Archive for August, 2011

I Came, I Saw, and I Collated the S*** Out of Some Antiquarian Books

Wednesday, August 31st, 2011 by Jordan

It has been brought to my attention by the power/s at be that I have failed to write a blog entry for…almost three months. The lack in, let’s call it artistic expression, has not just been mentioned once, or twice, but several times. And the most recent time there was talk of revoking my Pandora privileges, so I believe there is no better opportunity than present to tell y’all that SUMMER IS OVER. Labor day is Monday. Jump in the pool, wear white, and drink as many gin and tonics (or mint juleps if you prefer bourbon, as I do) as you can before time runs out.

But, to ease your mind from those evil penetrating thoughts such as orange and gold foliage, pumpkins, and (hold your breath) snow flakes, let me fill you in on a few things I did during the summer drought. Well really, it’s just one thing in particular.  It’s called Rare Book School; everyone’s doing it, and it’s a lot more fun than your grandma’s meatloaf, or heroin.

For those of you who didn’t just read the Washington Post article above, and don’t know what Rare Book School is (since the only people that read this blog are other booksellers and my mom, I’m pretty sure you know what RBS is, but…), it is a school founded by Terry Belanger, now headed by Michael Suarez, intended to provide continuing education for those currently (or aspiring to be) in the library/scholarly/book trade world.

The class in which I chose to enroll, Introduction to the Principles of Descriptive Bibliography, fondly called DesBib, was one of the few courses which assigns homework.  So much homework, in fact, that the Clemons Library is open until 10:00PM nightly for the use of DesBib junkies and DesBib junkies only (see how it’s better than drugs? You can call yourself a junkie without actually being a user!).  To receive the most benefit out of resources and instruction, we were separated into small groups, or cohorts (because really guys, we’re a big deal, who uses the word “groups” anymore?). My cohort consisted of two other members of the book trade, Brian Cassidy, a bookseller in DC and Jeremy Reidel from Books Tell You Why, and our lab instructor, Gerald Cloud who recently hopped coasts to UCLA.  By a miraculous suggestion from Brian (that we skip lunch and all half-hour breaks to work on our homework) we never stayed in Clemons past 7:00PM, and I strongly encourage any and all future DesBib students to follow suit. Charlottesville, though most days the temperature is over 95 degrees at the end of July, has too much to offer to spend your entire day in a nice, cool basement.

I don’t want to go into it again, but I stayed in a dorm on the Lawn, which, regardless of the fact that there is absolutely no A/C and I was woken up regularly from the hours of 1:00 to 4:00AM by the shrieks and laughter of late-night drunken streakers, is not only the cheapest, but best housing RBS could offer. Though my room wasn’t Edgar Allen Poe’s dorm room, it did have a long legacy of students names from the 1800s in plaque-form mounted to the closet door. In addition to the romantic historical connection, I met some fantastic friends with whom I enjoyed dinner and drinks after long collating sessions, I took every opportunity for conversation, and was inspired at every turn by almost every experience (including the one below).

Of course, I have to mention one experience that I am not necessarily proud to say occurred during my week at Rare Books School, but am completely proud to say it did, in fact, occur.  After a considerably steep bar tab on booksellers’ night, my new and dear friend Zoe Mindell and I performed a fantastic rendition of Janis Joplin’s Piece of My Heart during a downtown restaurant’s karaoke night.  I later sang Say it Ain’t So by Weezer with another person that earned the comment, “Wow, I would marry her if she could take care of me financially,” from the drummer of the karaoke band. I don’t exactly think any praise was given based on my vocal talent alone, but I did put a lot of energy and love into my performances… which is really all that matters when you don’t know anyone else around you.

Comparatively, the rest of the summer can’t really hold a candle to my week in Charlottesville, oh except for my grandmother’s (everyone calls her Nannie, you should too) 100th birthday, an earthquake (that happened on Nannie’s 100th birthday), and a hurricane.  All significant in their own right.  Now, don’t forget what I mentioned above. Monday is Labor Day.  And do you know what that means? Oh yes, our annual Labor Day catalog in support of workers everywhere (huh, has the same ring as our May Day catalog…) is due!!  Watch out, it will be on your doorstep sooner than Jesus’s second coming, because remember, that’s scheduled for mid-October.

