-Hi Judith. What is your life story before getting into bookselling, in one paragraph (and no cheating with a fifty page paragraph)? Hi, Shawn, and thanks for giving me this opportunity to blab about myself. I grew up on a farm in rural Indiana. Dad taught high school science, while Mom was in charge of the homefront.Both Mom and Dad took care of me and my big sister Jane, and all of us together took care of a passel of chickens, cats, and dogs, plus Rackety the raccoon and the occasional rescued bird—not to mention a couple of vegetable gardens and lots of flowerbeds (Mom has always had a special touch with flowers). After finishing 9th grade in the local school (our entire class consisting, if I remember correctly, of five girls and seven boys), I was trundled off to boarding school in Wisconsin. There, surrounded by sweater sets and pleated skirts, I became the rebel girl I remain today. From there it was college at the University of Chicago where my time was spent less in bookstores (though there were some wonderful ones in Hyde Park and still are) and more in the stacks of the U of C’s magnificent Regenstein Library where I spent hours chuckling over original copies of the New Yorker from the 1930s and falling in love with S. J. Perelman when I should have been researching water imagery in the works of Virginia Woolf. Ah, well. -What are your first memories of books?
Well, since so many family members on both sides were teachers I always got the Newbery and Caldecott award winners for Christmas and birthdays. But my very earliest recollection of books involves cuddling with my Mom while she held a book open so I could look, too, as she read to me in her soft voice. Eventually, and to my utter amazement, I began to understand the words as she read them and then we were really reading together. That’s about the most lovely memory of my early life. Thanks, Mom.
-What attracted you to bookselling?
Sturgis, the town closest to our farm, was across the state border in Michigan. In this town was a stationer’s shop. In the back of this shop was a section of books. The place was owned by a wonderful old English couple. I wondered then and I still wonder how it happened that they settled in this place of all possible places. At any rate, I loved everything about their shop—paper bundles in various sizes and colors, writing instruments, beautiful leather journals, curious objects of diverse uses. And, of course, the books. I was a shy child but they made me feel at home. They saw that I was in love with books and they let me look, even though I could afford to buy very little. They had a wonderful collection of Dover and New Directions books. They introduced me to the works of Stevie Smith and Will Cuppy. Their shop had books which were so much more interesting to me than the dreary teen romances and series books available in the county library. I’ll always remember that shop as one of the most magical places of my childhood. I believe it instilled in me the idea that selling books could be a rewarding and honorable profession. -Where have you toiled in the field, and where did you run your own shops?
After college I stayed in Chicago for a while, working for the Little Sisters of the Poor (and no, I was never on my way to becoming a nun myself!). I would often stop at a used bookshop on my way home and one evening the owner said to me, “You’re always in here anyway, why don’t we just hire you?” And they did. I worked there as a part-timer for a few years, working my way from looking up paperback prices in Books In Print to handling the front counter while the two owners (the both of them quintessentially curmudgeonly booksellers) drank Guinness and pontificated to each other. I became friendly with a co-worker, whose dream (since realized) was to open his own shop. I’d never considered this as a possibility for myself before, but soon realized that my own bookshop had to be, almost inevitably, my eventual goal. But I needed more experience, more money, and, well, more books—at least more books that I was willing to sell from my own private stash. When I made the momentous decision to move to Boston, I knew I wanted to work in a bookstore full-time. I applied to a well-known shop and was told that since the job involved lifting books, and since I was a girl, I couldn’t be hired (those were the days, eh?). After several Kelly Girl stints I finally found a home at the Avenue Victor Hugo Bookshop on Newbury Street in Boston, where owner Vince McCaffrey and manager Tom Owen became my employers, mentors, and friends to this day. The Avenue Victor Hugo closed its doors a few years ago and is sorely missed, although both Vince and Tom are both still fighting the good fight and selling books on the internet.
Of course, I spent as much of my salary as I could on books, both for myself and for my dream shop. While I was still working at the AVH I started my own little business of quoting to books-wanted ads in the AB Bookman’s Weekly. I looked forward with breathless anticipation to receiving the AB on Thursday, then spent most of that evening in a comfy chair with my feet up and bright yellow highlighter in hand, seeing what was on hand that I could quote out. Of course, the actual quoting involved laboriously writing, by hand, several postcards a week, most of which were ignored. Still, I sold enough to make some extra money on the side and to maintain my optimism.
