Archive for the ‘Tales of Splendid Acquisition’ Category

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!

 

 

 

An Exciting Country Auction

Friday, December 2nd, 2011 by Ashley

Yesterday, Lorne took me to my first country auction. It was great! I have a feeling auctions are going to be one of my new favorite things to do. When I was young, I was frequently taken to antique malls and consignment shops by my mom; we would spend hours slowly sifting through the items and hunting for something unique. I remember my mom leaning over to me whispering tips and good bargaining techniques; “At antique malls the cheaper items are always in the back” “You must try to bargain. Never accept the stated price” (This one I’m stilling trying to get the hang of) and lastly “when shops mix new collectibles with antiques… don’t bother going in. Only go to true antique stores.” Whenever I am out shopping for new treasures today, I still follow her advice and when I’m shopping with friends, I lean over and share my mom’s advice to them. While shopping with mom, I was constantly learning new things such as the names for antique nautical bits and kitchen gadgets, soaking it all up like a sponge.

This is perhaps partly where my love of antiquarian books comes from; the hunt for a good book amongst a dozen bad and the desire to learn new tidbits of information.

Lorne and I arrived a half an hour before the auction to register. Already the place was full of people mingling about, scouting for items to bid on. Lorne and I made one final sweep of the selections, finalizing what items we were going to bid on and what our price limits were. As I walked around the room, I noticed one determined woman camped out with a cooler filled with food and a cushion for her chair; she was ready to stake out the whole day. I also happened to notice that I was the youngest one in the room by far…this seems to be happening to me a lot lately.

I chose to bid on a set of copper canisters, needing them for my new apartment; and a particularly enchanting item for my mother whose true nature will not be disclosed in this blog since she might read it. Lorne decided to bid on two pieces of artwork; a beautiful etching entitled “Le montage du Dragon sur le Beffroi de Gand” by De Bruycker and a wood print by Jean MacKay.

Headley, the auctioneer, had a melodious voice and rhythm. Lorne and I took pleasure in guessing how much an item would go for before it was bid on.

The lovely copper canisters I wanted sadly surpassed my top bid and went to someone else. But the gift for my mom was a success. The wood print was also won.

As it came time to bid on the most desirable item for us, the etching, Lorne instructed me to bid. As it started, I waited to bid until someone else had placed a bid on the item first as instructed by Lorne and then the bidding was off… 150…nod…160…nod…200… nod…250… nod. I was nodding my head so frequently I felt slightly silly. But all the while my pace was racing and I was nervous and excited all at once. At last, we won the item for a great price! We slightly suspected that we got the etching at such a price because no one wanted to outbid a “young and innocent” bidder such as I. Being the youngest one in the room does have many benefits. No one suspects that you may just be knowledgeable, leading them to be easily charmed and fooled. Antiquarian book dealers beware.

Here is an image of the etching we purchased.  It is a lovely piece of art by Jules De Bruycker entitled Le Montage du Dragon sur le Beffroi de Gand. It is definitely something I would like to own.


Jules de Bruycker (1870-1945) was one of the great Flemish etchers at the turn of the 20th century. Known for his architectural and socialist themes, De Bruycker drew inspiration from open air markets, theaters and grand buildings.

In 1913, De Bruycker’s home town of Ghent renovated the Ghent Belfry in preparation for the World’s Fair. Cast in the ominous shadow of the belfry, the workers in the foreground are straining to hoist a fierce bronze dragon to the top of the towering belfry. This foreboding and incredibly detailed scene captures Belgium and the rest of Europe on the cusp of WWI and De Bruycker’s subsequent flight to London.

Introducing the latest acquisition at Lorne Bair Rare Books

Monday, November 21st, 2011 by Lorne

Introducing the newest member (and perhaps one of the youngest at 22) to the Antiquarian Book World…Me, Ashley Loga or as my better half likes to be called, Daphne.

I’m replacing the infamous Jordan as Lorne’s assistant.  Some of you may know me already from the Colorado Antiquarian Book Seminar but I’m sure most of you don’t.  I met Lorne at the seminar where he was one of the faculty members.   I have known I wanted a career in the book business since I was sixteen and have been slowly working my way towards this goal for the past few years or in the case of the past few weeks, skyrocketing towards it.

In August, I attended the Colorado Antiquarian Book Seminar.  I went to the seminar thinking I would learn how to run a used bookstore and sell online.  You see up until the seminar I had only ever wanted to own a bookstore and café; the antiquarian book trade was a complete mystery to me.  Learning about the antiquarian book trade, tossed my world upside down.  Everything about it sounded amazing and exciting to me.  I like to imagine one of those comic strip moments with a little light bulb clicking on above my head.  My dreams of owning a used bookstore and café were quickly replaced by the antiquarian book trade.  After being wrapped up in a whirlwind of an auction for a dinner with the faculty of the seminar, an auction I wasn’t even planning on bidding in, Lorne offered me a job.  I jumped at the chance.

