BEST OF: The Boot Camp for Book Dealers

June 1, 2011
By

I had been hearing about the Colorado Antiquarian Book Market Seminar, as it is formally termed, for a number of years. Sometime a few years back I started thinking that it might be fun to go. So, with that in mind, I began following the emails and notices that showed up in various chat and news groups online. I gradually became aware of the occasional ads that appeared in book publications such as Fine Books and Collections and Book Source Magazine. This year I attended the 2006 seminar, which was held from August 5th through the 12th. First a little more background on my decision to attend.

In the early days of the Internet book selling was laughably easy. You bought a lot of books, priced them for something or other and sold them relatively quickly. It turned out that even I could do it pretty well. As time went by it seemed that this was becoming apparent to everyone with a computer. So the pressure began. With the price competition began the race to the bottom.

Before the Internet there was no really reliable way to know how many books were out there of a given title. As book prices became more transparent the high prices being realized brought books out of the barns, attics, trunks and bookshelves of America. What was previously thought to be a good book was now found to be a mediocre book and what was thought to be a mediocre book now became fodder for the soon to arrive penny sellers.

I had always admired penny sellers who bought books by the truckload and sold thousands of them every day. They subsisted mainly on the few pennies in shipping profit they gleaned from each book that they often sold for one penny each. They were doing America a great service in spreading literacy and knowledge and making a profit while doing it. But they were driving many booksellers to the wall. I had no desire to be one of those standing resignedly, back to the wall, with a blindfold across his eyes and a cigarette in his mouth.

I had started very modestly, worked hard and gradually built up a decent inventory. It had become clear to me early on that my only salvation was to buy those books that were sufficiently scarce not to decline in value as more and more books were driven to market.

It seems that at some point soon fewer and fewer of the modestly uncommon books will be appearing and even the cheaper books will again turn and head back up a bit. Surely at some point the reserves will become at least partially exhausted. For most of the cheap books, say less than $25 today, it seems unlikely to me that anything will ever save them—not even time. As sources dry up, and long before retail prices began to rise significantly, the cost of acquisition increases. Increased acquisition costs are a direct result of new sellers willing to work for less, a lot less, maybe even nothing. I found it no longer feasible to compete with hobby sellers. The more so because most of them seemed blithely unaware that their business was a hobby.

There was another factor that concerned me as well. I was regularly logging 80 hours or more a week. I knew that it wouldn’t be too many more years before this would begin to lose its attraction. I had been there before in other businesses and wanted to avoid that downward spiral at all costs. It was fun and I wanted it to stay fun.

Book Dealer Boot CampSo with these concerns turning in my mind I felt that I had to get a different perspective on book dealing. Maybe I had to get many different perspectives. Up until now I had done only Internet sales, some being fixed price sales and some auctions. I don’t mean to imply that I wasn’t doing well. Actually I was doing better than I had any right to expect, up 20%+ every year. If I had thought this would go on indefinitely I could have slept peacefully. But I didn’t see this going on forever. I felt I had to find new venues, new philosophies, new perspectives, new sources and new customers. In a word I had to reengineer my business or run the risk of perishing as I continued upon what I felt was a perilous path.

There was another concern which made this cross country jaunt to Colorado almost a perfect fit for me. With recently increasing sales I was badly in need of income tax deductions. You might wonder why I was so concerned if sales were on the uptick. The book business, while not exactly boom and bust, is not a “steady as she goes” business either. It needs careful tending. Ignore your income stream at your peril! I needed just a few more tricks in my basket than I already had if I was going to feel at all secure.

So I called and spoke to Kathy Lindeman several times. She was quite forthcoming about the ins and outs of travel, housing and so forth. I owe her a lot and want to thank her again right here. Her assistance in getting me oriented was invaluable. She held my hand while I decided what the best arrangement would be for me.