Eventually I took the big step, bade farewell to the AVH, and opened up my first shop in the middle of Davis Square, Somerville, MA. It was the size of a walk-in closet, and something of an experiment. If I could make this work, I thought, I could possibly make enough money to open a “real” store. At first people would wander in looking puzzled and asking “encouraging” questions like, “Is this all there is?” and “This is the tiniest store I’ve ever been in!” But I persevered and managed to cram a lot of books into that tiny space. After my three year lease was up, I got a lease on a larger place down the street where I stayed for six years. I had a nice landlord and Davis Square was (still is) a great place, filled with interesting people and things to do, close to Tufts University and just a few subway stops from Harvard Square. -Ken Haverly is your book mate. How did you meet, and do you find it fairly uncommon for couples to be equal partners in the bookselling business? Book mate and life’s companion! Ken and I met through mutual friends in Boston soon after my move there. I remember going to a party at his house in Somerville and thinking, wow, what a great music collection! But Ken himself I found somewhat intimidating, as he sat with his cronies in a corner of the room, surveying the scene from behind a very large beard, looking cool and enigmatic, making the occasional witty remark. Later I ran into him in line at the Boston Public Library, of all places, where we were both checking out books. He walked me home, we discovered that we liked lots of the same things, and became friends. When my Dad had a stroke and I took a leave of absence to take care of him in Indiana, Ken was wonderfully supportive even at long distance, my best correspondent by far. When Dad had recovered and I was able to come back east, both Ken and my job (thanks, Vince!) were waiting for me.
Ken and I didn’t start out as working partners, although we do both love books. Ken actually worked as an electronics technician for a long time, including a stint working with Henry Kloss on prototypes for audio systems. When we came out here, Ken pared away the electronics and started spending more time with books, and now has his own business selling books and occasionally records. He also keeps his hand in the technical side, designing computer programs for our own use and occasionally doing consulting work for other booksellers.
We knew we didn’t want to pay rent forever, either on an apartment or on a shop. And rents were skyrocketing in Davis Square at the time. Since Cambridge no longer had rent control, the Somerville landlords were getting a lot of business and went a little crazy themselves. We were also looking for a bit less asphalt and a bit more green in our lives. At first we tried a stint in Wellesley, where I operated Blue Moon Bookshop for a few years. But it didn’t take long to figure out that the suburbs were not for us. In the meantime, rent and overhead were going up, up, up. We decided we needed to own our own building for our own peace of mind, and we could not afford what we needed in the Boston area.
We’d been going to the Oinonen Book Auctions in Northampton every few weeks, leaving early on Tuesday and not getting back sometimes until the middle of the night. We kept telling Dick Oinonen that the trip was too much, we’d just have to move out west eventually if we wanted to keep coming to his auctions. He thought we were joking, but as it turns out, we weren’t. We fell in love with this area of Massachusetts, which struck us as having a more rural, more laid-back version of the Davis Square vibe. Lots of interesting people—working folks, artisans, musicians, academics, and eccentrics of all sorts—lots of great places to visit—five nearby colleges—great music and great food. The only differences were 1) it’s actually easy to park in the towns of the West; 2) the place is filled with fresh produce; and 3) you are never far from a lovely tree-lined winding road which is fun to navigate, either by car or on bike.
We’d already spent a lot of time looking at “commercial properties” in our price range by the time we encountered our Meetinghouse. Tired of slogging through squishy basements (quaint!), measuring the dampstains on old walls (original Victorian wallpaper!), and inhaling lungsful of the dust of good old rotten timber (rustic!), we decided to see what we could find in the way of more unconventional buildings. This led us to our Meetinghouse, which we visited as a sort of afterthought on our way back from an afternoon’s ramblings. As soon as we entered, we knew this was the place. When we left, we looked at each other and both said, “Could you live in an old church building?” and grinned that yes, we could. And now we do.