 

The History of My Left Ear :: First Installment – The Greatest Soul Record You’ve Never Heard

Sunday, August 21st, 2011 by Lorne

 

In the spring of 1986, heavily under the influence of the two Millers – Henry and Roger – I dropped out of the Biology program at Virginia Tech to chase after my sweetie, who had just moved to New Orleans to work in a psychiatric hospital (Lee Ann and I celebrated our 24th wedding anniversary yesterday, vindicating what at the time struck my family and many of my friends as, at best, a dubious decision).  In order to fund that trip, and to lighten my load sufficiently to be able to fit it all into my 1979 Dodge Colt,  I sold the only two things in my possession that had any monetary value at all: my stereo and my record collection. Now that was a dubious decision; but, desperate times call for desperate measures, and I was in desperate need of gas money and a security deposit. So off they went, fifteen hundred or so LPs, representing the fruits of every penny I’d earned since my senior year in high school.  I saved back about fifty records to keep, chosen on the basis of what I thought would be their lasting value. Those fifty records are still with me – along with about a thousand more accumulated in the twenty-five years since that original de-accession – and looking at them now gives me pause. What was I thinking? How could I have let go Double Nickels On The Dime but kept No Guru, No Method, No Teacher? My original 7″ of the Dead Boys’ Sonic Reducer – gone. But — oh Christ — I can’t say it — George Winston? George Winston?… yes: Autumn, Winter, Spring, here to render my seasons comatose forevermore.

Despite a dismaying number of similarly egregious miscalculations, I did manage to hold on to a few winners, and even to accumulate some others over the years. This summer I’ve finally gotten around to digitizing some of those winners – at least the ones that have never been released on CD.  It’s a process that seems destined to take forever and to lead me down many twisting paths of nostalgia and rumination. As this blog seems to be my only outlet for rumination these days, I find myself for better or worse wanting to share. Lucky you.

Today I re-discovered one of the very first albums I bought after moving to New Orleans, and listening to it I was instantly and vividly returned to the afternoon in 1986 when I first heard it, sitting on the futon, sweating, in my one-room apartment in the Lower Garden District. If I wasn’t sucking on a bottle of Dixie Beer at that moment, it wasn’t for lack of desire but lack of funds. When this song came on the radio I knew without a doubt that I was listening to one of the greatest soul recordings ever made. The minute it ended I got in my car, drove up Magazine Street to that great record store whose name I just can’t seem to bring up (now of course long gone) and bought the album. I listened to it again and again. Each time I heard it I was more convinced of its greatness. Since no one – and I mean no one - I know has ever heard it, it seems only fair to finally share it here. But first I’m going to make you sit through some of the back-story:

That spring and summer of 1986 I divided my time between working, writing poetry, following my beloved New York Mets, and listening to the Best Radio Station In The World, WWOZ. I have little to say about the first three – I did learn to cook a mean pizza at that restaurant, but I can’t say I learned much else, other than how not to run a business; those poems are still stuffed in a shoebox somewhere – are they as awful as I remember them?; the Mets have never again matched the combination of charisma, kismet, and achievement that marked their magnificent 1986 season.

But WWOZ: that was an education.  A lot of what I know and love about American music – particularly southern soul and R&B – I learned that summer, listening to the likes of Ernie K-Doe, Earl King and Bobby Mitchell – all R&B legends in their own right – spinning their favorite records and telling stories about the heyday of the New Orleans commercial music scene. Now, I had grown up in what was to say the least a musically eclectic environment.  My father was an amateur scholar of American folk music, particularly of early Jazz, and his record collection – to which I had full access as a kid – exposed me to everything from the earliest Kid Ory and Louis Armstrong recordings to deep Delta blues to Appalachian string band music. By the time I got to New Orleans I thought I knew a lot about what is now called “American roots music” – a phrase I’ve come to dislike – but the DJs of WWOZ would expose me for the rank amateur that I was. Statistically speaking, at least, I hadn’t heard nothing yet.

My favorite OZ dj was a guy who called himself The Duke of Paducah - he was the prototypical New Orleans insider, with a seemingly encyclopedic knowledge of every musician who’d come and gone in the past thirty years. One Saturday afternoon before work (my shift started at 5:00), after the Mets had completed a particularly satisfying three-game sweep of the despised Phillies, I turned on the Duke’s show just in time to hear him say, “…so here’s Mighty Sam, with A Change is Gonna Come.” Cool, I thought. Sam Cooke. I love this record. I’d never thought of him as mighty, exactly, but whatever…

What happened next blew a permanent hole in my mind.

The artist, of course, was not Sam Cooke: it was Mighty Sam McClain, a veteran – by then almost forgotten - New Orleans soul crooner who’d cut a few good sides for Amy Records back in the Sixties, including a cover of Patsy Cline’s “Sweet Dreams” that had managed to climb a little ways up the R&B charts in 1966. But Sam had never followed up on that early success; he’d more or less dropped out of sight by the late sixties – turns out he was homeless for much of the next fifteen years, drifting in and out of janitorial jobs, a victim of alcoholism. He’d never been forgotten by the New Orleans music community, though, and it was reputedly at the behest of one of the Neville Brothers that he reutrned to the studio in 1984. The result was Your Perfect Companion, Sam’s first LP and first commercial recording in over fifteen years. It included five songs, four of which were more or less forgettable in the way that a lot of late New Orleans R&B is forgettable. But the second track on Side Two, Sam’s version of A Change Is Gonna Come, is unquestionably one of the flat-out greatest soul recordings of all time. Sam’s huge, gut-wrenching delivery sails over a growling Hammond B-3 (I’d kill to know who the session men were on this record!), and he turns Cooke’s civil rights anthem into a personal exorcism of fifteen years of deferred dreams and pent-up rage. Sam has re-recorded the song on a number of occasions, including a live version in 1999, but none have come close to the raw power of that first take.

