I recently interviewed veteran bookseller David Lesser for his perspective on the trade during these difficult times. He’s been through the wars.
[Q] By way of background, how did you find yourself in this predicament?
[A] I became a bookseller in 1989— part time, in order to finish up my duties as a lawyer and also to continue making a living. I had been a lawyer since 1967, and spent my early years in the legal services program. It was the late 1960’s and early 1970’s— important constitutional issues affecting low-income people dangled like low-hanging fruit, and I was lucky to have been able to pluck some from the trees. Later, after a few years of private practice, I lost my taste for adversarial proceedings, at least when litigation involved the clash of people rather than the clash of issues. Fortunately I had always been interested in American history, legal and otherwise. I was surprised one day to see an 1850’s Congressional speech about slavery-- common as dirt, of course, but I didn’t know that. It pretty much hooked me. On a two-week vacation in Peru I spent my down time reading some of Bill Reese’s catalogues I had taken with me. I brought forth my own first catalogue in the fall of 1989, and am now up to Number 176.
[Q] And, along the way you became a member of the ABAA and became a regular exhibitor at book fairs.
[A] I became a member of ABAA in late 1993, and made the rounds a few times of all the ABAA Fairs. I have exhibited at every New York fair since 1994; and continue to exhibit in Boston. I gave up the California fairs about ten years ago—costs compared with results were not encouraging.
[Q] Has your bookselling career been more Aretha Franklin’s ‘Hello Sunshine’ or Van Morrison’s ‘Days Like This’? Or both?
[A] I have always been an optimist about our little corner of the planet. When I first entered it, people were complaining that the good old days had disappeared; but I was delighted with this new world, found many interesting items to buy and resell, and took great pleasure in book trips, particularly in the American South, which my wife and I would combine with sight-seeing and local music—blues, jazz, bluegrass. The world is constantly changing, and people’s interests respond to those changes, but our fascination with the printed and written word will remain forever. I suppose that the invention of moveable type caused some worry that interest in manuscripts would vanish; or that second and third editions would diminish the desire for first editions; or that paperback printings of ‘Moby Dick’ would collapse the market for early printings. None of these horribles has happened.
[Q] So the many lamentations that have been whispered and groaned over the decades about the rare book business have more related to the changing structure of the field rather than that interest in the material is declining. In your experience the interest endures and see blue sky in the future? That makes sense.
[A] It is certainly true that the internet has caused major changes in the book world. Standardization of markets results in lower prices and comparison shopping. That’s what markets are supposed to do. But people adapt as they always have—hence, the increased interest in one-of-a-kind items like manuscripts; and the recalibration of markets for relatively common material. Dealers, collectors, and institutions are smart enough to make the necessary changes. The underlying passion will remain.
[Q] The structure of the field has always been changing. Shops have been closing for decades, printed catalogues have been losing some of their cache. Shows remain essential but, while Covid-19 is present, and it’s not safe to be there until the epidemic quiets or we have a vaccine, the future of rare books and paper is unknown. All this not withstanding I feel confident in the future of the trade. Do you agree?
[A] Yes. Pax tibi.
Thank you David.
And in the meantime you are working at your offices with 5,000 items on line with a few thousand yet to be described and offered. Let’s click here to take a look.
Welcome to Catalog 176.