According to county records, our building dates back to 1850, but the Congregationalist Church across the street from us says it’s more like 1870. In any case, it’s a sturdy old two-story clapboard building originally intended as a chapel, then used as a Sunday school, then (1920s – 1970s) a Masonic lodge and finally a Grange building used for various community events such as Girl Scout sales, roast beef dinners, dances, etc. A building, in other words, with a most interesting past, and I hope a long, long future as an open bookstore.
-Any ghostly vibes there late at night?
No, dang it! Ironic, since I love all things spooky, and am a big fan of Victorian (and other) ghost stories. I hereby invite all friendly ghosts to submit their resumes. I’d love to play host to a blithe spirit (no poltergeists need apply). Of course there are those ghosts of authors and owners of our books lingering between the covers—wisps of hearts and souls and minds that went into the writing and the reading of them.
-No bosses, and now no landlords. Congratulations! Did you have to make any improvements?
Thanks—but I’m afraid I have to admit that both Ken and I are terrible slavedrivers as employers and, as the downtrodden employed, we’re both constantly threatening to go on strike. As landlords go, we’re pretty cool and let our tenants, us, decorate the place any crazy way we want to.
First thing we had to do was get the building approved as “mixed use” by our town’s zoning board. For this we drew up lots of diagrams, consulted with building engineers, and made several trips back and forth to attend meetings. Let’s see—we had to put in sufficient parking for five cars out front, and firewall in between every contiguous surface between our apartment (the back portion of the first floor) and the rest of the building (to be used as the store). This included putting in a new wall across the huge room taking up most of the first floor in order to separate our apartment. We put in a state-of-the-art smoke alarm system, and had an electrician come in to inspect wiring and replace some of the old stuff. There was much discussion of bathrooms. At first we were told we’d have to put in two bathrooms upstairs AND two bathrooms downstairs for customer use, but thankfully we were able to refer back to official code requirements which allowed us simply to keep the one that was already in place. Our apartment, of course, was a whole other story. We were very fortunate that there was already a huge kitchen in place (remember all those aforementioned roast beef dinners?) and a bathroom, so all we had to do was put in a shower and a new sink and we were pretty much set. The apartment is more or less one big space separated by bookcases, which takes me back to the old days of living in a loft.
In Boston we’d acquired our shelving bit by bit as we needed it. Plain, functional pine cases only, which we got cheap and which we are still using to this day. Since our move we’ve continued to add cases and have an excellent source for them right here in town. It’s a company where developmentally challenged young people are given the opportunity to become expert craftsmen, making very sturdy, economical pine cases to our specifications. -What quirks does the building have?
We have very nice old etched window panes which, however, we cannot see out of. Sometimes it can get a bit claustrophobic. Thank goodness that over the years some of these panes were broken and subsequently replaced with plain panes. I can, for example, look out at our backyard as I’m doing the dishes and wave hello to the squirrels.
-What are your specialties?
We’ve always said we specialize in good, interesting books in lots of categories. Mostly humanities, mostly inexpensive, though we do get the occasional high-priced rarity. Our customers tell us that we have excellent collections of literature, science fiction and fantasy, cultural history, and performing arts. We also have some vintage prints for sale—I especially love the wonderful old botanicals and early Victorian animal prints, but basically if it’s interesting and we like it, we try to acquire it for the shop. That goes for books as well as prints! I keep trying to talk my sister Jane, a talented nature photographer, into letting me sell some of her work in the store, but so far I’ve had no luck with her. Still hoping you’ll send me some of your stuff, Sis!
-How do you acquire most of your stock?
Just about every way you can think of. We buy some of our books from customers, of course, when they decide to winnow or when they move (this being an academic community, moving does happen fairly often). We buy books at auction, and at benefit book sales, and from institutions. We make house calls and we travel throughout New England to do so. We buy from other booksellers. If we see a yard sale, we stop to see if there are any books. And I must also report that in the past few years we have had the bittersweet experience of buying books from several bookstores that were in the process of closing their doors.
