook page and blog.
To Kurt’s recent catalogues: Catalog 16-2 (Summer/Fall, 2016) and Catalog 16-1 (Spring/Summer, 2016)
To a video-taped interview with Kurt posted on the ABAA website [link]
A list of shows where Kurt and Gail will be exhibiting:
29 October 2016 –Boston Book Print and Ephemera Show (Marvin Getman’s Satellite Show), Back Bay Events Center, 180 Berkeley St., Boston, MA 02116
3-5 February 2017 – The Pasadena Antiquarian Book, Print, Photo and Paper Fair, Pasadena Convention Center, 300 E Green St, Pasadena, CA 91101
10-12 February 2017 – The 50th California International Antiquarian Book Fair, Oakland Marriott City Center, 1001 Broadway, Oakland, CA 94607
10 March 2017 – New York City Book and Ephemera Fair (Marvin Gettman’s Satellite Fair), Wallace Hall, Church of St. Ignatius Loyola, 980 Park Avenue New York, NY 10028
21-23 April 2017 – Florida Antiquarian Book Fair, The Coliseum, 535 4th Avenue North, St. Petersburg, FL 33701
28-29 April 2017 – Washington Antiquarian Book Fair, The Sphinx Club, 1315 K Street NW, Washington DC 20005
5-7 May 2017 – St. Louis Fine Print, Rare Book & Paper Fair to Benefit the St. Louis Mercantile Library at the University of Missouri St. Louis, JC Penney Conference Center, UMSL-North Campus, 1 University Boulevard, St. Louis, MO