Leab, Katharine Kyes, That Was Then, This Is Now - But Our Love Is Here to Stay
(Keynote address for the 2011 Colorado Antiquarian Book Seminar)
That was then, this is Now….
The word “then” in my title refers to 1979, the first year this Seminar was held officially. I was a speaker at that Seminar, talking about auctions, even though I had just a few years of experience in the field, and I really didn’t know very much.
One of the two directors of the seminar, Jake Chernofsky of AB Bookman’s Weekly, had invited me to speak, possibly because he, a former journalist, also was a “newbie” in the world of antiquarian books. He wanted to see his own terror reflected on somebody else’s face. And he did, especially during the breakout sessions. But I learned a good amount in the time I was there, and I covered up my ignorance pretty well.
The faculty included wonderful dealers, like Bob Topp of Hermitage Books in Denver, who incidentally, provided the books for those breakout sessions.
I also met the dealer who came to be one of my favorite people in the antiquarian book world, Bernard Rosenthal, known to all as Barney. A specialist in early books, related to half the great booksellers of Europe, Barney, now in his 90s, is still active [he was at the Bancroft Library last week demonstrating that booksellers live and work forever]. Barney also is practical and completely unswayed by fashion. In the course of a lecture for Terry Belanger at Columbia many years ago, he set to rest a then- raging debate about whether one rebinds an old book in a contemporary binding if the binding is in poor condition or whether one leaves the book in the original binding. Should one restabilize the book and protect it, or preserve the object just as is? Barney suggested that one really could rebind the book and keep the old binding with it in a box. Half the room was simply bowled over by this display of common sense.
Starting about 1960, Barney also collected books with marginal notes and underlinings in them – books with reader relationships. At that time the cult of the pristine original was rampant, and most bibliographers and dealers thought these were simply defaced books. That collection now is at Yale, and whole conferences have been held on marks in books and on the importance of readers of books and annotations.
Above all else, Barney was and is unfailingly kind to people who were new in the trade and indeed pursuing anything bookish. He has always had time to gently teach. In that he exemplified the spirit of that first seminar and all of them since.
The students were librarians as well as dealers, and even some collectors, such as Denver’s fabulous ad man, Arthur Rippey. He collected Boswell and Johnson, and he was one of the 3 founders of the Denver Literary Club. He also collected enough superb old cars (he had started off in Detroit) to found Rippey’s Veteran Car Museum in Denver (ultimately sold by Parke-Bernet)
My one achievement in the course of that seminar was to convince an acquisitions person from the Library of Congress to change the way LC bought books at auction. Rather than using an expert dealer in the relevant field, paying the dealer 10% of the lot price to look at the book, collate it and check its condition, confer on the price, go to the sale, pay, and arrange for delivery to the library,
LC had been simply setting prices they would pay and then asking Leona Rostenberg, a dealer in Early European books, to go to the auction rooms to buy the books. So when this tiny little woman would show up at a sale of American documents, everybody would say, “oh, there’s Leona, she must be bidding for LC.” And depending on how they felt about her or it, they would or wouldn’t bid against her. Moreover, though Leona liked getting 10% for almost no work, she was insulted that the library didn’t want any feedback on condition or correctness.
I recommended that LC use several dealers in several areas, and that they make use of the expertise of these dealers, and they did.
Most librarians didn’t know much about bidding at auction in those days. Dealers dominated the auction rooms. Except for the so-called Name sales of prominent collectors, the auction saleroom was a place for the wholesaling of books and for gossiping and dealing in the halls.
On rare occasions a collector or a librarian might accompany a dealer to an important sale, but the dealer did the bidding. I remember once seeing the prominent dealer, Jack Bartfield, in near-hysterics at Christie’s in New York. He was calling out to an even more prominent dealer, John Fleming, who was late in arriving at the sale. “Hurry, John, for God sake’s hurry., Mrs Regenstein is bidding for herself!” It would never have done for the donor of the University of Chicago’s Regenstein library to be seen bidding in public or to think that she could do that.
