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Selling Civilization

It isn't easy being a bookseller these days. We are being assaulted from every side, by what seems to be progress, or at least that's what people call it. A few years ago I referred in print to the current explosion of instant world-wide communication technology as the Electronic revolution, comparing it to the Industrial revolution of the 19th century. I continued by pointing out that just as people living in the midst of that industrial explosion of mass manufacturing could hardly have foreseen the long-term effects of that major cataclysm ...
Published on 14 Dec. 2009

By David Mason

It isn’t easy being a bookseller these days. We are being assaulted from every side, by what seems to be progress, or at least that’s what people call it. A few years ago I referred in print to the current explosion of instant world-wide communication technology as the Electronic revolution, comparing it to the Industrial revolution of the 19th century. I continued by pointing out that just as people living in the midst of that industrial explosion of mass manufacturing could hardly have foreseen the long-term effects of that major cataclysm (the regimentation of the assembly line with all its droning boredom, industrial pollution, unions, the nouveau riche, etc.), so was it unlikely that we could see the implications for the future in a world where Tokyo or Timbuktu are, in a technical sense, right next door. The book trade today, along with lots of other long established systems, is now in a very precarious situation. Everything is changing and while we don’t know where it’s all going, we do know it’s out of our control.

There are so many changes occurring, and so quickly, with only slight hints as to the directions we are heading, that it’s hard to know where to start, but some things are quite clear. The used book business is in great peril. If the rare book trade seems less precarious, the implications for it are just as ominous because the used book business is the base of the pyramid, of which the rare book is the apex. If the traditional used bookstore survives it will be in a very different form from now. About the only used bookstores that seem to be operating successfully are those where the proprietors seem to know virtually nothing about books. Nor care. They buy for a buck and sell for five, and seem to me entirely lacking in discrimination or any sense of quality. I suspect that even they can only exist by owning their building. I drop in to some of them occasionally, but they are so boring I can seldom force myself to look long enough to find something. I hope they are not the future, but I fear they are; at least in the cities.

Rents in the rejuvenated centers of most North American cities have outpaced a bookseller’s ability to pay them. Used bookstores need a lot of space and they need it cheap. After all, used bookstores dealing in recent books at half price, or out-of-print books which are still fairly cheap, need, by their very nature, browsers to seek them out. That means ample space and time, for the books must wait for the person who wants them to come in and find them.

I should here explain the difference between new and Used & Rare books. Used & Rare was once a generic term for anything not brand new, although in recent years it has been superseded by the designation Antiquarian (another futile attempt to confer respectability.) Used bookstores in the past would usually contain the leavings from the previous hundred or hundred and fifty years – from last year’s bestsellers to the reprints of the works of famous writers, the purged books of people moving, and the libraries of the deceased. While the bulk of the stock in a typical used bookstore would consist of such books, in the last 60 or 70 years the space which paid the rent was the area in front, which sold used paperbacks, the common reading of the young and the impecunious, which heavily outbalances hardcovers in sales. Paperbacks in our time have fuelled the used book business, while the larger general stock of hardcovers gather dust, sometimes for many years, until the right person finds them. It should be clear from this that used bookshops, because of those long periods between pricing and sale, often contain what we call “sleepers”, books which time has rendered grossly underpriced. Another of the many reasons to frequent used bookshops.

Our new bookseller friends and our publishing friends, may not be aware that in the early 19th century and before there were no such categories. The Bookseller was everything. He published, then sold new books, but he also sold old books, so the entire world of bookmaking was often incorporated in one firm.

In the 20th century, with publishers already a separate entity, new booksellers and Used & Rare gradually split into two camps as well. In Toronto, for instance, Roy Britnell would be the last to actively participate in both fields, although the Beggs of Contact Editions kept their hand in with new books until they recently moved to a smaller store when they pretty much dropped the new books.

We have now evolved to a situation where almost all new booksellers and publishers ignore the antiquarian book trade, and often demonstrate their abysmal ignorance of our side of the trade by blaming used booksellers for all their missing books. It is not uncommon to hear accusations from the new booktrade about the sleazy used bookstores who buy books stolen from their stores. While there are such sleazy bookstores, just as there are crooks and thieves in any human activity which uses money as a means of exchange, in my experience, the percentage of crooks in the used book business is much smaller than in just about any other business I have experience of. Most used booksellers go to enormous lengths to avoid buying stolen books, and in fact, we have a very successful network world-wide devoted to just that. Every day we read new stories about the bankers and investment dealers who steal millions but I have yet to meet a wealthy used bookseller. There’s an old joke in the Antiquarian booktrade that the only way to get rich in bookselling is to be already rich when you enter it. But the truth is that such sadly ignorant accusations really only accentuate the further splintering of different aspects of a trade, which once was unified.

