And So It Begins

With this post I conclude the first day of a new era at Lorne Bair Rare Books. Having said good-bye over the weekend to my treasured colleague of two years, Jordan de Butts, I now give welcome to Ashley Loga, a young person who in addition to having already demonstrated a great capacity for charm, wit, and good humor, appears to be truly possessed of a trait I find to be almost universal among great booksellers: the desire to know everything. She and I talked about that today, and about much else, too – about how one should talk to good customers (politely) versus bad customers (too politely) versus telemarketers (one obscenity or two?). We talked about D.T. Suzuki’s concept of “Beginner’s Mind,” and how it is best to approach every new task with no expectation of success or failure – but with our minds open to the possibilities of the task and to the delights inherent in discovering the path to its mastery. We talked about why some booksellers charge arbitrarily high prices for books they haven’t even bothered to describe, while others lavish hours on cataloguing a forty-dollar pamphlet. And we talked about why what we do is important, even though the rewards are modest and most people have no understanding of our work. Despite all this talk a remarkable amount of work got done. I’m sure I droned on a bit — it’s my nature. But if I bored her, Ashley was a good sport about it. Her last words, as she was packing to leave, were (if I heard her right) “I’m going to love this job.” I agree. She is going to love this job, and I have a feeling it’s going to love her back.

But all this talk put me in a ruminative mood. I spent most of the evening nursing a tumbler (well, okay, two tumblers) of bourbon, wondering a little about the wisdom of tempting a bright, ambitious twenty-something into the rare book business at a time when so many seasoned booksellers wonder whether the trade will even sustain us through our lifetimes. Wondering whether, confronted twenty years ago with what I know now about the book business, I would have taken the same headlong leap. And wondering, frankly, having just turned fifty — the point of no return, I think, in my mind if not most people’s — whether I could have done better for myself by sticking to the rules and doing what was expected of me: a PhD, a teaching career, the books I never wrote…

Yeah, well, you know. Maybe. Maybe not. There’s the tumbler half-empty answer: the jig is up, run away and don’t look back; you should’ve listened to your father – too late now, dumbass! – and how’d you get to be fifty, for chrissake? And there’s the tumbler half-full answer (which, come to think of it, sounds like a good idea…but just a half…): follow your dreams, and the rest will follow; the book trade might be in trouble, but without an infusion of young, talented and energetic booksellers it will surely fail; you love what you do and you would hate that other life–haven’t you learned anything in fifty years? And so goes the conversation, ad infinitum, with the two sides trading places every other day or so. I suspect it’s the same for many of my colleagues. We’re not so much contrarians as we are conflictarians, our better and worser instincts in constant war with one another while we look on, trying to figure which is which before choosing sides.

In the end, everyone I know who does this job well does it because they would be less happy doing anything else. Those for whom this isn’t true usually turn out to be no more than casual visitors to the shores of Bibliopoly – there are an infinite number of better, more predictable and more efficient ways to make a living than selling rare books, and those whose heart isn’t really in it soon find this out and move on. Perhaps not coincidentally, most of the booksellers I know share a somewhat melancholic disposition, so that the notion of a “less happy” bookseller is a melancholy notion indeed, and it might perhaps be fair to say that the trade is the only thing keeping some folks from suicide. You may not take comfort in such a notion, but I do: I like booksellers, almost all of them, and anything that keeps them around awhile seems good to me.

If I have any regret about my choice of profession, it’s that I waited so long to begin: I didn’t start selling books in earnest until I was almost forty years old. In the interim I’ve become a pretty good bookman, albeit in a very small way, in an artificially-delimited universe of my own devising (I was unable, as it turns out, to know everything; so I settled for knowing anything.). But just think if I’d gotten started when I was twenty-two! I’d be among the grand old men of the book business by now – hard to imagine that I wouldn’t be at least a little bit better at it, with an eighteen-year head start. But alas: when I was twenty-two I would have had nothing but a contemptuous lip-curl for anyone who said he “collected” books. I suppose I’d heard of something called a “first edition,” but I would no sooner have been caught dead looking for one than I would attending a Hall & Oates concert. Oh, I was a wild young thing, all right. It was all about the text, dude. Never mind the paper. And yet…

And yet, here I am. Fifty years old, irredeemably a bookseller, and more happy than if I’d…if I’d what? Well, than if I’d just about anything, I suppose. I’ll put it this way – if I were to win the lottery tomorrow, the only thing that would change would be the quality of my inventory. I just can’t imagine doing anything else. Even in those moments of blankest regret, when all the bills come due at once and my stock looks like it could have been chosen at random by a blind, crack-addicted three-year-old; when the office hasn’t been cleaned in a month and the coffee jitters set in because I forgot to eat my breakfast which is still sitting cold on the kitchen counter six hours later; when the phone rings and it’s some flea-market guy asking to “pick my brain” about a “real old book” he found buried in cowshit in his granddaddy’s barn; even when I get home after a house buy and realize that every book I just overpaid for smells irretrievably of cat piss…even then, I can only imagine one way forward: more books. And then, more books after that and, for dessert, more books. More books. More books. More books.

All of which is to say: welcome to the book biz, Ashley Loga. You will love this job.





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