“The Extraordinary History of the Every Day”- Langdon Manor Books Finds Its Niche
- by Susan Halas
Langdon Manor Books in Houston specializes in American Social Movements, American Personal Narratives, Photo Albums and Outsider Books.
I first became aware of Houston based dealer Adam Schachter back in 2012 when he was a practicing bankruptcy attorney moonlighting as a book scout. Since then he’s transitioned from law to the antiquarian field morphing into a full time dealer as Langdon Manor Books (ABAA). Langdon Manor specializes in American Social Movements, American Personal Narratives, Photo Albums and Outsider Books. Though ‘books’ are featured in his company name, actual books per se make up a very small part of his inventory, which leans heavily to ephemera, photos and photo albums, letters and archival materials. These are mostly one-of-a-kind items that chronicle “the extraordinary history of the every day.” In less than ten years he’s managed to carve out an unusual and profitable niche.
Since opening a new antiquarian shop is often seen as a one way ticket to downward mobility, Rare Book Hub was curious how Schachter had achieved his upward momentum in a relatively rapid fashion. To that end he answered a variety of questions via email. His responses are presented here somewhat edited for length.
Now 51, Schachter was a University of Arizona undergrad with a law degree from Southern Methodist University and an interest in collectibles that went back to childhood. “It was in 2003 when I was first exposed to the book world ... I'd go to estate sales on Thursdays through Saturdays and make a couple hundred dollars a month for fun buying and selling collectible books and other things.”
Around 2008 he gave it up because of his expanding law practice, but, he wrote, “I got the bug to buy and sell again in 2011. After unknowingly buying a bunch of Russian displaced person books that November, everything changed.
“Philipp Penka, now of Bernett Penka, was a doctoral candidate at the time and recently won a National Collegiate Book Collecting Contest award for his collection of similar pamphlets. Reading his article about them, where he turned these interesting little booklets into important cultural objects, was life changing. The sale of those books to him, the idea that research and scholarship could turn those pieces of paper into physical items which held compelling stories, and further realizing that people would pay good money for those items/stories—that was epiphinarrific.
“Over the next couple of years I continued to find archival-ish things with terrific stories; I lucked into finding my mentor (Kurt Sanftleben of Read'em Again Books). He easily shaved 15 years off my learning curve with all the time he gave answering my questions.”
Schachter also acknowledged the help of Kol Shaver at Zephyr's Used and Rare Books, “who also became a wonderful friend and guide...They both continue to answer questions about the trade that I don't feel comfortable asking publicly. I went to The Colorado Antiquarian Book Seminar (CABS) in 2014 and actively tried to transition to full time book selling in late that year.”
A Difficult Transition
“It was exceptionally difficult; one cannot quit a volume consumer bankruptcy practice overnight and it took well over a year to fully close the practice. Those 18 months were very difficult and included my developing more than one stress-based illness that led to my only being able to work part time, and it wasn't exactly quality work. During the transition everyone was on board and excited for me to make the change.
“I consider January 2016 the official ‘opening’ of Langdon Manor Books as a full time business. By mid- 2016 I had several dealer customers who were providing wonderful cash flow. Even better, I would see my items appear in (other) dealer catalogs. That gave me a lot of confidence to try to seek the types of customers those dealers had. It was also quite helpful to see how those items were priced. Since a significant part of my 2015-2016 cash flow came from dealers I decided to give doing a catalog a shot. Catalog #1 was released in January 2017 and my customer base began to mushroom.”
Asked how he chose his specialty he responded, “The fields selected me. I went into all this assuming I would be buying and selling actual books, hoping to be spending $5-$50 and selling them for $50-$500.
“My attraction to African Americana has to do with where/how I grew up, and as I was learning more about the trade from 2014-2016. I was most influenced by the catalogs of Lorne Bair and Between the Covers, followed by those of my mentor Kurt Sanftleben, as well as Brian Cassidy and William Reese.
“The idea in my head was that if they were offering these things, in these subject areas, one would hope they are actually selling those things too. Regardless of my interests, I wanted to make a good living, and wanted items to sell.
Finding the Focus
“I love digging in the past and there's all sorts of history that interests me. If all those folks were choosing those subject areas, I thought that they must be good, marketable subject areas. I had no idea I'd be buying and selling and loving learning about, say, Western Americana. But I found a couple of things cheap, they sold wonderfully, and I'd consider Western Americana a growing specialty (of mine).”
Schachter soon left the flea markets, garage and estate sales behind. “(They) are too inefficient and I don't get to do it enough—but do look forward to my semi-annual trip to the Central Texas antiques fairs. Luckily, in the last five years, I've developed a network of folks who attend those types of sales and regularly educate them as to what I look for. The best scouts are the ones who are willing to listen to why I purchased something from them, or why not, such that their offerings become better and better.
“In the last 2-3 years I've also been buying regularly from other dealers, something that was unimaginable to me in 2017. I've found some over-the-top things at Virtual Book Fairs, which I loooove to shop, mostly for the intensity of their first 5-30 minutes, having to make superfast decisions lest I miss out on a gem. Attendance at other real life collectibles fairs (as well as their virtual versions) sometimes bears fruit.”
Specialty in Photography: Learning the market
“Also, I was already attracted to visual items, and that same time frame (2014ish to 2017ish) I saw photo albums appear more and more in the lists of the dealers I followed.
