What My Friends Think I Do (Part 1 in a Series)

April 22nd, 2014 by Lorne

This Monday morning, the biggest news to hit the antiquarian book trade in roughly 400 years became public: my colleagues Dan Wechsler and George Koppelman, booksellers in New York City, unveiled a copy of a sixteenth century dictionary which could, quite plausibly, have once belonged to William Shakespeare — complete with annotations possibly in the bard’s hand and many tantalizing, if ultimately circumstantial, linguistic and stylistic links to his plays. I’ll leave it to better minds than mine to make a final determination regarding the  dictionary’s provenance. Wechsler and Koppelman have laid out an entire volume of compelling evidence in their just-published book, Shakespeare’s Beehive (a copy of which I’ve just ordered); the Folger Shakespeare Library, the New Yorker, and numerous book bloggers have already begun weighing in, and I’m sure many more scholarly voices will be added to the fray over the coming months and years. I hope it’s years, not months. I hope it’s real, real enough at least to merit many years of scholarship – I really, really do.

But regardless what this volume turns out to be, whether the hundreds of annotations on its 400-year-old pages turn out to be the long-sought mainline to Shakespeare’s creative process or just a host of happy coincidences, the whole wonderful escapade serves to remind me that this pursuit my colleagues and I are engaged in, which so many days feels like little more than a glorified exercise in rag-picking, has resonances far beyond the little world of booksellers, librarians, and collectors we imagine, on our worst days, is the only one we inhabit. For books, to revisit Milton’s adage, “are not absolutely dead things, but do contain a potency of life in them to be as active as that soul was whose progeny they are…” *

So it goes with Shakespeare’s dictionary; and so, on a somewhat less magnificent scale, did it go for a handsome American Bible which I recently had the good fortune to shepherd from the floor of the New York Book Fair to my friends in the Special Collections Division of the University of Tennessee Libraries.  Now, this wasn’t just any Bible: it was President Andrew Jackson’s family Bible, presented to him by the publisher in an elaborate gilt-stamped morocco binding on the occasion of his second inaugural. Through a fairly predictable series of circumstances – apathy, the contempt bred of familiarity, and the temporary impecuniousness of a Jackson descendant –  the Bible had become separated from the Jackson family nearly 100 years ago and made its way, finally, through the wilderness, into the hands of a reputable bookseller; thence to the New York Book Fair; thence to me (reputable or not – you make the call).

Here’s what it looks like today:

 

jackson1 copy

 

The story unfolded quickly, and since it redounds only minimally to my credit (though a great deal to others’), I’ll share it briefly. It was early on day one of the New York Book Fair. I’d had a fairly miserable set-up (for those who may not be familiar with the realpolitik of antiquarian book fairs, many dealers – I’m no exception – do up to 90% of their business before the show even opens. As of Friday morning, I’d done just about enough to pay for my first night’s bar tab. Not good.), and I was sulking in my booth when my phone rang. On the other end was my friend Steve Smith, whose day job is Dean of Libraries at the University of Tennessee in Knoxville, though for one week a summer he also joins me on the faculty of the Colorado Antiquarian Book Seminar; we also share an appreciation for traditional Appalachian string band music, fine printing, and shaggy-dog stories with awful punch lines — needless to say, we’re fast friends.  Steve had heard a rumor, just a vague rumor, that somewhere on the floor of the New York Book Fair — “I think it might be in the Serendipity booth,” he told me — a Bible once belonging to Andrew Jackson had been spotted for sale. “Would you track it down for me?,” he asked, “and give it the once-over?”

Would I! Sitting in my own booth had become torture at this point, and I was glad for any opportunity to get up and wander around – this, despite the fact that Peter Howard’s Serendipity Books hadn’t had a booth at the New York Fair in at least ten years, and Peter himself passed away three years ago now. Despite that red herring It didn’t take me long to track down the object of Steve’s desire — among my Americanist colleagues, Jackson’s Bible had apparently been creating something of a buzz all during set-up, though no one had managed to buy it yet, or to sell it over the phone. Happily, the Bible was in the booth of two of my best friends in the book business, Nick and Ellen Cooke of Black Swan Books in Richmond (that’s Nick down below, peeking through the stacks of his lovely shop, which is made lovelier still by the presence of Ellen, his wife, who is not in this picture nor, sadly and mysteriously, to be found in any other image of Black Swan I’ve been able to get my hands on. She is not, for the record, to the best of my knowledge, a ghost.). These are folks who’ve done me many a good turn over the years. Now it was my turn to do one for them (the antiquarian book business depends for its continuance, to a substantial degree, on good turns).

 

nick_cooke

 

Nick and Ellen are the real heroes of this story. They’re the ones to whom Jackson’s Bible was first brought, in a woeful state of preservation – covers and spine detached, binding loose, but magically still complete, including the genealogical register completed by hand by Jackson’s daughter-in-law – some time late last year. They’re the ones who did the research establishing that the Bible was, indeed, what it was purported to be, and they’re the ones, most importantly, who put their money where their mouth was, ponied up the not inconsiderable cost to restore the binding, and took the time to catalog it and to bring it to the New York Book Fair, where news of its existence quickly spread as far west and south as Knoxville – as far, it turns out, as the news needed to spread. I called Steve back. “It’s here,” I said. “Is it real?,” he asked. “Yes,” I answered. “I want it,” he said. Done and done.

So, Steve is the other real hero of this story. Getting wind of a great treasure with deep and significant roots in Tennessee, the state for which his library is the rare book depository of record, he immediately did what he was hired to do: he tracked the thing down and, false leads and vague rumors notwithstanding, bagged his prey.