I hadn’t been in Colorado for more than 25 years. I had passed through once when I was living in Nevada and had found the people so friendly that I seriously considered moving there. I am happy to say I found them just as helpful this time as I did the first. While I was there I checked the real estate ads as I usually do in a new area. There are many very beautiful homes available much more cheaply than is common elsewhere. It is high desert with low humidity. The elevation is about 6000 feet. Annual snowfall is 33 inches. So far, so good, then I found that low temperatures reached -10 degrees F or so. So I’ll stay in New Jersey a little longer.

I have half a dozen online travel discount sites that I use. They are farefox.comcheaptickets.comair-gorilla.comallcheapfares.comtravelticker.hotwire.com, andpriceline.com. To my surprise I found the best fare by a considerable margin on a site I didn’t care for much, orbitz.com. I made a $350 deposit by Visa over the phone to hold my spot, made arrangements for a place to stay, purchased the airline tickets, and I was in!

I stayed at the Colorado Inn. This is on campus. It was purchased by Colorado College recently and refurbished. It is quite adequate and a cut above college dorms but just barely. There is an Econo Lodge right next door. Most seminarians chose to stay at one of these. There are a few other choices of lodging including a couple of bed and breakfasts and a Sheraton about 2 miles away. But I wanted to be in the heart of things. As it was I was just about 3 ½ blocks from the cafeteria and from most of the classes. So it worked out well for me and I was able to walk almost everywhere.

At the Colorado Inn there are laundry facilities downstairs. Food shopping opportunities are just about non-existent within 2-3 miles. My plan, which is the recommended one, included breakfast and lunch with the students. All but 2 of the dinners were provided by the seminar. In addition there are frequent snacks. So meals are definitely not a problem.

Downtown is about 8 blocks and a pleasant and safe stroll away. There are many bars, restaurants and several book stores. Basically a college town within a town. The city of Colorado Springs itself has 600,000 people and is mainly supported by the two military bases there. Many of the military personnel retire and take another job in the tech or the security industry.

Because of the difficulty in making connections from Atlantic City I flew in a day early and left a day late. I could have flown much cheaper into Denver which is 80 miles away and taken a shuttle. Full details are provided in the registry materials. However the people I talked to who had flown into Denver had not found the arrangement particularly congenial to their needs.

Book Dealer Boot CampThe seminar registration was Sunday 3-6 and was quickly disposed of. I then walked downtown and had an excellent and reasonable steak dinner at The Olive Branch for about $20. I sat for a while in a small park in the center of town. They had the most ingenious fountain display I had ever seen. First came dancing waters. Then a large multi colored globe began to rise until a fire engine dog and then later a clown could be seen beneath it. They all did their bag of tricks in this water driven automaton. I then headed back for the on campus reception at 7. There was plenty of wine, cheese, foods and conversation, a good time was had by all. Terry Belanger was the keynote speaker. His wit and scholarship are equally well developed.

The next morning we began congregating in the cafeteria at about 7. The food was like cafeteria food all around the world but still quite a bit better than I remember it being during my own long distant university days.

We were given full materials for the course including a hefty notebook. The notebook is nicely laid out with sections on everything from where to stay to how to paginate an antiquarian work. This contained invaluable materials compiled from the experiences of the best minds in the business. We also received daily handouts and amplified notes for each class. The whole thing was very carefully thought through and cleanly executed. This is a very valuable resource and one to treasure.

At 8:30 sharp class began. Morning classes ran 3 ½ hours with a 15 minute break. Afternoons about the same. For the most part we ran 6 classes a day. And none of these, and I do mean none, were lightweight fill-ins. One thing that struck me was how often staff members mentioned that they learned a lot every year from attending. There are so many experts from so many areas.

Then came a breathless staccato-like presentation by Dan Gregory on How to Market Your Book Business. Later on he followed up with Technology of the Book Trade. It was almost impossible to take notes because of the speed at which he covered the work. And it was ALL critical material. He generously agreed to email us expanded notes after the seminar. He obviously firmly believed in his message of promoting your business. If people look at your business card, bookmarks or whatever and don’t say “Wow!” then they aren’t good enough. Book selling is story telling. Dan believes that 90% of ABE and Biblio customers are collectors.

