An Interview with Donald Hawthorne of Noah’s Ark Book Attic


Noah’s Ark Book Attic

-Let’s clear something up right away Donald. How did you come up with the name Noah’s Ark Book Attic?

The name Noah’s Ark Book Attic grew out of my background in my family’s antique business known as Noah’s Ark (“a little of everything” was the slogan).

-You have been in the business for over fifty years. How did you get started selling books?

When I started with book selling in the late summer of 1944, my father had a corner of his antique store devoted to books. He was acquiring them as part of the purchase of estates and being a lover of books and of reading, he always wanted to make books available to others. With one free-standing, two-sided book case holding about 500 books, he was shelving them all under a sign reading “25 cents each, 5 for $1.” As a thirteen year-old, also a lover of books and reading, it was my job to keep them straight and dusted.

In all my wisdom at thirteen, I decided that some of those books were worth more and suggested pricing them individually. With foresight I was only later to appreciate, Dad agreed and turned the job over to me. Living in the area of John C. Calhoun’s home, Dad had just purchased an estate including some books which had belonged to Calhoun. I decided in my new position as manager of books that those were certainly more valuable and priced them at what I thought was a realistic but still reasonable price. They were promptly purchased and the buyer wanted any more we could find. There were of course no more but that was my introduction to the law of supply and demand.

Over the next ten years I accompanied Dad on antique buying trips, mostly to New York in those days, and learned much about books by spending all day walking from store to store among the booksellers of lower 4th Avenue. I found most of those booksellers to be very helpful with advice and encouragement. One of them, Wilfred Pesky of Schulte’s Bookstore, suggested I subscribe to the Antiquarian Bookman, newly established about 1948, the year I left for college. I must have been a nuisance to many a bookseller for I began asking for catalogs from just about every one who issued them. Then, while I was in college, I worked in the library under a student aid program, giving me access to book catalogs from around the world. And, I still went home regularly to price, shelve and organize Dad’s ever growing inventory of books. Also I still accompanied him on buying trips stretching to Boston and down to Philadelphia and many cities in between.

Finishing college I married and then attended a graduate school for three years. During my last year in graduate school, I bought a professor’s library and, upon graduating, decided to establish my own business. It was natural to pick up my Dad’s store name since I was not opening a store but selling exclusively by mail.

-What are the mechanics of the catalog method of bookselling?

My first catalog came out in the summer of 1954, almost exactly ten years after my beginning. It was produced on a hand operated mimeograph machine, purchased from Sears, Roebuck for, I think, under $40.00. I sent out 100 copies to names gleaned from a library directory.

For quite a number of years, bookselling was a passion but I had paying jobs and my wife brought in a salary as a public school teacher enabling me to support my passion. I typed my catalogs in the evenings and on week-ends, graduating from a mimeograph machine to a table-top offset press. The mechanics of catalog production changed as the technology changed, but most of my books were modest in value and hence would not justify commercially produced and highly illustrated catalogs. Nevertheless I tried always to keep in mind that the customer knew nothing about the condition of my book except what I described. And, I always, then and now, maintained that anything I sold was fully returnable for any reason, or no reason, for a full refund.

-How many catalogs did you issue over the years, and do you have copies of all of them?

I have maintained a file of copies of all my catalogs, except for two that I turned over to a copy shop to produce while my offset press was dying. The copy shop went broke before they did my catalogs and I never got back the originals, nor did I ever get around to listing those books again. Without those two, the total corpus of catalogs was just under 400.

-Do you remember the first book you ever sold?

My first catalog sale was to a professor in Massachusetts who bought a copy of a New England church history and wrote to tell me how pleased he was with the price (postage was included—I think it was under seven cents to mail the book) and packing. As a side note, thirty-five years later he wrote to tell me how outrageous my prices had become and to please take him off my mailing list. I still had the original letter and was tempted to taunt him with it, but that, of course, would not have been very courteous. And, the end of this story is that when he died, several years later, his widow called me and said that he had told her to contact me about disposing of his books.

-What was bookselling like back in the mid 1900s?

Then, as now, there were several types of booksellers and I wanted to have a large, browsing type of store. It wasn’t until about 1961, that I opened a retail store, with limited opening hours, but with an ever growing inventory. Until then, I issued catalogs and wholesaled the unsold routine books, packing away the better quality ones. Those that were packed away became the nucleus of an open store. Subsequently, every collection purchased was cataloged and then the unsold books became store stock. Dad had died in 1960 and while his business continued, with an inventory of over 100,000 books, little new stock was added. While none of the books from his store came to me, I was able to open my store with substantial experience in sorting and displaying books for browsers. Between 1961, my store grew from under 2,000 square feet, to over 7,500 square feet and the inventory grew from under 5,000 books to a final total exceeding 140,000. My philosophy was twofold: 1) continually cull the poorer titles and, 2) keep the books well organized. The majority of the books were still cataloged first and stayed off the open shelves until the catalogs were totally out-dated. That enabled me to have the books organized before they went on the shelves. It also made it possible to rather quickly assemble large subject collections that I could offer to libraries aiming to grow their collections quickly.

