Would you believe I’ll be eighty this month? Born May 1943 I’ll be the big 80 by the time you read this. Since I was part of the generation that subscribed to live fast, die young, I never dreamed I’d make it this far: but here I am with a few more stories of life in the book trade.
As kids growing up in my parents' bookstore my brother and I were more or less pressed into involuntary servitude. We learned the business hunched over the packing table or schlepping the packages to the post office. While at the time we didn’t aspire to be in the book business, there was never a time it didn’t come in handy.
From my first primitive efforts at cataloging ca. 1950, to my many forays into different aspects of the antiquarian world, be they bookshops, museums, libraries or archives, to my own small business opened in 1979, I’ve never regretted my years in the book trade. Most of what I know I learned from my parents: my dad, Morton “Jock” Netzorg – who bought and cataloged, and my mother, Petra “Pete” Netzorg – who sold and schmoozed the great librarians and scholars of her day.”Carpe Diem,” seize the day, was her motto.
A FEW SNAPSHOTS
So here are a few snapshots from my own experiences and some links to stories I’ve done for Rare Book Hub (formerly Americana Exchange) since I started writing in this space in 2010.
Let’s go back to 1965, the ink is barely dry on my brand new BA degree from Wayne University with a major in graphic arts. I’m off to New York City, where I was immediately hired as an art copy girl at the New York Times Sunday Magazine. In those pre-internet days my job was to carry pictures and photos from desk to desk and record the comments of the different editors and writers.
As luck would have it our office was directly next door to the Book Review section, and because I was handy (and semi-literate) I was occasionally asked to write short unsigned briefs, perhaps 200 words long, which paid the princely sum of 50 cents a word. These were fillers that appeared in the Times Book Review next to the longer critiques by the notables of the day.
My moment of truth came when I was assigned to write a short piece on the Crabs of Sagami Bay by His Majesty, Emperor Hirohito of Japan, who not only headed the Japanese forces in WWII, but also turned out to be a distinguished biologist. His book was a big thick heavy volume with over 300 pictures of Japanese crabs and their habitat. There was only one problem, I could not think of a blessed word to say about it. At the time I was living with my boyfriend, soon to be husband, soon to be drafted by Uncle Sam. All that year and the next as I moved from NY to Detroit, to Columbia, SC to the Defense information School outside of Indianapolis, the Crabs of Sagami Bay went with me. It lived on my night table for years.
Because, well because I could see the Emperor had really put his heart into this mammoth volume and who was I, a 23 year old military wife, to deny him his 200 words of glory in the pages of the Times. But, it was not to be. I never did find a word to say about the book, one of the few books in my life that left me totally speechless, and I have never forgotten it either.
Learning the trade
Before the Times there were lots of bookish jobs. In Detroit, while I was in college, I was a student researcher at the Archives of American Art. There were three of us, reading the voluminous records on the New Deal and the Arts. Our heads were tucked in under one of those old fashioned hooded microfilm readers as the government sponsored murals and other projects from the 1930s unspooled before our eyes. Just by coincidence all of us were horse players too. So in addition to our historical pursuits, we’d pick up a copy of the Racing Form before work and read it under the hood. With luck on a sunny spring afternoon you’d find our gang at the clubhouse turn in time for the 3rd race at Detroit Raceway Park.
Before that I was a drop-out in Berkeley where I worked at Bill Farrell’s shop on Telegraph Avenue (an ex-Wobbly he kept a bottle of rye whisky behind the counter and wasn’t much good in the afternoons). It was my great good fortune to upgrade within a month to a spot in the Rare Books Department of UC Library just down the street, where not only did the stacks connect with the Bancroft collection, they also kept all the erotica under lock and key. My entire job was to make sure that no one brought a pen into the room, which left a lot of time to pursue my increasingly expensive (and often X-rated) tastes.
