I was always an avid reader: fiction, science fiction, natural history, dinosaurs, and on and on. I grew up in a dirty and dull steel mill town in southern Illinois, and was an introverted nerd with my nose usually stuck in a book. On Saturdays my mom would sometimes drop me off at the public library, where I’d spend hours reading, browsing, and wandering through the stacks. I do have the collector gene, but its early manifestations focused on stamps, coins, seashells, and even rocks. At that time I did not accumulate books, other than a long shelf of the Hardy Boys mysteries. However, a high school graduation present was prescient: a framed print of “The Bookworm” (painted in 1850 by Carl Spitzweg), that now hangs on the wall at Squid Ink Books.
I went off to college, eventually receiving a degree in meteorology, and started working for the U.S. Weather Bureau. Then, after only a few months, an Army draft notice came in the mail, motivating me to enlist in the Air Force. This was in the mid-1960s when the Vietnam War was heating up. As a military weather forecaster, I spent all of my eight years of service here on the mainland. Two tours of duty at the weather center near Omaha, Nebraska, were separated by 18 months when the Air Force sent me to Colorado State University for graduate studies. Eventually I earned both an M.S. and a Ph.D. in Atmospheric Science and worked at NOAA Research Laboratories in Boulder, Colorado, and Norman, Oklahoma. I spent most of my Federal career as a severe storm researcher, but there was a decade lost to mind-numbing administration.
Beginnings of Squid Ink
Squid Ink had its beginnings in Norman, Oklahoma, in the summer of 1994. It was a hobby business that my wife and I started in rented space at an antique mall. We hoped to sell off some of the many antiques we’d accumulated over the years, along with some primitive oil paintings and several hundred “old books” that I’d picked up while antique hunting. I knew far more about antique furniture at that time than I did about books. Our first sales tax permit was for, “SQUID INK – Antiques – Art – Collectible Books”. My wife had been diagnosed with advanced breast cancer, and our shared business venture served, at times, as a welcome distraction from the grim medical situation.
You might be wondering, as have many of our customers, where the Squid Ink business name came from — especially since neither Oklahoma nor Arizona are very close to an ocean. It’s pretty simple: during the 1990s our oldest son was doing intricate drawings of various marine creatures, and we were inspired by his vivid drawing of a squid. It was a good choice, since it catches people’s interest and they tend to remember it.
During 1995, as my wife’s medical situation worsened, we lived part-time in Arlington, Texas, in order to be near a well-known cancer clinic. I remember quite specifically that it was April 4th, 1995, a Tuesday, when I heard author and bookseller John Dunning being interviewed on “Good Morning America.” He was promoting his second Cliff Janeway mystery, The Bookman’s Wake, and I listened to him with fascination, my interest especially aroused by his mention of many titles that I had bought and read over the years. Of course, I had always purchased cheap, BOMC copies and recycled them to other readers, but Dunning was saying that the first editions of these books had real collector’s value. Naturally, I went right out and bought both of the Janeway books and read them through. When there were breaks in my wife’s medical treatments, I started browsing and studying the books in used bookstores around the Dallas-Ft. Worth area.
Sadly, my wife lost her battle with cancer, and I became a grieving and lost soul — my grieving, for better or worse, channeled itself into the world of books. They say a person should avoid making major decisions too soon after losing a loved one, but this is easier said than done. Feeling that I couldn’t deal with my mind-numbing administrative position anymore, I put in my paperwork for retirement, and proceeded to shift the focus of Squid Ink from antiques to books, which became a way of helping me through this time of personal and family tragedy. Before long, I was acquiring hundreds, and then thousands, of books, which accumulated throughout the house, in boxes and piles and stacks. Then, in what I can only explain now as the manifestation of some form of temporary insanity, I purchased the entire inventory of a fantasy, science fiction, and horror bookstore that was closing its storefront. I had never read fantasy and had only read a couple of horror novels, but I became a kind of instant specialist.