Where was the English-speaking world and the book trade in 1979?
England dominated the market for everything except Americana and Canadiana. The Brits had long-established shops, a national association that had been founded at the very beginning of the 20th Century, and the auction rooms did a lot of the leg work for the dealers. Sotheby’s and Christie’s were highly stratified, for until the 1980s there was a table in the front of the room at which the major dealers sat in designated seats – Quaritch, Maggs, and the other Big Boys.
American and Canadian dealers usually placed their bids through English dealers at English sales. A few American dealers came from time to time to bid – A. S. W. Rosenbach was especially hated because he disrupted the comfortable machinations of the ring, a mechanism whereby dealers kept prices down by not bidding against each other. The British ring, which was known as DETH – for Dawsons, Edwards, Traylen and Hammond. They managed the ring, and at provincial sales sometime a Saturn-like series of rings – dismissing the provincial booksellers before knocking out the important lots among the Big Boys in the trade. The auction houses’ answer to the ring was twofold – the setting of a reserve system so that lots could not be sold below a certain price, and taking bids “off the wall” whereby the auctioneer would call out bids that hadn’t been made by anybody until the lot reached its reserve price or the level of an absentee bid left with the auction house.
As airplane travel became easier and less expensive, more and more American dealers turned up to compete, and the title of most hated then went to Lou David Feldman, whose business was called The House of El Dieff ( his initials, LDF, but spelled El Dieff. Feldman was a principal dealer for the University of Texas in the days when Harry Ransom was buying everything that wasn’t nailed down. This dynamic duo kept at it until 1974, when both of them died, to the relief of the English trade.
Americans also brought business to the English auction houses, in return for introductory commissions. Jake Zeitlin, the premier California dealer of his day, sold many scientific books to Robert Honeyman, a metallurgical engineer with a seat on the New York Stock Exchange and a wealthy wife to boot.
Honeyman had gone to Lehigh University and had given its library a number of fine books.
But then Lehigh made the incredibly stupid mistake. Would you mind, they asked him, if we sold the set of Eadweard Muybridge photographs you gave us? We need to pay for a parking lot. That was the end of Lehigh as far as Honeyman was concerned.
Jake Zeitlin and Harold Graves, (Harold was well named because he did lots and lots of estate appraisals), were asked by Honeyman to appraise the collection, and they figured on about $5million. Stanford and the Huntington couldn’t come up with the money, so Jake called Sotheby’s. He began dealing with Peter Wilson, then the head of the firm and possibly Ian Fleming’s model for James Bond, Lord John Kerr, then the head of the Book Dept., and John Collins, the expert for scientific books. They eventually offered about $4 million with 6 percent interest, but it took 2 years to complete the deal because Sotheby’s involved both British and American lawyers, who lawyered endlessly. At that time the introductory commission for the major houses was 6%, so Jake made a handsome profit.. Jake, however, was great at making deals, but horrible at keeping money. He went bankrupt 3 times in his career, but he made the deal of the century when he was almost 80, and died well off.
By the end of the 1970s, Sotheby’s had merged with Parke-Bernet in New York to form a single business, the buyer’s premium had been put into effect, and increasing regulations in the UK meant that Sotheby’s and Christie’s were planning to move more big sales to New York. Margaret Thatcher was elected Britain’s first female prime minister, which showed that women were doing better in politics than in the book trade – very few women were dealers anywhere, and most of those were widows or daughters of booksellers.
Moving on to North America, I’m going to start with Canada because we have several Canadians with us at the seminar.
