Member Blogs > ten pound island book companyThen and Now

  • Mon, 13 May 2013 11:32:34    Permalink

    Last Wednesday I gave a talk about the genesis of my new novel The Old Turks Load. People laughed. Were they laughing with me or at me? To decide for yourself, click here, then click again on Greg Gibson.
    The rest of the week was pretty routine. I bought a nice English chart of the Arctic and Pacific (1839) over the phone from another dealer,
    and a copy of Scoresbys Whalemans Adventures, via email, from the widow of the customer to whom Id sold it in the 1990s. (Thats been happening a lot, lately. Its getting to seem as if the ultimate secret to success in this business is outliving your customers.)

    I partnered with a book scout, also by telephone, to purchase and sell (I hope) a whaling log, 

    and took a few standard titles in pretty bindings on consignment from an old antique dealer pal of mine, with whom Id talked at the MARIAB Book Fair

    At the moment Im busy trying to buy a rare book on Arctic whaling, offered to me in an unsolicited email, from a person in Europe who saw my website but whom Ive never met. (Yes, he sends it to me first, then I pay him.)
    I find it interesting that all these transactions were initiated by mail, telephone, Internet, or by conversations at book fairs. No house calls, no people walking in off the street with books to sell, no scouting other bookshops. Almost no personal contact. Indeed, most of my acquisitions these days come via telephone or email from a network of friends among dealers and scouts, my accumulation of customers over the years, and as a result of my consistent (admittedly amateurish) efforts to establish Ten Pound Island Book Company as an Internet presence.
    It hasnt always been that way.
    This morning I found a piece of paper from November 1985, the year before I joined the ABAA. 

    It was a partial record of a two day road trip through Massachusetts and Connecticut, buying and selling books. A trip that, for some reason, I can almost remember. No one called me on the telephone or wrote me a letter. If email existed back then, I sure didnt have it. The business was physical, kinetic, face-to-face. 
    Some time in November, 1985, I drove down the Mass Pike and stopped at Roland Boutwells in Southbridge, Mass. (Southbridge, as you may know, is east of Northbridge.) He was a minister who had a sad, gray, kind of gravity, more like an undertaker than a minister. But he was a sweet fellow, and he frequently got interesting collections of books, which hed sell wholesale to the trade. He had a very complicated discount system based, I think, on the price and scarcity of the book, scaled from 20% to 50% and coded with letters and symbols in each book. There was a card available to dealers on which the symbols were decoded. I could never keep it straight. After a while I realized it didnt matter. If I found a book that interested me, he would price it so I could buy it.
    Then on to Irene Walletts in Gardner, Massachusetts. She was an unusual woman. Heres a sketch I did of her several years later:
    Gardner Massachusetts was a hardscrabble blue-collar town, but once it had prospered as a center of the wooden furniture industry.  Mt. Wachuset, a little south of there, had been a popular tourist destination, and generations ago the wooded countryside in those parts attracted wealthy summer residents. The whole area had been populated by a better class of people; people with an eye for the finer things in life; people, not to put too fine a point on it, with libraries. For years Irene had made her living extracting from attics and closets the books of these long-forgotten residents. In the course of her career shed probably been in every old house in a fifty-mile radius.
    Irene was talkative and large-boned, with orange hair pulled back in a bun and startlingly arched pencil lines where her eyebrows had once been. She and her husband Walt lived in a trailer that was raised up on cinder blocks. A wooden entryway and an el had been added, so that it resembled a deformed ranch house. Shed prettied up her front yard with plastic flamingos and wooden cut-out cows and ducks, and a clever windmill that, when the wind blew, made the little man on it seem to be sawing wood. There were concrete birdbaths on either side of the walk, but no birds ever came. Too scary.
    Beside the house was a windowless cinderblock bunker about the size of a two car garage. It may, in fact, have been a garage once, since it sported a wooden roll-up garage door. For the past thirty years, however, it had been where Walt lugged the books Irene had just bought. Each load would get put atop the last load, and there theyd sit until they got buried by yet another load. By the time I started shopping there, Irenes bunker was a solid mass of books, six or seven feet high, illuminated by three dim light bulbs on the ceiling. The front door opened on a path which meandered through these books to a smaller door in the back corner. The way book scouts like me purchased our wares was to travel down this path, digging out interesting tomes and restacking the uninteresting ones on the other side of the path. The effect was similar to the manner in which a river cut its way through a valley. Over time, there was no part of that book heap the path hadnt scoured. Frequently a fascinating vein would be discovered, producing an island or a new tributary.
    The pile had its hazards, though. One winter Irene nearly died when a poorly braced section of the path caved in around her (books are very slippery in the cold) trapping her arms at her sides. She could feel the books draining the heat from her, and she knew it was just a matter of time before she succumbed. Fortunately, Walt came home from work and rescued her. A few winters after this episode, Irene gave me a piece of the birthday cake shed baked for Walt. I took a bite, put it down, and lost it somewhere among those tens of thousands of books.
    The next April I came upon it again, as perfectly preserved as the body of a frozen mountain climber
    After Irenes I probably ate lunch at the McDonalds just off the rotary there, then headed west on Route 2 to any of several shops in the Berkshires. Then down to courtly Robert Emersons wonderful old church in Connecticut. At each of these stops I might expect to purchase a box or more of art books, Americana, local history, and whatever else seemed sellable, usually spending $100 - $300 per stop. A box of books averaged $50 - $100 at that time.
    The next day (no record of where I slept) found me at Hancock Shaker Village, in Pittsfield, Mass., for a bookfair. I have it in my notes that of 30 dealers advertised, only 19 appeared. I sold a total of $380, probably fresh stock from Roland and Irene, and purchased $240 worth.
    After expenses, I cleared $38.

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