Warwick Books, South Pasadena, California


Suzanne headshot 2013 May1An old college buddy, a closet book collector, recently asked me how I got started in the bookselling business. I surprised myself by pulling out book memories I didn’t know I had. One of the vivid ones was the fun I used to have as a child wandering through the West Orange (N.J.) public library, at that time located in a rickety old house with a rickety old couple living in the upstairs rooms. Another was going to New York during my high school years, shopping at the Eighth Street Bookstore in the Village, and coming home with trophies like Sartre’s Being and Nothingness (the title expressed my teenage angst), Harold Brodkey’s First Love and Other Sorrows (ditto), and a Praeger paperback monograph on Picasso (an early foray into artiness). In college I studied graphic arts and book design. In my earlier professional career as an editor, writer, and book reviewer (including long tenures at Harper’s Magazine and Publishers Weekly) I worked with famous writers. I read a lot.

Being around books, and buying and selling them, makes me happy. I sometimes try to enumerate the reasons why. There are the obvious explanations, like loving books both as physical objects and as embodiments of information and world views; getting satisfaction from pairing a particular book with a person who wants it; respecting and perpetuating our literary heritage; enjoying scavenging; appreciating the freedom and responsibility that comes from being my own boss in a field that chose me, delight when the hunt goes to new neighborhoods or through new landscapes; stimulation from constantly having to learn new things; and the great satisfaction of being able to earn an income from such commonplace items (which sometimes makes me feel like a magician, plucking money out of thin air).

There are also more elusive and personal reasons. I constantly see books by writers I knew or worked with in my earlier career, so book scouting sometimes seems very social. At book sales I am transported to a zone of deep concentration: I lose track of time and worries, and emerge at the end as if from a short vacation. I’ve made friends with other book dealers out in the book-buying jungle and enjoy our obsessive discussions about the minutiae of the business. There’s also the special sense of self-validation that comes from a long shot that pays off—in fact, each sale feels like a validation (“I chose this book and now someone is willing to pay more for it than I did to get it!”). I love the sense of preserving the past that comes along with neatening up a book and dust jacket with eraser and alcohol and protecting it in Mylar. Even something as simple as using a single-edged razor blade and metal ruler to neatly trim a mailing label connects me with my art student days and makes me feel as if my life has a logical narrative, a coherent thread running through it.Warwick_2a

But somehow a list, no matter how detailed, fails to capture the pleasurable essence of my online bookselling business, which until very recently I conducted out of my house (and garage and and basement) on Warwick Place in South Pasadena, California. I started Warwick Books in 2002. I began tentatively and moved ahead slowly. I thought I knew books pretty well when I began: I had handled books my whole life, and handling books is how the pros tell you you get better and better at bookselling. For years, by the very nature of my jobs, I was the daily recipient of myriad shiny new review copies. For most of my working life books just came to me; I couldn’t escape them even when I wanted to, and whatever office I occupied always ended up with stacks of books on shelves and floor. And because the books came so easily, I gave them away readily: family, friends, and casual acquaintances were the recipients of volumes I knew they would like or hoped they would be interested in. David Foster Wallace’s Infinite Jest, for instance, went straight to a friend who liked to keep up with current fiction. Number lines? They were not something I paid attention to. All the books that passed my desk were first editions. Author’s signatures? Publication parties were routine after-work events, and though I enjoyed going to them, I seldom bothered to get an author to sign his or her book for me.

Eleven years down the road, I am amazed at how much I’ve learned—and how little I knew when I started. I am also amazed to find that I am the envy of many of my non-bookselling friends because I am doing something so meaningful to me. Not only that: I’ve gained admiration and respect for carving out a niche, sticking with it, making it into something viable. Making a business. I’ve begun to see that this is no small feat.

I still have a fair number of books from my early inventory, and sometimes when an order comes in for one of them I cringe a little: my standards in the beginning had yet to be formed, really, and who knows what I meant back then by “fine” or “very good”? I certainly don’t trust my earlier self. Now, I’ll seldom pass up the chance to buy a signed book, no matter what it is. I might not have cared back then, but now I do. A signed book is special, and in my experience will always sell. And though unsigned books obviously sell too, they seem less complete than a signed book, undressed, naked.

Warwick_3aAs far as I can tell, there are two key aspects to bookselling. Knowing what is worth selling is one of them; knowing what will sell is the other. Art books, beautifully designed books, illustrated books, literature—these are all worth selling. And there is a market for these books, though not always a brisk one. I’ve spent a lot of time buying and cataloguing these books, and they are a backbone of my inventory (now hovering about 10,500).

But it wasn’t until last year, when a colleague and I bought a vast private library of books on military history—a subject totally alien to me—that I began to understand what the market is capable of. There are serious collectors out there for books relating to war—not e-books, not trade books aimed at a broad audience, but highly specific accounts of very specific things: a general’s strategies in World War II, memoirs by decorated ace flyers, books depicting uniforms, insignia, airplane nose art, and the like. My most surprising sale to date from this collection was a U.S. Security Forces telephone directory for the Army, Navy, and Air Force personnel in the area of Kanto, Japan, published in 1956. My business has perked up since I started adding these books to my inventory.

warwick_dUnlike Larry McMurtry, who bought lots of wonderful private libraries (and wrote about it in his memoir Books), I can’t imagine I will ever find such a treasure trove again. This one seems like a pinnacle. It transformed my business—and the business of my colleague—from amateur undertaking into serious professional venture. (It was from the Colorado Antiquarian Book Seminar, which I attended thanks to an ABAA scholarship, that I learned about the advantages of co-owning books, and certainly the war collection was too large for a single person to buy and manage.)

I had no idea when we bought this collection how transformative an experience it would be. (We estimate there were between 20,000 and 30,000 books, though we never calculated precisely; we do know it filled nearly 900 file boxes and took three men about five days to pack the books from the three-story condo they were housed in, all neatly stored on floor-to-ceiling shelving deep enough to allow for rows double and sometimes triple deep.) The first step was just to come to grips with the sheer volume of the collection: our interim solution was to rent a large storage unit, but it soon became obvious that we were going to need a more accessible space and a person to handle order fulfillment, so that we could reserve enough of our time to be able to actually catalogue and list the books. This has led us to lease a huge warehouse space in nearby Los Angeles and to hire a helper.

It’s not just about the scale of the collection. It’s about the man who amassed it. He was a truly outstanding collector—limitless in his dedication and passion, shrewd in his buying habits, and willing and patient enough to get what he wanted. As we work through the boxes it is not unusual for us to find an ex-library copy of a scarce title, then a later printing, then a first edition without a dust jacket, then the first with a tattered or clipped jacket, then a fine copy in fine condition and, finally, a signed copy. (Sometimes he went above and beyond and found laid-in correspondence from the principals involved, or a signature not only from the author but also or instead of from the subject of the book.) And while the presence of so many duplicates might pose a problem in a lesser collection, in this case it’s a bonus: because he was collecting books that were hard to find in the first place, even his “inferior” copies find eager buyers. He would only buy a paperback when no hardcover edition was available, and he kept his collection in great condition by putting Mylar on many of the books.

I am in awe of this gentleman’s collecting prowess, and enjoy being in his presence through working with his books. Being surrounded by this kind of passion is exciting and contagious, and has added to my daily pleasure. People from all over the globe get in touch about books from the collection, and the boundaries of my world have expanded. I really can’t ask for anything more than this, but who knows? Maybe there’s another collection of even better quality out there somewhere in my bookselling future. I ardently hope so.

Suzanne Mantell
Warwick Books

101 Warwick Place
South Pasadena, CA 91030

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