In Canada, Joe Clark unseated Pierre Trudeau as prime minister in 1979 but was out 6 months later. More important for the book trade, Bernard Amtmann died. Amtmann, a Viennese immigrant to Canada in 1947, dealt in Canadiana and was a genuine biblionag. He bludgeoned his country’s librarians into collecting their country’s history, along the way producing and publishing such bibliographic tools as the 4-volume Contributions to a Short-Title Catalogue of Canadiana, and Arctic Bibliography, and Contributions to a Dictionary of Canadian Pseudonyms. He founded the Antiquarian Booksellers’ Association of Canada in 1966, and founded Montreal Book Auctions in 1967 specifically to develop the market for Canadiana. Such later Canadian dealers as David Mason either worked for Amtmann or benefitted from his trailblazing.
David Mason has recalled traveling to the United States and going to Acres of Books in Long Beach, CA, after he had been tapped by the University of Toronto supply the university with every piece of poetry, fiction and drama written by a Canadian which it didn’t own already. Acres of Books, now closed, really did live up to its name.
Because he had apprenticed with Gerry Sherlock of Joseph Patrick Books and because Sherlock’s knowledge of Canadiana was superior to the then-standard bibliography of Canadiana by Reginald Watters, Mason had a real command of his area. Nobody other than David Mason going to Acres of Books had any idea of who was Canadian and who was not, so Mason’s approach to the shelves was completely different from anybody else’s and he could pick up cheaply all sorts of books that were unappealing to people below the 49th parallel, but not to him.
Mason also made considerable use of AB Bookman’s Weekly. Before the Internet, this was the virtual marketplace for North American dealers and for many in other countries. Jake Chernofsky had bought AB on the installment plan in the early 1970s from the great Sol Malkin, who had been an enormous force in all areas of the American book trade. In the late 1970s AB tended to have a small “front of the book” with announcements, news and always-cheerful articles - and a huge section of display and classified ads, quoting wants and books for sale. The January 29, 1979, issue, for instance, had 164 pages of these ads in tiny type. Subscribers paid 45 cents a line; non-subscribers paid 70 cents a line. And wants could be placed only by dealers, libraries or publishers, not by individuals. If you really wanted an edge to getting all this information, you could pay $80 a year and get AB as first-class mail, rather than $35 for 3d-class.
Upper-level dealers tended to buy an inch at the head of a column to be included in every issue, stating a permanent want. Other than that, they tended to confine their advertising to The Book Collector or the Papers of The Bibliographical Society of America. But they did lend that column inch of support to AB. And everybody took ads in the AB Yearbook. These annual volumes have many articles in them which would be useful to booksellers today.
AB was a moneyspinner as well as a prime place for book news. Later on, It would have been a prime candidate for becoming an online database, but Chernofsky was chronically ill as he got older, and he just couldn’t get to it; AB folded at the end of 1999. [By contrast, American Book Prices Current computerized in the mid 1970s and introduced its first interactive database, BAMBAM, over phone lines in 1980]
The AB quoters were a strange lot. As David Mason put it,
“ many quotations that arrive are completely illegible, some written in huge scrawl and others with tiny crabbed letters. On one occasion I put in the AB a small block ad requesting anything by a writer whom I collected personally.” Mason received one quote only, and it was completely incomprehensible. But he decided to take a chance because it looked as though they were cheap, and a week after he sent in his 25 dollars he received 7 books “all written by my author, all in a series he had edited which I had not known about and none of which I had in my collection. Furthermore all were in fine condition and were properly packed.”
More often, however, Mason’s experiences sound like the early days of eBay, with the original signed photograph that turns out to be a printed frontispiece signed in the plate.
Over-all, though Mason received enough good books through AB to be able to populate several catalogues as well as the U of T library. And life was slow enough that a 13-day lag to publication for quotes seemed reasonable enough. In 1979 AB Bookman’s Weekly was nothing less than the public face of antiquarian bookselling in North America.
In the United States in 1979 the inflation rate was 11.2% so the Federal Reserve decided to fight it by raising the interest rate to 15.25% (it had been 10.75% at the beginning of the year). Collectors were managing to collect even though once they had made more than $215,000, the tax on the rest of their earnings or investments ranged between 50 and 70 percent.