-Can you share some stellar finds and sales with us? A few of my favorites are the Borges 1st US edition of Other Inquisitions which was filed in with the religious books at one benefit sale (moral: look at every section, no matter what you assume will or will not be there); and some original handbills dating from Dr. King’s 1965 march from Selma to Montgomery which were tucked inside a box of books on African American history bought at auction. And then there’s the rare book we found in an obscure bookstore on one of our trips to to the Midwest. The bookstore was not in any guides; we just happened upon it in the middle of nowhere, surrounded on all sides by corn fields. The most rickety, decrepit place you can imagine, from the outside it looked like an old chicken shack, but the sign said “Books” so in we went. The inside wasn’t much better, dark and gloomy with cobwebs covering the bottom shelves and a grizzled little man behind the counter who informed us of the glories of his military history books. These all seemed to be, regardless of any distinguishing characteristics such as flyspecks, mold, or missing pages, priced at $50 each. No more, no less. $50 seemed to be his price for these treasures and he was sticking to it. Now, I hate to leave any bookstore, no matter how doomed and pathetic it appears to be, without buying something. But in this case a little something, not a $50 something, would really have to do. If I could only find a “little” something, that is. I poked around some amongst the cobwebs in the fiction section on a lower shelf and uncovered an early novel by an important woman author in dust jacket, somehow having survived its years on this shelf undamaged, with nary a nibble from any critters that were undoubtedly roaming about the floorboards. But, was it going to be $50 like the military history books? Or even more, because of its condition? No! I should have known! This was a novel by a woman, so must therefore be a romance and so was priced at a mere $5. Probably the cheapest book in the store. I bought it immediately, not asking for a dealer discount, and we fled. I sold the book for a healthy profit immediately upon our return to a first edition specialist who put it in a catalogue at very much more than he paid for it, and it has been merrily changing hands ever since.
-Tell us about the one(s) that got away.
Just last week Ken found a copy of a rare book having to do with 16th Century Portugal at a sale of a local professor’s estate books. Ken got the book home and looked it over more closely. It had some stamping on it from a well-known university library and, since it was not stamped “withdrawn” Ken checked the library’s records to make sure the book was okay to sell. As it turned out, the book had been listed as “lost” for years. Ken contacted the library, which was happy to have its copy back (sent by FedEx immediately). Ken was a bit sad to see it go, but happy to help the library out. I figure his karma rating is now way off the charts and I am expecting him to find something glorious on our front step any minute now.
-What percentage of your inventory is online, and is that mixed in or kept separate?
Funny you should ask, Shawn! Just last week I was considering how I hadn’t changed my online listings for a very long time (having been kept busy most of this year with the bookshop and various MARIAB doings). I came to the conclusion that the thing to do would be to wipe the slate clean and start almost from scratch. So we deleted listings that had been online and not selling for up to ten years or so, and now I’m left with exactly 70 titles online. Seventy. That is, let’s see, .2% of my total inventory. Not two per cent mind you, but point two per cent. I reckon that when my tenure as MARIAB President ends in a few months I’ll have more time to do stuff online and eventually I’ll get back to my “normal” few thousand titles, or about 5% of the shop’s inventory.
That said, I try to keep my walk-in customers foremost in mind. I figure that if they’ve made the effort to visit the shop they have a right to see what I have for sale, whether it’s listed online or not. So unless a book is exceptionally fragile I shelve it right in with the “regular” inventory. I have a primitive system (penciled checkmark on fep) for keeping track of what’s online, and a book where I enter sold titles so they can be deleted efficiently. Of course, if I ever achieve more than a few thousand titles online I will probably have to adopt another system, but I’ve always seen the open shop as my first love, and my walk-in customers as my first priority. I don’t, in other words, see how I’ll ever have enough time away from the shop to maintain an enormous database of online listings.
Ken, on the other hand, sells books and music regularly on eBay, and has some of his own listings on the online databases.
I’ve never been able to figure out averages of anything. I do know that there doesn’t seem to be rhyme nor reason to what days will be busy and what days won’t. Having a shop here is certainly different than having it in the middle of Davis Square or (as in the case of the AVH) on Newbury Street in Boston. Not as much walk-in traffic, to be sure, but the folks who do come, come on purpose to look at books—not to get out of the rain or pass time while waiting for a bus. We’ve had days here when NO ONE has come in, not a single soul. Followed by days and days of steady traffic.
