2008 Colorado Antiquarian Book Seminar (CABS) Journal, or Teaching an Old Dog Some New Tricks

June 1, 2011
By

Sunday August 3rd

It is 6:30 AM, and I am sitting in the Jet Blue terminal, waiting for my flight to Denver, which is naturally delayed. I have been up since 4:30, as the no frills airport car service insisted on picking me up a 5 AM for an 8 AM flight.

I have read every word of all of the listserv messages, the introductions and the unrequested advice. I have packed an umbrella for the frequent showers, a jacket for the air conditioning, an alarm clock and 100 business cards. I have done penance at home by spending two weekend days running from store to store assisting in the plans for a bathroom renovation project. I have endured numerous comments from friends and colleagues ranging from “Wow, I always wanted to go” to “Gee, I thought you knew everything already.” I have spent $2.50 for a plain buttered bagel, because unless things have changed radically, all Colorado bagels originate in the frozen foods section of the supermarket. I have placed all my on-line book listings on hold with the all of the listing services, balanced my accounts for July, emptied the water from the dehumidifiers, paid the bills and filed all of the receipts. After a long ride on the plane, I will definitely be ready for this seminar.

Later….

I remember my first flight to Denver in 1974. TWA had printed menus (chicken or beef) and free movies. Today on Jet Blue there is a personal TV with the same 36 channels I never watch at home. The days of the printed menu are long gone and the choice is between one biscotti or a packet containing eight cashews.

The plane lands on schedule and I pick up my rental a car so that I can drive into Denver to visit some bookshops en route to Colorado Springs. Two shops were kind enough to sponsor a brunch to CABS visitors. I visit them both and manage to reciprocate by buying a book or two in each, some local history and bibliophile material, nothing really for resale. I do find a terrific bookshop in Denver called Farenheit Books which offers a superb collection of literature all very reasonably priced. They offer a generous discount so I ship a large carton of books back to New York.

The drive down to Colorado Springs takes about an hour, especially if you go the 75 mile and hour speed limit. The college motel is not as nearly as nice as my college dorm room, except that it does have a private bath. When I ask the front desk if there was an ice machine the clerk looked askance. It is hard to believe that in dry 100 degree heat, no one ever asked the question before.

The Opening Reception

I have never been in a room with so many book people at one time. There are close to 100 people from all over North America. They range in age from the early twenties to I would guess late seventies. We each have turn standing up and introducing ourselves to the group. Some of us are pretty experienced book dealers, others of us are librarians, operators of friends of the library shops, or just plain bibliophiles. A few of us and trying to decided whether or not to go into the business. I wonder what will happen by the end of the week.

The keynote speaker is Hannes Blum, of ABE Books. This is only a few days after the announcement that ABE has been bought by Amazon. Since most of us sell a portion of our books through ABE and remember the disaster that occurred when Amazon bought Bibliofind, we all have a lot of questions. He begins by saying that he will go over his power point presentation on the background and history of ABE books and then take some questions. The book dealer gods must have been looking out for us, because after the third slide the projector overheats. The prepared text has to be put on hold and the Q and A begins.

A reception follows, with pastries, fruit and even a respectable red wine. As I walk back to the hotel it begins to rain. Fortunately, I read the listserv and packed an umbrella. Unfortunately, I left it in the room.

Seminar Day One (Monday):

I am still on Eastern Time, so I wake up at 6 AM, and search for the non-existent coffee maker in the room. I am the first to arrive at breakfast at 7:00 AM. I toast a frozen bagel and have plenty of time to enjoy several cups of coffee since the seminar does not begin until 8:30.

The first session is starts off with the very basics- how to pick up and handle books.

I am dismayed to learn that I have been handling books incorrectly for 57 years. Fortunately, most of the books I handle are neither old, not fragile, and it will take me awhile to get into the habit of approaching the opening of a book with care. I have always regarded my books more like playground friends than fellow nursing home residents. Now that I am older, it is probably wise to get used to the change.

The second session if ‘Bookselling 401” conducted by Rob Rulon-Miller, the seminar director, and Kevin Johnson, a book dealer for Baltimore. We are told by the instructors that the bulk of their sales come from their catalogues, not the internet. I am embarrassed to admit that I have never issued a catalogue. We are told to acquire books in quantity, not one at a time. I have about 12,000 books for sale and I must sheepishly say that I hand selected each one. In fact, I can remember where most of them came from. I cheer up when Kevin shows us some photos of his original office/warehouse space. My storage locker may be crowded, but if a customer calls, I can at least pick up the phone and answer an inquiry without having to shout over industrial machinery.

