My name is Joe Perlman and I am the proud owner of Mostly Useful Fictions. The name describes my specialty, which I like to think of as “Useful Fiction” (i.e., twentieth century world literature). I sell what I love, mostly serious fiction, including lots of literature in translation.
My journey to becoming a book dealer has been long and meandering. It best described by some lines in a poem called The Waking, by Theodore Roethke:
“I wake to sleep, and take my waking slow. I learn by going where I have to go.”
In college, I majored in Psychology and English, and moved from New England to New York City in 1973 to start graduate school in Educational Psychology. In spite of the heavy work load, I would stop studying around midnight, just as the heat in the apartment building went off, turn on the oven for warmth, and pick up a novel. At the time, I was enchanted by the South American magical realists. Unfortunately, their writing did not lull me to sleep. Rather, I had to fight with myself to put the books down so I could wake up in time for classes. The last vestiges of the Book Row on lower Broadway and 4th Avenue were still in existence at that time, so I spent hours browsing and managed to acquire quite a few books, in spite of my meager student income.
In 1983, married with two children and three rejected doctoral dissertation topics, I dropped out of graduate school, left the not for profit world, and accepted a position on Wall Street as a computer programmer trainee at the infamous Drexel Burnham Lambert. I worked for several firms and progressed from trainee to programmer to programming manager. Eventually I left the technical side and became a business analyst specializing in the relationship between banks and brokerage houses. As my income rose, so did the number of books that I was able to buy.
By 1985, we left Manhattan for the suburbs. We moved to East Northport on Long Island and my commute to Wall Street grew to nearly two hours each way. I was able to buy and read more books than ever. In spite of the fact that the house had a den with wall to wall bookshelves, I still did not have enough shelf space. Every year the number of cartons of books in the attic increased. I collected modern first editions, South American and Eastern European writers in translation, and writers I fell in love with on the train—Yukio Mishima, Naguib Mahfouz, and William Trevor, to name a few.
In the early 1990s I saw an article in Biblio magazine about book collector groups. A Long Island group was mentioned, so I wrote a letter to the secretary asking for information about the group. They sent me an invitation to the next meeting, and I have been a member ever since. The organization, Long Island Book Collectors, meets monthly on Sunday afternoons at Adelphi University. Each meeting is hosted by a member on a rotating basis, and the member either recruits a speaker, or talks about some aspect of their own collections. I spoke several times, and continue to learn a lot from other members.
One of the valuable lessons that I learned about collecting was to focus and collect in depth. While I continue to buy modern firsts, I now seriously collect Jack Kerouac (who lived in Northport, Long Island for several years), James Joyce, particularly Ulysses and books about Ulysses, Anne Frank, and my newest collecting passion Alice Munro. The best part of belonging to a collector group is that you can talk about books with people who love them as much as you do. It is the only place I know where you can lament the fact that the one book you need to complete a collection costs $1,200, and the person next to you will not look shocked that a book could be so expensive, but instead will reply, “Well, you really should get it, you can afford it and you’re entitled to splurge every once in awhile!”
The other important lesson that I learned from the group was that one third of the members were also book dealers. They had formed a separate organization, the Long Island Antiquarian Book Dealers Association (LIABDA), and I was asked to speak to the group a few times about my collecting interests. I became friendly with some of the dealers, attended their twice yearly book fairs, and realized that I should become a dealer myself.
When my eldest child left for college in 1997, I started buying books for resale. I had decided that once I had 1,000 books to sell I would put them on-line. I gleaned through the cartons in the attic, scoured tag sales, library sales and used bookstores and by the fall of 1998 I was ready to start. I went to the county office to register my business name, received a tax ID number, and began to price and catalogue the books. Fortunately, I had a teen-aged daughter at home who was glad to earn some extra spending money by helping to enter the books into the database. I would make notes about the condition and price on a post-it attached to the front of each book. She in her typical teenage fashion would emerge at midnight and type away until dawn. When I awoke there would be a large pile of books without post-its, meaning the data had been entered, and a small pile of books with additional post-it notes with her questions. When the one thousandth book was entered, I uploaded them to Bibliofind, and was open for business. I remember the first order—a first American edition of Iris Murdoch’s The Sea, the Sea.
The orders increased slowly each year. I discovered that in part, it was a numbers game—the more books listed, the more orders. I now have about 8,500 books on-line at any given time, and hope to increase that number to 12,000 over the next year or two. Bibliofind is long gone, but I list on the standards, ABE, Alibris, Amazon, as well as my own website, Mostly Useful Fictions.
Since I always enjoyed writing, I began to write some humor pieces on making the transition from collecting books to selling them. They were published in the now defunct Book Quote magazine. When the editor of the LIABDA newsletter retired, I was quickly recruited, so I have been the corresponding secretary and newsletter editor for that organization for the past four years. Some of the pieces I have written for that newsletter have been reprinted in the Standard, and Book Dealer Monthly. Others are on my website.
Working full-time during the day, commuting two hours each way and trying to build an internet business have kept me pretty busy for several years. As of July, I have cut back on my day job to 21 hours, so that Mostly Useful Fictions could become my primary job.
Awhile back I wrote a piece about bookselling and the lottery. For me, most of the time being a book dealer feels like winning the lottery even without the big check from the State of New York. Mostly Useful Fictions really did start as the saying goes with just “a dollar and a dream.” That was the first time I actually bought a book at a tag sale, not for my own collection, but to start to build up an inventory to put up on the internet. I can even remember the name though it was sold a long time ago—Nick Hornby’s High Fidelity. It is a great book and I still pick up and list copies whenever I run across them.
A dollar here and a dream there, and the books began piling up. I may have chosen a few bad sets along the way, but the dream persists, and grows stronger over time.
I have held many jobs in my various careers. I lasted one night as a cook at McDonald’s back in high school. I have been a car jockey, a psychiatric aide in a drug and alcohol hospital, a supermarket cashier, a research assistant and a grants writer. I have taught early childhood development as an adjunct at a university in New York City. I have designed and developed numerous computer systems for Wall Street firms including money transfer that handle several billion dollars worth of wire transfers every business day. None of these jobs has given me the satisfaction that I get from selling a book that I love to someone eager to read and to own it.
Joe Perlman operates Mostly Useful Fictions out of East Northport, NY and can be contacted at http://www.mostlyusefulfictions.com.