An Interview with Amy Candiotti, IOBA RBS Scholarship Winner

by Gabe Konrád of Bay Leaf Books

Amy Candiotti is the co-owner of Pistil Books, a Seattle landmark turned online retailer.  Pistil Books Online carries books in all fields, emphasizing scholarly titles, literary fiction, poetry, erotica, art, history, politics, and science.  Amy is a member of the Independent Online Booksellers Association and recently attended the Rare Book School at the University of Virginia and she was nice enough to take some time out to tell us about her experiences.

GK: Can you briefly tell me about yourself and your bookselling business?

Amy: I grew up mostly in Washington state, received a degree in Comparative Literature from the University of Washington in 1987, and one of my first jobs after college was working in a used bookstore. I decided I wanted to open a bookstore of my own, not only because of my love of books, but also because I really wanted the independence and challenges of working for myself.

My partner, Sean Carlson, and I opened our retail bookstore, Pistil Books & News, in 1993 on Capitol Hill, an eclectic urban neighborhood in Seattle. We operated our brick and mortar store for nearly eight years, selling used and new books in all categories with an inventory of around 25,000, as well as periodicals and zines. During this time we also hosted readings, art shows, participated in book fairs, and were known for our support of alternative publications and culture. We started selling books online around 1999.

In 2001 we lost our lease and became an online-only business, Pistil Books Online. We moved our inventory from our storefront into our newly renovated office/warehouse on the ground floor of our 1903 house, also in the Capitol Hill neighborhood. As an online store, we deal almost exclusively in used books with an inventory of around 12,000 and we sell on about ten bookselling sites, including our own Chrislands site, www.pistilbooks.net. We carry books in all categories, mostly non-fiction.

In addition to Sean and myself, we have a staff of two part-time employees: Tim Ridlon (who has worked for Pistil at least 15 years), and Sean’s brother, Troy Carlson, who handles all the packing and shipping.

GK: Why did you choose the name Pistil Books?

We chose the name Pistil Books because we liked the play of the word pistil, a female flower part, versus pistol, a gun. A homophone with two very different meanings. From the sound of the word, it’s unclear which pistil/pistol we are. As a part of a flower, pistil evokes the idea of growing, living, flowering… and in the case of books, flowering knowledge. A slogan for Pistil Books (it’s printed on our bookmarks) is “Seed your head.” We have used flowers as a theme for our business—our retail store had a stained glass sunflower window, as well as a colorful flower mosaic we made on the floor (it’s still there—though our old retail storefront is now a burrito joint). We now have flower mosaics around the exterior door of our office/warehouse, a lovely vintage three-dimensional scientific model of a pistil on a shelf above my desk, and a flower/bee/knowledge theme on our website.

GK: What year did you join the IOBA?

Amy: We joined IOBA in 2006. I was on the membership committee for about a year in 2009, I think.

GK: Many people think they know all the ins and outs of the trade after two decades of selling books, what made you decide to go to the Rare Book School (RBS) after all these years?

Amy: I didn’t even know Rare Book School existed until I heard about the IOBA scholarship on the IOBA discussion list, so it had never occurred to me to go before. On the discussion list a couple of people who had gone before described their positive experiences—I think someone said it was the “graduate school” of book school, with CABS being the undergraduate school. So I was inspired by the IOBA and the scholarship opportunity was a definite incentive to go.

Although I have been in the book trade for two decades, my knowledge and experience is very specific to my own business—which is not rare, and not antiquarian. Bookselling is an idiosyncratic and wide-ranging field with many niches and specialties in which I am unschooled, so to speak.

In fact, the courses offered by the Rare Books School are not about bookselling at all—they’re about the historical, technological, and cultural aspects of the book. A lot of the classes seem to be aimed toward librarians.

GK: Good booksellers never stop learning! The IOBA offers a yearly scholarship to attend the Colorado Antiquarian Book School (CABS), which is primarily geared towards running a bookselling business, along with sessions on printing, bookbinding, etc.  The IOBA also offers a scholarship that can be used for either CABS, the Rare Books School at the University of Virginia, the California Rare Books School, or the London Rare Book School.  How did the IOBA scholarship process work?

Amy: To apply for the IOBA scholarship, I answered a questionnaire which asked basic questions about my bookselling business and then wrote an essay about why I wanted to attend and how this might affect my professional development.