I feel even better after the next session, which is “Technology.” Yes, I do use one of the recommended inventory databases. I do back it up regularly. I do de-frag my hard drive on occasion. I do keep track of who bought what and when.

The first session after the lunch break focuses on reference strategies. When I first joined a collector group on Long Island, I was taught that from a collector’s point of view librarians are the enemies of books. Today, I am told to become friendly with my local librarian.

The very last session of the day is on protecting books. I receive both good news and bad news. The good news is that most of my dust-jacketed books are protected in mylar which they are supposed to be. The bad news is that these 10,000+ dust jackets are the wrong type of mylar protector. (I use the ones with the paper backing.) I decide to start a list of things I need to do as soon as I return home.

Fortunately it is time to head over to the barbeque, which has been moved indoors since it frequently showers in the early evening. There is lots of wine and beer as well the usual grilled meats. I grab a glass of Shiraz and I sit with several lawyers who are considering a change in careers. I wonder if they know that they have rather literally decided to throw their fortunes to the wind. I go to the bar for a re-fill and to my surprise they have run out of red wine. This is definitely not a white wine or beer drinking crowd. For the first time in my life feel part of a not so silent majority.

The weather clears so I end the evening on the patio drinking mineral water, watching the moonrise over the mountains and talking to some of the younger seminarians. They entered bookselling the old fashioned way- they joined their family businesses. Later, I fall asleep fantasizing about what it would be like to have grown up in the bookstore.

Seminar Day Two (Tuesday):

Again, this morning I am the first one at breakfast. I arrive in class fortified with coffee, and by the lunch break I have a new hero. His name is Terry Balenger and he is the director of the Rare Book School at the University of Virginia. I am sure that he knows more about the book as object than anyone I have ever met. He makes rather mundane topics such as page sizes and book descriptions seem fascinating. He has the whole room folding and re-folding large sheets of paper to demonstrate folios and quartos. He is as funny as he is smart, and I decide that he is the person I want to be when, and if, I ever grow up. Among my favorite Terryisms:

“Rare books are objects since they are copy specific. Rare book librarians are janitors. There job is to take care of the objects.”

“A page is an intellectual concept. It has no basis in reality.”

“Why watermarks???………Why tattoos?”

The afternoon session is devoted to cataloguing. I learn that for older, rarer books completeness is more important than condition, and a lot of time is spent learning how to describe the contents of a book, how many unpaged pages, how many numbered pages, etc. In my specialty, modern firsts, completeness is assumed and what is important is CONDITION, CONDITION, CONDITION.

I learn that in cataloguing a modern book one should use the title page not the just jacket or cover and that any information that does not come from the title page must be noted. Between re-covering my dust jackets and checking all my entries to see where the cataloguing information came from I will be a very busy person when I get home.

I have a few glasses of red wine and quick dinner with some fellow seminarians at a local Italian restaurant before heading to the evening program which is a visit to a local second hand bookstore. It is an attractive shop, and we have some time for browsing so I select a few books I think I can resell grab some refreshments and settle down for the presentations. They demonstrate their system for packing and shipping, but for once, I honestly think that my own system for this is actually better so I urge them to consider postage software like ENDICIA. They write a personal note on each printed invoice, and I make a note to try this. The bestselling item of the evening is the store T shirt which says “I read banned books” on the back. Almost everyone buys one.

Back in my monastic room, I crawl into bed and smile. The glossy mens’ magazines that were the bedtime reading of my college youth have been now replaced with the glossy book catalogues that were handed out today, and I fall asleep reading them.

Seminar Day Three (Wednesday):

 

This morning Dan Gregory demonstrates how to scan and photograph books. He has the equipment set up so that we can actually see how he does it, and view the results projected on the big screen. The session is immensely helpful, since the pictures that I have taken for E-bay have been uniformly awful. We learn about color calibration and white balance. I add ‘buy a scanner’ and ‘buy a white balance sheet’ to my do to list.

The rest of the morning is devoted to selling books to libraries. I hesitate to admit this to the group, but I tend to be a bit skeptical. I am a member of at least three Friends of the Library groups as well as our local historical society. The total acquisition budget for special collections of these four auspicious institutions combined in less than the cost of one discounted New York Times bestseller. All graciously accept donations of collections, but would prefer they are accompanied endowed funds to catalogue and maintain the collections in perpetuity. I do sell a fair number of books to University Libraries, so I decide to do some research when I get home to see what the more affluent regional institutions collect. Dan DeSimone, the presenter, also emphasizes the importance of making lists. That is one thing I can do, so I add this to my growing ‘to do’ list.

