What is the name of your business and when was it started?
John Howell for Books started on January 1, 2005.
Where are you located?
Los Angeles, California. We live in a National Historical Landmark Property called the Village Green. If one were traveling West on the 10 Freeway from downtown, one would take the La Brea South Exit. East of Culver City and North of Baldwin Hills. People living Downtown, Hollywood, or points north and east think of the area as “On the way to LAX.”
Size of stock?
Generally speaking, my on-line listings hover in the 950 to 1,100 range. Currently I do not have my own web-site, so 900 are probably tired listings languishing on Amazon, ABE, Alibris, and the like. This of course does not take into account the thousands of books languishing in storage, which anyone in the So Cal area who would like to pick up some raw inventory on the cheap are welcome to inquire about.
When did you join IOBA?
Early 2010. I had known about it for about a year or two before I applied. It has been a very positive experience because for the previous few years I had been pretty much focusing on getting my on-line operations going and running smoothly, but having wider contacts in the trade is very important and productive.
What is your professional background? How did you come to the book business?
I have degrees in History from California State University, Fullerton and UCLA. European Church History and US Colonial History, respectively. When it became apparent in the early 1990s that I would be an ABD (all but the dissertation), I started casting about for work. My first job was with Barnes and Noble. My second job was for an ABAA rare book dealer, writing catalogs. That evolved into an 8-year gig, and when it was over I began buying and selling books on my own account.
Describe your business. For example, do you have any specialties? Employees/partners? Open shop? By appt.?
Basically, I work out of my home, which is a small (under 1,000 square foot apartment converted into a condominium complex in the 1970s) so currently no partners or employees. I have been working with California fine press materials, and miniature books; my first printed catalog, May 2011, included 113 items issued by the Book Club of California. Because this type of material is not a particularly hot seller on the third party venues I have been selling through, I have been doing more book fairs. I will be exhibiting at the LA Printer’s Fair on October 1st and then one week later at the Seattle Antiquarian Book Fair on October 8th and 9th.
Tell us about an interesting item you currently have in stock.
Currently I have a presentation copy of Victorien Sardou and Emile de Najac’s Divorcons! Comedie en Trois Actes, Paris, 1883. Sardou was an important writer for the French stage in the late nineteenth century. This play was a send-up of French divorce laws which were then under revision. The copy I have was one of 30 copies printed on Holland paper, but is unique since it is illustrated by hand with watercolors throughout the text. Even the parchment-covered boards are illustrated by hand.
What was your best find as a book dealer? How and where did you come across it?
Perhaps my best find as a book dealer was an edition of William Blake’s Poetical Sketches published in London by the Vale Press in 1899 on vellum. Of a total edition of 210 copies, there were only 8 printed on vellum; the copy I had was bound by the Dove’s Bindery. This was one of a lot of books I purchased from an estate sale in Los Angeles. Also among the books was a first edition of Robert Browning’s The Agamemnon of Aeschylus, London, 1877, with a manuscript letter signed by Elizabeth Barrett Browning. I’m still weeding through this collection, but perhaps I have already found the highlights.
What are the best and worst aspects of selling online?
I used to think that the worst aspect of selling online were the commissions paid to online venues like Amazon and ABE, and a concurrent loss of autonomy to the same players. But, it takes time to build up a clientele that one can call one’s own. As I branch out and make more contacts within the trade, I am finding that the 15% to the online venues feels comfortable compared to the 20% expected by colleagues. But one has to keep these things in perspective; since it has long been the case that most book sellers make most of their sales to other book sellers, and one needs to keep churning one’s inventory, the challenge for me right now is merely maintaining the cash flow to sustain myself in the trade.
Biggest challenge currently facing the trade?
I’m not sure I am able to speak for “the trade” as a whole, but I suspect that a challenge all used book sellers are facing has to do with new media, online and electronic texts of varying stripes, and the transition we are in with the world wide web becoming an ever growing part of peoples lives and more and more of the cultural heritage being available electronically. I’m just an observer. I have no idea how and if the ball will ever come to rest. But it’s fun to watch!