And sadly, the current situation, which seems to me to threaten the whole trade is also eroding the already thin line between used and rare. Essentially used books would be all secondhand books from the last 100 years or so, while rare or Antiquarian would refer to those books which have rapidly become desirable because of their importance, for literary, scientific or historical reasons and, of course, scarcity. A couple of instances; called in to appraise the collection of a Biologist whose specialty had been genetics, myself and the other appraiser thought we were in for a quick job when we first surveyed the books. A third of them were in the familiar green bindings which denoted they were all original editions of Charles Darwin’s books, all books which can be dealt with quickly because they have extensive bibliographical and sales records. The other two thirds of the library contained very modern books, some from the 20’s onwards but mostly from the 50’s and 60’s. This will be easy, we assumed, until we examined them closely. Every single one of the recent books contained the first appearance of some new scientific advance in genetics. It took a good deal of research for two dealers with little experience in that field, and even we were shocked to find how valuable some of them were. And in the literary field, the enormous popular success of Harry Potter combined with very small first printings caused the early first editions to quickly become very expensive. Thus we find that for quite different reasons, recent books become quite valuable.

With the Internet now rendering most used books unsaleable one finds dealers like myself separating themselves further by not even buying almost all books from the last 100 years or so. While I hate this (I have always believed that an interesting $5.00 book is the equal of the $500.00 book in all values except monetary), I now have no choice. When we check the internet sites to find 150 copies of a modern book, we begin by not bothering to list our own copy, and it doesn’t take long for us to realize that we shouldn’t even be buying them in the first place. So now instead of Used & Rare we increasingly find Used disappearing and Rare hiding in offices and homes, appearing only at Bookfairs.

When the world-wide web started to function there was a state of near ecstasy prevalent in the book trade. Books started to sell to people in places like Tokyo, Singapore, Australia, Eastern Europe, good books, but ones which previously we would have anticipated might have taken 15 years for the right person to come along. Pessimists like me weren’t so sure and now we see why. Rare books, being established by their scarceness and intrinsic importance, are less endangered. But there are many cases in the last few years where the Internet has demonstrated that some books, once considered rare, are considerably more common than current owners find comfortable. What I’m saying is that many so-called rare books are not rare. Last year, obtaining a first edition of Samuel Johnson’s Dictionary I priced it at $30,000 and offered it to one of my most serious clients. “No thanks”, he said. “I was at the Los Angeles bookfair last week and there were three copies there.” Johnson’s Dictionary is not a rare book; it is an expensive book, as it should be, being one of the literary cornerstones of western civilization. Because it was expensive when it was published in 1755, it would have been purchased only by the wealthy, and instead of being read and tossed aside, it mostly languished for a couple of centuries on the library shelves of those huge country houses and survived in great numbers.

But the great books always sell, in fact they are now more saleable than common books. Most dealers will tell you that they can sell a $2,000 book more easily than they can sell a $20 book.

But what used bookstores need, even more than space and cheap rent, is customers; people who actually come in and browse and find books they weren’t looking for but can’t resist; or books they didn’t know existed by authors they never heard of; or simply a newly discovered book that appeals to their curiosity. The Internet seems to have affected even people’s visits to stores. The consensus amongst those colleagues I have talked to seems to be that store sales have been down over a lengthy period from 20%-50%. It seems that almost everyone uses the Internet to buy most, if not all, of their books. The intricate and, I believe, essential connection, between the buyer and the dealer is thereby threatened, to me perhaps the worst aspect of the entire current situation. I will touch on this later.

So, used bookshops are closing at a speed which is scary to people who care about learning and civilization. Right now this is mainly booksellers, and perhaps the habitual customers, but the implications seem to me to far exceed the economic concerns of a few guys like me.

