Things You Don’t Know Can Cramp Your Style


Spring 2004 (Vol V, No. 1) Table of Contents

So, the other day I was chewing the fat with this guy, this book collector guy, you know, and in the middle of emailing the conversation back and forth this guy he comes right out and just gives me a URL for a Roman numeral converter. Without even asking if I needed it, or wanted it or anything. And like, it gave me like the weirdest feeling, you know? I was shocked for like an entire ten minutes. I mean, I may not know much but I KNOW my Roman numerals.

I have since found that there are many Roman numeral converters on the net. Why is that? Has American education devolved to the point where Roman numerals are considered higher math? I think I learned how to convert them back in third grade. Granted there were nuns and corporal punishments involved and until I discovered I was a bookseller, they weren’t good for much of anything except reading inscriptions on buildings and the thing at the end of the movie next to the MPAA rating. But now it is just something I can do subconsciously. It’s really hard to imagine that it’s not common knowledge anymore.

There are a lot of basic skills a good bookseller should have, being able to convert Roman Numerals is one of them. Even if you have to you make up a post-it crib note and put it on your monitor, do it, because eventually you just have to do it all by yourself on the fly. When you’re standing in a crowded aisle of a book sale holding a crappy ex-Harvard-library copy of Frankenstein it’s good to know it DOES say 1836 on it. A little knowledge is a dangerous thing…and most especially when you don’t have it.

Another useful asset is a basic knowledge of Latin. Now, I am not saying you need to be able to stand up in from of the class and conjugate “amo, amas, amat” like an “O” level student, but to be able to distinguish the verbs FROM the nouns is a good start. Epigraphs still pop up in Latin from time to time and for those of you 21st century booksellers who don’t know what an epigraph is, you have bigger issues at hand. Besides if Latin wasn’t still a valuable asset, why would Harry Potter be translated into it? Huh? Nevermind. Trust me, it’s a good thing and it can’t possibly hurt you.

Speaking of epigraphs, versos, and appendices: learn the proper terms for the PARTS of a book. You learned the proper names for all YOUR body parts. Why not do the same for the thing you supposedly hold most dear? And don’t be alarmed when you find that people who publish books, people who collect books and people who print books have different terms for the same parts. Parts is parts, use good reference works, like Carter’s ABC’s of Book Collecting and the first chapter of Chicago Manual of Style. Oh yeah, BTW: the Internet is NOT the end-all and be-all of information, it’s just the tip of the iceberg. GET SOME REFERENCE BOOKS.

And speaking of the Chicago Manual of Style… learn how to write a proper catalog listing or bibliography. You need to know the correct forms and terms before you can go off and start inventing your own abbrevitions. THIS: “cvrscuff,crnrbmp&edgefeather, H2Owaving,edg’fthr&spinecrs LibraryHB, dw/DJ.Ins.cvrpg.cutout,typical-mrk&stmp”….IS BAD. Can you hear me in the back? If you don’t have a good manual of style by anybody in the house, look up listings by long established booksellers like those in the ABAA. Learn by example. You can’t tack up an unprofessional listing of a valuable book on any old database and expect people to take you seriously; that’s how accidents happen.

Another thing that not enough booksellers pay attention to, which I don’t think even has a name, but is the ability to recognize non-English languages by sight. You know that table that everyone cruises past at a booksale? The one over next to reference? It’s covered in books that aren’t in English; you may not be able to read any of the books, but it is helpful to know if something is in Icelandic or Farsi or Sanskrit. At least it will make you feel all superior while you browse. Oh yeah and guys, those books that look like they are written in some gothic script language, guess what? It’s pre-1930’s German using the Gothic typeface, and if you look around you can find an old Cassel’s English/German-German/English Dictionary in the same typeface (which I don’t think anyone produces anymore.) If I am not mistaken a German first edition of Nietzsche would be in this typeface…but how would YOU know?

That’s all I can think up at the moment. I am well past the deadline on this thing and if I think about all the knowledge that used to be passed from learned bookseller to apprentice bookseller wanna-be that isn’t I get all wound up and start hollering at the computer screen, but that could be just me.

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