Robert Erwin, Bookseller

I’m probably the only IOBA member who started their book career by destroying books.

As a teenager I’d read the Howard Tunis books and a lot of sports biographies along with some of my mother’s Agatha Christies. In college, and living in San Francisco during the early 60’s, I read Ginsberg, Alan Watts & Kerouac. After college I was drafted and sent to Panama to work at a signal corps tape relay station (I’d told the draft board that I could type 90 words per minute – at least it kept me out of the infantry). My main accomplishment in the US Army was reading all of the Ian Fleming James Bond series and acquiring a taste for rum.

I got into the book business working for a magazine and book wholesaler. They distributed the materials to supermarkets, drug stores, and newsstands in the bay area. My first job was stripping paperback books. Books that didn’t sell had their covers torn off and returned to the publisher for credit with the book itself being sent to the land fill. We were timed and had to strip so many books per hour. I got pretty good at it and had time left over to sort through and throw books I wanted to read into a box under the table (one of the perks of the job).

The manager of the book department was transferred to another branch. The owner had seen me carting out boxes of books every week and he figured that at least I could read so I must be the man for the job. The next 30 years would bore you to tears, so I’m going to skip over that period except to say that I stayed with the same company and we expanded the book business to schools and bookstores and I loved the job.

Then in 1996, the company was gobbled up by the consolidation of business trend that effected so many other business. Our branch was shut down. I was lucky enough to be offered a nice going away package. But now what?

I forgot to mention that I had begun collecting books – mostly mysteries and modern firsts – about 25 years previously. By now my love of books had become a mania and I had married another maniac who collected Edward Gorey and science fiction and we had two little maniacs that read whatever they could get their hands on. Our house was, well you all know what our house looked like.

I knew most all of the bay area antiquarian book dealers and quite a few more from book fairs, shows, and catalogues. Too young to retire, I decided to explore the possibility of opening a used/rare book store. I talked to several local bookstore owners and was referred to several more dealers and corresponded with them through e-mail.

I’ve never seen a profession that is so generous with their advise. I got very good council. “Buy low and sell low.” “Keep the stock moving.” “You’re selling now not collecting.” Now I’ve got to mention here that I must have sounded really arrogant to some of the dealers that I talked to. Most of them had been in the business all of their life. Here I was saying that I had been in the new book business and was a collector and thought that I could waltz in and do what they do. We’ll my first year in business was learning just how wrong I was and how different this business is. And, still the dealers kept giving me good advice. And, I kept learning. And, I’m still learning.

We are starting our fourth year now. Internet (ABE, Bibliofind, BookAvenue, AntiQBooks. Biblio list) and catalogues only. We have a small cheap office and another area for storage. We’ve (here comes the bragging portion of the message) sold books to every state in the union and about 20 or so countries overseas. We’re still specializing in mysteries, books about mysteries, and modern firsts, but offers from local people wanting to sell their collections have turned us into more of a general store than I had planned. We hover at around 3,000 books on- line with boxes stored that we hope to get to someday.

My time is my own. Hunting books and sitting around talking to other dealers are the best times. And, what the hell, I really don’t mind standing in line at the post office. This is a great business!

Bob Erwin

Robert Erwin, Bookseller
6050 Commerce Blvd., Suite 212
Rohnert Park, CA 94928
(707) 584-7045, Fax: (707) 584-7047

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