Ain’t No Gold In Them There Hills – Book Buying in Appalachia

Spring 2004 (Vol V, No. 1) Table of Contents

Rome wasn’t built in a day, and neither were the seemingly endless miles of perfectly straight stone walls which line the fields and places in the woods where fields once were. Having spent a week of hard labor rebuilding a not too long section of a collapsed one, I have first hand experience of the work involved, to say nothing of what it must have been like to bring all the stones to the site. Some of the descendents of the pioneers who built the originals are now selling them off for a quick ten bucks a pallet, indifferent to the fact that they fetch between $250 to $350 on the suburban frontiers of New Jersey and Long Island, a fitting metaphor for the fate of books now that the Internet has opened the frontiers of the trade to all comers. Everyone who has a computer, or knows someone who does, seems to be trying their hand at it; everyone who has been in the business for more than a couple of years is certainly aware of the affect on the selling side. The point of this article is to give a glimpse into the current buying experience in this corner of the world.

Most people, or at least those who remember when domestic poverty was a national concern (rather than a personal reality for those who went into the book business), probably associate Appalachia with places like Kentucky and West Virginia, but like the trail, it stretches from Maine to Georgia, and apart from some pockets of prosperity, the poverty is still there, even if the media is not. Here in northern Pennsylvania, the coal mines have long since been abandoned, and the few remaining family farms often do not generate enough income to even make the operating expenses. While there are some decent paying jobs, especially if you know someone to get you one with the government or in the public schools, such a rare event as the opening of a warehouse brings out long lines of people hoping to get something that pays a dollar or two above minimum wage. Even back in the good old days, workers in the now vanished iron industry made $12 a month, coal miners the equivalent in script from the company store, and farmers what they could. While the $2 prices we see in the tipped in publisher’s catalogues in some 19th century books may seem cheap, they were actually a small fortune for the working class. Thus, besides a Bible, some religious tracts, possibly a few children’s titles and purloined textbooks, most households had rather sparse libraries, assuming the occupants could read. The more prosperous could enjoy the luxury of acid paper reprints, and for those fortunate enough to live in those nice 15+ room Victorians, a decent assortment of more respectable bindings and titles could perchance be found. A few small colleges sprang up which, along with some vacation homes and retirees from New York and Philadelphia, and the advent of book clubs and chain stores, all added a bit to the biblio-Mulligan stew. Death and fortune level us all; one way or another books drifted around on the tides of time, and eventually wound up in such venues as rummage, library and yard sales, flea markets, auctions, etc.

A lifelong book nut, even in the days before we moved up here in 1989, I always made it a point to browse through whatever local sales I learned about when in the area to go canoeing or camping. Prices were low, the quantity high, the selection decent enough and people quite happy to get rid of them. Once in a while a gem, more of a garnet such as a Civil War regimental history, rather than a ruby, such as one signed by Grant or Lee, would turn up but again, considering the demographics, not much more could be expected. Not to complain; for a few dollars I had a few boxes of books and maybe a bag of apples thrown in as a thank you from the seller.

After a series of misfortunes and follies, I decided to commit perhaps the greatest one and go into “professional” bookselling. The caprices of the gods being what they are, the timing at least was right, since it was just at the dawn of online selling, that now fabled Golden Age when a Stephen King could bring $10 but, foreseeing the coming Age of Iron, I went on a buying rampage, coming back with literal truck loads (full bed Ford pick-up with rails, anyway), which, even after ruthless sorting of those I had to buy en masse, still yielded more inventory than I will live to process.

I also made the acquaintance of most of the few other dealers in the area. With one or two exceptions, they were friendly and helpful. Thus, if say at an auction, one had a particular interest in a certain lot, a de facto, unspoken protocol of not spitefully running up the price was observed; at library sales there would sometimes be a show and tell before checking out, and if you spotted a missing volume to a set or something you had a customer lined up for, all you had to do was ask, and why not? There was usually more than enough to go around, and it happened often enough that there would not even be any other dealers present.