And before that there was Izzy Young, who in the very early 60s held court at the Folklore Center on MacDougal Street in the heart of the Village, where I was his employee. The young Bob Dylan was only one of many great and near great musicians who hung out there. Izzy hosted Bob’s first concert, and history records him as perhaps the only person to ever lose money on a Dylan show. (Read about it: updated for Izzy’s death March 2019 https://www.rarebookhub.com/articles/2571
Enter the internet
Unlike many of you, my bookselling roots go back to the days before the Internet. I started out the old way, issuing catalogs and selling by mail. But then, around Y2K it all changed and I spent the next two decades buying and selling on eBay. By 2020 I’d had enough of being nickel and dimed by their ever more ignorant and greedy overlords and withdrew from the platform entirely, but not without a rant (actually several rants). The final one railing against their many perceived shortcomings ran in August 2020. https://www.rarebookhub.com/articles/2833
Over the years I’ve had many favorite books and periods.
Based in Hawaii I’m extremely fond of Pacific voyages. Of them all Perry’s mission to Japan is my favorite. I’ve bought and sold Perry’s opening of Japan to the West many times. It’s definitely one of the best travel and diplomacy stories of the mid-19th century. You probably know the scandal of the nude co-ed bathing scene that got ripped from the pages of the uncirculated copies of the congressional edition after offending the sensibilities of the few readers who got to see those ladies and gents butt naked. But there’s a lot more to the story than that.
If you haven’t read your Perry recently (aka NARRATIVE OF THE EXPEDITION OF AN AMERICAN SQUADRON TO THE CHINA SEAS AND JAPAN, PERFORMED IN THE YEARS 1852, 1853, AND 1854, UNDER THE COMMAND OF COMMODORE M. C. PERRY, UNITED STATES NAVY, BY ORDER OF THE GOVERNMENT OF THE UNITED STATES by Francis L. Hawks and issued in 1856 in both House and Senate Congressional editions in three volumes) or read it recently you might enjoy the piece that ran in July 2020 which goes a little more deeply into the strange and delightful things that happened on that trip. https://www.rarebookhub.com/articles/2820
A little closer to home I became a big fan of the Missionary Heralds issued by the Boston based ABCFM (American Board of Commissioner for Foreign Missions) and filled with all the comings and goings of the missionaries to the Sandwich Islands (Hawaii) and other equally far off places to preach the gospel. Despite the tiny type set in two narrow columns I found their monthly issues fascinating reading. Slotted in between the heavy doses of Christianity are some astute and enlightening eyewitness reports of the world as it looked when it was reached by sail, by horseback or by foot at great personal cost and sacrifice. The missionary arrival in Hawaii in 1820, is one of the really good stories of the early 19th century American enterprise. Read about their Hawaii bicentennial which ran in April 2020. https://www.rarebookhub.com/articles/2768
Also of interest may I suggest:
Carpe Diem which ran Jan 2016 and includes some thoughts on “free “stuff and where to find it. https://www.rarebookhub.com/articles/1953
A Geezer’s Listicle: Tech Tips from a Late Adopter includes some possibly useful tech tips for those who were not born digital, from March 2017 https://rarebookhub.com/articles/2182
Downsizing - Are we defined by what we give away? takes a quick look at what’s in the discard pile from Jan 2023 https://www.rarebookhub.com/articles/3307
Nu? What have I learned? Why am I still doing this? Can you make money in this business? Did anything from 1946, when my parents put out their first catalog, carry over to today?
Funny you should ask, I was wondering the same thing. What follows is some personal advice about selling books – most of it was handed down to me by my folks and some of it I picked up on my own. Very little of it has anything to do with computers.
To those of you without almost 100 years in the trade under your belt, think of it as ancient bookish lore that served us well in the past. Even now, you’d be surprised how much of it still holds true.
What Me Worry? Book Business Tips from the Netzorg Family
1. WHAT’S IT WORTH? What you pay has nothing to do with what it is worth
Zero, Nada, Zip! THIS IS THE MAIN RULE. Engrave it on your brain. In the past a lot of people have expressed indignation that someone would ask top dollar for merchandise acquired for pennies, rescued from the free box or saved from the dumpster. I had a talk with one collector that went like this: How dare some sneaky dealer buy a lot at auction and then turn around and a short time later sell it for three or ten or a hundred times what it cost? But my dad's first rule was there is absolutely no relationship between the buying price and the selling price. Once it's yours, YOU assign the value. The more you know the more you see the more you touch the more likely it is you'll find bargains.