The first half of the afternoon session concerns pricing. Ed Glaser succinctly tells us” If you buy aggressively you will make mistakes… If you don’t buy aggressively you will amount to zilch.” I agree completely. What I most regret is not the books I bought, but ones that I did not buy.

We divide up into small groups read the catalogue description of a book we worked on yesterday and ask the others to try to price the book. I go first, and fool everyone with an ex-library copy of Toni Morrison’s first book. The book itself is worthless, but under the mylar protector is a valuable dust jacket in excellent condition. Others in the group have much older books, and my guesses on the values of ‘moldy oldiers’ is way off. The books that seem to me would be scarce and valuable are just old books, while ones that seem like they would be of little interest to anyone are actually quite rare and costly. I decide that when I am out scouting I will stick to what I know.

The final session today is on internet bookselling, led by IOBA’s own Chris Volk. This is more my home turf, so I take fewer notes. She tells us that whenever she considers buying a book from a seller she has not done business with before, the first thing she does is check their website. When I get back to the hotel I boot up my computer and check out my website and my sales list. Yes, the site is in desperate need of a makeover: and no, I have not sold any books to Chris.

The novelty of college cafeteria food is wearing off. Since this is our only free night, a group of us go to a local Southwestern restaurant which has been highly recommended to us. It is in an odd, hard to find location just outside of downtown. This restaurant consists of a maze of small rooms. The food is good, and we later learn that at one time building housed the local brothel.

Back at the motel I have a new money making idea. I should buy this joint and re-market it as a place for tired middle-aged couples to re-live their college trysts. All it needs is some loud music, black lights, day-glo posters and Indian bedspreads. I’ll re-name it College Love-Inn and double the rack rate.

Seminar Day Four (Thursday):

This morning begins with a fascinating presentation by David Margolis and Jean Moss on ephemera. I am sure that the collector gene is part of my DNA mapping, so I appreciate the idea of putting together a group of essentially worthless or low cost objects and see them transform into a valuable and important collection where the whole is much more than the sum of the parts. After the talk, I write out a check so I can become a member of the Ephemera Society and decide I want to put together a collection of “commonbooks”, which are not ‘common’ books, but personal collections of poems ands passages assembled by serious readers. ‘Common’ books I have too many of, but no ‘commonbooks’ except my own.

The rest of the morning consists of the charity auction to raise money for the seminar and the sponsoring institutions. I am outbid on one of the books I am interested in, ‘Scouts in Bondage’, a book of photos of books with unintentional double entendre titles. Since it is fairly recent book, add ordering a copy to my ‘to do’ list. I succesfully overbid on a set of books about bookbinding, because I am interested in the topic and they will be nice memory of the week. .Even though I have been to many auctions before this I did manage to learn something. As I watched two of the instructors start a bidding war for another instructor’s book, I learned first hand why they call bookselling a ‘gentleman’s profession.’

Much of the afternoon is devoted to the creation of catalogues. Dan Gregory provides a hand-on demonstration on how to take transform a database listing into a small catalogue. He makes it look really easy, so I promise myself that I will make a simple catalogue to distribute at book fairs this fall, even though I know that what took him an hour or two will take me at least a month, or two.

Tonight the evening activity is bookstore hopping. One of the campus buses made a loop that stopped at four of the used bookshops in the area. We have no time for dinner, but each shop has a table with lots of red wine and snack foods. We can get on and off the bus as often as we wish to and stay at a shop as long as necessary.

The first shop an is a more of a neighborhood bookshop with trade-ins and lots of popular fiction. I manage to find a copy of a long lost college poetry text I have wanted to replace for quite some time. The second shop is a wonderful old bookshop with a very select stock. I find an interesting early edition of Ulysses and several old WPA guides which I have shipped back home. I spend so long at this shop, that I am running out of time, so I only go to one more shop. It just opened this week and you can smell the varnish on the wooden bookcases. The owner tells me he had owned a bookstore in town for quite awhile but was forced to close two years ago. He tried becoming a caseworker and quickly discovered he preferred the book business. Although the shelves are only half-full, I find some very good books.