And so the deal was done: two days later I was in my van on my way to Knoxville, where Steve and his entire Special Collections staff were waiting for me. They even threw a party in my honor (well, actually, they were having a party anyway, and they invited me along). In a quiet room in a distant corner of the McClung Museum, I unveiled the Jackson Bible for a small party of librarians and library patrons:

 

jackson2

 

Once I’d  removed the Bible from its rolling case and the layers of bubble wrap in which I’d encased it for the journey (I mean, this thing was hermetically sealed and bulletproof: I’d made sure that if by some tragedy my van ran off a cliff in the Great Smoky Mountains, my van and myself might perish in flames but Jackson’s Bible would survive), everyone just stood and stared for a minute. I took a few moments to show off some of what I considered to be the Bible’s finer points – the elaborate red morocco binding, signed on the front turn-in by James Birdseye, the journeyman finisher who completed the gilt decorations, and the two pages of genealogical register, on which had been recorded General Andrew Jackson’s death, “peacefully, at home in the Hermitage, on the night of June 8, 1845″. There was a brief, slightly awed hush in the room. Then someone said: “I doubt he ever read the part about the Ten Commandments.” Someone else said: “I doubt he ever got past the Old Testament.” Someone else said, “I doubt he ever opened it at all.” At which point I knew this Bible had found its rightful home.

Serendipity, indeed.

 

 

 

* (now accept my apologies as you ask yourself, as I have just asked myself: can you really countenance yet another antiquarian bookseller quoting Milton? Can you? Really?).

 

 

 

***

France Owns De Sade

January 23rd, 2013 by Lorne

 

In continuing rare book & manuscript news, the Bibliothèque Nationale wants to repatriate the manuscript for De Sade’s 100 Days of Sodom, surely one of the filthiest and most depraved works ever written. Below is Elaine Sciolino’s article on the fracas.  Of interest to us is Ms. Sciolino’s assertion that  “There is nothing erotic about it.” Is that true? Probably not, even as a general claim; but certainly not for those who are turned on by filth and depravity – a topic on which I remain more or less agnostic (I mean, at my age, I’m willing to be turned on by whatever works; but, somehow….). Read on:

By

PARIS — “The 120 Days of Sodom,” by the Marquis de Sade, is one of the most perverse works of 18th-century literature.

It tells the story of four rich “libertines” who lock themselves in a remote medieval castle with 46 victims (including eight boys and eight girls, ages 12 to 15). The men are assisted by four female brothel keepers who arouse their hosts by recounting their outlandish (and embellished) experiences.

The work describes orgies and acts of abuse — sexual and otherwise — including pedophilia, necrophilia, incest, torture, rape, murder, infanticide, bestiality, violent anal and oral sex acts and the use of urination and defecation to humiliate and punish.

Sade called it “the most impure tale that has ever been told since our world began.”

There is nothing erotic about it.

Even Bruno Racine, director of the Bibliothèque Nationale de France, the National Library, calls it “depraved.”

But that hasn’t stopped him from negotiating long and hard to buy Sade’s manuscript. He has convinced the Foreign and Culture Ministries of its importance. He has argued in front of the Commission of National Treasures to declare it provisionally a “national treasure” that needs to be preserved in the library. And he is ready to pay more than $5 million to get it.

“The document is Sade’s most atrocious, extreme, radical work,” Mr. Racine said. “But we make no moral judgment about it.” A rambling, unfinished draft, “120 Days” has been praised and vilified. Simone de Beauvoir defended it as an important contribution to the dark side of humanity in her essay “Must We Burn Sade?”

The American feminist writer Andrea Dworkin branded it a “vile” story written by a woman-hating pornographer. In a 1975 film Pier Paolo Pasolini set the story in an imaginary Italian republic as a condemnation of Mussolini’s Fascist regime.

Sade wrote the draft in 37 days in 1785 in the Bastille, where he had been imprisoned under a royal order initiated against him by his mother-in-law. (In his youth he had been repeatedly arrested for acts of sexual mistreatment, sodomy and violence.) He wrote in tiny script on both sides of a sheaf of narrow paper, whose sheets he attached into a single 39-foot-long roll. Fearing that his work would be confiscated, he hid the roll in a crevice in a stone wall of his cell.

Days before the storming of the Bastille on July 14, 1789, Sade was transferred at night to a prison for the insane. He wrote that he “wept tears of blood” over the manuscript’s loss, and he went to his grave in 1814 without knowing its fate.

But it was recovered, sold, resold and then published for the first time by a German doctor in an error-filled version in 1904.

In 1929 Viscount Charles de Noailles, whose wife, Marie-Laure, was a direct descendant of Sade’s, bought the manuscript. The couple, wealthy and passionate patrons of the arts, handed it down to their daughter, Natalie, who kept it in a drawer at the family’s estate in Fontainebleau. She would sometimes unroll it and show it to guests; the Italian writer Italo Calvino was one of them.

“My mother showed me the manuscript when I was a boy,” Carlo Perrone, an Italian newspaper publisher who is Natalie de Noailles’s son, said in a telephone interview from Rome. “I remember the handwriting was so small, and that there were no corrections. It gave you the impression that paper was very scarce and precious for him, and that he had to fill up every space.”

Ms. de Noailles eventually entrusted both that manuscript and the manuscript of Stravinsky’s ballet “Les Noces” to a friend, the publisher Jean Grouet.

Mr. Grouet turned out to be a swindler. In 1982 he smuggled the Sade manuscript into Switzerland and sold it to Gérard Nordmann, a Swiss collector of erotica, for about $60,000.

Ms. de Noailles sued. After a long legal case, France’s highest court ruled in 1990 that the work had been stolen and must be returned. (The family was able to retrieve the Stravinsky manuscript, which had remained in France.)

Since Switzerland had not yet signed the Unesco convention requiring the restitution of stolen cultural objects, Ms. de Noailles was forced to sue again in that country. In 1998 the Swiss federal court ruled in Mr. Nordmann’s favor, saying that he had bought the manuscript in good faith.

Afterward, the manuscript was kept at a cultural foundation in Switzerland.

Then, last January, Mr. Nordmann’s heirs offered to sell the manuscript to a French collector. Mr. Perrone intervened.

“Anyone who wants to buy the manuscript in France needs my consent,” he said in the interview. “My mother had a very strong wish that one day the manuscript would be given to the Bibliothèque Nationale, which is my wish as well. It’s an important historical document, a piece of French history.”

Enter Mr. Racine. Since taking over as director of the Bibliothèque Nationale in 2007, he has sought to have important manuscripts classified as “national treasures” in order to acquire them for the library.