2. DON’T FALL IN LOVE WITH THE MERCHANDISE
Since booksellers as a group are often just book buyers who bought too many books, it’s easy to see how many of us came to this business. So the second most important thing to learn is that there are books you have because you like them. These are your personal books, and all the rest is inventory. The function of inventory is to go out the door and preferably rapidly and at a profit. Remember this and don’t confuse one with the other and you will prosper.
3. TOUCH IT
It's easy to fool your eyes, but it's hard to fool your fingers. In the centuries of printing, papermaking and binding there have been many attractive reproductions and facsimiles. It's hard to spot them visually, but you can almost always tell by touch. The difference between a wood pulp and a rag paper is obvious to your fingers, same with letterpress vs. offset. So feel it, touch it, smell it -- all these are better indicators of how old or genuine something is than its appearance.
4. If it was considered beautiful once, it will be considered beautiful again
This means taste goes in cycles. For the longest time you couldn't give away Elbert Hubbard's Roycroft publications. His entire output bound in limp leather was considered the drek of all drek. Now it’s all the rage. So when you find something odd but out of style don’t ask: Is it coming back? Of course it’s coming back, the real question is: When and do I have the time and space to wait?
5. Invest in the 19th century Americana
My dad thought the 19th century was the great undervalued era. So much happened, so much was invented, discovered and explored, especially by Americans from 1800-1899 that it would be impossible to list it all. But during the 20th century most of the snootier dealers thought the 19th century, especially the late 19th century, was worthless. True, there is an awful lot of junk, but there is also some wonderful stuff and much of this period is still comparatively cheap.
6. If it’s NON FICTION – condition doesn't count
What counts is: Is it all there or mostly all there? The family wisdom goes counter to the prevailing wisdom which says condition is all, and God forbid there should even be the slightest nick to the dust jacket or chip off the spine.
My dad was an expert in buying good books in bad condition, sometimes falling apart, sometimes without covers, sometimes scribbled or stained or wormed. I assure you in the fullness of time those defects became a lot less important -- especially if the books had wonderful maps or plates or pioneering science, anthropology, or exploration, all highlights of the late 19th century.
Netzorg says: If it’s the real deal, if there aren’t a lot of other ones around, then your ratty copy is better than no copy at all and don’t let anyone else tell you differently. Your job is to describe it well, extol its virtues and price it accordingly.
7. Tell the story
So often the standard descriptions tell me everything about a book except the reasons WHY I would want to own it. To be a seller you’ve got to tell the story, to tell it economically, to tell it in a way that creates desire and to tell it so that your copy, no matter how banged up, cocked and wobbly stands out from the others.
You are not the buyer, you are the SELLER and it’s the seller’s task to tell the story, and for goodness sake if you think it’s a good book make it a good story.
8. When to break
My dad wasn't big on breaking bound volumes but he did think there was a difference between ripping the plates out of a book or magazine and taking it apart carefully and saving it in sections so it could be offered to a wide variety of people with a range of tastes and interests.
So while you might not yearn for bound volumes of Appletons' or Harper’s or similar periodicals, you might very well want that one page with the ad for Darwin's Origin of the Species, or the color plates by Maxfield Parrish, or the first appearances of those short stories by Joseph Conrad.
Before you wring your hands over the evil book breakers just remember that most older books really started life unbound – text and plates were printed on separate presses by different methods and only came together in the bindery.
I wouldn't advise taking everything apart, but, there are definitely some instances when you are doing yourself, the book and the collecting public a favor by taking it carefully apart. Please notice the word CAREFULLY. Don’t forget to lightly note the source, title, date, author on each disbound piece in PENCIL
9. EPHEMERA holds its value better than books
Some of you aren't sure what ephemera is or why it’s trending up in value while books are mostly going down.