I especially liked Dan’s summary of communicating with customers and advertising.

  1. Customers don’t think
  2. Customers are blind
  3. Customers have short attention spans
  4. Customers are more valuable than your books
  5. NEVER underestimate you customers

Ed Glaser and Dan DeSimone gave a session on Reference Books. The bibliography handout for this talk alone may well be worth the cost of the course. I have since picked up some of these that I never knew existed such as the English Short Title Catalogue. Tom and Heidi Congalton contributed a copy of First Editions of Dr. Seuss Books which I won at their auction later on. I finally have the title of the mysterious and often cited “Wing” and will be picking that up soon.

Angela Scott presented an amazing display of paper making materials including leathers and papers and a discussion of bookbinding. Dan DeSimone presented an illuminating discussion of book illustrations. Then we wrapped up the day with drinks, alcoholic and otherwise, and eats at a gathering from 7 to 9. Day One was pretty much a template for the days that followed.

The average age of the seminarians was a little over 40 and the experience level was from “thinking about it” to “full professional.” The majority had been involved for perhaps a few years and wanted to become more involved. There were also a number of librarians and attendees sponsored by various of the book industries.

In the next 4 days there were two microphones in the aisle between the seats. Those with questions would (ideally) line up at the microphones and ask their questions. Additionally there was a question box available to drop queries in. These boxes were emptied after each break.

I can’t begin to do justice to the material covered. Each topic would require a paper of its own. The best I can do is to skim the subjects to give you the flavor of the sessions and the materials they cover. And perhaps encourage you to find out more for yourself. I have been a long time reader of the works of Kraus, Rosenbach, and other famous dealers. Unfortunately these books are long on stories and short on method. Here are the methods.

After a lifetime of boring and often feckless classes and seminars this whole affair came as the most pleasant of surprises. As I sat in the room gradually the awareness grew on me that I was surrounded by a whole lot of very bright people. I have been to Mensa gatherings that were not half as impressive.

Rob Rulon-Miller was the seminar director. His discussion covered the areas of Catalogue Making, Ethics, and Appraisals. His discussion of catalogues I found particularly useful. There were probably close to 100 different catalogues along a back table in stacks from various dealers, and they were laid out in such a manner that it made choosing the format most suitable for my business much easier. I definitely have a color laser printer on my list of acquisitions for next year. We were free to take what we wanted and there was an open discussion about costs, efficacy, production and problems. Rob also spent a fair amount of time on ethics. Although some might find it restrictive, I thought it simply the best way to run a successful business with as little pain as possible.

Terry Belanger gave an exhaustive and witty talk on Bibliographic Description, Format and Collation. This covered such esoterica as different types of laid paper, watermarks, counter marks and their origins, pagination, and printer’s marks. It was as intensive as it could reasonably be in the short time available. Printed 18thcentury folio sheets were handed out to the class to help explain various of the printing processes. We were taught how printers numbered sheets so the binders could fold them to form signatures in 8vo, 12mo, 4to and so on. There was a fascinating talk on paper making and how it advanced. Terry said that there was an old saying that the size of the initial sheet of paper was determined by the length of the arms of the papermaker. By the time he finished it was pretty clear why he had been awarded the coveted “MacArthur” in bibliography.

Terry Belanger oversees The Rare Book School at the University of Virginia with auxiliary classes in New York, Baltimore, and Washington DC. These classes are subsidized by the University and the tuition charge is about half of the actual cost. They offer about 30 five day courses each year. Tuition is $845. More information is available at virginia.edu/oldbooks.

There was a faculty directed workshop on how to write book descriptions and two more on book pricing. We spent some time in class on this and then broke up into groups in various rather nice rooms. There we submitted our books and descriptions for criticism. The groups were, as always, small, with one or two faculty members assigned to each.