But you could put gas in your tank for 86 cents and drive off in your $3,700 Toyota Corolla. The Dead Zone, The Right Stuff, and Sophie’s Choice were current, as was Amadeus. The Unabomber was bombing, 3-Mile Island was melting down, and the new Iranian regime took U.S. hostages. Worst of all, McDonald’s introduced the Happy Meal.
The antiquarian book trade was characterized by the Barrow Boys (who had begun selling books off of pushcarts but who ended up owning stores), the Scholarly Immigrants, the society trade, the regional dominators, the used booksellers and the bedroom part-timers. Almost all but the most social and the bedroomers operated or worked in retail stores. And in many cities the book shops were clustered together, so everybody knew everybody else’s business and stock. In was not ok to go to people’s houses and pay them much less than their books were worth, but it was ok, in fact a sacred duty, to take advantage of any error in pricing made by a colleague.
The age of specialization had begun, so that one might be a dealer in medical books or sporting books or whatever, and that was something of a new idea. Stuart Bennett, head of the ABAA in the recent past, when he worked for Sotheby’s in the 1970s really was the person who provided the dynamic for the establishment of photographica as a major field in America. He organized sales; he pushed it; and he wrote about it (Stuart now says that he’d probably be a lot more prosperous if he’d bought photographs instead of books himself, but he’s a self-styled book junkie.)
Some specialized dealers worked like collectors who, however, sold their books instead of keeping them. Fred Schreiber then was working on his catalogue of the great dynasty of French scholar-printers, the Estiennes, by collecting and studying some 300 of their productions. The collection was bought en bloc by the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill. He then moved on to Simon de Colines, and sold the group of 250 representative editions to Brigham Young University. Then came Sebastianus Gryphius of Lyon, that collection going to the Beinecke Library at Yale.
Almost everybody began as an apprentice -- sweeping floors, running errands, learning to pack books properly, erasing marks in books, generally learning the business. Some worked for a time in auction houses, but most learned the trade in retail establishments. And if you worked for a prominent dealer, chances are that you spent a good amount of time traveling across the country with suitcases full of books, calling on librarian after librarian.
When you were an apprentice, you had to learn to play bibliographical hardball. If a volume of, say, Wing, came out, you were supposed to take your turn to take it home and learn it. There also was a certain sort of research oneupsmanship that was rampant. One might say: have you ever noticed that Nissen couldn’t add? Meaning that in Klaus Nissen’s Botanische Buchillustration bibliography, he often listed the number of illustrations in each volume of a multivolume work, but that the total he gave for the set was sometimes wrong.
The book trade lived on research, copies, cooperation, and gossip. People congregated anywhere there was a copy of a book to handle – auction house exhibitions, library exhibitions, everybody else’s shops. Some books, like Audubon’s Ornithological Biography, simply aren’t to be seen in beautiful copies, but unless you’ve seen a copy after copy there’s no way to know that.
But if you’ve never seen a copy of a given book, then cooperation may be the key to success.
Here’s an example from my own experience:
My historian husband collected, bought, amassed radical books in bookstores that had very little to interest me until I noticed that most of these bookstores also had a fair number of books on or about the painter Paul Klee. So I began buying Klee books.
I had been looking for some time for a book called Potsdamer Platz, by a 3rd-rate German mystic called Curt Corrinth. Never mind the really terrible text. The illustrations done by Klee for this work were the only major book illustrations he did other than those for Voltaire’s Kandide. According to the bibliography, The Artist and the Book, No 144, and according to the Klee Stiftung (which is the central authority in Berne, Switzerland for all things Klee), this book was published in Munich in 1920 in an edition of 500 copies.
But the book that Peter Kraus of Ursus Books brought me one day in the late 1970s didn’t seem to match any of the bibliographical information. We sat there with the bibliographies only to discover that the book in front of us was the wrong size, had the wrong number of plates and the wrong limitation (one of 5,000). Moreover, it was a rather down-market looking item which didn’t even have Klee’s name on the title page as illustrator. Finally, it seemed to have been published in 1919 rather than 1920.