-How did you acquire most of your stock?

This period in the two decades following the Second World War was one of rapid expansion of existing colleges and universities and the establishment of a number of new schools. It also was a time of building new libraries and moving out of, and frequently demolishing, the old ones. Hence there was a good market for reasonably priced collections but there was also a great opportunity to buy books as old libraries were cleared out. Consequently I purchased continually and on a large scale, one time buying over 35,000 books from the attic of a school. They had been prepared to pay to have the books transported to a land fill. I bought them and spent years gradually going through the boxes to find out what I had. There was the usual chaff, but some very fine scholarly books and a sizeable group of truly antiquarian books as well. That was also the collection whose acquisition gave me the bookseller’s worst ailment—back trouble. It was many years before I stopped having spasms of back pain.

1961 was also the first year I traveled overseas, to England, to buy books. That’s when I first met Peter Eaton, a London bookseller going back to the late 1930s. I had gotten on his mailing list, a fortnightly flyer listing several hundred books, from which I was buying heavily. Books came from England in those days, via mail, for pennies a book. When I took this first trip over, I met with representatives of a packing and shipping firm and thereafter, all my books came back by ocean freight. Peter was another bookseller who bought on a large scale and was anxious to sell on a large scale and I bought many, many thousands of books from him. He was also generous with advice for one who was still something of a novice at large scale bookselling. He died some years ago, but his wife is operating the business still. Another English bookseller from whom I purchased large numbers of books was Leslie Walker of Nelson’s Bookroom. Leslie, at the time I first met him, was in Brighton, but about the same time I moved to the country, outside Greenwood, SC, Leslie moved to Shropshire, to a small village. He also is no longer with us and his book shop has been closed. I still, however, keep up with his wife and three children.

Throughout the early years, most of my stock came directly or indirectly from college and municipal libraries. Recognizing that small towns in the South, and even some smaller cities, did not have any used book sellers, I visited the libraries in the area, introducing myself and urging the librarians, when offered books which they could not use, to have the donor contact me. Those were the days when practically none of the libraries had “friends” who would handle sales and I received a large number of calls, frequently obtaining fine collections. That was the indirect route. Through the direct route I also was able to buy from these same libraries books they were unable to use, not only because they were duplicates or outside their area of interest, but also because they were in fine bindings or were very old or in non-English languages. I bought in those years everything from incunabula to splendid leather bindings to hand illustrated plate books and more. Some of those books are now, having been in my boxes for as many as thirty-five years, part of my present inventory. This was also a period when I prepared lectures on making use of the out-of-print bookseller to sell your books and making use of the out-of-print bookseller to buy books for your collection. Through a librarian who taught library science whom I had met on my book buying trips, I was able to offer to future librarians useful advice not normally available to them.

Some of the young ladies (they were all young ladies in the classes to which I presented my information) kept the accompanying printed material and sometimes many years later remembered and called me to sell me books. One of these ladies had become a staff member in charge of cleaning up the accumulated donations of many, many years, and called me from six hundred miles from where I was. She wanted me to come and buy what I could as, she said, she had found regional booksellers unwilling to pay more than pennies per volume. I didn’t know who the regional booksellers were, but I purchased enough books to fill a tractor trailer, paying considerably more than pennies per volume.

-You must have handled some important estate libraries over the years.

While I obtained most of my books from libraries, plus the smaller estates who were directed to me by the librarians, occasionally I got large estate libraries. In the early days, there were so few booksellers around that people had difficulty finding someone even to look at their books. It was not unusual for an estate to be cleared out, including the book cases, and I was called in when the books were on the floor and the house was to be shown by realtors. It is no longer the case, but sometimes the books were worth probably as much as all the furniture combined. Since banks never understood how anyone could make money selling books, they were unwilling to make loans available, so I depended on my outside income for much of my buying.

-Any strong memories of the one that got away, whether an individual title or a large collection?

While I was steadily selling books and generating cash flow, I was forever enlarging the inventory. My accountant kept telling me that I was never going to get ahead. I made it a fixed practice, however, not to buy anything I could not pay for. With a very few exceptions, I maintained that stance but had to turn down some wonderful collections because I couldn’t pay for them. One included an elephant folio Audubon’s Birds, signed with a warm presentation note. I never have regretted not getting it as I couldn’t have done anything with it but quickly resell it, but it was a thrill to handle it. Another time, I had to, reluctantly, advise a prospective seller that their books should go to one of the major auctions. I did have in my store for about a year, the final books in the estate of Wright Howes, including the original notebooks from which he compiled his “USiana.” I was not able to buy that collection and the owner eventually decided if I could get for it what I was asking that perhaps it should be withdrawn from me and sold without paying my commission. I’m still not sure exactly what happened to these.