Among other purchases, he has bought Casanova’s memoirs with $9.6 million from an anonymous donor; the archives of the French philosopher Michel Foucault; and the archives of the French Marxist theorist, writer and filmmaker Guy Debord (preventing them from leaving the country and going to Yale).

“I don’t know of any director of a world-class library today who is making the kind of brilliant strategic acquisitions that Bruno Racine is making at the Bibliothèque Nationale,” said Paul Le Clerc, the former head of the New York Public Library and the director of Columbia University’s programs in Europe.

Now Mr. Racine is negotiating with Mr. Perrone and the heirs of Mr. Nordmann to buy the Sade manuscript and give each party a cut. The estimated sale price — more than $5 million — would be raised from private donors.

Mr. Racine’s goal is to put the manuscript on display, along with other Sade works in the library’s collection, for the 200th anniversary of Sade’s death next year.

“It is a unique, exceptional work, and a miracle that it survived,” he said. “It is part of our cultural heritage. Whether we like it or not, it belongs in the Bibliothèque Nationale.”

 

 

 

Bread & Roses: The Strike That Changed Everything

January 11th, 2013 by Lorne

Today marks the 101st anniversary of the beginning of the Lawrence Textile Strike, one of the signal events of 20th-century American labor history. This was the strike that put the IWW on the map, the strike that invented the moving picket line (to get around anti-loitering laws) and, most importantly, the first successful, large-scale strike in U.S. history to be carried out primarily by and on behalf of immigrant women. The Lawrence Strike has come to be known as the “Bread And Roses Strike,” because young women strikers were seen carrying banners that read, “We Want Bread, but Roses Too!,” quoting a line from James Oppenheim’s poem “Bread and Roses” (though labor folklore has attributed the source of Oppenheim’s poem to the Lawrence strike, it was actually written a year earlier, to commemorate the struggles of Chicago women workers). The poem was set to music in 1974 by Mimi Farina and has since become a labor-folk standard. Our favorite version is by the great Utah Phillips. Here it is (sorry for the link; we’ve been unable to succed at embedding the video for some reason):

http://www.dailymotion.com/video/x5kwi3_utah-phillips-bread-and-roses_music

The woolen mills of Lawrence, Massachusetts were by all accounts horrific places. Hard as it is for us to imagine today,  the men and women who worked in them, mostly non-English speaking immigrants from Eastern Europe and Quebec, died at the average age of 26.  The mortality rate for children under six was fully 50%. Loom operators were paid less than $10 a week — for 56 hours of work. They lived and worked completely at the whim of their employer, the American Woolen Company, subject to arbitrary layoffs and pay reductions at any time. So when, in January of 1912, the company announced that it would be reducing its workers pay by 32 cents a day — a reduction of more than 20% — the workers had finally had enough. They struck, and against all odds they won. They won despite the state’s trumped-up murder charge against the strike’s organizers, Joe Ettor and Arturo Giovannitti; despite violent suppression by the local militia, who in their noble attempt to preserve law and order turned fire hoses on the strikers in the heart of winter; despite the efforts of a local patriot who tried to frame the strikers by planting dynamite bombs around the city of Lawrence (he was an undertaker, so we assume a certain amount of self-interest may have guided his actions). Above all, they won because of the tenacious and novel strike tactics of the IWW, the most militant labor organization American has known before or since, especially under the leadership of the legendary Big Bill Haywood. The Wobblies took a sort of perverse pleasure in outwitting the (admittedly dim-witted) public officials of Lawrence, inventing such tactics as the “revolving picket line” to get around strict anti-loitering laws.

Needless to say, few strikes in American history have generated as much literature, music or folklore as did Lawrence. Given our interest in the art and literature of social movements, we’re unavoidably drawn to this material, as are our customers – it tends to come and go with some regularity. Here are a few recent acquisitions that are still with us, each interesting for its own reasons:

 

Hard to believe that a woman with sufficient intelligence and perspicacity to write  a full-length novel on the subject could wind up so far on the wrong side of history, but that’s exactly what the devoutly Catholic author Mabel Farnum accomplished in her  staunchly anti-labor novel about the Lawrence Strike, The Cry of The Street – a mill-town melodrama reminiscent of similar works such as The Factory Girl and Thrilling Events in the Life of Mira Dana, written in the mid-19th century. Fay Blake, whose The Strike in the American Novel (Metuchen: 1971) is by far the best study of its kind, calls Farnum’s novel “surprisingly old-fashioned” and “nonsensical,” but the novel illustrates what was certainly the majority view of Lawrence’s non-laboring citizens at the time of the strike.

The first book to conflate James Oppenheim’s 1911 poem “Bread and Roses” with the Lawrence Strike was Upton Sinclair’s 1915 anthology The Cry For Justice. It’s a key early work of American social protest literature, collecting “five thousand years of writing about the working man.” Sinclair’s hope was that this “Socialist Bible” would supplant that of the Christians, but after years of looking I regret to say that I’ve never found a copy in a hotel dresser-drawer.

 

Pretty much from Day One, artists have attempted portrayals of the Lawrence Strike, including noteworthy drawings by such radical cartoonists as William Gropper and Fred Ellis. One of our favorites is this iconic 1977 painting by the self-taught New York painter and labor organizer Ralph Fasanella, who died in 1997. We’ve just catalogued this nicely inscribed poster reproduction, which came to us from a collection of radical graphics in the Bay Area.

And, finally, to anyone interested in reading a good, scholarly (if slightly partisan) account of the Lawrence Strike, we recommend William Cahn’s Lawrence 1912: The Bread & Roses Strike (New York: Pilgrim Press, 1980). We don’t have any copies in stock, but the book is easily available from many second-hand booksellers, including our pals at Bolerium Books in San Francisco.

GUEST POST FROM ZHENYA DZHAVGOVA: WHAT VIRGINIA TAUGHT

August 14th, 2012 by Lorne

Over the last weekend of July, I had the distinct pleasure of hosting a visit from my gifted colleague Zhenya Dzhavgova, who was on her way home from Rare Book School in Charlottesville. She repaid me with the following excellent blogpost. Aside from her endless flattery of me, there’s much here worth reading, and I commend it to you.

