Serendipity in Bookselling – Tim Doyle


Timothy Doyle

Timothy Doyle

The Merriam-Webster online dictionary defines “serendipity” as: “the faculty or phenomenon of finding valuable or agreeable things not sought for.” The word has just celebrated its 262nd birthday, having been coined by Horace Walpole in a letter to Horace Mann, dated 28 January 1754. Walpole built his neologism on the name of a land in a Persian fairy tale from Amir Khusrau’s Hasht-Bihisht of 1302. For an interesting discussion of this, see Dr. Oliver Tearle’s “A Short History of the Word ‘Serendipity‘.”

The key role that the concept of serendipity can play in book buying and selling is well-illustrated by the legendary bookstore founded by Peter Howard in Berkeley, Ca in 1967, and that he chose Serendipity Books as its name. In Howard’s New York Times 2011 obituary, Serendipity Books is described as follows:

Potential customers were confronted with a warren of rooms, some two stories high, with good books stuffed absolutely everywhere, including in shopping bags blocking the narrow aisles. Although there was clearly an underlying order, its nature was hard to discern; there were no signs. People would wander in a daze, sometimes asking, “Do you sell books here?” They thought it was a library or perhaps a museum.

The lack of direction was on purpose and in earnest. Mr. Howard wanted people to search for books and find not just what they were looking for but the book next to it, which they might want more if they only realized it existed. “The bookstore is an infinite array of material and knowledge of which you know nothing,” he said. “If you’re focused, you go to the library.”
Browsing at Serendipity Books was, on purpose and in earnest, an exercise in serendipity.

Interior of Serendipity Books, image courtesy of Eureka Books.

Interior of Serendipity Books, image courtesy of Eureka Books.

There are two key factors at play in the concept of serendipity. The first, and the one that perhaps gets an undue share of attention, is Chance – luck, good fortune – being in the right place at the right time. At one of the thrifts where I scout, I once walked in just as their book lady was bringing out three garbage bags full of books, magazines and ephemera on the topics of stage and close up magic, hypnotism, and biographies of famous magicians. I told her I was interested in the whole lot, and she said I could have them for $10 per bag and save her the trouble of sorting and shelving it all. At another thrift a few years back, I came across sixty-some Easton Press and Folio Society titles in Fine condition and priced at $2 each. When I was checking out the cashier told me the books had just gone on the shelf less than an hour before. I suppose I was only half-lucky on that one – she then told me I should have been there the day before when they’d put out another, equally large lot. Someone else snapped up that one just as fast.

The second part of serendipity is Response. Louis Pasteur once said “Fortune favors the prepared mind.” Or as someone once told me: “Opportunity may knock, but you still have to get up off your butt and answer the door.” It doesn’t matter what luck brings you, if you don’t recognize it or know what to do with it. As book sellers, there are any number of ways we prepare ourselves for the serendipitous opportunity. Not all will work for all sellers; in fact some are mutually exclusive.

Be a specialist. Get to know one subject really well, so well that whenever something comes up in your specialty – at auction, in a thrift store, wherever – you will know if it is worth buying or not. You will be familiar with the books of worth in your field that most others would overlook. Establish a reputation as a specialist, and get the word out that you are seeking specialized material: through professional contacts and organizations, and through advertising. Put it on your business card, and hand it out liberally. As you become known as a specialist in the field, material will begin to seek you out.

Be a generalist. Do research to develop a broad sense of what is selling and why – look for trends and patterns. I like to systematically look at eBay Sold results as a way of learning what real people are paying for real books, with the big caveat that there are a lot of weird over and under outlier prices on eBay. I’ll often focus on books that sold in a specific price range, typically between $40 and $400. This reduces the number of results to a more manageable level, and you may want to experiment with using various keywords to get even narrower results sets. Most books that sell for higher than that are not ones you will run into all that often in a thrift store or other general sources – my Near Fine Random House HB 2nd printing of Cormac McCarthy’s The Orchard keeper notwithstanding. Looking at Sold listings on eBay will give you a broad education in what’s selling in fiction, non-fiction, modern, vintage, children’s books, etc. It will give you ideas on general topics and trends. And there are pictures – lots and lots of pictures.

