Greetings fellow passengers. The Minivan of the Revolution, Official Pace Car of the Great Petit-Bourgeois Liberal Reformation, has just pulled into her driveway, marking a triumphant return to her humecto-fascist* Southern homeland following a ten-day sojourn in the snow-capped and reactionary reaches of Colorado. I know you missed us (all three of you), but fear not! – your captain has not abandoned ship, but has rather returned to you filled with new-found energy and a sense of renascent wonder. Amazing tales of adventure, peril, and deep personal sacrifice await you! Fasten your seat-belts.
Allow me quickly to dispense with my first few days in Denver, which were spent scouting – to remarkably good effect – at the Rocky Mountain Antiquarian Book Fair, where among other treasures I unearthed a collection of 20th-century Czech avant-garde books (courtesy of Acequia Books of Albuquerque; both Acequia’s uber bop-hipster-owner, Gary Wilkie, and these thoroughly remarkable books will be the subject of their own blogposts in the near future). And thanks to Sacramento book maven Jim Kay I also came home with a fistful of legendary rarities: the first three published books by the great Cleveland underground poet D.A. Levy, all written in the space of a month (February, 1963) and each, unbelievably, signed. These pamphlets were originally published in editions of only 100 copies, but Levy is reputed (by his bibliographer) to have destroyed all but about fifteen copies of each. When he committed suicide in 1968, aged just 26, Levy left behind an oeuvre of more than 30 works, most published and distributed by himself using a mimeograph machine and a mailing list comprised of fellow poets, high-school radicals, and assorted Cleveland-area hipsters. The Levy cult has continued to grow in the intervening 40+ years, spawning a cottage industry of reprints and imitations, but Levy material published during his lifetime has remained universally scarce. I’ve never seen a signed example. These will be exciting books to catalog!
But fellow travelers, bear with me: I did not venture here just to spin you tales of Splendid Acquisition, as thrilling as these may be. I have, rather, something more wondrous still to give you: a narrative built on anachronisms — of days spent in the shelter of ideas and their apprehension; buffeted from without, perhaps, by the winds of digital and unfeeling change, but supported from within by a thousand rapturous exhalations; by pillars of human and humane interaction; by love, and by an indefatigable meshwork of conjoined intelligence and shared experience. I can be speaking, of course, of none other than the Colorado Antiquarian Book Seminar, now in its thirty-third year and still going strong, even in lo these latter days of Babylon. If you’ve never heard of this six-day retreat into the wilderness, then I urge you to pay attention. As I’ve written elsewhere, I regard this week each year, as exhausting and unremunerative as it is, as one of the most important things I do. This despite the fact that I’m not entirely sure why I do it — though some of my ideas about that are beginning to come into focus. Read on.
Equal parts summer school, military boot camp, and corporate planning retreat, CABS is a full week of 14-hour days devoted to absolutely nothing other than talk of books. Not abstract talk, though – this is hands-on stuff, and what we strive to impart is everything we know of the art and science of selling books: not just selling them: but selling them well, with honesty, scholarship, and good attention – the way they’re meant to be sold and would be sold in a better world. That books are almost never sold this way these days (vide the typical Amazon listing) is argument enough for the existence of the Seminar, which like a tiny moon-base of Jedi knights does what it can to protect the universe from an Evil Empire of mega-listers, eBay hucksters, print-on-demand ‘specialists’ and careless amateurs. We’re doubtless fighting a losing battle, and it’s likely that no one in the universe knows we’re out here. But most booksellers are hopeless romantics anyway, and given the pseudo-heroic mythology we’ve created for ourselves we probably wouldn’t have it any other way.
Following a keynote speech by the redoubtable Katharine Kyes Leab on Sunday night, the Seminar convened promptly at 8:30 on Monday morning. For my part, I had prepared in advance three hours of lectures to be delivered over the course of the week – an hour each on pricing, scouting, and selling books at book fairs. My colleagues – an eminent assemblage of booksellers, scholars and librarians that included Terry Belanger, Dan Gregory, Dan De Simone, Kevin Johnson, Nina Musinsky, Rob Rulon-Miller, and Steven Smith (all of significantly greater eminence than myself, I should point out) – had each done the same for their own subjects, subjects as diverse as database management and the collation of 17th-century books. But because the nature of the Seminar is discursive, and topics inevitably come and go at random (as topics will in a roomful of intelligent equals) we all found ourselves constantly re-thinking our presentations in order to avoid needless repetition. I was up each morning at 5:30, hastily revising, re-writing, and editing – usually right up to the moment before presentation – and I’m sure most of my colleagues were doing the same. Classes went until 5:15 each day, then more talk at supper and still further presentations in the evenings. Five hours of sleep was the rule. The end result, in the words of one seminarian, was “…a game-changing education for the aspiring bookseller;” another called it “the most amazing and life changing week” of her life (a sentiment echoed generally by attendees every year). The cumulative effect, combining elements of exhaustion, irritation, ennervation, and dissipation….was euphoria. I’m still in its throes today, perhaps excusing my cheesy Victorian diction and this already wordy and overlong post. Soon enough the euphoria will surely dissipate, as euphoria is wont to do, to be replaced by all of its aforementioned constituent parts which are the daily lot of the self-employed; and further to be joined by that general sense of panic and economic uncertainty which seem now to be the specific province of the 21st-century antiquarian bookseller. And once euphoria’s veil’s been lifted I reckon I’ll be left to ask myself: Why do we put ourselves through this? Why, as one seminarian put it to me at the farewell cocktail party, “do we give away, at personal expense, over the course of one week, every secret we’ve learned over our long careers, to people we don’t even know?”