This wrong little object turned out to be the true first edition of Potsdamer Platz, and a rarity – for it was unprepossessing enough to have been thrown out on a regular basis.
The only person anywhere who knew that there were 2 issues of this work, one in 1919 and one in 1920, was not an academic scholar or a bibliographer but rather the wonderful old book and print dealer, Lucien Goldschmidt. Lucien, who had been born in Belgium, educated in Berlin, and who then had worked for Pierre Beres in Paris before coming to New York, was an elegant man with a remarkable mind. He helped to form some of the great collections of his day, including those of Lessing Rosenwald and Philip Hofer. But even Lucien didn’t know why there were 2 such different issues of Potsdamer Platz. Peter and I eventually figured out that when Klee was commissioned to do the illustrations for this work, he was sufficiently unknown that the publisher didn’t even consider putting his name on the title page of the Corrinth book. Hence the 1919 edition, which was in 5,000 copies.
Then in 1920 Paul Klee had his first one-man exhibition in Munich and it was a smash hit. Georg Muller, the publisher, was not a man to miss an opportunity. So he reissued Potsdamer Platz, this time in a limited edition in a half-leather binding and with Klee’s name on the title page and a new frontispiece by Klee. This issue, of course, was saved by almost all who bought it. Today both issues of Potsdamer Platz sit together in only one collection – that of the Thomas J. Watson Library in the Metropolitan Museum of Art. But the fun was in the journey. And the journey involved reference books, museums, dealers, and historical investigation. We figured it out, and that was the greatest single satisfaction for everybody involved.
Gossip played a large role in the trade. And there were many venues. I’ll stick to New York here because that’s what I know best from that period. Many New York dealers, some librarians, and such savvy collectors as Bradley Martin ate lunch almost daily (when they were in town) at Gino’s on Lexington Avenue (closed 2010, never did take credit cards). Almost every table had somebody discussing books at it.
Auctions always drew a gossiping crowd, and the auction houses to some extent tried to make the time spent worthwhile for everybody. Even when Christie’s was selling a Gutenberg Bible in April of 1978, that 227-lot sale included 63 lots for under $100. In those days, dealers could buy at auction for stock with relative ease.
Openings of almost anything bookish drew a crowd, as did funerals.
The Grolier Club had begun to take in more dealers (and even women), and gossip was exchanged not only at its events and committee meetings, but among the hearty drinkers in the Dutch room, who congregated often.
There was the Old Book Table, the ABAA headquarters at Rockefeller Center, and on and on. Lectures at Columbia, NYU and the New School were widely attended, as were meetings of the Bibliographical Society of America.
And many of us wrote about books wherever we could. The most fun were gossipy articles under pseudonyms in ABMR (the English publication Antiquarian Book Monthly Review). John Collins was Nalini Patel. Stuart Bennett was Ossian. On at least one occasion I was Gunnar McTavish, and I’ve forgotten who Junius and Anatole Braun were.
And lots of time was spent in people’s living rooms, talking and drinking. Dan and I had a guest room, and it was always full of people from the ESTC project, librarians, traveling booksellers and the like, a number of them provided by Terry Belanger. Terry, by the way, entertained hundreds and hundreds of book people in his tiny apartment on Claremont Avenue.
But it certainly wasn’t like having the Web. People on the East Coast knew only a certain amount about the West Coast dealers, except for the few, like Warren Howell, who regularly came East for auctions, and they certainly didn’t know much about the country between the coasts. You should have seen the shock and awe in New York and in California in September of 1973, when the David Gage Joyce sale in Chicago was announced.
