My brother and I started fooling around with the idea of starting a shop in early 2002. He was finishing up at Rutgers and my days of fruitfully mucking about with the stock market (back when you could do that – and even say it out loud) had ended with a gasp and a sputter. Before that I’d been a (para)paralegal, a telephone operator, a line cook, a dish washer, and, very briefly, an 11th grade English teacher. I used to tell people that we were aiming to explore our ambivalent relationship with capitalism, but really, I just didn’t want to go back to work for someone and I was fast approaching an age where doing something as self destructive as opening a bookshop was going to be difficult (or at the very least, a difficult sell to my lovely, supportive, but ultimately sensible, wife). So for the better part of a year, with no earthly notion what we were doing, my brother and I went (separately: he in New Jersey and me in Boston) to weekly FOL sales, yard sales, barn sales, library downsizings, and the occasional dump, collecting the books to open our store with.
Did I mention that we didn’t know what we were doing? The problem was, that we both had studied English Literature (I’d even bombed around graduate school in Albuquerque to the tune of 38 credits), so far from recognizing how little we knew about the book business, we thought we might be experts. We also knew next to nothing about selling books online. I had been selling some “first editions” on Ebay, my sole reference being the little McBride’s pocket guide, but we didn’t really game plan for the internet (insofar as we game planned for anything). This was going to be, we supposed, a bookstore where humans walked in and bought books. Ah, youth.
Where were/are you located?
At the time we were living in Jamaica Plain, a Boston neighborhood that at the time was teetering on the line between colorful and gentrified, but rents had skyrocketed there. We looked around and settled one neighborhood further out from downtown in Roslindale, a subwayless urban neighborhood of triple deckers and single family homes. It was a quirky space and over the years we experimented with art openings, coffee shops, and even a skee-ball machine, but what it really had going for it was a 2000 sq. ft. dry basement. As you might imagine, we quickly realized that if we were interested in paying our bills, we were going to have to either open a speakeasy down there, or embrace selling online. So the basement was piled high with boxes of books from clearing out houses as people cashed in on their rapidly appreciating properties (this was 2003) and moved out of the city. We were indiscriminate and vigorous in those days, and our education in the book business was grimy but effective. When we first went online, we sold general stock like crazy on half.com, but as our stock diversified (and Ebay killed half.com only to replace it with zombie half.com) we added ABE and eventually Amazon, Alibris (since abandoned), Biblio and others.
In the middle of 2008, we moved the store one more neighborhood out (running away from rent increases) to the West Roxbury neighborhood. By 2025 I should be in Rhode Island. And in 2010, my brother moved on to work with the social enterprise bookshop More than Words, so now Pazzo is me and the occasional local urchin tricked into shelving some books.
When did you join IOBA?
I joined IOBA in the Summer of 2011.
Describe your business. For example, do you have any specialties?
Early on we decided not to really specialize, wanting to stay relatively omnivorous, but years of buying books that interest me has led to areas of concentration in early science and medicine, literature (some 20th but generally 18th and 19th) and illustrated books. A strange sort of a hobby cooking from old cookbooks has led to a specialization in early cookery books (which I can go on and on about, be warned!).
Size of stock?
I’ve had right around 8,000 books online for years – culling, space issues, and acquisition speed seem to conspire to keep it right around there. After 8+ years of running the walk in shop and the internet as increasingly parallel businesses, they each definitely have their ups and downs. Without the internet the shop would have long ago ceased to exist (putting aside the notion that without the existence of the internet, the shop would be fine), and the internet does allow a 24 hour business that is very appealing (especially for pathological order checkers like myself who get a charge out of every $25 order). No matter how often I try, adding better books to the shelves rarely draws more customers in, but if you add more online stock, it certainly works which is appealingly simple. If it wasn’t for the store, the anonymity of selling online would get to me, I’m sure – once in a while it’s nice to put a face to an order – but consistently, my least favorite aspect of selling online is finding a place for all the books. Real Estate in Boston being what it is, it’s a constant shuffle to find somewhere to put all of this stock, and since the move to smaller, more affordable quarters, it’s been a squeeze getting all of the books situated on site.
Biggest challenge currently facing the trade?
Though used bookstores seem to have weathered the storm of closings better than new shops, rents, disinterest and the internet have thinned our ranks considerably. With libraries increasingly leaning towards the multi-media, I sometimes wonder where new readers and collectors will come from. It’s possible that new technologies will allow the sort of discovery online that you can now only find in libraries and shops – that moment of serendipity when your eye passes over a neighboring shelf and finds something that you never imagined existed, but I’m not holding my breath. Maybe a new generation of book fairs and festivals will pick up the real world slack? But I remain incautiously optimistic.
Tell us about an interesting item you currently have in stock.
A reprint of Lohrmann’s 1878 masterpiece “Mondcharte in 25 Sectionen” (he completed the chart ca. 1824 but it was not published until Schmidt collected it in 1878) one of the loveliest 19th century moon maps. The actual map that he drew is in one piece, but it was published in 25 sections and, somehow, seems more lovely and moonlike for it.
What was your best or favorite find as a book dealer? How and where did you come across it?
Certainly not my most profitable, but I dug a pamphlet out of a table lot at a “pick” auction years ago that still warms my heart to think of. The great utopian socialist Robert Owen, famous for his rejection of religion and superstition as elements of control and repression, wrote this crazy spiritualist piece late in his life called “The Coming Millennium” (1855). It was as if all his striving and hard work at creating a world where workers weren’t exploited left him with this grand, nebulous hope that was expressed in this pamphlet that was everything he had spent his life railing against. Splendid and confounding.