This area has readers who live here all year long. It also has a large academic community which shifts around a bit from term to term. We get tourists who visit for different reasons during the course of the year. It’s a nice day trip from either Boston or NYC. People come for the antique shops, the antiques auctions and fairs, for the brilliant fall foliage, for events held at the colleges and museums, some even come especially for the bookshops!
Need I mention that Yankee Candle, right here in South Deerfield, is one of the biggest tourist attractions in New England? And of course, Historic Deerfield is right down the road from us and holds some very interesting exhibitions.
I’ve seen people dancing in the aisles of my own bookstore, which made me very happy. I’ve also seen desperate men trying to sell moldy books retrieved from dumpsters, which made me very sad.
-There is a fairly high concentration of quality booksellers in the Pioneer Valley. Were you well and hospitably received?
Yes, there are some great booksellers in the Valley, and several of them got together and gave us a party on our arrival. Not only that, they actually put an ad in the paper for our newly opened shop! Now, that’s hospitality. I think most of us Valley booksellers look at it as a real plus that we have so many open shops. The more shops, the more people are drawn to the area for book-buying trips. The New York Times has done an article on the Pioneer Valley bookshops, and the local free weekly the Valley Advocate came out with a guide to shops along Route 5/10 just a few weeks ago. We’re all booksellers, but we all have our own methods and our own inventories. Each store is a reflection of its owner’s personality, interests, energy, and expertise. Together, we complement each other; we refer customers to one another’s shops all the time; and we get along quite happily here in the Valley.
-And what about the South Deerfield reception?
Even though we had jump through hoops for the zoning committee, our reception in general was great. People brought us bouquets of flowers and lots of well wishes. A considerable number have become customers and even friends.
-Where should one have lunch after visiting your shop?
What do you feel like? Right here in town there’s a place for organic pizza, an old-fashioned luncheonette, and a cafe with internet access. Down the road apiece (as we say in the country) is some of the best BBQ I’ve ever had (chicken, pork, or beef) at Bub’s—which also offers such delicacies as ostrich burgers and alligator tail. If you’re willing to drive the few miles to Amherst or Northampton, you can have anything from Thai to Mexican to several varieties of Indian to vegetarian to burgers and fries. Not to mention ice cream. Loads of good ice cream, including the homemade kind, from local dairies.
-You are the current president of the Massachusetts and Rhode Island Antiquarian Booksellers. Tell us your understanding of the history of this organization.
MARIAB started out in the mid-seventies as a small organization of bookseller friends who put on an annual book fair in Cambridge. Since then it has grown to include every sort of bookseller, from fair-goers to online-only sellers to catalogue dealers, to open shops, to every possible combination of these. We have evolved from putting out a slender directory of booksellers to quite a sophisticated version, and have also developed a useful website at www.mariab.org.
-How many members do you have, and what does it take to join?
Right now we have 140 members, with a few applications pending. To become a member you have to be a bookseller with a place of business in Massachusetts or Rhode Island. You must provide written references from two current MARIAB members, and you must also provide a letter of your own in which you describe your book experience, type of business, areas of expertise, and anything else you think we should know about you. You must assert that you will abide by the MARIAB Code of Ethics as presented on the MARIAB website.
-MARIAB is in the middle of New England Independent Booksellers Association country, and right next to fellow entities such as the New Hampshire Antiquarian Booksellers Association. Does Rhode Island ever talk about seceding?
Gosh, I sure hope not! I think it’s great that Rhode Island and Massachusetts have clubbed together and I LOVE Rhode Island booksellers! Actually, what discussions I’ve heard have had to do more with collaboration than secession. I’d love to see some sort of regional organization develop which could incorporate all the New England states. There’s strength in numbers, people! NEBA, I should add, is a very useful organization which serves primarily independent sellers of new books.
-What services do regional bookseller associations such as MARIAB provide?