Your Perfect Companion was released on Carlo Ditta’s tiny Orleans Records label, and as far as I know it’s long out of print. I don’t know if it was ever re-released on CD; in any case the vinyl version has become something of a rarity, at least outside of New Orleans. Mighty Sam has recorded about half a dozen albums since then, and they all have at least a couple of gems that make the albums worth owning – I suggest you go find and buy them in about six minutes from now. But for the moment stick with me and give this track a listen. If you like it, share it with as many friends as you have – they’ll thank you for it.

For twenty-five years I’ve preached the beauty of this record everywhere I go. Now, thanks to the internet, I can happily just shut up and let Mighty Sam preach it to you directly: A Change Is Gonna Come

 

“A GAME-CHANGING EDUCATION FOR ASPIRING BOOKSELLERS”

Sunday, August 14th, 2011 by Lorne

 

 

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.

 

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*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.

 

 

 

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FLY UNITED – I THINK WE HIT A DUCK

Thursday, August 4th, 2011 by Lorne

Thanks to the good offices of United Airlines, Captain Anonymous, and my darling wife (who had the foresight to pay the extra $39 to buy me some extra leg room) I’m now safe and warm in Denver (thanks, Capt. Anonymous) and blissfully free of my usual post-flight sciatica (thanks, Sweetie!). 

Unfortunately, it looks like the Dow Jones Industrial Average took the wrong  flight this morning.  In precisely the amount of time it took me to fly from D.C. to Denver, the world’s net worth decreased by about a trillion dollars. I’d like to congratulate the Tea Party caucus of the House of Representatives for what now must be viewed as a total victory: not only did they succeed in extorting insane budget-cutting concessions out of the White House on the road to raising the debt ceiling — concessions made by Obama in an apparently sincere attempt to stave off economic armageddon — but they managed to do it in such a way that they achieved their fondly hoped-for economic armageddon anyway.  Of course, we can’t give them all the credit — one reason we hire a President in the first place is to see these things coming.  But I suspect Mr. Obama and his minders are too focused at the moment on their legacy (read: re-election 2012) to take much notice of the barbarians at the gate.  Much as I wish it wasn’t so, I fear the time has come to admit that the veil of faith which kept me believing in Mr. Obama until now has been pierced. So to all those Hillary Clinton supporters from three years ago who tell me I should have seen this coming, I offer my mea culpa. Maybe Obama is, after all, all the things you warned us he would be: too callow; too nice; too cerebral; too….weak.

Just like me, I should say; but then it’s a job I would never have aspired to. 

In any case the crazies have been let loose, and there doesn’t appear to be anyone who can stop them. They’ve been lighting the way for us on the Shining Path for a good year now; this afternoon the road to apocalypse is even better illuminated than it was when I boarded my plane this morning.  And somewhere, way off in the distance, where the road peters out in the overgrown Shrubbery of the 2012 election – I’m sure I can see the dim corona of an A-Bomb going off.  The “A” stands for “Assholes,” and people, I’m warning you, get ready: because when the bomb goes off, we’ll be neck deep in them.

But enough of all this: tonight is Dinner With Famous Booksellers* at the Saltgrass Steak House, and assholes will be the least of my worries. Rob Rulon-Miller will be there, and Jeff & Jennifer Marks; my pal Kevin Johnson, and who knows who else – in any case, not assholes, but fine people all. Maybe between us we can conspire a way to soak up a bit of whatever little disposable income lingers in the suburbs of Denver. And when the conversation turns to politics, as it inevitably will, I’ll just have another Makers Mark on the rocks. Because I don’t have opinions on these sorts of things. Because opinions are like assholes: everybody’s got one, and they just aren’t any good for business.

 *Photos to come, if I remember to take them.

Ben Yomen at the Labadie

Monday, August 1st, 2011 by Lorne

 

In a 1943 Federated Press survey, Ben Yomen was voted “the most popular cartoonist in the labor press today.” Following in the tradition of Art Young, Robert Minor, and William Gropper, Yomen’s cartoons skillfully and wittily documented the labor struggles of the pre-war period. But despite achieving great popularity during his career, few other than afficionados of comic art remember him today.  Yomen just passed away this past January at the age of 100, and The Labadie Collection at the University of Michigan, which acquired his archives, is staging an exhibition of his work starting today and running through October 2nd. Congratulations to Julie Herrada and the Labadie staff for acquiring, conceiving and assembling a great exhibit – sure hope I can make it to Ann Arbor before the show comes down!