Back in my room I try to figure out how I am going to manage to safely transport all of the reference information and books I have acquired this week. It becomes a game of how many catalogues can I fit into two flat rate priority mail boxes. I still need the extra folding suitcase that I had packed just in case.

Seminar Day Five (Friday- the Last Day):

I eat my last frozen bagel, and head to the seminar room. The first topic of the morning is “Book Scouting.” When I scout, I try to make a circle, though sometimes it can be more of a very oblong ellipse. Mike Ginsberg, the instructor, recommends that you always start at the farthest store and work homeward.

Chris Volk offers some succinct advice: “If the author’s name is larger than the title, don’t buy it.”

Someone else optimistically says that even if you overpay for a good book, you still have a good book, and it will probably appreciate overtime. The critical question for me is what is meant by a ‘good’ book. Not all good books turn into good investments.

The next topic of the morning is book fairs. Tom Congalton tells us there are three ways to have a successful fair- Sell your way out, buy your way out, or drink your way out. Since I don’t have the funds to buy my way out, the next time I can’t sell my way out, I guess I will try drinking my way out.

Consignment is the last topic of the morning. I have occasionally sold a book for a collector friend, usually as a favor. I never realized that a large percentage of the stock of some of the high-end dealers is comprised of items on consignment. I always wondered how they could afford the inventory.

For some unknown reason, the topic for the last formal session is accounting. I guess they do not espouse the philosophy of saving the best for last, but Chris Volk manages to make the presentation both lively and interesting. I am a bit dismayed that she tells us that if we are ‘sole proprietors’ we cannot take a tax deduction for books we donate to charity, but at least I now have an argument against buying books in bulk.

The remainder of the afternoon consists of a lively round table discussion on many issues:

Question: “When I get a call from someone who has some books to sell, how do I know if it is worth a 50 mile round trip drive?”

Answer: “Pay attention to the diction of the speaker.”

Question: “If I give up my day job for the book business, will my children ever forgive me?”

Answer: (from a second generation dealer) “Maybe in 20 or 30 years.”

As soon as the session ends we head over to the closing reception and dinner. It is a classy affair and I feel underdressed in cargo pants and a T shirt, so I head over to the bar and grab two glasses of red wine, pretending the one is for someone at the other end of the room. I sit at a table with some other IOBA members, and we share experiences of the week. Midway through dinner we are called up individually to receive our certificates of attendance. We then get to shake hands with member of the faculty. It feels like we are now part of the fraternity of booksellers. We have just spent a week immersed in a community that my wife refers to as “bookland.” It is now time to bid our sad goodbyes and go back out into the real world.

Back in graduate school in the last century, I worked briefly for the Institute for Research and Development in Occupational Education. We spent a lot of time analyzing the attributes and skills necessary to pursue careers in different fields. On the way to the airport, I decide that based upon what I have seen over the week, there are three main requirements for becoming a successful book seller:

1. Must love books.

2. Must love or at least get along with book people.

3. Must love red wine.

I think I have what it needed to be successful.

Three weeks later:

It has been three weeks since I returned from Colorado. The mail arrives and I open a package to find the copy of ‘Scouts in Bondage’ that I ordered during the seminar after I was outbid at the auction. I check my e-mail and receive a request for a photo of a book from a customer in New Zealand. I retrieve the book, place it on my brand new flat bed scanner, and send her a perfect image of the dust jacket. An hour later I receive her order for the book. I open the next e-mail and it is a thank you from another customer. He wants to let me know that he appreciates that my description was actually accurate, and that I took the time to write a short thank you note on the order form. A friend who had been cleaning out his deceased aunt’s apartment calls to thank me for advising him not throw out the scrapbooks of her husband’s success in real development but to donate them to the local historical society.

I smile. I still have many items left on my ‘Colorado To Do List’ but I realize that you can teach an old dog some new tricks.

The Standard: The Journal of the Independent Online Booksellers Association

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One Response to 2008 Colorado Antiquarian Book Seminar (CABS) Journal, or Teaching an Old Dog Some New Tricks

  1. June 7, 2011 at 6:12 pm

    Your article is so much better than the one I wrote for AB Bookman’s that I am embarrassed in the comparison. I absolutely loved your whole article. It allowed me to relive the my week, bless you. The Seminar was and remains one of the best weeks of my whole life. I can’t thank you enough for taking the time to write it in such detail.

    Best wishes,

    Barbara Young

    Barbara Young
    The Old Book Shop