A famous writer once said that the degree of civilization of a country could be measured by the number of used bookstores it could sustain. Years ago a friend of mine counted all the stores on Queen Street in Toronto, including the small independents and specialty bookstores, along with the used ones. His count was twenty-seven; now there are four I can think of. Anyone who thinks such numbers are insignificant should read no further. I read a piece, maybe 10 years ago, about the British trade which pointed out that in the previous 10 years Britain had gone from 3000 bookshops to 300. This was attributed to high rents, the high streets of British towns having become too pricey for used bookstores. The Internet has exacerbated that, but now it is apparent that that is only part of it. Friends and colleagues who closed stores to deal from home thinking they could feed their families from the net and the occasional visitor, have often had to send their wives out to work or seek other means of supporting themselves.

But what is most troubling to me in all this, is that collectors need some years of experience in collecting to be ready for books in the higher price ranges. And it is my deep conviction that only in the used bookstores can they educate themselves to obtain that level of sophistication which will prepare them when they are faced with a high price for a book they need for their collection or their library. And what will happen to the education of new collectors when there are no used bookstores? Who will teach them what they need to know?

The large chains, after decimating many of the independents and capturing the average new bookbuyer, have staffed their stores with young and ignorant, minimum-wage staff. A friend of mine seeking Evelyn Waugh’s “Decline and Fall” was told “try ancient history you might find ‘her’ there.” Another, wanting Maugham’s “Cakes and Ale” was referred to the cooking section. No one expects a kid working for low wages to have an encyclopedic knowledge of our literature, but your average used bookseller not only knows these things, he can lead you to them, or find them for you, and more often than not will recommend similar books that you might not know about. All these things point more and more to the triumph of bland mediocrity over the personal guidance offered by a knowledgeable bookseller. Every serious reader and collector I ever knew, knows that having a knowledgeable dealer to instruct and guide them especially in their early years is essential. A friend of mine, a long time and astute collector, told me recently that years of experience had taught him to start with the best dealers. Although they will often be more expensive, they tend to get the best material and he found after various unpleasant transactions that the high-end dealers often end up cheaper in the long run. A very wise conclusion!

One of my oldest clients, a lawyer, would often, early in our professional relationship with books, apologize for taking up so much of my time. As a lawyer he knew that what I was really selling was not just my books but my knowledge, my experience and my time, and he felt guilty that our lengthy talks were infringing on my time.

Since he is now not only a client but a close friend, who shares many of my personal interests and joins me during some of my scouting activities, and in fact competes with me in a couple of our shared collecting interests, I thought it wiser not to admit that these sometimes lengthy sessions discussing collecting tactics are enormously gratifying to me and one of my greatest rewards as a bookseller.

I thought that a bit of guilt on my friend’s part might be to my advantage on our scouting trips thereby giving me a slight edge in the acquisition of some book we both coveted. The truth is that in the end my greatest pleasures as a bookseller have come from these relationships and the excitement and pleasure of the great books I have handled is far less important than the long periods of shared experiences I have with my long-term clients.

What all this illustrates is that the experienced dealer prefers the knowledgeable collector, for what greater pleasure than to offer a treasure to someone who will instantly recognize it as a treasure. In those cases the book sells itself, no small benefit for a pathetic salesman such as me.

And just in case you think you have heard the worst, I have barely started. How about this as a side issue? An article in a major rare book magazine recently pointed out that Oxfam, that noble attempt to feed the hungry children of the world, operates many bookshops in England which are further decimating the trade. These shops operate with volunteers and, of course, their stock costs them nil since it is all donated. It was also suggested, in the article, that they were given preferential rents by landlords because of their charitable nature (although I believe that subsequently Oxfam refuted that). But it hardly matters; with free stock and free employees they could pay double the going rent and regular used shops still could not hold their own competitively.

Right here, in Toronto, most of the University Colleges hold yearly sales under the same principles. They use volunteer labor, get the books free – many, many thousands of them – and use the University facilities which, of course, are publicly funded, for free – not a bad deal. During the period from September to October that Trinity, Victoria, U.C., Innis College, St. Michaels, and Wordsworth run their sales hardly a book gets sold by the regular used bookstores in town. And furthermore I’m told the books are no longer very cheap since with all their free labor they check everything on the Internet, (like the ignorant back-room booksellers so prevalent on the net) and are pricing accordingly. Gossip filters back that indicate these college sales are taking in between $75,000 - $125,000 each from these sales. I haven’t gone to any of their sales for 25 years, in spite of the fact that one with my knowledge and experience could obviously still buy very well and make a pretty good profit. But I don’t go based on the sensible principle that you shouldn’t encourage those people who are stealing your livelihood. One irony I find amusing in this situation, is that any group except booksellers, would probably organize themselves and raise a big stink about publicly funded institutions who are forcing them out of business. But booksellers generally choose to march to their own drummers and I don’t foresee them doing anything. A further irony for me is that were such a thing to ever occur, the Universities, who are contributing to the death of used bookstores so unthinkingly, would probably back down at the first hint of public protest. That is certainly true if their general moral cowardice in the face of several recent assaults on free speech and the democratic principle of the free exchange of ideas in Universities, is any indication.

