How I Spent My Summer Vacation: Teaching at the Colorado Antiquarian Book Seminar


How do I even begin to describe what it was like to be on the faculty of the Colorado Antiquarian Book Seminar—the booksellers’ boot camp—for the first time?

Exhilarating, exhausting, exciting—and one of the best weeks I have spent as a bookseller!

But no—it was not a vacation—except in the sense that a vacation is a break from the normal routine that can recharge you and help you to return fresher and more energized. Some of the comments from the Class of 2006 are posted on the seminar website (Colorado Antiquarian Book Seminar), but I will quote one here:

“I am currently implementing many of the practical applications and I am now directed to the areas where I know I need to ‘learn’ more. And this along with a notebook chocked full of real, usable information, contacts, etc. I have attended scores of conferences over the years in several fields, and this coursework was as well organized, classy, attentive to detail and interesting. All of the faculty were ‘characters’ and not shy about straight out talk or tough questions or saying “I don’t know”. I cannot recommend the seminar strongly enough, but it was not for sissies as far as the hours. Your money’s worth??? YOU BET!!”

And a word of warning: if you think it might be enjoyable to see something of Colorado and the Colorado Springs area while you are at the seminar, plan on going early—otherwise Pike’s Peak will remain just a mountain in the distance! There is no “spare time” or “free time” during the week itself—you live, think, and eat bookselling. It is only when you are in the middle of the seminar that you realize how apt the nickname “booksellers’ boot camp” is!

With a wide range of students’ background and experience, and an even wider range of their knowledge of bookselling and hopes for the seminar, the curriculum has to balance the amount of time spent on different areas—it has to include both depth and breadth in discussing books and bookselling and cram that all into one week—and we all know that bookselling is something you can spend a lifetime learning and still not learn everything.

One of the ways that the seminar handles this mission is by long, packed days, careful attention to time and an intensive focus that did not let up even on the “breaks” or at lunchtime (most days, the faculty sat at different tables, so “seminarians” could sit with them and continue discussing books and bookselling). A significant part of the learning was in one-to-one conversations, or small group discussions either with faculty or just among the students themselves.

The curriculum is also evolving to confront the changing realities of today’s bookselling world, but without neglecting the traditional knowledge base that a professional bookseller needs.

Since this was my first year, I have no basis for comparison, but other faculty members commented on what a dynamic group of students were at the seminar. A large part of what makes an experience like this so valuable is not just the information given by the faculty but also that shared by the attendees from their years of experience!

As a (former) teacher, I was dismayed when halfway through the week, a student asked in conversation a very basic question: “what is a trade paperback?” While I was able to answer that specific question then, the reality is that the seminar does not, and cannot in one week, answer every student’s questions. It is easy to assume that dealing with concrete “how to” topics can be more valuable to beginning booksellers—and the seminar addresses many very specific issues, ranging from details on packing for the mail order bookseller to Dan Gregory’s marketing presentation (an hour that contained enough ideas that would in itself justify the expense of the seminar) to the use of reference materials and how to approach librarians (another extremely valuable presentation given by Dan DeSimone, a bookseller for 25 years and now a Curator at the Library of Congress). And even though I am a bookseller who loves scouting and pride myself on being pretty good at it, I picked up several great tips from Michael Ginsberg’s session on scouting!

Although many specific presentations focused on the practical to a large extent, that is not—in my opinion—where the real value of this seminar lies. Rather it is in opening up to booksellers the idea that they do not have to deal in “ordinary” books, but can become involved with the best and most significant and interesting books. It is in creating a sense of limitless possibilities—in telling booksellers that, yes, they can control both their business and how much money they can make—and then in showing them what they need to know to do this.

Almost anyone can teach “how-to” methods, but I think the Colorado seminar is unique in its ability to convey the sense of what bookselling, at its best, can be—and I think that the uniqueness is due to the quality of those booksellers who have kept the seminar going year after year, ranging from Ed Glaser, who has given of his time, energy and knowledge for the entire 28 year history of the seminar, to Michael Ginsburg, Rob Rulon-Miller, and newer participants like Tom Congalton. They present, as booksellers, an example of collegiality, professionalism, and generosity that is unmatched. A recurring theme was that other booksellers are not your competitors; they are your colleagues, that helping other booksellers will help you, and even that booksellers can be your best customers.

It is also important to emphasize that the seminar does not end at the end of the week. Since so much is covered and so quickly, the fat binder both extends the information presented and becomes a resource that can be consulted over and over again as a reminder of what was covered. The students are told that they can call upon anyone on the faculty afterwards for help. A mailing list was started before the actual seminar and it is still going on. More importantly, I am sure that some of those attending have already formed relationships with other seminarians that will survive for years of their bookselling careers.

And finally, the worth of the seminar will be determined by how many of those ideas are put into practice! The ABAA has a clear sense of how significant the seminar can be, and it is reflected in their membership requirements: attendance at the seminar is worth six months of full-time experience as a bookseller.

Chris Volk operates Bookfever along with Shep Iiams out of the Sierra foothills of Amador County, CA and can be contacted at http://www.bookfever.com.

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