Ephemera is the broad category that covers odd bits of paper that were once common and are now often hard to find. Ephemera can be ads, posters, broadsides, handbills, labels, photos, documents, catalogs or any other similar things. Ephemera serves as a counterpoint to books; it highlights their meaning and puts the work in context. A book collection that includes ephemera is usually more valuable than a collection of just books alone.
10. Know your printing processes, inks and papers.
It is impossible to know everything there is to know about books, prints, maps, photos, and ephemera, but you can easily get a pretty solid grip on the different printing processes from the woodblock through metal, stone, photo offset to the present digital and print-on-demand. The better you understand the look and FEEL of each of these methods, the better you will be able to judge the age of and authenticity of the many things that will pass through your hands.
11. When to cut the price and when to raise the price?
My parents were known to lower the price when the person on the other end of the transaction really wanted/needed it and would provide a good home for the book(s) in question. They would also sometimes lower the price when people bought many volumes as a lot, or when the book(s) in question had major defects. They offered discounts to the trade and they often paid a referral fee if a customer or colleague helped them make a sale.
They rarely cut the price if things didn't sell. That's because my dad was pretty good at spotting value. His talent was to know ahead of time what was coming next, so often he bought early, well and ahead of a trend. He assumed that eventually that value would find a market and most of the time he was right.
They also didn't lower the price for people who haggled too much. A little bit of haggling is good; it shows interest, spirit and it’s part of the gestalt of the occupation. A lot of haggling is a turn off. When people haggle too much it’s time to walk away.
Both my mother and father believed that sometimes things were overlooked because they were priced too low. They would talk it over and then raise the price, sometimes steeply, and more often than not those books went out the door.
12. Move it to sell it
Having a slow week? Sales down? Start rearranging your shelves. Start moving your piles. Take what was on the bottom and put it on the top. Take what was in the front and put it in the back. You might have 30,000 books or 300, but the truth is you can only give your real attention to a few at a time.
If your sales are slow it’s almost always a sign that you have let your stock sit in one place too long. Books respond to being touched, opened and moved. If you’re an interior decorator and you want a shelf of matched red leather bindings then you can leave your books in one place forever. If you’re a bookseller and you want to make a living, keep moving them around. The more you physically move them the better they will sell.
Here are a few items that were added more recently:
13. PHOTOS sell books and related material.
Work on taking good photos and make sure that mostly everything that leaves your desk has clear attractive photos to accompany your accurate descriptions.
14. Learn Google Docs
Google Docs is one of a suite of free tools from Google. It’s not a cinch, but there are many Youtube tutorials that will have you up and going in a few days and proficient in a month. Using Google Docs you can produce decent photo illustrated lists that live in the cloud and can be easily sent to an individual or group of prospective buyers. Your lists can be modified, expanded, contracted and combined. At the start they may not be elegant, but it’s really not that hard. It’s worth your time to learn it.
15. The platforms that used to be your friend(s), are not your friend(s) any more
ABE, Amazon, Alibris, eBay, Etsy, Pinterest all take too big a cut, and are not really geared to serious antiquarian enthusiasts. These days they leave you with less and less profit for more and more work. I left eBay after 20 years and have never regretted it.
I’ve found I can do as well, (and sometimes better) on my own with targeted mailings. It’s a blessing not to have to hassle with paying commissions, store fees, restrictive shipping and return policies, and the general Big Brother-ish feel of all the major internet platforms. They are not there to help you grow and prosper. It’s the other way round.
It’s never too late to opt out. The old cliche is still true, the best source of new business is old business. If you’ve only got one copy, and it’s unusual, and you’ve been in business for a while, chances are you already know at least one or two qualified buyers.
(Originally published April 2011 as the second half of a two part article titled Looking Back with the Dealer’s Daughter https://www.rarebookhub.com/articles/1093)
Reach Susan Netzorg Halas at firstname.lastname@example.org