Sic transit gloria mundi, and we might add, libri, and thus the sands of that time began running out with the last years of the millennium. The personal computer, the internet and the word that one could sell just about anything online spread. I first noticed the effects of this at auctions. In the ante-eBayian (pardon the crude neologism) world, antique dealers rarely, if ever bid on books, but now if any saw a bookseller bidding, they jumped in; even boxes of junk were being seriously bid on, and treasures such as falling apart McLaughlins would sometimes go for more than the pots of gold the leprechauns in the stories were guarding. More and more people climbed aboard, and going to auctions became more an exercise in seeing what prices garbage would go for than serious buying venues. Not that there was much worth buying after a while. Whether people were no longer consigning their more promising looking books, or they were being cherry picked beforehand, it seemed a bit odd that in the midst of dozens of boxes full of Horatio Alger reprints, Yearbooks of Agriculture and the rest from an advertised “huge estate sale” there was rarely a single book that would have even paid for the gas, let alone time wasted in going there, whereas in the past say a Cram’s Atlas, a few decent first editions and the usual nuggets would have been mixed in with the debris.

Two examples (skip ahead, fair reader, if bored):

A box of six books, the bait in which was an Arctic travel that looked like it had been recovered from a melting glacier and was missing a map, was bid up to $45 by a competing trio of eBay barons. How the winning member of the Unholy Trinity described it or what he got for it I never found out, but intact very good (or so the descriptions claimed) copies started at $15 on Addall and Bookfinder

An estate auction that was billed as having “1000s and 1000s of books”, which was true, except they had almost certainly been skimmed, nevertheless had three leather bounds that somehow made it past the censor librorum, the only one of which that was possibly sellable being an 1820s Webster’s Speller. While there was no indication of the edition, a look at the testimonial pages featuring various, and obviously (to anyone with a rudimentary knowledge of history) long dead luminaries, made it clear it was far from the first, even if one did not know the date of its debut, far enough to make it worth maybe $15 to $45 retail, and perhaps $5 to $10 at auction. It went to an antique dealer who dabbles in books for, if I recall, $125.

Had it not been for some bad experiences with things I consigned mysteriously vanishing, I would no longer have to bother selling online; my donation box of Grosset & Dunlap Zane Greys alone would make my fortune.

To jump into flea markets, they are now mostly full of literal garbage, i.e., boxes of books taken out of the trash on town clean-up days (annual or biannual occasions when people may legally dispose of broken appliances, tires, 20 year old condensed books and other treasures), the more figurative kind, such as romances and 1980s bestsellers, or, what the vendor, after watching “Antiques Roadshow” KNOWS are RARE BOOKS. Rather than belabor this, two anecdotes will suffice to manifest the Zeitgeist:

Seeing me going through some books on his table, the seller took one that had been sitting by itself in the center, handed it to me, and asked, “How much do you think this is worth?” It was a moldy, falling apart Authorized Edition of “Roughing It”. He took it back, opened it to the appropriate page, and proclaimed, “See! It’s signed by Mark Twain!” While honesty is a virtue, discretion should accompany it; I naively said, “It’s a facsimile; it’s worth a quarter or so.” While not particularly creative, the quantity, vehemence and volume of the profanity with which he replied took me aback and, worse yet, he came out from behind his table. Discretion should also accompany valor; I backed away, and thankfully no shots were fired.

At the end of another flea market, I saw a table full of old looking books the dealer was beginning to pack away. Unsolicited, he said, “I won’t be bringing this s— with me anymore. $2 each and I couldn’t sell a f—— thing! The f—— old lady says she can sell them with the f—— computer; they’re worth a lot of money she says and I’m f—— crazy to be selling them here.” Unless the price of scrap paper skyrocketed, I didn’t see his fortune in the making. It was all the usual late 19th and early 20th century reprints, forgotten bestsellers, scribbled to oblivion textbooks, etc. The only thing that looked even remotely promising, and even more remotely sellable, was a fair memoirs of Lady So-and-so. Since I had bought nothing book-wise that day, an increasingly common occurrence, and felt it would be worth a skim through for some cheap entertainment before going into the donation box, I asked him how much he wanted. “I better let the old lady handle this.” The “old lady” materialized. She might have been in her 40s, but the cigarette wedged into the gap left by missing teeth and presumed other such peccadilloes probably resulted in the descriptive adjective. She grabbed the book out of my hands, opened it at random in a few spots, thus adding to the cracks, and said, “This book is real old!” It was copyright 1915. “$100!” I foolishly replied, “I thought he was selling them for $2.” “$2! The best I can do is $10! This book is real valuable!” Considering that 50 cents would have been more apropos, I passed. She threw it at the gentleman, “What the f— did I tell you! I’ll f—— sell all these f—— books on the computer and make some real f—— money!”