There was an on-site tutorial on running a used book store by the Ciletti’s, Mary and Jim. The class was split into two groups and bussed to their Hooked On Books book store. There we were treated to talks on running a book store and a packing demonstration. The inventory was also available at standard book dealer’s discounts to us. The class picked up a fair number of books. Half of the class did this on one of two nights while the other half attended Conservation and Preservation by Dan DeSimone and Angela Scott. Angela does antiquarian restoration and book binding at her shop in Washington DC. Dan is the curator of the Lessing J. Rosenwald Collection of rare books and manuscripts at the Library of Congress. They combined their skills to give an invaluable look into the nuts and bolts of antiquarian works. Displayed were many materials not commonly seen such as rare leathers and papers.

Later on Dan DeSimone presented Libraries as Markets for Books. This was a look into a world that is a pole apart from internet bookselling. With this information, and its diligent application, anyone with at least a modicum of talent could gain entry into this area. He covered the area pretty thoroughly including why the library market, identifying potential customers, how to create bibliographical lists and dealing with librarians.

Evaluation and Pricing was taught by Ed Glaser, an internationally known specialist in rare and important books in science, technology and medicine. He noted that the keystone for rare books is 1/3, 1/3, 1/3. He explained this as being 1/3 for acquisition, 1/3 for handling and marketing, and 1/3 for profit. Ed covered auctions, price guides, dealer’s price lists, the Internet and other resources in detail.

Chris Volk discussed Internet Bookselling as well as Buying on the Internet. She went into various websites and their peculiarities as well as the ability to move books. We discussed dealing with customers and their questions. One of the promotions she offers is gift wrapping—certainly essential for any Internet seller. Chris offered some caveats about buying stock from eBay sellers. Various database programs for book dealers were also discussed both in her talks and Dan Gregory’s. The general consensus was that BookTrakker is the best available setup for controlling your books next to having your own proprietary database custom designed.

Mike Ginsberg discussed Book Fairs, Scouting, and gave a session on Auctions. Then he conducted an auction of donated materials, some of which were quite worthwhile and brought good prices. The auction included various reference materials, book related items and a dinner with the faculty. Mike has an interestingly disciplined approach to scouting. He lays out the route ahead to time with specific objectives in mind. His comments on equipment for book fairs was very useful. One tip he gave was, “Always bring a flashlight for the top and bottom shelves that no one can see.”

Tom Congalton is the proprietor of Between the Covers Rare Books. He is also co-owner of Allottabooks.com. Tom made the comment that only 10% of his income came from the Internet. This was a sentiment echoed by many of the faculty. His specialty is modern firsts, however he easily fielded questions in any area that came up. He does a number of major shows each year and is well known there. Currently he is chairman of the ABAA membership committee.

There was a conducted tour of a number of the downtown bookstores which I did not attend.

A CPA, Bradley A. Walberg, conducted a session on taxes and accounting. He specializes in the area of books and maps. The more so as his wife is a book dealer of 20 years standing. I had to skip this talk in order not to miss Dan’s second presentation. I hope that the faculty will address this issue so that future seminarians won’t have to share my disappointment. They were, however, most cooperative in providing substantial outlines of both talks to help us make the decision as to which to attend.

During the whole time the faculty were punctilious in making themselves available to answer all questions and give advice where possible. I tried to pick a different table at lunch each day to get a cross section of their philosophies. Everyone was helpful, everyone was gracious and everyone boasted a wealth of experience.

A word about the staff which included 5 past ABAA presidents. These men and women are the legends of tomorrow and the frontrunners of today in the rare book trade. They are well worth listening to.

Kenny Parolini operates Poor Man’s Books out of Vineland, NJ and can be contacted at http://www.poormansbooks.com.

Originally published in the Fall 2006 issue of The Standard.

The Standard: The Journal of the Independent Online Booksellers Association

Check out the Independent Online Booksellers Association Website