Archive for the ‘Peripatesis’ Category

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

Tuesday, 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 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:




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?).






Tuesday, 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.


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!




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.




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).










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.





*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.







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.

I Dunno, This Just Seems Like A Good Time To Up & Fly To Colorado

Saturday, July 30th, 2011 by Lorne




Virginia, my home state, has so much going for it. From its smug provincialism; its abiding loyalty to the traditions of the past (the Heart of the Confederacy, I bid you remember); its staunch legislative adherence to such Christian values as the Death Penalty, Right-to-Work, Environmental Deregulation, and Regressive Taxes …oh, and let’s not forget Eric Cantor … there’s almost nothing not to like about The Old Dominion. Except the heat. In the summer, the heat is suffocating.

So I’m happy to say that I’ll be escaping for ten days, starting this coming Thursday, for my annual teaching gig at the Colorado Antiquarian Book Seminar in Colorado Springs, where the average daytime temperature is predicted to be in the mid-80s and the humidity somewhere down around the who cares zone. Never mind that Colorado Springs is ranked as the sixth most conservative city in America (after such cultural meccas as Provo, Utah and Lubbock, Texas).  I’m not going there to soak up the local culture. In fact, in our little conference-room enclave at lovely Colorado College, I doubt we’ll have time to discuss politics, debt ceilings, teabaggers, or any of the rest of it; and as for the weather, though we might have a few seconds to remark on its loveliness during our five-minute break periods, we’ll mostly be unaware that it’s even going on. The one thing on everyone’s mind next week will be books: how to find, buy, describe, catalog, and sell them, soup to nuts. And when I say “on our minds,” I mean on our minds, sun-up to sun-down for five straight, full days. For the students, many (but not all) of whom are new to bookselling, it will likely be the most valuable long-term  investment of their careers (one I wish to hell I’d made sixteen years ago!). For the faculty, it will be as intense a week as we experience during the year, easily as exhausting (and as rewarding, though the rewards be far less tangible) as the New York Book Fair. I’m humbled and proud to be part of that faculty, and I count this as one of the most important thing I do in life, period.

That said: Lord, it’s good to get out of Virginia in July!

To my friends on the faculty and to our 50+ registered seminarians – we’re just about a week away, and I just can’t wait to see you all!

The Ann Arbor Book Fair – This Sunday From 11 to 5

Wednesday, May 18th, 2011 by Lorne

The Ann Arbor Antiquarian Book Fair will return to the Ballroom of the Michigan Union at 530 S. State Street in Ann Arbor on Sunday, May 22, 2011, from 11am to 5pm.

For the past five or so years, I’ve made the annual trek to this smallish (38 dealers have signed up as of this writing) but always fun and interesting book fair. I never make much money there, but I get to hang out with some of my favorite booksellers on the planet, like Garrett Scott, Dennis and Dennis from First Folio, and Aimee England, a tireless book-and-ephemera-hunter whose pedigree as a dealer of social movement material is even older than mine (alas, Aimee has no website, but here’s a link to an article she wrote about the AABF way back in 2003!).  And, if I’m lucky, I’ll get to see one of my favorite librarians on the planet – the amazing Julie Herrada, curator of the Labadie Collection at the UM Special Collections Library – the largest collection of Anarchist literature in America! Best of all I get to stay with my old buddy Lisa, who edits obscure math journals and whose house is full of shy and wonderful animals and who makes me coffee for my ridiculously early wake-up time on the morning of the fair (don’t you, Lisa? Umm, Lisa…?).

To make it all even more worthwhile, I get to drive all the way across Ohio in the Minivan of the Revolution, through the green and rolling parts as well as the brown and rusty parts. I don’t suppose everyone would consider this a treat, but Ohio has always fascinated me, especially the old caving-in relics of steel towns – it’s like touring the prehistoric home of a race of long-extinct industrial dinosaurs…call it The Land That Capitalism Forgot. Don’t know if I’ll stop to shop for books along the way this time – I’m in kind of a hurry to get back and get our next catalog out – but I’ll enjoy the sights anyway, and I’m thinking I’d like to detour a bit and drive along old Rte. 2 from Cleveland to Toledo, which will take me along Lake Erie through such charmingly down-on-their-heels factory ghost-towns as Lorain and Sandusky. If I do I’ll try to take some pictures along the way and share them next week.

If you’re in the area, why not join us? Admission is only $5, and your entry fee goes to benefit the William Clements Library at the University of Michigan – surely a good cause, because I doubt they’re gonna get much out of that self-serving gas-bag Rick Snyder this year!