Until the catalogues arrived, many dealers assumed that a sale in Chicago couldn’t be much. How wrong they were. Joyce, a lumber baron, had died in 1937, and his daughter had simply kept the books until her death, when they went to be sold at Hanzel Galleries. Joyce had one of the best collections of manuscripts and autographs ever seen in this country. Here are a few examples: the autograph manuscript of James Fenimore Cooper’s Pathfinder went to Clifton Waller Barrett for $34,000, ultimately finding its way to the University of Virginia. The autograph manuscript of Shelley’s Prince Athanase went for $38,000 to the Pforzheimer Library. Arthur Conan Doyle’s Sign of Four sold for $51,000 and The White Company for $30,000, the latter now at the Newberry Library. That sort of shock simply couldn’t happen today.
[Before we leave 1979 for now, I’d like to make a confession concerning my sometimes misguided sense of humor and the matter of books as investments. In April of 1979 a young man named Sam Liss from the Salomon Brothers investment firm came to call on me about adding books to their comparative table of investment alternatives to stocks and bonds. My attempt to dissuade Salomon Brothers from this path was an exercise in parody, entitled the ABPC 20, a deliberately strange list of books that sold every year. The text with it was, I thought, an obvious sendup of portfolio planning documents, but evidently it was not obvious enough for Mr. Liss and his cohorts.. For years Salomon Brothers followed the prices of those books, and I discovered to my horror that some people used their conclusions to tout books as investments. I didn’t dare tell anybody what I’d done.]
And what were the mantras in 1979? There were 3: 1) you can’t make money selling books but it’s a wonderful life and you’ll live forever; 2) there isn’t much that’s any good left to sell – all the good books have gone into institutions; and 3) bookselling is theater. Some things never change.
Skipping over the era when auction houses tended to usurp the role of the dealer and when people like Malcolm Forbes realized that they could get more free publicity for their businesses and themselves by buying documents and Faberge eggs in public than they could begin to pay for, we arrive at today.
As booksellers today you face a world in which you have to work harder or at least differently from your colleagues of 1979. The Internet especially has made a huge difference in many ways.
First of all, it has deprived you of mentors and apprenticeships. But help is on the way – immediately!
You really should think of this seminar as a compressed version of the apprenticeship process. In the next few days you will learn many things that once you would have learned over a much longer period of time as an apprentice. And I hope you will go on to take courses at Rare Book School in Charlottesville and, if you can, to participate in the Unseminar that Dan Gregory and others are offering at Dartmouth in September.
The game has changed in many ways because of the internet. So much is listed that you can’t do the sort of arbitrage that David Mason practiced so successfully years ago – buying in one country and selling for a whole lot more in another. On the other hand, you can list that copy of William Wigglewhistle, never available in brick-and-mortar bookshops, and I will buy it for too much money because it was the first book I ever read to myself. Before the Web, my husband, Dan, looked in vain for a copy of Jan Valtin’s Bend in the River. Right now there are 8 copies available.
Research looks to be far easier, but that may be deceptive. Sometimes there’s no substitute for printed reference books. At the most extreme end, remember that two studies have shown that more than 25% of the books in the National Union Catalog Pre-1956 Imprints (Mansell) are nowhere to be found in the OCLC WorldCat database.
The online catalogs of great universities may also be wrong: CLIO at Columbia University will tell you that Edward Gorey’s The Curious Sofa was issued in an edition of 212 copies and it even sites a Gorey bibliography, Toledano, A7a. But the truth is that every single copy (and we’re not certain how many there were) of the book states, deliberately and hilariously, that it is copy 83 of 212.
And do not look up Curt Corrinth’s Potsdamer Platz, the Klee book I told you about, on WorldCat, because what you will find is a mess.
One reason we at American Book Prices Current always check auction catalogues, both in bibliographies and in name-authority references, is that if you try to make a listing without doing that, many records won’t be easily retrievable. In catalogues of books done by print departments, for instance, Walker Evans will be mentioned when Let Us Now Praise Famous Men is sold, but James Agee will not. Similarly, Richard Avedon’s Observations has a text by Truman Capote. When a Berenice Abbott’s New York portfolio is sold (she did 4 in 1979 for the Parasol Press), very often the auction house doesn’t say which one, so we either have to figure it out from the illustrations, if any, or call the buyer.