 

Having just returned home from a glorious week in Virginia, I feel compelled to gather my thoughts and impressions in a Lorne Bair-worthy (debatable) blog post. I have been dubbed by said Lorne to have had rather idiosyncratic views on various subjects, thus for all purposes the opinions expressed are just a “Thank you” to all those who have made my summer a memorable one and have helped me make the next leap into the trade.

Rare Book School exceeded expectations but then the name and the fame have always spoken
for themselves. I expected to be impressed and greatly influenced. What I did not expect was the
fun I had slogging through hundreds of reference sources. Yes, definitely fun, and Joel Silver was the man. Hats off to this incredible person who managed to make studying bibliographies interesting and amusing on top of educational and important. I sincerely hope he stays on the RBS faculty for many years to come.

The surroundings and the ambiance in Charlottesville were simply-put gorgeous, but my classmates and the RBS staff were the ones who would leave lasting impressions. Rubbing shoulders and talking with a myriad of Special Collections librarians – Yale, the Smithsonian, Harvard, The University of Texas at Austin, and La Salle University just to mention several of them – unveiled for me quite a few mysteries enshrouding these exotic individuals. The most pressing and annoying question, namely “Why in the world is that lady not answering my email quote?” or “What will make this librarian open my catalog and place an order?” turned out to have several very easy answers. Special Collections librarians are humans and very busy humans at that. They get hammered with quotes and catalogs every single day and they have to wade through an impressive load of them to find that one item they are trying to buy for their institution. Sometimes they miss an email and other times they just do not feel like riffling through a catalog. They also have to get to know you and trust you before they even consider buying your books. One of my favorite professors and curators confirmed that sentiment with “For the most part, it’s whom you know and ‘how’ you know her/him.” There is a very fine line to be walked between slowly making yourself memorable and preferable with carefully timed and perfectly executed quotes and exasperating a librarian to death.

Incidentally, while at RBS, I got my first order from THE institution – the biggest and baddest of them all. And that was THE lesson learned – trekking across the United States to attend CABS and RBS, leaving my business hanging for a week, and fraying my nerves with pre-seminar jitters was more than worth it. Getting a reality check as to how difficult it was to make it in the trade and grabbing the initial nudge and the subsequent help I got from the faculty members and running with it certainly helped tremendously. Working my way – mulishly, tenaciously, diligently – for a whole year and being knocked down and having to get up, dust myself off, and plow ahead was what did it.

The culmination of my Virginia adventure was my visit with Lorne and Lee Ann. We drove around in The Minivan of the Revolution, visited the most ridiculously adorable ‘Dinosaur Land’ park, went to the worst book auction in history, and we talked…a lot – about books, about the trade, about hopes and difficulties, and about life. His taking me under his wing has been a privilege but also a recognition of sorts…because having a friend whom you can call for help, give a hard time to, and share a drink with is just half of the equation. The other half is trust, business opportunities, and as sordid as it sounds – money. As Lorne himself said: “It’s not all altruistic and it’s not all about shooting the breeze, but it’s also not entirely about cash.” It is, in fact, all about creating and maintaining the perfect combo of a true friendship which remains outside of the trade and joined business ventures which are based on trust and good will.

The abovementioned book auction was the most spectacular flop I have ever seen and a great lesson in “what looks too good to be true is probably too good to be true.” Meandering about Winchester, Lorne and I overheard somebody talking about an ongoing auction for over 10,000 books. We hightailed it in the trusty Revolution Van just to find out that by the time we reached the place the auction was about over. We did, though, get to take a look at the books while the happy buyers were loading them. Possibly good for whomever bought them – the books seemed to be a big-10 000-disaster for Lorne’s and my own business. The good part of it was the prompt of another discussion about quality and shrewdness in scouting.

All in all, Virginia taught a lot. Feeling a bit sad it was over was OK, because that has proven to be just the beginning.

 

FYI: I Am Not A Goddamned Curator

July 18th, 2012 by Lorne

I’ve observed a somewhat unsettling uptick in the use of the “c” word lately. “Curator” once had a fairly secure, if perhaps not precisely fixed, definition, stemming from its original meaning in Middle English (couratour, n., legal guardian).  In this sense a curator was a guardian, not just of a collection or an institution, but of culture: one whose job it was to narrate a path through our own artifactual effluvia, saving (or at least pointing out) what was best, discarding (whether literally or metaphorically) that which was not the best. As class-bound notions about what consitutes “best-ness” have shifted, so has the curator’s role, away from valuative declarations regarding “high” and “low” culture, and towards attempting to define that which most defines us — something closer to a tour guide than an arbiter of taste. In either case, to earn the right to be taken seriously while engaging in this practice, a curator was generally understood to be someone with deep learning, wide exposure to culture, and usually an advanced degree in the history and interpretation of whichever aspect of that culture he or she specialized in.

But with the increasing ease of access to audiences (or at least to the illusion of audiences) created by the internet, “curation” has taken on a somewhat slipperier meaning. Just as the blogosphere has democratized the notion of what constitutes “journalism,” so have on-line sites like Pinterest, Stumbleupon and Tumblr — to say nothing of a growing host of “curated” e-commerce sites selling everything from lampshades to high-heels – democratized our notion of what constitutes a “curator.” As fellow bookseller Maria Bustillos observed this morning in a column at Page-Turner, the New Yorker’s on-line book blog:

There’s been a lot of handwringing lately about “curation” (the original meaning of the word has morphed into something else entirely; maybe we still lack a needed word). It has come to signify sifting through the ever-increasing avalanche of “content” in order to identify the things that are worthiest of our attention, and bringing those things to an interested audience.

Well (in a sentiment Bustillos goes on to echo), fair enough. There is a lot of crap to wade through — more, these days, than ever before. But there’s also a whole lot of really cool stuff out there, much of it rather hard to find. What’s wrong with having dependable, well-informed tour guides pointing us towards things we might find interesting? And the capacity of the internet to facilitate the human instinct for forming associations and “affinity groups” makes it the perfect vehicle in which to take such a tour. Though I remain ambivalent about using the word “curation” to consecrate such a process — I think the French word bricolage better conveys the somewhat haphazard manner in which we construct meaning out of these random bits of bytes we stumble across in the ether — I’m willing to let it pass, if that’s where linguistic concensus is taking us.