Assuming the astute reader gets the point, I will move on to library sales. While more the Ship of Fools than the Good Ship Lollipop, in times past the passengers at least recognized each other as fellow sufferers from the gentle madness of bookselling, and thus displayed at least courtesy, often compassion, and never (well, hardly ever) the cannibalism which seems to be more the case now that we are on board the Raft of the Medusa.

As mentioned above, this deep pocket of poverty was once a coal mining area, and as an unheeded sign to those coming here certain they will capture an Audubon double elephant lurking in the dollar book jungle, most of the highways leading in are lined with culm banks; these are mountains of mine waste consisting of dirt and rock in which are bits of coal that, even during the good old days when wages and working conditions were such as would appall the most rapacious Third World sweatshop operator, was simply not worth the time and trouble to recover. Both an omen, and a fitting metaphor for what awaits them. Again as mentioned, this area never really had much book-wise to begin with, and what little there was has mostly long since been picked clean. Besides in situ scavengers, such as myself, a large New York dealer has been running display ads, complete with toll free numbers, for years, and a local with a rumored significant other source of income has a daily classified ad. What little may be left is now often sold online rather than donated; there are still a few occasional crumbs that Lazarus may hope to beat the dogs to, but it should be remembered that it was hope that was the cruelest of the punishments inflicted on Pandora.

Ruling out the more established dealers that come here in the spirit of Petrarch who, when asked why he climbed Mt. Blanc, replied, “Because it was there!” and like him nevertheless do not repeat the escapade, local wannabes who, after having spent a few hundred hours listing the 1000 books they got for a buck a bag at the last sale, actually sold one and seek to double their profit, who is bothering to drive 100, perhaps 200 or more miles to attempt Mt Biblio-culm? Here Hieronymous Bosch, or some other allegorical painter would find a plethora of faces to depict the Deadly Sins. Avarice, boasting how his just discovered Heritage Press in the ORIGINAL SLIPCASE is worth a fortune; Envy, incessantly complaining to the bedraggled librarian running the sale that the people who set it up grabbed all the illuminated manuscripts, incunabula and such before she could get it; Gluttony, adding ever more to his pile of self-helps and Danielle Steele modern firsts; Drunkenness, running back and forth, banging into three year old kids paging through Winnie the Pooh, giddy with all his “real OLD books from the 1800s!”; Sloth, remarking how once he starts making enough money selling books he’ll never have to do anything except turn on the computer; Anger, ranting about how she saw that James Beard cookbook first; Lust, drooling over his COMPLETE SET of Time-Life World War IIs, but I will stop, since I am perhaps acting out of the spirit of that sin which even the angels can succumb to, Pride. St. John of the Cross warned us that the seven-headed beast of Revelation was in fact the Seven Deadly Sins which prevent us from even beginning the ascent of Mt Carmel, and that Pride was the trickiest of them all. Thus, in an attempt to keep the beast at bay, I shall brandish the sword of Charity, and write with a bit more compassion towards Sisyphus attempting to reach some bookish apotheosis.

