Lessons Learned – Life in the Book Business


Like most people in the used and rare book business today, I was not trained for this career. I did not have access to the generations of knowledge and experience enjoyed by the children and grandchildren of the founders of Dawson’s Book Shop in Los Angeles, the Arthur H. Clark Company now in Spokane, Washington, and The Argosy Book Shop in New York City. I had to learn this business by listening to mentors, watching how other booksellers worked, and by making mistakes more experienced people would never have made.

Sure – I was a reader. My father took me to bookstores in Seattle to look at used books and I grew up just down the street from Elizabeth Rider Montgomery, one of the authors of the Dick and Jane stories, who encouraged me to read. But none of that taught me to be a bookseller any more than looking at pictures of a lake taught me to swim. I had to jump into bookselling in order to learn its lessons, and since most of those lessons involved my making or losing money, I tended to learn and remember them pretty well.

My first book sale list, issued 33 years ago, had 10 items in it. Nine of these were rather common, inexpensive books, and the other item was an 8 volume leather bound set in nice condition of some famous writer whose name I have now forgotten. The cheap books were priced in the $2 to $5 range, and none of them sold. The leather bound set was priced at the outrageous sum of $100, and it sold right away. The lesson here was obvious: cheap books are so easy to find that there was no compelling need for my little group of customers to buy any of those. They could find them anywhere and buy them anytime. The leather set was unusual, though, and priced at $100 was obviously scarce and desirable. People were looking for them, but they were not looking for the cheaper books because they did not have to.

My next lesson came from the variety of catalogs I began receiving from other booksellers. Since I was teaching English, I naturally assumed I was going to specialize in literature. But Ohio has a long history and I began to find it easier to purchase scarce books, maps, and ephemera on Ohio and Midwest history, Native Americans, and the Civil War. In the first few years I was fortunate to have met and learned from some of the great Midwestern booksellers including Robert Younger of Morningside Books in Dayton, Ohio, the legendary book scout Arthur H. Phillips who lived in Columbus, the bookseller and writer Jack Matthews, whose books remain among my favorites for stories about booking in the Midwest, and some of the most knowledgeable collectors in the state, including Joe Dush of Willard, Ohio, and Bill Barth of Youngstown. Without exception, these and other booksellers and collectors freely shared their wisdom and experience.

Among the important lessons I learned from them was that the book business is as much about the customer as it is about the books. Books, they said, are out there, available in quantity, yours to find and buy, including the rare ones. But customers are hard to find and difficult to keep. They must always be treated with respect and the bookseller must always deal with them honestly – anything less than that will result in the loss of the customer. Since the collecting and bookselling community, especially for scarcer material, is relatively small, dishonest dealing will always garner attention. Fortunately my father had also taught me that lesson early on, so I had no problem guaranteeing everything I sold. Sometimes the guarantee was hard to support, as in the case of an expensive book I sold to a customer that had a finely crafted facsimile leaf I had not detected. I cheerfully refunded the $10,000 purchase price, plus shipping costs both to and from the customer, and I think now that it was one of the best experiences I ever had because that customer told everyone how honest and pleasant I was in the face of this disappointment.

It is clear, now, that just about anyone can become a bookseller. The bar to entering the trade is very low. Penny sellers abound and there are all too many who do not know the terms, customs, and techniques of bookselling. Fortunately most of the sellers who are new to the trade focus on selling more popular, less-expensive books. Gathering the information necessary to be able to acquire and sell antiquarian and more valuable modern books is still difficult, though. I learned that when, in the dawn of the personal computer age, Jake Chernofsky called to ask me to write a column for AB Bookman’s Weekly and to attend the Antiquarian Book Seminar in Colorado (http://www.bookseminars.com/) to give a talk on what computers could do to take over some tedious jobs booksellers had to do, like keeping mailing lists up to date and printing catalogs and lists of books.

My first day at the Colorado Seminar was interesting. There was some hostility to using computers in a trade that believed in old ways of doing things, but Jake had warned me that might happen so I prepared myself for the worst. Jake invited me to stay for the full seminar as part of the faculty and that week changed my bookselling career forever. Much of the information given at the seminar was, I now realize, crucial to my advancing from a mere bookseller to a knowledgeable antiquarian bookseller.

There I became comfortable with a wide range of reference sources. I was able to associate with some of the best and most respected booksellers in the trade, both as friends and as mentors to whom I could turn for help, if needed. I was able to spend a week immersed in every aspect of the trade, from information sources, to cataloging, to book repair and restoration, to running a store. The faculty was open and available to help at all times and I realized after the end of the seminar that I could not possibly have had access to all that information and those contacts without the seminar. The information made it possible for me to move, with confidence, from selling cheap books to trading in scarcer, more interesting, and more valuable books, maps, documents, photographs, and ephemera.

Fortunately, I was able to return as lecturer and faculty member several more times and I always considered myself both a teacher and a student, always learning, always open to new ideas. Those were some of the best days of my professional career and the seminar made it possible for me to make a nice living outside of teaching.

But can that still be done? Is learning the antiquarian book business still relevant to a trade that appears to be focused on penny books and fast turnover? I believe strongly that it is. There are still many collectors looking for good and great books. They need and want the assistance of knowledgeable booksellers. The fact is that for more common books the customers set the prices. If someone wants a copy, but doesn’t want to pay much for it, there is always another copy somewhere else that is priced attractively. That is not as true with the antiquarian book business.

As we say, “rare books are getting scarcer and scarcer.” When demand is greater than supply, the seller sets the price and usually gets it. That is why selling scarce books is so attractive. People can spend a great deal of time buying, cataloging, shipping, and accounting for cheap books, all for very little profit. Scarce books demand more research, careful cataloging, and secure packaging for shipping, yet frequently are quite profitable because the seller who handles them has a customer who wants or needs a copy and is willing to pay for it because she or he can not find it anyplace else.

What the Internet has done is to expose, in an even more obvious way, what has been true for the past few decades: up to a point, customers set prices on books. If you have books that are relatively common, price them to sell. The Alibris Pricing Service was created to help sellers re-price and move this inventory. If you don’t re-price you will probably see prices continue to fall and your copy will remain stale, perhaps taking up room and funds you could use for better inventory.

If you want to work with scarcer, more valuable books, learn all you can about the trade. Develop your sense of what is valuable, but be open to learning some of the same hard, sometimes-expensive lessons I have had to learn over the past 33 years.

Richard Weatherford is Founder of Alibris, an online bookselling venue at http://www.alibris.com

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