What I’m not willing to let pass is the increasingly widespread conflation of “curation” with merchandising. If there’s one thing I’m pretty sure of, it’s that curators don’t make their living by making sales pitches. Nor are their choices about what to present or preserve, ignore or discard, based on anything as mercenary as their own pocketbooks. And most importantly, while curators certainly have and are aware of their audiences, they don’t choose their audience members on the basis of their ability to write a check.

I make my living buying and selling rare books, documents, and manuscripts. To the extent that I succeed at these tasks, I eat. I’ve been accused on more than one occasion of plying my trade in a “curatorial” manner — by which is meant, I suppose, that I lavish somewhat more care upon the description and presentation of the items I sell than has, perhaps, been traditional in my business (though I don’t believe this really to be true). It might also mean that I’ve spent much of my career selling things for which there has traditionally been only a very small audience, or no audience at all; and that I’ve succeeded because, through persistence and care, I’ve managed to make that audience bigger (I don’t believe this to be true, either). Or maybe it means that, by choosing a narrow field of knowledge and learning as much as I can about it, I’ve made myself into an acknowledged expert in my specialty (I know this not to be true, not even close).  But whatever is meant, there’s this certainty: when I fail at my primary task, which is to sell something for more than what I paid for it, there’s no consolation in knowing that I did so in a curatorial manner.

Rare book dealers (or antique dealers, or art dealers, or anything else with the word “dealer” in the title) are no more curators than are used car salesmen. It’s above all a question of motive; and since I know my own motives better than anyone else’s, I’ll use myself as the example. To the extent that I’ve learned to present my merchandise (and that’s what it is – merchandise) attractively and with well-written descriptions, I’ve done so because, at some point, I perceived that doing so gave me a better chance of selling it. If I’ve succeeded in  developing an audience (and “audience” is the wrong word — “market” is the right one) for what I sell, it’s been by figuring out, first, who has a functioning budget and, second, how to present my wares to them in a way they’ll understand (and the fact that ninety percent of my customers are institutional librarians in Special Collections tells you all you need to know about the breadth of my market). If I’ve gained some knowledge about my specialty, I can assure you it’s no more than is absolutely necessary to accomplish Task 1, above — like most booksellers, I’m the ultimate dilettante, my knowledge necessarily an inch deep and a mile wide, and I’m forever indebted to my more knowledgeable customers and colleagues for guidance and illumination.

All of which is to say that I do exactly what every bookseller (or art dealer, or real estate speculator, or car salesman) before me has ever done: I buy what I think I can sell; I find a customer to sell it to; and I sell it, hopefully for a profit. There are many ways to go about this — as a friend of mine in the business likes to say, there are as many ways to sell a book as there are booksellers — but one unavoidable imperative is that it needs to be done over and over and over again if one is to make a living at it. Which means that those who are best at this job are the ones who (1) have identified their market; (2) know just enough about their material to communicate its essence and its importance to that market; and (3) expend just the right amount of effort and no more in the process of selling it. This can range from the mega-listing penny-sellers on Amazon (who supply an ISBN and no more, and whose customers couldn’t care less) to someone like me, who on occasion has been known to spend a thousand words to catalogue a fifty-dollar item (never my proudest moment when it comes to that, incidentally).

So, much as some booksellers like to romanticize what we do (and gussy it up with words like “curating”), ours is really sort of a vulgar little profession. But vulgar isn’t bad. My father, before he died, called me “something between a street-singer and glorified rag-picker.” He meant it as a compliment — he liked both street-singers and rag-pickers — and his point was that there’s a fundamental honesty to this profession; one succeeds in it by using one’s wits and by sticking around; and if one is honest and good at it, the end result — a pretty song, recycled rags — is only good. Which gets me to my final point: vulgar or not, a lot of good comes out of what I — we — do. I may not be a real expert in my specialty, but out of necessity I know enough about it to find things of value. I may not be a full-fledged resident of the halls of academe, but I know my way around well enough to know where something I’ve bought might best reside, and (usually) what the fair price is that will get it from here to there. And much as it may pain me to admit it, I’m not a tremendous writer — but I write well enough to get the job done.

What I don’t do is curate. In the end, my decisions about what to catalog and what to discard are mercenary — they have nothing to do with cultural significance, and everything to do with my bottom line. Once I’ve chosen to catalog an item, what research I do, what I choose to say or not to say about it is driven not by curiosity (indeed, curiosity is the enemy!) but by the endless search for selling points. And once completed, my efforts will be directed, not to the anonymous internet bricoleur, but to someone I know has a checkbook and the will to use it. None of which is to say that my compatriots and I are devoid of curiosity, or that we expose every facet of our lives to this sort of reductionist logic, or that we have no appreciation for the cultural context out of which our inventory springs. Just that, to the degree that we succeed as booksellers, those are secondary not primary concerns.

So please, colleague booksellers, let’s put an end to this “curator” nonsense. What we do is good and important enough without pretending to a title to which we have no claim.

Tales of Splendid Acquisition: Rescued From the Burn-Pile

May 29th, 2012 by Lorne
Steve Conliff, WE ARE NOT McGOVERNABLE. Columbus: 1972

 

I’ll be posting Part II of my midwest bookhunting saga later this week. Meanwhile, I hope everyone had a swell Memorial Day weekend, and spent some time seeking solidarity with the working-class heroes (yes, I said heroes) who’ve given their lives fighting for our country. It’s been sixty years since America fought a just war, but soldiers, like all working men, are generally too busy doing their jobs to speculate on the ethical implications of what they do. And what they do is grueling, dangerous, and unremunerative work, day in, day out, under conditions that most of us wouldn’t tolerate for a single week, let alone over the course of repeated multi-year tours of duty.  I salute them.

Meanwhile, here’s a little nugget I recently unearthed from a box bound for the discard pile. Some of the best scouting I do is from my own warehouse, where cartons of uncatalogued material have been collecting for a dozen or so years. Every once in a while I conduct a raid on my back-stock, just to see what I might have missed in my callow youth. In this case, a very cool, very scarce pamphlet from 1972, by the great, unheralded Ohio Yippie Steve Conliff – I have no idea where or when I acquired this, and no idea how it got into a box marked “Take To Goodwill.” Clicking on the image below will take you to a full description on our website.

