I fell into bookselling quite by accident. I had been a bartender in Toronto during the 80’s, but relocated to Southern California in the early 90’s when my dad became ill. I took a job at a Crown Books retail store as a stopgap until I could find a suitable bartending position. Little did I know at the time there was no turning back. I think bookselling appealed to me in part because my fellow employees at Crown were an amazingly eccentric and brutally funny bunch — one of those mixed groups of wannabe screenwriters, actors, and the usual migratory folks that help make SoCal a very stimulating place. It didn’t help that the original store manager was seriously injured in a motorcycle accident before the store was set to open, thereby allowing the inmates to run the asylum for what seemed like the better part of a year. Bookselling struck me as a glorious clusterfuck thanks to my first experience with it, and aside from a brief few months reading electric meters and dodging pit bulls, I’ve done nothing else for the last 20+ years.
My wife and I attended the Colorado Antiquarian Book Seminar in 2000. Later that year we purchased the inventory of a modern firsts mail order dealer. My wife has since decided that antiquarian bookselling isn’t for her, but she still puts on a mean Brodart. In addition to IOBA, I’m a member of the Rocky Mountain Antiquarian Booksellers Association (RMABA), and the Antiquarian Booksellers Association of America (ABAA).
Beginning in 2003, my wife and I began planning our Great California Escape. We lived in a nice neighborhood, but my wife had this silly idea that a house should be where people lived, rather than a warehouse for books. So we started to look for a place where we could afford larger living quarters, and Southern California didn’t fit the bill. We looked at places we had visited previously, like Oregon and Ohio, but neither was quite right for us. We recalled enjoying our time in Colorado Springs when we attended CABS in 2000, so we started doing some research. We liked what we saw, and my wife flew out to Colorado to meet a realtor, who took her around Colorado Springs. Afterwards they went to Pueblo, which is about 40 miles south of Colorado Springs, or just “the Springs” as the locals call it. My wife fell in love with Pueblo’s old architecture, the area was more affordable than the Springs, and voila! Our mid-life adventures began in 2008 in Southern Colorado. I could ramble on indefinitely about what a great place Pueblo is, especially for a bookseller like me, but if readers have gotten this far I don’t want to punish them unnecessarily.
I’ve been very fortunate along the way to have met a number of great booksellers, and I can share a couple of anecdotes that have guided me in this business. There was a bookseller in Southern California with an open shop that my wife and I visited quite frequently. No doubt I made a pest of myself, but he was a very patient man. He said there are two things a bookseller never asks a colleague. One, who his customers are, and two, where he gets his books. Most anything else is up for discussion. He also mentioned that a courtesy discount is up to the seller to offer, not for the buyer to ask.
At one of my first book fairs where I was exhibiting, I got to chat with a very knowledgeable bookseller from Northern California. I must have been lamenting my sales, or lack of sales, and I think my lament might have sounded like belly-aching. “Son”, he said to me not unkindly, “you can always buy your way out of a bad fair….but it takes nerves of steel!” Advice that I try to remember, especially when sales are slow. I can’t sit here and claim that my nerves are any steelier today, but I do try to practice the flip side of bookselling, and that’s book buying.
It strikes me that being a good online bookseller requires a different skill set than working in an open shop. Some booksellers are good at both, but one skill that seems essential for all booksellers is the ability to buy intelligently. As one of my colleagues puts it, any knucklehead can sell online. The major online bookselling venues make it reasonably easy to sell. More than one of my generous mentors has told me that the skill, or the art, or the simple difference between profit and loss comes from knowing what to buy, and how much to pay for it. I’d also say that in my experience the only thing a bookseller likes more than selling books is buying books. So rejoice, brother and sister booksellers! After all, didn’t we get into this business in part because we love to buy books?