-Tell us about your specializations.

During most of my career I specialized in theological books, in all major languages, any part of the world and any denomination. My first purchase was a theological library and through the years I handled unknown thousands. There were other, larger theological booksellers but I cataloged through the years as many if not more than any other bookseller. For a number of years I was issuing six to eight catalogs yearly, each of which contained from 500 to, sometimes, over 2,000 titles. But, I also bought books on just about every subject (including some that turned out to be unsalable—and they are hard to eat!). I issued catalogs on South Caroliniana, Americana, Literature, History, International Affairs, Art, Biography, and other subjects. Within the theological field, I published catalogs at regular intervals on Church History, Hymnology, Church Arts & Architecture, Missions, Bible Commentaries, Festschriften, and others. I sold large collections in all those fields, the largest being over 24,000 books that were shipped from South Carolina to Hong Kong

-Did you discuss the book business with colleagues on a regular basis, or did you go it alone; and did you have rivals, friendly or otherwise?

Probably because of my early experience going from one to another of the bookshops in New York, all of whom graciously helped me find another shop that might have some of what I wished to buy, I never saw other booksellers as rivals—they were always colleagues. With only a very few exceptions, I have observed the same attitude among other booksellers. We are a rare fraternity who care about and help one another. In the days of AB Bookman’s Weekly (the same Antiquarian Bookman to which I subscribed in 1948) we had a means of keeping up with one another. When a bookseller suffered a disaster, be it fire, flood, or ill health there seemed to be an outpouring of assistance from others. I remember well when I had a spell of bad health, publicized in AB, and the offers of assistance that came from booksellers whom I did not even know, including some from overseas. Being in a backwater, so to speak, there were few booksellers very near me so, except for my travels, I didn’t meet many other booksellers but, looking back, I am still amazed at the number who came by to see me. I still remember the several older booksellers in my area, though their names are slipping from me. There was Gittman’s in Columbia, SC. The Book Basement and Schindler’s (an antique shop with some wonderful books) in Charleston, SC. There was Peachtree Books and Kinsey’s in Atlanta. Going north there was Lowdermilk in Washington, Leary’s in Philadelphia, Schulte’s in New York, Goodspeed’s (two area locations) in Boston, plus many, many others, almost all of which are now gone. Without a single exception, they were all courteous and helpful to me the entire time I had occasion to visit them.

-Booksellers grumble a lot about various things now. Is this a new phenomenon?

Courtesy to fellow booksellers is appreciated but it would not be correct to say no one ever complained about things. Grumbling is a part of dealing with the public and booksellers are not exempt from it. We all have favorite stories about our obnoxious visitors (sometimes even our customers) and our stories, wherever we are, seem remarkably similar. All of us have the browser who wants to know if we have read all these books. We all have had the people who want to know if we will take $5.00 for that $20.00 book, or something equally ridiculous. We are constantly asked where we got all those books. Plus there are the innocent souls who want to know if we sell books or if this is sort of like a library, plus the equally naïve ones who want to know if we buy these books or are they given to us. Then there are the equally obnoxious ones, to librarians as well as booksellers, who do not like the way we have arranged our books and consider it their bounden duty to re-arrange them. We have to fight off our primal urges when we find someone in our store room busily emptying boxes in the apparent belief that our finest books, and especially the one or ones they want the most, are hidden away. Then there are the occasional shop lifters—the ones I knew seeming primarily to steal single volumes out of sets. While I frequently know who they are, only once did I catch one in the act. That is not a happy memory. The ones that I knew probably never realized how few customers came in a store out in the country on a given day and hence never guessed that I knew the only person who came in that day was the one who stole from me. I made it a practice when they returned to follow them everywhere they went. Without me saying anything, most of them seemed to get the message and stopped coming.

Surprisingly, since I closed the large store in South Carolina and moved to North Carolina where I have only two or three thousand books on the shelves and six thousand or so on line, I have had very few grumblers of any kind. I don’t know if it is the change in my inventory, or my white hair and wrinkled skin, or maybe my increasing tolerance but few people seem to complain about anything relating to books. Of course, I get my share of conversationalists who are convinced that I have nothing to do and have plenty of time in which to help me do it. Many of these grumble about everything from politics and religion, to the state of courtesy these days, to the non-book store merchant down the street who wouldn’t take time to listen to them. Still, I have learned a lot through the years listening to people who know many things I do not.

