-Tell us a little about yourself.
Bookselling is my second career. As a ’74 graduate of the US Coast Guard Academy, I spent the first 23 years of my professional life as a “Coastie.” In the mid-80s, I discovered collecting first editions, Charles Dickens specifically. Knowing that someday I would be pursuing something other than Search & Rescue as a career, I looked at antiquarian bookselling as a possible pursuit. I established the business in 1989, home-based, and found I enjoyed the challenges. I opened my shop in Alameda two weeks after my retirement from the service. That will be ten years ago next July. Where has the time gone?!?
-What led to your interest in out-of-print and antiquarian bookselling?
While collecting, I gave some consideration to the academic side of English literature, but discovered two things while taking a course on Dickens at Stanford: first, sometimes “a cigar is just a cigar,” and second, for me at least, it’s impossible to enjoy a work being studied when the reading of five 900 page works, rich in their tapestry, is compressed into three months . . . after all, it took usually took Dickens over 19 months to write one of his novels.
-How did you learn the trade?
You know there’s no degree program to becoming an Antiquarian bookseller, so I employed a combination of approaches:
-Initially I apprenticed with Barry Cassidy in Sacramento. This was for four months or so back in 1989 before I actually started my own business. Mainly this was to see if I enjoyed the profession, and to get a taste for the mechanics of it.
-Read voraciously in the area. A. Edward Newton. David Randall. David Magee. Rosenbach. AB Bookman. Firsts magazine, etc.
-When able, I took courses/seminars on various aspects of books and bookselling. I took the Colorado seminar in 1996; since then I’ve taken around a dozen Rare Book School courses.
-Established a reference library. I think I’m pushing 2500 volumes now. Many think that’s a lot, but it pales in comparison to others I know. For example, have you seen Heritage’s reference room? Wonderful.
-Finally, there is no substitute for actually looking at and handling books. Go to bookfairs, go to other shops, go to library exhibits, etc.
-What aspects of maintaining a physical bookstore are the most problematic?
Well, a few things come to mind here, especially since, at present, I’m a one-man operation.
-Book control. They’re all over the place . . . floors, in boxes, etc. Not to mention, keeping them from “walking off” in somebody’s pocket or whatnot.
-Customer control. I’m not a neighborhood bookshop, so often people that come in are just curious, which is fine, but it can result in unproductive time away from my work, not to mention the occasional damaged book. Had a young girl once throw a first edition Nancy Drew, in dj, across the shop . . . only God knows why she did it, I sure don’t. The mother gave me a sheepish look like, “What can I do?”
-What are some of the most unusual things that ever happened in your shop?
Nothing too unusual. I mean days pass where the only person to wander in the shop is the postman and the only person to call is someone wanting a donation for (fill in the blank). However, I get over 500 emails a day, and the bulk of my business is conducted via the net in one manner or another, so I keep busy.
-Are all of your internet listings available right there, or are some or all of them stored offsite to maintain the described condition or to simplify inventory management?
The preponderance are in the shop . . . somewhere.
-You have achieved what many booksellers can only aspire to—an established shop in a good location, ABAA-level knowledge and success, and a solid record of giving back to the trade. Another hallmark of success seems to be specialization, which leads us to the topic of Charles Dickens. Why Dickensiana?
Because I know the subject from my days of collecting Dickens, plus I put my collection up for sale through the shop, so I had instant “critical mass.”
-Dickens lived at Tavistock House in London for awhile. Why did you pick this name for your business from among the many possibilities?
I wanted a connection to Dickens, but nothing too, shall we say, overt. And I liked the sound of Tavistock Books.
-How many Dickens titles do you currently hold?
Roughly 950, which is really less than 10% of my available stock.
-Where do you acquire most of it?
Here and there . . . other booksellers, estates, direct purchase from old customers who are downsizing, walk-ins, etc.
-What’s the furthest you’ve ever gone for it?
New York. Bought a Drood collection there back in the ‘90s.
-Do you sometimes pay the going market value just to capture more desirable stock?
If I pay “market,” then it’s for something rare that I believe undervalued, and once I’ve catalogued it, there will be a higher market value assigned. A good example is some Filmer material I recently bought from Bernard Quaritch; I thought the books under-valued. And I noticed once I uploaded my record of Filmer’s most famous work, another copy appeared, listed at about 10% less than mine, which meant my price had been accepted as the new “market.”