GK: Which RBS sessions did you attend?

Amy: The class I took was The History of the Book, 200-2000, a subject I knew little about and which piqued my intellectual curiosity. I looked at the website for RBS and was inspired by the required reading list for this class, the previous students’ evaluations, and the opportunity for hands-on learning offered by the school.

GK: Eighteen-hundred years of book history is a lot to cover!  How long was the class and what topics did it cover?

Amy: All RBS classes last five days, Monday through Friday, starting at 8 am daily with breakfast in the Pressroom (yes, a room with presses and printing equipment) and ending at 5 pm. Excluding lunches and breaks, there are 30 total classroom hours for the course.

The History of the Book, 200-2000 was a “kaleidoscopic survey” covering the history of the book from the beginning of the codex form to electronic books. Topics covered printing and bookmaking technology from hand written manuscripts through moveable type and mass produced books, as well as the cultural, scholarly, religious impacts of printing and books. Each day students were allowed to see and handle examples of what we were studying from the RBS collection and the UVA Library Special Collections. The first period of the first day, we held facsimiles of cuneiform tablets and papyrus scrolls, and the last period of the last day we saw print-on-demand books and a Kindle, with hundreds of examples of everything else on the days in between: a noble fragment from a Gutenberg Bible, illuminated manuscripts, pages from an Audubon elephant folio, just to name a few. A high point of the class for me was a trip to the Library of Congress, where one of the two teachers of the class, Mark Dimunation, is Chief of the Rare Book and Special Collections Division. Each student was given the opportunity to choose a book they wanted to see from the LOC Rare Book Collection, and I chose Alice in Wonderland. Mark brought out a copy that had John Tenniel’s original pencil illustrations in it.  The class was taught by two instructors, the other being John Buchtel, the Head of Special Collections at Georgetown University. They had a real rapport and besides being extremely knowledgeable, their presentation style was humorous and amazingly entertaining.

GK: Were you able to incorporate what you learned into your business?

Amy: After attending RBS, I feel more knowledgeable about book terminology and have a better understanding of the process a book went through in its creation—this helps me write better book descriptions and also recognize possibly valuable books that I might otherwise have overlooked at a book sale. I left RBS with an extensive list of reference books I can refer to for further information. Also, I made some good contacts in the field. One fellow RBS student who recently graduated with a MLS helped me identify a book of Japanese prints, as that was her specific area of expertise. Another important aspect of attending RBS is that the staff really emphasized the importance we have as stewards of books as physical objects.

GK: Quality booksellers certainly are caretakers.  No matter how many volumes are digitized, the original printed word must be preserved and booksellers are an important link between private and institutional collections.  How was the transition from a brick and mortar to an online-only business?

Amy: The transition from a brick-and-mortar to an online only business went well.  We’ve been online-only for eleven years now, whereas we were a brick-and-mortar for almost eight. I miss the community involvement of a brick-and-mortar—the readings, art shows, meeting new people—and but retail isn’t always fun (though it can be funny; we kept a store journal and many anecdotes were published in our store zine, Pistil Prose, under the heading Retail Hell (which is also available on our website). As an online-only store, I work far less, about half-time. And I can work whatever schedule I want, as well as go on vacation. The kind of inventory we carry has changed to the more obscure and though we are still a general used online bookstore with plenty of inexpensive books, a portion of our stock is more valuable than what we carried as a retail store.

GK: How is business now?  You know, it’s been widely reported that the printed word is dead…

Amy: Business now has its ups and downs. We definitely notice an upturn in sales when classes start each school quarter or semester. The poor economy, the megalisters, and probably electronic books have had a negative impact, but we’re still selling books and more and more from our own website. I don’t believe the printed word is dead. Even if a new book was never printed again, there are millions of already existing books constantly being sold and re-sold and there will always be those who prefer a real, physical book.

GK: And I hope the IOBA has been of help?

Amy: Yes, the IOBA has been of help to my business. I often read the IOBA discussion list and have learned useful information there regarding such topics as shipping, insurance, bookselling websites, technology, and more. I think it’s great to belong to an organization that has such clear high standards and business practices. I feel that my membership in the IOBA is a badge of approval I can show prospective customers.

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