Bloomsbury Book Auctions created a whole new class of error when they sent out their records to be digitized retrospectively. I hope they didn’t pay much for them, because the records are just plain wrong. The problem came to light when Bill Peterson, who was doing a census of Kelmscott Chaucers called and said that the copy we had listed as having been sold on March 15th, 2001, had been sold on February 13th of that year according to the company’s own records. Now we have a cross-checking system for catalogues, and I really thought that couldn’t possibly be. But you know that horrible feeling you get when you know you’re right, but aargh, what if…. So we checked the newspaper accounts, and other sources, and we were right. And we found the same to be true for an important sale of A. A. Milne material on April 5, 2001, listed by Bloomsbury’s archive as March 12, 2001. In fact, several years of the Bloomsbury records have the wrong dates. We told Bloomsbury about it, but they seem to have done nothing about it. What fun this is going to be for scholars and booksellers of the future!
The ability to do good research means that you can make good money just because of what you know or can discover. Here are three examples on three levels from 2011 auctions.
Donald Heald bought a $400 Rex Brasher item at Bloomsbury New York, identified the text, clarified the inscription and the recipient, noticed that the drawing was a caricature self-portrait, and it became a $1,500 item.
At Freeman’s in Philadelphia in March, somebody snagged one of the rarest French Benjamin Franklin imprints in the world for $150 – there’s only a photocopy in OCLC and there’s 1 other known copy.
In 2009 an Isaac Newton manuscript entitled The Question stated about Abstaining from Blood failed to sell at an auction in San Francisco. After the sale it was purchased for (and this is an educated guess, not a fact) about $30,000 by Roy Davids. He did an enormous amount of research on it, both in terms of history and text and in terms of provenance, and it sold at Bonhams in London in March 2011 for 102,000 POUNDS Sterling or almost $163,000.
If you know your history and do your research, there are always items out there that can make you money.
Now what about drama? Now that booksellers, collectors and librarians don’t see each other all the time, what is a person to do? Online there is a huge amount of noise – endless announcements of pdf catalogues posted to Ex Libris, listings and listings, many of them with borrowed prose, on all the omnibus sites like addall. How can you be heard? How can you develop a distinctive voice online?
Here I’m going to begin by embarrassing Cynthia Gibson. On May 24th, in the wake of a scandal-filled week in the news, the 2 juiciest involving the International Monetary Fund head and the Governor of California, Ms. Gibson posted a list called Grown-Ups Behaving Badly (Sex, booze, murder, peevishness – and Schwarzenegger). It had only 5 items, ranging from a book called Goethe and his Woman Friends to a signed copy of that 1993 favorite, Arnold’s Fitness for Kids.
The list was hilarious and witty, and the books were interesting. This sort of unique approach makes a bookseller stick in one’s mind, makes her a Person, not just something at the other end of a list. Which means in turn, that when Cynthia Gibson posts a list called East Meets East, of Japanese and Chinese interest, you remember her, read the list carefully and possibly buy from it. This is in the great tradition of booksellers like Bruce McKittrick, whose catalogues always make my day because they are both learned and funny.
Always remember that you are cataloging to sell, not just cataloging. So you have to develop a voice. I’ve brought along a not very nice but useful copy of a book, co-written by Terry Belanger, for the student auction. It’s called The Art of Persuasion: How to Write Effectively about Almost Anything. I recommend it.
And today there are social media to consider. Because I really like the way he uses Facebook, Twitter, and now Google+ -, a couple of months ago I wrote to Ian Kahn of Lux Mentis Books for a statement about how he approaches social media, and I’m going to quote his reply at length here:
“I have not attended a fair in in years when someone doesn’t come into my both and tell me that they read the blog, follow me on Twitter, and/or are Facebook friends. They “know” me and are comfortable with me even if it is the first time we’ve met in real space….