SOLD.

Six Days On The Road & I’m Gonna Make It Home Tonight: Part 1 of a 3 Part Series

May 25th, 2012 by Lorne

 

Part I: The Crisis

 

For a few years now, there’s been a crisis* brewing in the rare book industry.**  Small, regional bookfairs all over the country are disappearing at a rate matched only by that of the (not coincidental) disappearance of brick-and-mortar used bookshops. Why or whether we should be concerned about either phenomenon is a matter of open debate among antiquarian booksellers. Some maintain that the demise is inevitable and that we need simply to adapt to it; if the world doesn’t want bookshops, set up websites; when they no longer want books, sell them ephemera; when they no longer want ephemera, sell them manuscripts; after manuscripts, art (and so on…I don’t know what we get to after art, and I don’t care). Others maintain that it’s our duty to do everything in our power to halt this creeping evil: if we don’t fight for our own existence, who will? My own feelings on the matter remain more or less agnostic. Where books are concerned, we are in the middle of a vast cultural shift. There is a feeling of inevitability around the whole thing and, though no one seems quite certain exactly what the inevitable outcome will actually be, we within the trade are probably least equipped to view the situation with the necessary detachment to make a rational response to it. I’m content with this. I’ve always been a lousy prognosticator, and thinking about the future makes me feel dyspeptic on the best of days.

That said, it might be valuable for the uninitiated (a burgeoning demographic) to understand what exactly I’m describing when I talk about a “small, regional bookfair” or a “brick-and-mortar used bookshop,” and perhaps to understand how the two depend upon and complement one another — and even to get an inkling of what we’re talking about when we talk about their twin demise.

Believe it or not, there was once a time when even the smallest of American cities could boast at least one modest used bookshop. And this time was not so long ago — certainly within the span of my adulthood, which began (depending on which former girlfriend you talk to) some time between 1978 and 1986. These bookshops occupied an important niche in the biblio-ecosystem: booksellers were to old attics as termites are to the forest floor, clearing out the heaviest and least desirable remnants of past lives and housing them long enough (and long enough sometimes meant decades) for them to be moved along…usually to wind up in some other attic, but in special cases into the hands of some predator higher on the food chain, who might begin the process of moving things still further along, into the hands of a curator or a major collector (a description of how this mechanism works – or might work in an ideal world – can be found in my earlier post regarding the New York Book Fair).

Bookshops were also the main point of entry, not only for aspiring bibliophiles, but also for lovers of the printed word in all its incarnations. I need think only of myself, as a teenager and aspiring writer in the mid-Seventies, hanging out in the cheap room of Allen Stypeck’s Second Story Books on Dupont Circle in D.C. (I still own the rather shabby volume of Balzac’s Contes Drolatiques I bought there in 1975). Or, later, as a practicing (alas, practice never made perfect) poet in Eugene, Oregon, haunting daily the stacks of the wonderful J. Michael’s Books on Broadway — the shop which, incidentally, was the exemplar upon which I modeled my own bookshop a few years later. My own shop, where, at least once a day, I had the privilege of turning some young person on to a book I loved, or even to share my trade secrets, such as they were, with other aspiring booksellers — several of whom are still in the business, despite having been exposed to my advice. Book dealers are by and large a voluble bunch, and most will talk for as long as there’s someone to listen to them (if we seem quiet, it’s probably because, having got wind of our volubility, most of our friends and public have learned not to get us started). Suffice it to say that a great deal of educating, good and bad, necessary and unnecessary, has gone on in bookshops. And until recently there were a lot of bookshops. As long as there have been attics in America, there have been books. That’s a lot of books, and a lot of booksellers and customers were needed to digest them.

The regional bookfair, though a more recent phenomenon, has served a less ubiquitous but perhaps similarly useful purpose. Slightly “better” books, those needing a special (read: better-heeled) audience to appreciate them, have always been a hard sell in the hinterlands. That’s not a knock on the hinterlands, mind you — it’s simply a matter of mathematics. Even in the most culturally advanced localities, I would venture a guess that no better than one in ten thousand people can be properly called a “book collector.” When one’s entire metropolitan region is comprised of just a few thousand souls, you don’t need sophisticated math to see that there aren’t many bibliophiles to go around. Bookfairs provide, first, an audience, and second, a context in which less common books can be appreciated. So whereas a used book dealer in Pocatello might hesitate to put a rare and expensive 19th-century book on the life history of the caddis fly out for sale among his stacks of Louis L’Amour paperbacks — realizing correctly that such a gesture would serve only to confuse his regular clientele — the bookfair provides an environment where such a book, if priced realistically, might actually find an enthusiastic buyer. And in the course of a year, it’s not unreasonable to expect the backwoods bookseller to amass a few dozen to a few hundred such gems. The regional bookfair becomes his way of getting them into the hands of real customers at prices that make the time and effort of properly cataloguing and conserving them worthwhile.

Regional bookfairs have also served an important social function. The country bookseller (and this is even truer in this age of basement-dwelling database-listers) lives an isolated existence. Bookfairs give him an opportunity, a few times a year, to get out of his hovel and into the world, among his peers. Though not generally pretty, this is not an entirely bad thing; for in addition to all the questionable behaviors normally associated with lonely men and women visiting a strange city with fresh and unencumbered wads of cash in their pockets, much useful trading of information goes on. Less experienced dealers get to rub elbows with others who’ve been in the trade for decades. Questions get asked and answered; mistakes get made (we all learn best from our mistakes!); books, catalogs, and specialties get seen and distributed. As aspiring bibliophiles once received their education in bookshops, booksellers aspiring to something more than Louis L’Amour paperbacks often received their first exposure to the antiquarian realm at their local bookfair.