A famous bookseller in a talk to the Grolier Club (perhaps the most prestigious club for book collectors in the world) once said of bookselling, that it was “perhaps the last profession in the world where a man could still control his destiny”. This noble thought, which I never miss an opportunity to quote, and the mindset which causes it to be true, ensure that booksellers may fuss and whine at these gross assaults on their livelihoods but they won’t involve themselves in any organized protest. Myself, I have been considering setting up a tent on the lawns in front of those colleges during their sales and offering courses in Philosophy or Literature – and my fees will be much cheaper than the University’s.

There was a time, a century or so ago, where any town that had a university, never mind one that had 3,500 or so professors, as does University of Toronto, (never mind York and Ryerson) would be a guarantee that used bookstores would flourish. That this is not true now in Toronto invites significant questions. Perhaps someone should explore the question of Professors and their apparent indifference, even distaste, for books. During a recent conversation over drinks with some colleagues we shared opinions about why academics have all but disappeared from the used bookshops. Some interesting conclusions were arrived at. The general consensus was that many academics seldom seemed to be interested in anything outside their specialties. And being spoiled by many years of getting free books from publishers they don’t like to pay for books. Indeed, teachers, especially professors, are number two on the booksellers’ secret list of cheapskates by profession just behind ministers. While teachers once were ill paid this is no longer true so their protestations of poverty do not convince. And we, the booksellers on the frontlines, so to speak, can perhaps be excused for assuming that it is really just another indication of dreary mediocrity. But one of my colleagues thought it unfair that the good ones were not being mentioned; meaning those professors who do frequent bookshops. As we dropped names of those professors who do buy books (I refer to North America and Britain) it became obvious that those scholars we were naming were more often than not those whose work was considered the most important in their fields. This pattern was only momentarily surprising to people who believe, as we do, that it is culture that we are selling.

A club of which I am a member, which was founded many years ago by a number of librarians, booksellers, publishers, and writers, had no current member from the Antiquarian book trade when I joined. Roy Britnell, one of the founders, was probably the last member with a connection in the Antiquarian booktrade. After a few meetings one of the publishers there asked me one day over lunch “Just what is it that you Antiquarian booksellers do?” In one of my all-time greatest one-liners I got to reply; “The function of the Antiquarian Bookseller is to clean up all the mess that you guys create publishing all the crap that you do.” That got a nice laugh, but in fact, funny though it is, it’s also true. Our job is to search out and buy from remainder tables, from garage sales and the junk heaps, those books which our instincts tell us someone should be looking for, and hold them until that person appears. In other words, we are trained to cull the worthy from the dross. We rescue the past to hold for the future, and if we’re wrong we lose money, so we learn to hone those instincts.

But in spite of these things the main culprit is the Internet. The same principle which causes us to be more likely to believe anything, no matter how outrageous it seems, if we read it in print, also has a parallel on the Internet. For on the Internet, to the casual browser, all books and all booksellers are equal. But we, the pros, know better. We know, to paraphrase Orwell, that while all book dealers are equal some are more equal than others. For unfortunately, it seems to be, that all one needs to be a bookseller on the Internet is a name and some books. Knowledge, experience, some vague clue about the means of ascertaining edition, completeness, or even value are not seen as necessary. We find ludicrously inept descriptions which any good used bookseller can tell are ignorant and erroneous offered as accurate by fools completely unaware of the depth of their ignorance. A guy like me, after 40 years in the trade, will generally have a huge and valuable reference collection (in my case overflowing a very big office into our storage warehouse) but the average No-Name bookseller on the net probably has no reference books, nor sees the need for any. After all they can lift the description of their book from an entry on the net (at the same time they are copying the price). Of course, if their book is not quite the same, like maybe being a different edition or state or issue, what does that matter? It looks like it should be a first edition. And even worse these people, who are so unaware of their own stupidity, are also quite incapable of discerning the equal ignorance of those they copy so assiduously, so that the errors and misdescriptions become compounded.