-What are some examples of Charles Dickens non-book materials that you have been able to offer?
Oh, paintings, prints, Toby mugs, engravings, letters, drawings, etc. I currently have in stock an 1873 oil painting of Dickens, a couple letters, two 19th century lithographs and an 1868 drawing of Dickens by Bachelder done while the great man was visiting Niblo’s during his 1868 visit to the US. Pickwick, which was Dickens’ first novel, when first published in 1836-37, generated tons of ancillary material and you see ads for it in the parts issues of his novels. Today I’d liken it to all the Bart Simpson stuff you see around. However, other than books owned by Dickens, of which I handled a few, I’ve never had a personal artifact, like his inkwell or some such, owned by the Inimitable (as he used to like to call himself). One of these days!
-What is the Holy Grail of works written by Charles Dickens?
Probably a first of Great Expectations, in the original cloth.
-Do you think there are still some undiscovered works out there somewhere?
No, probably not. I could be proven wrong, but Dickens has been a focus of so many collectors for so long, and with all his children having passed, to my mind, the likelihood of anything being undiscovered I view as quite low.
-What is the most definitive bibliography?
For Dickens . . . there isn’t just one. An Antiquarian bookseller who handles Dickens on a fairly regular basis should have at least four. See my earlier IOBA Standard article, “A Dickens Reference Shelf” for more info [August, 2002, Volume 3, No. 3].
-Tell us a little about the world of booksellers who specialize in Dickensiana and the collectors, scholars, and institutions they cater to.
Dickens remains a popular author with the book buying public, as well as book collectors, and many ABAA booksellers specialize in his works: Heritage, Vandoros, Sumner and Stillman, MacDonnell, to name a few.
-Are most of your serious Dickens clients in the U.S. or Great Britain?
Most of mine are in the US, though occasionally I send something back to England, especially now that the £ is so strong against the $.
-What is your favorite Dickens biography?
Edgar Johnson’s two volume Charles Dickens: His Tragedy and Triumph. Came out in 1952, is readily available (was a book club selection), and is the most scholarly treatment of Dickens to date.
-The best film version of A Christmas Carol?
Wouldn’t know. I don’t watch film versions of Dickens’ works. Just a personal aversion, for I found myself remembering the actor that played the character, rather than the image approved by Dickens and rendered in art by his illustrator.
-When I think of Dickens, I think of the power of the pen. Without his genius for writing, he may have been just another faceless victim of economic oppression rather than a champion of true reform. I wonder what he would make of the state of the world today, and I suspect he would have far less ability to do anything about it, as that level of authorial fame and influence is no longer achievable outside the realm of fluff and fantasy.
Well, I’m not sure I agree, at least totally, but that’s a debate for another day, and another forum.
-What other areas do you specialize in?
Children’s serial fiction, such Tom Swift and the Hardy Boys. And I’m actively building my stock of 17th century books printed in English. I find I’m attracted to that period, so am trying to “get smart” on it.
-What are some of the more interesting non-book materials you have handled?
Well, the more interesting material to my mind is book-related art. I have had some original artwork for illustrations, as well as cover art. One of the most arresting was a large painting for a hard-boiled detective pulp . . . you know, beautiful woman crumpled on the floor, ripped bodice, with a guy brandishing a pistol standing over her. Lots of reds and other primary colors. It sold at the first book fair at which I exhibited it.
-Closing thoughts on our noble profession as it exists today, succinct or otherwise?
Well, the landscape is changing since I first entered the business in 1989, with changes wrought by the Internet. While it was true then, as it is now, that anyone could be an Antiquarian bookseller, no knowledge required, that same individual’s reach was constrained by geography. The net has extended that reach globally and a professional Antiquarian bookseller now has competition from anyone who has Internet access. Hence, one way to differentiate one’s business from the mass of amateurs that populate ABE and eBay is to join a professional organization such as IOBA. Long may it prosper and grow.
Vic Zoschak operates Tavistock Books in Alameda, CA and can be contacted at http://www.tavbooks.com.