“It also didn't hurt when Between the Covers issued a catalog devoted exclusively to vernacular photos and albums. I devoured stuff like that back then and to some degree still do. But back then I would first read a catalog and then create a spreadsheet of any items in it where I thought I might come across a similar subject. I think the repetition of reading descriptions, seeing prices, and going back to a spreadsheet where I wrote out subjects and prices, helped instill a sense of the market."
The Importance of the Story
“Around 2014 I was also developing a sense that spectacular stories could be hidden away in plain sight -- in the photo albums and papers of 'every day' people. As I found success offering these types of stories, it led to my wife Kirsten coining our slogan, ‘The Extraordinary History of the Every Day.’”
Success feels ‘Unreal’
“The whole catalog success, the trajectory of it, regularly feels unreal -- like I'm watching someone else's life. Outside of a couple of subject areas, I think a lot of the subjects we sell have been avidly collected for more than 20 years. We try to find the printed things that have been overlooked as well as anything unique that fits the antiquarian book selling world and has a compelling story.
“Hence, I wouldn't say we are even ‘specialists’ (our letterhead notwithstanding) but regularly seek out the unusual and unique, in areas in which we enjoy the research/hunt, and which the market seems to want.”
Pricing and the Financial Side
With respect to pricing he wrote, “There are no guidelines when selling unique things, very rare ephemera, or other printed items with no auction records or competing copies online. A sense of price has come from all the immersion in others' catalogs mentioned previously (I still do that, just not as deeply and no longer maintain spreadsheets), and reviewing recent auctions in our interest areas.”
Schachter declined to give any benchmark financials but he did comment he had expected bookselling to be less profitable than law.
But, he observed, “The complete opposite has happened…..I occasionally joke that my legal education is finally coming in handy because I think, especially with our higher priced items, that we are essentially writing a legal pleading, where the market is the judge, and our job is to lay out the facts and argue why the item matters, with all of that working together to argue for the price. And yes, my idea of a ‘good’ sale has changed drastically, even from a couple of years ago. The same thing has happened with respect to how much I'm willing to spend on something when I don't really know what that something is.”
Schachter said that most of his current market base is domestic. “Presently the most significant part of our revenue comes from institutional libraries and museums. What currently works best is releasing lists, gaining new interested customers from them, courting them, learning their interests, and eventually quoting them. It's hard to do all that with any regularity at the moment, but I've added two employees since May and hopefully within a year or less we'll be doing it more. We hope to get more private collectors by doing more national shows. We did gain a new customer or two at the few virtual events we did.”
Good Writing Skills and an Emphasis on the Visual Helps
The Langdon Manor catalogs are both well researched and well written with a knack for finding and telling a story. Schachter said that “with the exception of several collaborations with Kate Mitas (which have all been disclosed), every word is mine.... I strive to be concise…and to create a compelling narrative about a particular item or collection's importance relative to my perceived audience for a particular thing, combined with images that regularly reflect and enhance the text.
“As a collector (I presently only collect folk art, everything else is for sale) I was always drawn to things by sight, with an image stirring an emotion and the text of a description enhancing the spark I get from seeing the image. While a few friends in the trade have teased me for how many images I use in descriptions (and they have no idea how many images I actually took and reviewed just to get the ones I use within a catalog) I think the interplay between a visual and text is a critical element with respect to the emotional aspect of buying. But I have no idea how to explain to our new employee how to pick the ‘right’ image(s) for whatever is offered.”
Growing the Business
As the business expanded he recently hired new staff. “Prior to looking for a writer, I hired an office manager in May. I was very lucky that the best legal assistant I had when I was a lawyer agreed to take on that role.
“We were grateful to have received a large number of wonderfully qualified candidates for the research and writing position and hired an experienced archivist. We wanted someone either with that type of experience, special collections librarian experience, or rare book world experience. Attention to detail, boundless intellectual curiosity, and likability were the three most important things we looked for, but not necessarily in that order.”
Repercussions of the Pandemic and Future Goals
“Covid was miserable when everyone went dark. But within several months many of our customers started buying again. In most instances it was many months before we could ship and/or get paid. Our revenue only dropped about 8% but that was entirely due to my not working much those first couple of months of lockdowns.
“Were it not for Covid, we would hopefully already have an actual ‘Langdon Manor’ - a physical structure, preferably a residential house, that holds the book business. Depending on my tolerance for overhead and management, the big goal is to free me as much as possible for scouting and working on the bigger projects, while having happy employees doing the work of helping to preserve the other stories we find. I get a lot of offers now, due to my badgering my scouts about what I want. But I also try to budget time to look on my own, since it's probably my favorite thing—the hunt.
“My advice to someone who might be thinking of switching careers would be very fact specific, but a lot of it would have to do with a business plan as well as the size of their bankroll, and their ability to manage that bankroll. Capital and cash flow is a big deal; struggling with its management is unfun at best, missed opportunities and the loss of one's business at worst.
As for what many perceive as the decline of the trade he responded, “I've been reading about the death of collectibles markets since I first started learning about baseball cards in 1978 at the age of 8. Any student of bookseller or collectibles markets history can tell you the ‘death refrain’ comes up all the time but somehow the markets still exist. Sure, subject areas and market reactions are going to change over time, but I imagine that the challenge will be to understand those changes and adjust with the markets. At least I think/hope that's how this all will work.
Catalogs and eLists
Langdon Manor Website
Langdon Manor Books, LLC
1800 St. James Place, Suite 105
Houston, Texas 77056
Phone: (713) 443-4697
Reach RBH writer Susan Halas at email@example.com