An Old Fashioned Book Seller: An Interview with Harold Nestler
HN: What do I see? Several things. A lack of good material – it seems to be bought up and sold already. I also notice that in shops a lot of the “good” material is in the backroom, or listed on the internet, and is not available for browsing or to the walk-in trade. And in terms of collectors, so many people now look for books on the internet that few are reading printed catalogues. I believe that dealers are still putting printed catalogues out; I just think less people are reading them.
AT: How have these changes, particularly the latter observation about printed catalogues, effected your business?
HN: Well, my mailing list for catalogues remains stable at approximately 500. On a recent Early Industry and Technology catalogue that I did, the percent of sales of value was about 60%. You need at least that if you sell by mail order, as I do. On my recent New York State catalogues, I average 70% of value sold – though that number has been down as low as 50% and up as high as 90%. Now that the internet has become such a force, my percentage of sales is going down.
AT: Have you always done only mail order work? Did you ever have a store-front shop?
HN: Nope, I never had a shop, only mail order. I used to exhibit at book fairs and they were generally quite profitable. I liked the fairs in part because I saw other dealers there that I hadn’t seen in a while, and because often I’d meet my mail customers face to face. Now, I find that the book fairs are not as good. In general, I don’t see good material being brought to book fairs, and if there is good material there, it’s generally priced too high.
But you have to understand something: now I’m doing the book business for fun, not to make a living.
[The next and final part of the interview takes place in Harold Nestler’s “dungeon”, really a basement stocked with current inventory, reference books, customer lists neatly typed on 3X5 index cards, and inventory lists typed in the same manner. In one corner of the basement sits Mr. Nestler’s desk, which could be Rock Hudson’s prototypical accountant’s desk from any of his 1950s Douglas Sirk movies, what with it’s neatly placed index cards, electronic typewriter, and index card file cabinets stacked neatly beside. Oh, there is one concession to modernity: a push button rather than a rotary phone, though one configured in the same style.
AT: [Commenting on the “dungeon” space:] Wow. This is really amazing. You really do have an office that seems as if its out of another time. And true to your word, there is no computer in sight.
HN: No, no computer. Only inventory, index cards, and books, books, books. This is where I work, and where you’ll generally find me during the day.
Yep. This is where I do my work. And I type my catalogues myself, from these 3 x 5 index cards [on which he has an abbreviated bibliography or description of each book or manuscript in his possession.] I get a lot of complaints on my typos, but hey, I don’t think I’m doing so badly.