An internet romance
Eventually, I met a new love, Katie Hirschboeck, a professor in the Laboratory of Tree-Ring Research at the University of Arizona, in Tucson. We shared a love of weather and climate, and most importantly, books. Following a long-distance internet romance (we may have been pioneers in that regard) I moved to Tucson, along with my now thousands of first editions, and Katie and I were married in the Fall of 1997. The Mayflower movers who packed up my house in Oklahoma were amazed at the boxes and boxes of books they were loading. Then I directed them to my full-sized storage garage, which was completely filled with still more books. When I raised the overhead door, the two movers just stood and stared until one finally said, “My God, man, you must really read a lot!”
We had an authentic mud adobe house built and modified the plans so that what had been designed as a separate garage became our book casita — the home of Squid Ink Books. Not surprisingly, the space in the casita (Spanish for “little house”) proved inadequate, and the books spilled over into the main house. So, as part of our settling in, I had to wholesale several thousand books to Bookman’s (a local version of Half Price Books).
How the business evolved
Inspired by the Dunning books, I began studying first editions, collectible books, book terminology, etc. I subscribed to AB Bookman’s Weekly and Firsts. I ordered booksellers’ catalogs and pored over them. Of course, I continued to buy books. When AB would come in the mail I’d rush through the ads and get on the phone to various dealers, hoping to be the first to claim some desired item. In retrospect, I feel lucky to have jumped into bookselling at the tail end of its classic period, as some traditions were coming to an end and new ones (courtesy of the internet) were starting to develop.
For most of Squid Ink’s history I have focused on modern first editions by authors that I had read and enjoyed – with the notable exception of that crazy purchase in Oklahoma. When I began trying to sell some of the books I’d accumulated, I would send out price lists to dealers who advertised in AB Bookman’s. My first catalog was patched and pieced together — literally cut, pasted, and Xeroxed. As I look at it now, I see that it was frighteningly naive, almost embarrassing. But, it was a start and an important part of my learning the trade, which of course has continued right through to today. One thing I learned from sending out catalogs was that I needed to pay closer attention to my pricing. This happened when Malcolm Bell, of Mystery & Imagination Bookstore, called one day and said, “I’ll take everything on your list.” That’s a lesson I can’t forget!
After we were married, Katie pitched in to help me and Squid Ink join the digital revolution. She is technically adept, while I am a plodding dinosaur who does not take naturally to technology. We signed up with ABE during the Spring of 1999, and I’ve been uploading books ever since. I tried buying and selling some on eBay, but always ended up angry. I’ve been a member of IOBA since its early days, except for a self-imposed hiatus in reaction to the presence of Flatsigned as a member. (When he vanished, I returned.) We now list books at ABE, Biblio, IOBA, and on our own website (www.squidinkbooks.com), which was designed and is maintained by Katie. I compose a couple of catalogs each year and mail them out directly to folks on our customer list. Although stuffing envelopes is even more of a drag than uploading new books, direct sales amount to more than 60% of our business each year, so I’ll continue with catalogs, though it might seem old-fashioned to many.
For the last several years I have been trying to cull low-priced books and focus on higher priced, more collectible books. This has resulted in significant donations to the local Friends of the Library. Perhaps the biggest mistake I made during earlier times was buying signed mysteries. There are a couple of mystery bookstores in Arizona, and I bought numerous brand-new books that had been signed by their authors. This made sense because these could be sold, at a reasonable profit, to folks in the hinterlands who didn’t have easy access to signed books. However, I did not keep close track of what was happening online, and that market changed significantly as mystery bookstores across the country began advertising signed stock at flap price. Squid Ink ended up with hundreds of new books that couldn’t be sold at a profit.
Would I do it all again? Definitely! But of course I’d do it better, and concentrate right from the start on higher-end, more collectible books. And maybe not pick up quite so many of those brand-new signed mysteries.