Two quick exceptional examples:
Twitter. A follower for a year or so and someone I knew and followed as he posted well and cleverly sent me a direct message out of the blue one day. He told me that he was a scholar and professor and had spent 10 years searching for the lost literary archive of Montague Summers. He added that he had located it, was writing a scholarly paper on it, and that the family where the papers were had indicated that they would be interested in selling the archive. Because of Twitter and a follower out of the blue, I purchased a significant literary archive that had been missing for 50 years (and is now at Georgetown).
Facebook: I post images of setup and the booth at various fairs, and recently video tours of the shelves. I’ve sold a number of items as a result of the videos to people who cannot attend. Notably, I had a Facebook friend (who had not previously purchased from me) see one of my “set up” images and ask if one of the books (in a stack, on its side) was a Gill 4 Gospels. It was… and in 3 emails and a text, I’d sold this 5-digit book during setup.
The key, personally, is NOT to try to sell things. I ignore people who are actively “selling” via social media as it tends to be “noise.” What really does seem to work is talking about things that interest, amuse, horrify and/or annoy . “
Ian has done a great job of building a persona, and he follows up by seeing a great many people personally.
You all undoubtedly have Web sites. Be certain that your Web site reflects YOU. None of the rest of us will have as complex and entertaining a Web site as Dan Gregory’s for Between the Covers, but all of us can figure out how to have a Web site that isn’t just generic.
Do not sit at your machine in your sweats and forget the real world. Get to know librarians. Join RBMS and go to meetings – that does NOT mean just exhibiting at them. Let the librarians get to know you as a person. You won’t be going to libraries with a satchel of books to sell, but go to them to see copies and to take librarians out for lunch or a drink. One of Jake Zeitlin’s great successes was that he could arrange for somebody to buy an item and then donate it to a library. Join every Friends of the Library group you can find and afford. Here you will reach collectors and librarians, all of whom will find you charming.
In university libraries remember that budgets must be spent or the powers that be might decide that less money is needed. Always be ready with suggestions in early May. Find out what libraries have written collections policies. I have with me the draft of a new one for the Clements Library at the University of Michigan that is a road map of what that library will be buying in the next decade. There really are some libraries that aren’t devoting all of their funds to buying the St. Cuthbert Gospel, as the British Library is doing, or to making electronic commons, and you need to find out which they are.
Local libraries welcome any help you can give them, and they sometimes deaccession interesting books. Make certain that they do not have an offensive deaccessioning stamp, however, as our local library did – it said in huge letters: “Discarded Library Surplus”
Become a speaker. Speak at libraries, senior centers (they have books) , schools. Create collectors.
Get to know Trust and Estate lawyers. They like to have people at the ready if an estate has books or documents.
Get to know reporters – give them an angle. Let them know about any events you are participating in or indeed about any events involving books in your area. Become their go-to person, and you may get your name mentioned in their newspapers and blogs.
If somebody asks you to go and look at a collection of books, GO. You never know what you might find. A Canadian dealer wrote not long ago to tell of a really useless collection of books he went to see. But the family then said that their father had been a film maker and that in the 1950s he had wanted to do a remake of a film by Leni Riefenstahl, and he co-wrote the script with L. Ron Hubbard. Riefenstahl was Hitler’s favorite filmmaker – she did Triumph of the Will, among other films. And L. Ron Hubbard gave up a wonderful career as a science-fiction writer to give us Scientology.
The collection boasted Riefenstahl letters and inscribed photographs and numerous versions of that & other scripts with L. Ron.
Finally there a 1956 documentary film with an actor whose career we thought began in 1959 – Marlon Brando.
So don’t ever think that all the good stuff is gone. But should you make such a find, be certain that you know where to place documents, letters, and films. Being a bookseller means knowing something about everything that happens to be written down.
Books are not going away any more than classical music is going away, or horses, for that matter. Do your research, build your persona, encounter copies of books and people with books whenever you can, and you will do well.