In the early 2000s, of course, this entire dynamic began to shift. Brick-and-mortar bookshops, under pressure from higher rents during the real estate bubble and competition from the internet, began to shutter. For a very brief period, this actually caused a number of small, local bookfairs to flourish, as erstwhile shopkeepers, finding internet-only selling to be perhaps less meditative (or less profitable) than they’d  anticipated, began looking for ways to sell their better inventory. Bibliophiles, too, suddenly deprived of the pleasure of poking around their local shop, began seeking out their local fairs. It looked as though a new era of bookfairs might be on the horizon — but it wasn’t. It took about five years, but the internet, to put it bluntly, killed whatever market still existed for the sorts of books that have traditionally been bought and sold at regional bookfairs: the slightly out-of-the-ordinary, the out-of-print, the middling-rare. On one hand, the ready availability of digital texts has reduced the imperative for scholars to build private libraries. On another hand, books once thought uncommon (when the only way to procure them was through one’s local bookshop, or at a bookfair) are now, thanks to the vast profusion of titles for sale on internet bookselling sites, readily available to anyone with a computer.  So, like bookshops, bookfairs have begun disappearing, silent victims of the Internet Terror.

Should anyone care? Well, again, it’s probably not for me to say; I’ve got an awful lot at stake in this mess and can hardly be counted upon to give a disinterested answer. In the big scheme of things, I suppose those stakes are pretty small. Maybe best if I simply propose a few questions and leave my readers to discover the answers on their own.

The first question is the most obvious: how does one find a book one doesn’t know about on-line?

Second:  without bookshops, where does a fifteen-year-old go to learn about old books? The internet? Really?

Third: without bookfairs, where does a novice bookseller go to learn about rare books?

Fourth: if fifteen-year-olds are not learning about old books; and if novice booksellers are not learning about rare books, who is to carry on the rare book trade after the current generation of collectors and booksellers dies?

Fifth: If there is no one left to carry on the rare book trade in say, thirty years, what will happen to all the old books?

Sixth: Do you have an attic I could borrow?
——————————————————————————————-

*I use this word “crisis” advisedly, specifically upon the advice of my old friend Kevin Heubusch, who once took me to task for my office answering machine message: If your call is urgent or if you have an emergency, please reach me on my cell phone at… “Really, Lorne?,” Kevin asked. “Is there any such thing as a rare bookselling emergency?” I had to concede the point.
**This word, too. I hear it a lot in this context, but I’ve never been invited to the factory where they crank out Shakespeare First Folios.

Stay tuned for Part II, “The Trip” – coming soon, and illustrated!

 

 

 

TRADE LESSONS – a Guest Post From Zhenya Dzhavgova

May 24th, 2012 by Lorne
This week begins what I hope will be a series of guest appearances by friends and colleagues whose brains I admire. First up: Zhenya Dzhavgova, well known to many of you as one of the brightest of the “Bright Young Things” recently profiled over at Nate Pedersen’s Fine Books Blog. As a younger dealer, just about a year into the business, Zhenya has many perceptive — and occasionally idiosyncratic — things to say about the trade. Sooner or later I reckon she’ll get up the gumption to go off and start her own blog; until then, I’ve welcomed her aboard The ‘Van to keep us apprised of developments in her career and of her continually evolving perception of where the trade is going. In future weeks, we’ll be hearing from some of my other friends – some private collectors, some librarians, and some who simply look upon what I do with the same sort of bemused detachment with which Americans watch cricket (or with which Brits watch baseball); which is to say, with no idea of what the hell I’m doing, but at least appreciative of the fact that I seem to be having fun.

So, without further ado, I present to you: my friend and yours, The Queen of Slavica, the Bulgarian Nightingale, Erstwhile Empress of the Eastern Bloc —  Zhenya Dzhavgova!

-LB

Yet another new era of blogging on Lorne Bair Rare Books’ site is about to begin. With Lorne being my colleague, friend, mentor, and altogether the guy-I-run-to-when-in-book-trouble and with Ashley Loga gone, he has asked me to fill in the gap. I have happily agreed and my first post will reflect on a subject I have often wondered about. To wit: a lot has been said about the priceless help and advice and encouragement we, the young book sellers, receive from the established dealers every single day. We are grateful for it and we never forget it. But what do they learn from us? Because I have been told they do – by the CABS faculty members and by Lorne himself on numerous occasions (though interestingly enough he has never elaborated on specific details). After discussing it with some of my fellow youngsters in the trade I am fairly sure we have managed to pinpoint at least a few of those lessons.

Computers and technology have been a curse and a blessing for quite a while now. I can just imagine the older dealers being irked by the necessity of switching from index cards and paper files to digitized everything. I can also see the small brick-and-mortar shops racing to compete with the Internet mega sellers. On the other hand, I can think of at least three young people in the trade who have managed to make the digital nightmare we grew up with appear fun and undaunting. Luke Lozier of Bibliopolis, Mika Babcock of Foreseeing Solutions,  and Dan Gregory of Between the Covers have combined their love for books and their tech-savvy brains to create stunning websites for booksellers, incredible digital photography for catalogs, and great databases. Their work is so good – I bet even the staunchest opponents of digitalization among the trade will have to agree with me. Being a computer engineer, I myself often try to help fellow dealers with technical questions. The truth, as I see it for the foreseeable future, is that the technology is part of the business and like it or not we have to learn to deal with it. And we youngsters are the ones who will lead the way in helping the trade to evolve and adapt.

And then there is creative specialization or to quote a fellow dealer: “There are popular late 20th century subcultures that remain to be tapped into.” Brian Cassidy has very interesting punk rock  and modern music items and I have my own Slavic languages materials, which though by no means new inventions, are still a somewhat uncharted territory here in the U.S. It is far easier for us, the younger ones, who grew up with the music, literature, and art of the last 20 years to dive into making them the focus of our business than for a seasoned dealer to switch his/her specialty.