Regional bookseller organizations can provide congeniality and cooperation between booksellers, and greater recognition and trust from the public at large for the booksellers serving it. MARIAB prints an annual directory of dealers, with an index of specialties and a map so it’s easy to find a particular bookseller, a bookseller with a particular specialty, and the open shops in different communities. These directories are helpful to both booksellers and book buyers, and they are distributed widely. We also maintain a website with all the information from the directory plus upcoming events, any changes in dealer information since the last printed directory was published, and other announcements. We also maintain a MARIAB online mailing list for email communication between members.
Regional organizations can also create opportunities for booksellers to get together and discuss issues in person. We have four quarterly meetings to which every member is invited, and at which we have lively discussions of ideas and proposed projects. A little bit like, in fact, a good old-fashioned New England town meeting. Sometimes ideas spring out of the synergy of face-to-face meetings that no one would have thought of on his own. We also have guest lecturers from time to time at our quarterly meetings, including specialist dealers, representatives of other aspects of the book trade, and museum curators.
This past spring we held a very successful workshop concentrating on online selling for MARIAB members. We went in with an outline for morning and afternoon sessions and mainly held to it, in a pretty informal but guided “brainstorming” style. The success of this workshop was due mainly to the willingness of participants to share their experiences with the various online venues. We quite deliberately did NOT set up the workshop as an opportunity for any venue to promote itself, counting on our own members and our webmaster for their expertise. There were participants ranging from absolute beginners to seasoned online sellers and believe me, we all came away knowing something we didn’t know before. Plus, it was fun to get together for a frank and open discussion of online issues. Now I hear that the Vermont Antiquarian Booksellers Association will be holding a similar workshop, and I say good for them!
As for MARIAB, we’ve voted our desire to have future workshops. We have a number of topics which have been suggested as possible subjects for future workshops and we’ll be discussing these at our next quarterly meeting.
And, of course, we still sponsor two book fairs a year, as we have done from close to the beginning.
-What duties do you have as president?
What I’ve tried to accomplish during my tenure as president is to promote all kinds of bookselling, since they’re all vitally important to the trade. Whether you have an open shop, or sell strictly online, or only issue catalogues, or haul your books from fair to fair—as long as you act professionally and ethically as a bookseller, you are an equal member of our team. As president, I’ve tried to stress the importance of inclusion and cooperation. We booksellers are colleagues, not competitors, and everyone benefits from this attitude—especially the book-buying public.
-Anything exciting coming up for MARIAB?
Yes, indeed. We’ll be having our annual Pioneer Valley Antiquarian Book Fair on Sunday, October 21, at the Smith Vocational and Agricultural High School in Northampton, MA. This has always been one of my favorite fairs, with its scores of excellent booksellers offering a wide variety of merchandise in the setting of a town known for its own offbeat style as well as a sense of its history and its commitment to culture. The Book Fair will be held at the height of the fall foliage season, and all in all I would recommend this as a great weekend trip for just about anyone.
On a smaller scale, local MARIAB members have been invited by the Pocumtuck Valley Memorial Association to take part in its “Big Read” event to be held Saturday, October 6, in Old Deerfield. This happens to be the final day of this year’s “Banned Books Week” and since our community’s “Big Read” book is Fahrenheit 451, the PVMA has organized an event which will allow us booksellers not only to sell our wares, but to display our commitment to the “Freedom to Read.” For example, our South Deerfield neighbor Schoen Books will be there not to sell at all, but will display an exhibit on Book Burning and the Holocaust. I’ll be bringing along some information on banned and suppressed books, as well as books to sell, and MARIAB will have its own display having to do with upcoming events and community outreach.
-Thanks for your time Judith. Keep up the good work, and best wishes.
Thanks for inviting me, Shawn. This has been fun. I should mention that the Standard has been a consistently outstanding resource for years, thanks to your own excellent work and that of your predecessors. Also, all good wishes to IOBA, an organization I much admire and which I believe holds many of the same goals and ideals as does MARIAB.
Judith Tingley and Ken Haverly operate Meetinghouse Books in South Deerfield, MA
IOBA Standard, Fall Edition 2007, Volume 8, No. 4.