Another sad result of all this dumbing down is that some problems in the new book trade which used to be solved by the used bookstores, are now instead worsened. Once new bookstores would have in stock large backlists of the earlier works by popular writers. So that discovering a new author you liked, you could go and find other of his titles in your neighbourhood bookstore. Space concerns, (i.e. high rents, and too many books) have ruined that tradition too. It seems that new booksellers can no longer stock a writer’s earlier books, even in paperback.

Two recent personal incidents of my own illustrate this. A wonderful book by Amos Oz led me to recommend it to a writer friend who in turn informed me that another Oz title, was perhaps the best book he had read in the last ten years. I went to my local new bookstore, a very good one, but they had none of Oz’s earlier titles. I was forced to order it. (In an amusing but quite irrelevant aside I can’t help adding this. Soon after, in another Antiquarian shop, I saw and bought six or seven other Oz first editions (which at $25-35 each were still only the price of a new book.) When I returned to my shop my partner suggested that I might easily have purchased them cheaper elsewhere – from myself. Turned out I had five of them on my own shelves, but hadn’t thought to look there. There is no doubt a moral there, although I’m still trying to figure out what that moral is).

Most recently I discovered an Irish noir writer whose books I didn’t know and went in search of more. He has written, it seems, 15-20 books. My favorite new store had two, Chapters the same two, so I had to visit “The Sleuth of Baker Street”, the best of the crime specialists where I found ten more. The point being that now only a specialist can carry a writer’s backlist. In the old days such wants would send people to the used bookstores for these sought-after earlier titles. But now we are losing the used stores. Public Libraries are wonderful but I want to own the books I love so libraries are not a solution for me.

Which brings us to one of the most confusing things one encounters on the Internet; why the wide discrepancy in prices? Many people are not aware that lots, maybe a majority, of the so-called dealers on the Net offering books, are not real dealers at all. Some offer their books more cheaply because they think that cheaper will trump condition (and it probably will – to the equally ignorant.) But there are many people who haven’t a clue that the same edition of the same book can have widely different prices amongst legitimate dealers – for one reason alone – the condition. After rarity and importance the most important thing about the book as an object, is condition. Condition, condition, condition. But the amateurs are fuelled by greed, and driven by ignorance, so we get a lot of descriptions which might be amusing if these ignorant fools weren’t tacking on a price, sometimes a hefty one, at the end. So we get descriptions such as, a book with a signature bound upside down, a fairly common result of machine-binding, and having no bibliographic significance nor any effect on value, will often be described as “a rare error book” and priced outrageously. Here is a not unusual description. “Covers shredded, but a lot still there – could be fixed with some tender loving care. And you could get a copy of the missing titlepage from the library and then you could tell exactly how old it is. But I know it’s old, maybe in the Eighteen hundreds and in wonderful shape considering it’s age.” These people usually don’t mention that along with the tender loving care you would need to spend several hundred dollars and it would still be near worthless because of the missing titlepage. And if you think I’m exaggerating, or just in a silly mood, look for yourself – especially on eBay. As I’ve mentioned I’ve met very few deliberately crooked booksellers but I’ve seen a lot of ignorance. And I guess being cheated by a fool as opposed to a crook may temper the anger a bit, but in the end you’ve still been cheated.

One Antiquarian dealer, whom I greatly admired, now sadly gone, a man called David Magee (whose memoir, “Infinite Riches: Adventures of a Rare Book Dealer”, should be required reading for anyone, collector, dealer or simply a reader who enjoys sophisticated anecdotes about books and bookselling) wrote a couple of small pamphlets humorously poking fun at the descriptions some dealers use in their catalogues to deflect attention from the defects, sometimes horrendous ones, in their offerings. In Magee’s satirical descriptions stains are always tiny (and only found in margins), annotations are always scholarly, plates in 18th Century books are always naughty, and previous owners’ names defacing the title are always those of significant scholars (even if they are undistinguished clergymen from some unpronounceable obscure village). All defects, in fact, are proven of no consequence compared to the importance and beauty of the dealer’s copy of the book. Magee was poking gentle fun at some of the excesses of his younger colleagues, but his motive would have been to educate through pointing out the perils of over-enthusiasm in describing our wares. But I think he would have been appalled at what we are seeing on the Internet today. An ignorance of traditions going back almost 500 years is made almost respectable by being so widespread.

And there is more. Like the colour copying machine. Another example. At a small bookfair a few years ago I found myself by chance in a booth with a fairly new customer, he was a well-read guy, had discovered First Editions and bought a few from me (and I presume from others). In other words he had discovered the joys of collecting and was pursuing his new hobby.