It is obvious that it has become very easy not so much to sell books, as to try to sell them. Disregarding the hobbyists, retirees and others who wish to do something book related, and would be of actual use to society if they volunteered for a children’s reading or adult literacy program, amongst the “thousands of dealers” many on-line sites boast of, it seems that a large number, perhaps the majority, have but tasted a few drops from the Pierian Spring, not so serious as regards book terminology, identifying editions, etc., which, while sadly lacking in too many cases, can nevertheless be had easily enough with a few decent reference guides, but more so concerning that almost bottomless pool of human knowledge out of which only the deepest draughts can see one through the spreading desert of bookselling. True specialists rarely waste their time at the run of the mill general sale, which, by definition is just that, and hence the domain of often justly (but often enough not) maligned generalists. With the market oozing the more (and even less) common titles, this is a far narrower niche than it may seem, with survival dependent upon knowing the scholarly, the unusual, and the collectible. In this ever worsening environment, to be able to distinguish between Chrysogonus and Chrysologus, Aruj and Khayrad’din Barbarossa (neither to be confused with Frederick), Zosimus of Panopolis and Zosimus, sometimes called of Constantinople, sulfate and sulfite, and other such minutiae is, while perhaps not the sine qua non, certainly crucial to survival, as is telling a coffee table book from a catalogue raisone, a text book from a treatise and, more germane to this article, knowing when to stop belaboring the point. Mindful of the difficulty of keeping Pride, and its outrider Scorn at bay, based upon my unscientific survey of the vast culm banks of books I see my random sample of the “thousands of dealers” heaping up, it all seems to be the result of a little bit of knowledge, and both optimism and desperation. To guess that Herod is probably not the nickname for Herodotus is laudable enough in our culturally illiterate society, but to buy a paperback copy of the latter, even if as new, and then spend time copying the blurb from the back cover for the description, followed by a stream of consciousness discourse on what a wonderful book it is, or having no description to speak of, and pricing it at either 25 cents or 25 dollars depending upon one’s marketing strategy, but also passing over a good copy of Herodian, is not conducive to success, and neither is driving 100 miles in hopes of grabbing a 1502 Aldine. Thus, assuming it’s not all a tax write-off scheme, the boxes of new cookbooks, recent nonfictions, and 50 year old deluxe editions are all symptomatic of the Quixotic quest to make it in bookselling, with the occasional odd volume that may actually sell for $50 serving as an intermittent reward, which, just as winning $50 on a slot machine makes gambling such a difficult psychological addiction to break, keeps them coming. Apparently, they have few, if any other sources of supply, did not do enough buying back in the days when it was possible to get a quantity of the far more important quality, and have not drunk deeply enough out of that other, and most bitter of springs, experience, to know the difference. Mindful of the fate of Phidippides, take pity on those engaged in this marathon race to the bottom.

If a sale is close by, I usually go to it, both for the thrill of the hunt and to support the sponsoring organization. Occasionally, I’ll even venture into the First World sales of New York, New Jersey and southeastern Pennsylvania, where the quality and quantity are several orders of magnitude better than here, but only if I have other business in the area, or wish to visit someone there, otherwise, it simply is not worth the time and trouble. In any case, I buy one book for every five, ten or more I see most others accumulating, but would not trade any randomly chosen five or ten of mine for any 50 or 100 of theirs, and even so, am often enough horrified at how far far too many of these have been half-witted to death in price. Along that line, most of the local dabblers who try to sell books on the f—— computer usually wind up getting analogously as much as they do for a stone wall. Besides the expected descriptions such as, “Like new book! Covers torn off,” at the other extreme I have noticed one dealer who has several thousand mostly $1 to $5 books listed, complete with a picture and usually a verbatim copy of the publisher’s blurb. Rumor has it the seller is associated with a fundamentalist religious organization, so perhaps this is a spiritual practice in lieu of self-flagellation.

The economics of bookselling have been discussed in other issues of this august journal, so I shan’t make this already too long article any more tedious by delving further into that. Rather, I will approach a conclusion with the thought that it would be nice if those who wish to go on this quest could first consult some oracle, but alas, all are now silent. Engraved upon the Temple at Delphi were three admonishments, which, if the supplicant understood, would obviate the necessity of seeing the Pythia. Besides the now much misunderstood, and more often misused, “Know thyself,” were, “Thou art,” and, “Nothing in excess.” Upon the hypothetical biblio-sanctuary would be, “Know thy books,” “Time is money,” and “Do not nickel and dime thyself to death.”

Thankfully, the Gorgon is also no longer extent, or I would have been turned into stone by some of the glances I received from the guardians of the heaps of books I had to navigate around during a local sale that occurred while writing this. I spotted an older children’s title, fine, in a rarely seen near fine dustjacket, that I probably could have gotten enough money for to have made it worth buying. I also spotted someone from the Golden, or at least gold-plated, Age who specialized in children’s books. I picked it up, ran over, and gave it to her. As one of the great philosophers, Bozo the Clown, put it so well, “It’s nice to be important, but it’s more important to be nice.”

The Standard: The Journal of the Independent Online Booksellers Association

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