Archive for May, 2012

Tales of Splendid Acquisition: Rescued From the Burn-Pile

Tuesday, 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

Friday, 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

Thursday, 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

Tuesday, 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).