It’s certainly not because of the honorarium, which doesn’t even begin to pay for our time and trouble or for the money we lose by being absent from our businesses for the better part of two weeks, and which most of us donate back to the Faculty Scholarship Fund anyway. Neither is it for the opportunity to buy or sell books: for, though almost universally gifted, most of our students are recent entrants to the world of bookselling, not full-time professionals, and with a few exceptions we can expect no commerce with them in our or their immediate futures. Nor can it be for prestige, because as far as I can tell, no particular prestige, not of the marketable variety at least, attaches to the position. Were it even possible to include something in one’s bookseller resume to convince the world that he is a man of stature, “Faculty Member, Colorado Antiquarian Booksellers’ Seminar” probably wouldn’t be it.
This would be the time for me to say – if I planned to say it – that we do it all out of the goodness of our hearts; out of an altruistic love for any who are willing to love us back. I can assure you that’s not what I was planning to say. I know my booksellers, and I know their many virtues; and I know that among those virtues, altruism ain’t.
The real answer has layers. The outer layers don’t strike me as very interesting – they’re probably the ones you’d expect: there’s vanity, a little; there’s the bookseller’s natural love of hearing his own voice, oft-noted and oft-lampooned; there’s the need for affirmation; there’s the longing for community shared by all who toil in this lonely and generally misunderstood profession. But none of those things would keep any of us coming back for very long, because in the end we’re all businessmen, and as businessmen we know that neither concessions to vanity, nor willing ears, nor friendship, nor external affirmation can be relied upon to pay the rent.
But peel those layers away and you arrive at what I think is a fairly profound, if perhaps somewhat obvious, point (can a point be simultaneously obvious and profound? I think so). It’s just this: as professionals who love and understand (or at least try to understand) what we do, we know that the business of antiquarian bookselling really is in trouble. Faced with an ever-shrinking customer base on the one hand and an ever-expanding (if generally barbaric) vendor base on the other, we who would lavish time, money, and tears on Old Books (and their offspring) won’t have much of a future if we let nature take its course. The larger world wouldn’t notice much if our profession simply ceased to be — at least not right away, it wouldn’t, though it would surely be impoverished in ways we can only guess at in advance — but we would surely notice! We would be – could be, will be – out of a job if (when?) our trade goes the way of the professional sheep-shearer, the cooper, and the wheelwright. There’s been endless talk recently about the pending demise of the physical book. It doesn’t concern me, really — books, especially old ones, are hardy things, built to last. Of much greater concern to me is the future of the bookseller. For even if books continue to exist, as I think they will, it doesn’t follow that they’ll continue to be marketable commodities. In one of those unfathomable Zen paradoxes, verging on tautology, the only thing that can assure us of a lively book trade tomorrow is a lively book trade today. By lively I don’t mean large, and I don’t mean democratic. I mean a trade capable of educating and servicing its potential customers the way that booksellers have educated and serviced their customers for centuries: by sharing their own expert knowledge; by exercising their own taste and judgment, developed over years not weeks or months; by forming personal and long-lasting relationships with the dealer-colleagues, collectors and librarians with whom they do business. A swift current is bearing us in the opposite direction from all these imperatives; we’re not so far from shore that we can’t swim for it yet, but I sense that the moment is not far away where we could easily give up hope and simply let ourselves vanish out of sight, into the depths.
So rather than let that happen we gather each year with thirty to fifty aspirants to the trade and we suggest to them how to be something more than anonymous cogs in the wheels of the electronic widget-merchants. We disconnect them from their bar-code scanners, put our own rare and fragile books in their hands, and teach them to love and experience the physical objects in front of them. Not all of them do, but most leave knowing immeasurably more than when they came. Not all will stay in the business, but many do: 80% of our graduates over the past ten years are still, on some level, involved in the larger world of books. Some are still part-timers — hobbyists, really, but now at least educated hobbyists; some others are librarians or collectors. But a great many have joined the ranks of bona-fide, full-time professional booksellers, and of those many have gone on to achieve eminence and high reputation. That strikes me as a remarkable achievement.
“A game-changing education for aspiring booksellers.” So it is. And so, we hope, the trade will continue. At least for our lifetimes, hopefully for theirs – but we’re no altruists! For now, our immediate concern is us; our successors are our students, and it will be up to them to see this thing through for another generation. I don’t envy their task, but no doubt some among them will turn out to be our betters – they’ll need to be, I suspect, the way things are moving — and we’ll rest easy knowing they’re on the other side of the table.
*For those of you unfamiliar with my theories of humecto-fascism, or weather-based totalitarianism, I urge you to stay tuned for an explanatory post in the near-future.