-I guess I have to ask about your take on the internet, noting that you have kept up nicely with the floodwaters of change.

The last two catalogs I issued were financial failures. For many years, I counted on a catalog to sell enough books to repay its cost, pay for the books sold out of the catalog and generate a little profit. The remaining books that went on the shelves (and were never re-cataloged) would become somewhat delayed profit as they sold. The last two catalogs I issued, in 1999, did not return their cost of producing a mailing. I lost several hundred dollars on each one. It was such an abrupt transition that I immediately made arrangements to go on the Internet. I had been exploring the possibility from the days when Dick Weatherford of Alibris fame, who visited my shop in the pre-internet days, was writing in a number of articles for AB Bookman’s Weekly about the future of selling books using a computer. Because I had been publishing catalogs using a series of separate databases for several years, I had a ready-made inventory to upload. When a bookseller in Kentucky recommended I purchase BookTrakker for setting up and uploading my inventory, I was soon ready to go with 10,000 plus books. Andy Gutterman of BookTrakker was very helpful in my leap into this new venture, as he still is to users of his program, and almost instantly I discovered that I could sell more books in a week on the Internet than I was accustomed to selling in a month in my store or by catalog. I miss the catalog business and the special relation with the customer, but I don’t miss waiting a month or more for all payments to come in, the delay between catalogs, and the ever more complicated postal regulations. Sales are not as easy or as steady as they were in the beginning but with one’s willingness to adjust to the changing climate in the Internet community, this is still a very good way for me to sell my books. We have a proliferation of sellers who seem not to know the basics of describing their books, and there are the changes by the large venues removing the customer, in many cases, further from the booksellers, plus the fee structures that switch more and more of the profit from the ones who went out and purchased, described, packaged and shipped the books to the ones who more and more provide a less and less user friendly, but extremely large, venue for display of the books. Without some of the search engines it would be extremely difficult if not almost impossible to find many of the desirable books among the millions collected and displayed. While I have not been asked for my take on the present state of Internet selling, I would suggest that a great deal more needs to be done to help find the books on the sites but, with some wonderful exceptions, I find the opposite to be taking place.

-Where do you sell online, besides your own website?

I still list on ABE, Alibris, Amazon, Biblio, ZVAB, Antiqbook, IOBA, and TomFolio. I am willing to list my books on any site that produces profits exceeding costs. Two of the above are border line. My web site is probably something of an ego trip. I get to put my picture on it and list, with pictures, a few of my finest, but it has been neglected to the point that it is getting out of date. One of these days, as I am prone to say in recent years, I am going to add some more great books and some more pictures.

-Are your internet books in with the regular shelf stock?

I keep my Internet stock entirely separate from my browser stock. That way, if a book goes missing, I have only myself to blame. From time to time, a book does seem to vanish into thin air.

-What are the pros and cons of running an open shop?

Without an open shop and with only an Internet presence I would miss most of the wonderful people who share my love of old books. I probably would miss some very good buying opportunities and many of the dealers and volume buyers who still stop by to see me. Even with my overwhelmingly antiquarian (pre-1840) stock, I still sell numerous boxes full of books several times a year to persons who drive up and find books they want. If I did not have an open shop, though admittedly with somewhat limited days and hours, I would probably become a crotchety old misanthrope, loving the books but hating the customers.

-Words of advice for those starting out?

Proprietor Donald HawthorneIf I were starting out today it would not be possible to do many of the things that I did when starting sixty plus years ago. But I believe there will always be a place for a browsing book store, with a variety of selected books, neatly shelved and fairly priced. And the experience gained handling these books gradually leads to a better understanding of the rarer or finer books that do not come our way very often. I deplore the tendency, even with the books that are common to every library sale or thrift store, to turn them into a commodity, automatically cataloged with scanners, priced with software that searches the Internet and compares prices, and never really dealing with the book as an individual item with its own message. Book selling has changed, mostly for the better, but some things must always remain, whether we sell on the Internet, in a store, or by catalog. Things like proper descriptions, fair prices, knowledge, courtesy and respect. Like Bertrand Smith of Acres of Books, lastly in Long Beach California, who almost made it to 100 years actively buying and selling old books (and also a customer), I too hope for many more years of book selling. It is a rewarding and relaxing way of life.

Thanks for your time and insights Donald, and best wishes.

Donald Hawthorne operates Noah’s Ark Book Attic in Tryon, NC and can be contacted at http://www.noahsarkbookattic.com.

IOBA Standard, Summer Edition 2007, Volume 8, No. 3.

The Standard: The Journal of the Independent Online Booksellers Association

Check out the Independent Online Booksellers Association Website