Step outside your usual rounds. Craig Stark at  bookthink.com likes to say “Books are everywhere.” Try scouting at venues you’ve previously ignored. There are great book bargains on eBay, though I’ve heard many sellers say they don’t like the “neighborhood”. I source some of my best books at thrift stores, but in the past I’ve stopped going to one or another of them because the manager began overpricing, or writing prices in black marker on the front free endpaper. Stop back after a couple months, because managers and policies come and go pretty quickly in these stores. Try one of your local auction houses, or friend of library sale, or big flea market, or multi-family yard sale, or Craigslist, or any number of other sources. Developing multiple sources of stock protects you from being too dependent on one that could dry up.

Increase the odds of being in the right place at the right time. If you scout at thrift stores, get to know the people who handle the books. Find out if there is a regular schedule for when new stock goes on the shelves, so you can be there for first crack at it. Develop a relationship with your local auctioneers or estate liquidators – I’ve heard of book sellers who get called when a house needs to get cleared quickly.

Set up Wants on venues that allow you to do so, like eBay and Abebooks. Both of these sites let you save searches, and receive email notifications when a new listing appears that matches your criteria. I know some sellers who have developed numerous and sophisticated sets of saved Wants. This strategy is particularly useful now that so many eBay sellers use fixed price listings, because it allows you to get a notification and buy the item before others are even aware of it.

Following is an example of serendipity in my own experiences while book scouting, that illustrates some of the points I’ve made here.

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In 2009 I went to a large college book sale. A high percentage of the books were recent – that is, printed within the last thirty-some years, and so had ISBNs. There were a lot of people with scanners, so rather than try to compete head to head with them I decided to focus on the pre-ISBN titles. One of the older titles that caught my eye was The End of an Era by John S Wise, a very good copy in original binding, published by Houghton Mifflin in 1901. The blurb on a recent reprint of this book from Anza Publishing describes the title as “one of the best first-person narratives of the Civil War period.” I saw that the book had a previous owner’s name (“Col. John Thomas Gibson”) signed to the front pastedown.

Additionally, there was a second inscription on the front free endpaper: “Given to me by my father / January 3d 1903 / Susan G Gibson”. I was intrigued by Susan Gibson’s period inscription, as well as the military rank included in Gibson’s inscription. On a hunch, I checked in the index of the book and found entries for a John T Gibson. Turning to the indicated pages, I learned that Col. Gibson was the commander of the Fifty-fifth Virginia Infantry based in Charles Town Virginia (now West Virginia), and was the first military commander to respond to John Brown’s raid on Harpers Ferry. In addition, his home in Charles Town was built on the site of Brown’s execution. The secondary inscription from Susan Gibson not only adds some charm and human interest to the book, but through publically available genealogical information confirms the identity of Colonel Gibson.

So the book, while not signed by the author, has a very cool association with a key figure in a well-known and controversial chapter in American history. Purchase price of $1.00, sold for $290.

This is an example of serendipity in finding a significant book and of building value by recognizing something about a book that others missed, and by applying research. Specialized knowledge definitely gives you a leg up in terms of recognizing the significance and value of a book, but my example shows that you don’t always need specialized knowledge. Sometimes just paying attention to detail and following up on a hunch is all it takes. Anyone could have looked at the book and seen that the name written in the front was listed in the index.

If you have a story of serendipity in your book selling experience, email me at editor@ioba.org or baysidebooksmd@hotmail.com to tell me about it. I think it would be fun and informative to publish a follow up to this article, presenting a variety of real life examples.

Timothy Doyle
Bayside Books of Maryland, IOBA
Baltimore, Maryland

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