Now I come to my personal favorite lesson – the one of zeal, and originality, and excitement, and pigheadedness, and a Don Quixote Syndrome. With the well established dealers shaking their heads and darkly professing the end of the antiquarian book trade, many of we younger dealers are getting outside the box and taking matters into our own hands. Josh Niesse of Underground Books near Atlanta has come up with the ingenious plan of launching a community crowd-funding campaign to save his small beautiful brick-and-mortar shop from being sold.  Kara MacLaughlin of Little Sages Books  has flown across the country  – twice – for the chance of working at major bookfairs. And I have hand-crafted every single cover for every copy of my new catalog in order to make it eye-pleasing and memorable. It is not easy when some friend or family member asks you: “It’s all cool to sell books and stuff but when you gonna find a real job?” and you want to throttle him; or when amidst a frantic day of cataloging and shipping you receive an email of the variety: “I know your book is very hard to find and in fact you seem to have the only copy and I really really want to have it but why is the thing $500?” and you want to cry…but we are in it and we do it. The book trade isn’t dying, it’s just evolving – and we’re the ones who will be taking it to the next place, wherever that is.  So hey, you old-timers: if you’re smart, you’ll be paying attention – you teach us plenty, but as we head into terra incognita there’s plenty more you can learn by watching us!

 

A Baby Book Fair In The Heart of the Confederacy, and Another in the Land of Handsome Anarchists

May 15th, 2012 by Lorne

 

The Grand Foyer of the Library of Virginia – a well-lit place for books. Note well-lit booksellers in background.

 

A couple of weekends ago I found myself in Richmond, Virginia, in the novel (to me) role of co-organizer of a small (40 dealers), regional (Richmond, Virginia – Capitol of the Confederacy!) bookfair. The smart money says such fairs are a thing of the past – victims of high rents, changing fashions, and growing consumer apathy. Nonetheless, there I stood, in the grand foyer of The Library of Virginia, with a box of nametags in one hand and a map to the show floor in the other. It was a little before eight in the morning; dealers were supposed to start arriving in an hour, and I’d never done this before. No one had – this was the first-ever Library of Virginia Book Fair, invented from whole cloth by my colleagues of the Virginia Antiquarian Booksellers’ Association and our friends at the Library of Virginia Foundation. It was to be our grand experiment. No one knew if it would work. It probably wouldn’t. But at the very least I would get the nametags distributed. I was damned if anyone was going to blame the failure of this thing on me.

Looking around, I was greeted by the disconcerting sight of several dozen homeless guys milling in the lobby – their customary hang-out on weekday mornings, we’d been told. If the sight struck me as inauspicious (it crossed my mind briefly that these guys could turn out to be our only customers), to be fair they didn’t look terribly happy to see me, either. In any case, once the library opened its stacks at nine o’clock, they all magically dispersed to their chosen sleeping sections upstairs. One or two drifted down during the course of set-up on Friday to see what was going on, and one other made a slight nuisance of herself during the fair on Saturday, but in general they were a reticent and well-behaved bunch (though they proved quite gregarious when encountered in the confines of their social headquarters, the men’s room).

In the end, the nametags got distributed, people showed up, and the fair, for a first-time event, was a success on just about every level. Logistically, thanks to a crack porterage team and careful planning by Nick Cooke, the show was a breeze: load-in and load-out went without a hitch. The space was magnificent, the mix of dealers (nearly all from Virginia, but with a few last-minute additions from as far away as New York, Vermont, and Montreal) was productive, and our hosts at the Library of Virginia were by turns generous, competent, and patient as situations required. They also put out a very nice spread for the opening night reception. Security, which had been a concern, turned out not to be a concern.

A special effort was made to encourage attendance by Special Collections librarians from around the region, and I’m happy to say that nearly every major institution in the state was represented by at least one librarian, to the great benefit of those exhibitors who had good Virginia material to sell. My informal poll of the exhibitors on Saturday afternoon suggests that nearly all made some money, and that a few did very well indeed. No one expressed outright disappointment, and everyone I spoke to suggested they’d be back next year if the opportunity presented itself. As for me, I sold one fifty dollar book – one more than I expected – but I did have the singular pleasure of handing my two most recent catalogs to Virginia’s former Republican governor Jim Gilmore and saying (with a fairly straight face): “Have a look at these, Governor. They’re all about the First Amendment.” Alas, I didn’t think quickly enough to snap a picture of him holding my most recent offering, “Death To The Fascist Insect That Preys On The Life Of The People.”  There goes my dream of blackmailing a prominent Virginia Republican into a surprise Obama endorsement.

Thanks to all the exhibitors who bucked the trend against regional affairs to attend this inaugural event – forty of them, all together, including a number of ABAA members. Thanks are especially due to the members of our informal organizing committee, which included several ABAA members besides myself – Nick and Ellen Cooke, John Curtis, Mary Gilliam, Jim Presgraves, and Tennyson Williams (not an ABAA member, but current President of the Virginia Antiquarian Booksellers Association). Thanks also to Tyler Potterfield and Marta Powers, our head porters; and to Tom Camden, Curator of Rare Books for the Library of Virginia, John Thielbar, the facilities manager, and to Mary Beth McIntyre of the Library of Virginia Foundation, who all worked long and ably to make the event a success.

Brian Cassidy, writer of checks.

 

 

BUT WAIT THERE’S MORE…

In two days, I’ll be setting sail with my friend and colleague Brian Cassidy for an excellent adventure in The ‘Van, through the West Virginia hills to Pittsburgh, along the rust belt to Cleveland, Detroit and finally Ann Arbor, where we’ll both be exhibiting at the Ann Arbor Book Fair - now in its 35th year and one of the longest-running book fairs in the Midwest! No trip to Ann Arbor would be complete without a visit to the redoubtable Garrett Scott (bookseller to the weirdly famous), or to the University of Michigan’s Labadie Collection, the largest (and best-curated, thanks to the wonderful Julie Herrada) collection of anarchist literature in North America, or to Zingerman’s Deli, the only openly anarchist Jewish deli in America, owned and operated by the visionary philosopher-poet-chef Ari Weinzweig.  It promises to be a mind-altering (if not budget-balancing) trip through some of my favorite places to see some of my favorite people, and I promise to blog it well (if Brian will just remind me to take some damn pictures).

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Constructivist Posters by the Sternberg Brothers

April 23rd, 2012 by Lorne

Colleague John Ptak has recently uploaded to his blog a stunning group of images of Soviet avant-garde posters by the team of Vladimir and Georgii Sternberg.

If you know anything about me, you’ll know immediately upon seeing them how my heart now aches with a lust for acquisition.