Move from Jackson, MS to Winchester, VA over 14 hours away… no problem.  Move for the 3rd time in less than 6 months…I got this.  So here I am in Winchester, VA.  For the past two weeks, the wonderful Jordan has been training me in all the many things she does and I know I have some big shoes to fill.   I still have much to learn but I’m definitely excited.  I know this is the right job for me.  And since it is close to Thanksgiving, it is pretty obvious to me that I have much to be thankful for, particularly Lorne for seeing something in me that would cause him to hire me after only knowing me for a few days.  So many thanks  to him and everyone else that has helped me.

Let’s shift this minivan into gear and head out ?

- Ashley (Daphne)

 

The British Have Invaded, And They’ve Got Our Kids!

Thursday, October 13th, 2011 by Lorne

It’s been a great couple of weeks here at Lorne Bair Rare Books – Catalog 13 is more than 60% sold in just over a week; Ashley Loga (about whom more soon) came, saw, and conquered our hearts; Jordan found herself an apartment in Manhattan; and Ernesto Mango Smoothie, who’s been looking a little undernourished lately, ate a cricket. Or most of a cricket, anyway.

But there’s an old adage in the book biz that you’re only as good as your next book, and truth be told it’s been a little while since we’ve been able to spin a Tale of Splendid Acquisition that made our hearts go pitter-patter. But lo and behold, in an unsolicited box of pamphlets received this morning from one of our long-term suppliers, we found this:

 

 

Now, for those of you unfamiliar with David A. Noebel’s theories of Commie Rock-n-Roll Mind Control, here’s a sample:  “…The destructive music of the Beatles merely reinforces the excitatory reflex of the youth to the point where it crosses the built-in inhibitory reflex. This in turn weakens the nervous system to a state where the youth actually suffers a case of artificial neurosis. And the frightening, even fatal, aspect of this mental breakdown process is the fact that these teenagers, in this excitatory, hypnotic state, can be told to do anything – and they will…  Since our teenagers under Beatlemania will actually riot, it is imperative to understand the basic underlying philosophy of the Beatles. Are they susceptible to the enemies of our republic? Are they religiously capable of wreaking havoc for ‘social’ reasons?…the beatnik crowd, represented by the Beatles, is the communist crowd. The truth of the matter is that many of the beatniks on our college campuses are communists firmly entrenched in atheistic literature and moral degeneration working for ‘social revolution.”

I swear to whichever god you worship, we’re not making this shit up. Noebel goes on to describe the “lewd, disgusting, revolting” antics at several different Beatles concerts, and also to expose the hidden communist messages contained in the children’s records produced by the Children’s Record Guild — aimed at 2 to 5 year olds, with titles such as “The Little Puppet” and “Tom’s Hiccups” — all of which apparently contained “a certain power of suggestion and musical arrangements designed to be frustrating and hypnotic [as well as] such things in the background as a ticking clock, a metronome and properly placed wind sounds – all elements used in the process of hypnotism.”

I would point out that at the time he wrote these words, the author was only 27 years old, giving the decided lie to the hippie dictum “Never trust anyone under thirty.” And I’m hapy to say that, having gotten such an early start in reactionary religio-political discourse,  Mr. Noebel is still among us and still plying his trade! He’s now the director of Summit Ministries, an anti-secularist training school (don’t we call those Madrassas?) in Manitou Springs, Colorado, where he’s presumably happily engaged in churning out fresh crops of right-wing nut job conspiracists. Lest you fear that Mr. Noebel’s theories are insufficiently grounded on a sound intellectual foundation, let us set your minds at rest — he does hold anHonorary Doctorate from American Christian College in Tulsa.

So, are we making this shit up? Well, gentle reader, there’s just one way to find out – buy your copy today!

 

 

The vocabulary of the Worker is MUCH different from that of any old Employee.

Wednesday, October 5th, 2011 by Jordan

It is a rare occasion when I pick a book up off the shelves here and laugh out loud upon reading the first paragraph.  And on an occasion such as the aforementioned, like, say, when I find a copy of Eli Jacobson’s English for Workers tucked among a large group of pamphlets, it would be cruel not to catalog it and share it with our readers (I think we’re up to five now?).

Here is that delightful first paragraph:

I cannot speak English. I cannot read English well. The workers in the shop speak English. I cannot talk to them. I do not understand them. I have to go to school to learn English.

A few paragraphs later, and the chapter lesson ends with the sentence, “I must know English to do good work in the union.”  The entire text is laced with political propaganda, with a whole chapter devoted to the “traitors of the working class,” scabs. My favorite part thus far (because I haven’t read the entire text yet), however, is the beginning of Exercise B of Lesson X, “Classes and the Constitution, uses of the numerical adjective, possessive of nouns.

What color are these workers? One is black and the other is white.

Is one of the workers black? Yes, he is black, but both are workers.

… Have you a prejudice against a black worker and not against a white worker? No, I have no prejudice against any worker.

Who has prejudices? The capitalists and the middle-class have prejudices.

I don’t want to give away any secrets, but I have a feeling that some of the people featured in our next catalog (look out for it in November!) should have read this book as a child.

Until next time!
J

 

“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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