Walking the Line

>Too often librarians view booksellers as the enemy. This is a huge mistake. I have met the enemy, and I am him.

My first taste of bookselling came at 19 when I helped Half Price Books open their first Ohio store in Columbus in 1987. After several months of sorting, shelving, alphabetizing, and displaying thousands of books in every subject and genre I was taught to buy and (much later) to price—all at the “low” end of the trade. I fancied myself a knowledgeable bookman, and resisted their call to management to attend graduate school, erroneously assuming that English professors got to read and teach what they liked.

After two years of teaching freshman comp I fled to library school at Indiana University and discovered the Lilly Library. A walk through the stacks was all it took—I had landed in Faerie. The Curator of Books was a former antiquarian book dealer, and under his guidance I discovered the etiquette and endless variation of the rare book world through booksellers’ catalogues. It was then when I realized how hopelessly inadequate my education, comprehension, language skills, and memory really were. But it was fascinating working there, and every single time I went into the stacks I discovered books I had never seen or imagined, each one spawning (hydra-like) a fountain of questions. Aside from formal classes in descriptive bibliography and book history, I read catalogues and made mock-decisions based on a fictional budget and collecting scope, and discussed the choices and reasoning with my mentor. This training landed me the position of acquisitions librarian at the John Carter Brown Library (JCB), where I worked for 9 years, met scores of dealers, and spent over $3 million on Americana for the collection. Buying with institutional money is exciting, but it’s nothing compared to selling.

If I have a religious belief about bookselling, it is in the absolute value of the open shop to a community. I opened a very small one (500 square feet) called Book by Book in Warren, Rhode Island in September 2004, and filled it with about 6,000 general-stock used books, based on the Half Price Books model. I did not list online. My wife ran it with our 2-year-old son (I did the buying and pricing after coming home from my library job), and it supported itself until we had to close eight months later to have our second child. I learned some things about running a business, and sold my first “rare” book—a signed and corrected first edition of Anne McCaffrey’s The White Dragon. Taking a book bought for $20 and turning it into $300 through knowledge and persuasive description brought a feeling I’ll never forget. The challenge to one’s nerve and creativity is not to be matched in any other aspect of the book world.

These experiences have made me very sympathetic with booksellers, which has had a great impact on my relationships with them. Lawrence Wroth, librarian of the JCB from 1923-1957, and whose column inspired this blog, once wrote an essay called “Good Booksellers Make Good Libraries.” There is no better way to advance your collection than to cultivate real and lasting relationships with booksellers. The dividends are astronomical.

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2 thoughts on “Walking the Line

  1. >Right on! As a bookseller I agree and I would say that the feeling sadly is scarcely mutual –I was told by an old bookseller that the enemies of books are fire, water, servants, children and librarians. An appalling thing to say! Andy.

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