After greeting him I returned to my scouting, when he suddenly blurted out, with the delighted gasp of one who has found a sleeper. “This is a real bargain. I must buy this”. I looked over. He was holding a copy of Richler’s “Duddy Kravitz” with a nice dustwrapper. He showed me the price, twenty-five dollars, about a tenth of it’s value, but my trained eye instantly noticed that it had not been marked by the dealer “First Edition”.

“May I see it?”, I asked, suspicious. I checked the verso of the title but indeed it was the first edition, so I proceeded to the next step in assessing a book, removing the dustwrapper to check if the binding had stains or wear. I saw instantly that the dustwrapper was, in fact, a colour Xerox copy, which explained why it was so nice. The book was much less nice showing the normal wear and tear on any book that has not been protected by a dustwrapper for a long time. “This is a fake”, I said. My new collector was stunned, speechless. I went to the woman manning the booth. “This is a fake, a colour Xerox, but you haven’t marked it as such”, I accused.

“I don’t know anything. He’s not here”, she said, “he” meaning the proprietor.

“That’s unacceptable”, I replied, walking away. So did my client. A little while later, “he”, a dealer I didn’t know, came up to me, very agitated, on the floor.

“I was going to tell any buyer it was a copy”, he said defensively.

“Well, that’s pretty hard to do if you’re not in your booth”, I replied.

And worse, this was an honest man, as I found out when I got to know him over the next few years. (Even that wasn’t so easy since he cringed in embarrassment the next few times we met.) He had made an honest mistake, an unthinking lapse, the kind guys learning anything tend to make and I doubt he’ll make another like that.

But the point of the anecdote is not that. It is that the new collector has not been seen again, by me or anyone I know. I think probably his collecting career, with all it’s new pleasures, is over. He probably left thinking, “These guys are all crooks. I want nothing to do with any of them.” And he hasn’t returned.

Another example: a book came in that I hadn’t had for 4 or 5 years. I remembered that I had sold the last one for $100. It was Western Americana of sorts, a book on the Mormons, usually a very saleable subject area and not an area about which I was terribly knowledgeable. But this was a subscription book which to the knowledgeable means it will be, no matter its historical material, what today we would call a quickie. These books were printed in enormous numbers and were sold door to door by subscription. They were quickly written compilations done to cash in on the latest fad or catastrophe. The modern equivalents are the paperbacks put out within a few days of such newsworthy events as say, the 9/11 tragedy. (For instance, there were hundreds, if not thousands, of such books on the sinking of the Titanic which are mostly still so common that we get regular calls from people who think they have a treasure, leaving us to let them down gently. It will be a couple of hundred years before these books even become scarce.) Books on the Mormons were very popular, not out of religious curiosity but, bluntly, because of sex. There’s nothing like books about a harem (the secret dream of every red-blooded young man) to arouse interest and sell books, as any honest publisher would admit. Anyway I asked an assistant to check this book on the net, just out of curiosity, even though I knew it was probably still only a hundred dollar book. There were two copies of this book being offered on ABE Books one priced at $2,000. US and the other at $1,750. US (this when the Canadian dollar was still 60¢ to the US dollar, so say $3000. and $2600. approx.) You will be preparing yourself to hear me whine about the treasure I sold for nothing but not so; this was a hundred dollar book. So what is the point? Well, it must have gone like this: the first man got the book and thought to himself “Mormons. Everybody wants Mormon material. This book is from 1857, that’s over a hundred years old, it must be worth $2000” – and prices it accordingly. The second man, equally ignorant, sees the $2000 – and thinks.

“Well I see this is a $2000 dollar book but I’ll be cunning and price mine at $1750 – and sell it before that other guy.” So here we have a $100 book priced at 20 times its value by two different apparent dealers (but who, of course are not really dealers at all). And, what if you want that book? And they are the only two offered? Well you may think that it is worth that, so you may buy it. Aren’t you likely to assume that they know what they are doing especially since there’s two of them? Well, good luck. And that’s only one example; I’ve got hundreds more.

We advise our clients very strongly not to buy anything more than a $25 or $50 book from people on the net unless they have initials after their name (meaning a professional affiliation which is world-wide and offers not just an assumption of professionalism but official recourse when disputes arise.)

But what may seem to the reader as carping at the larcenous nature of those who steal the hard-earned knowledge of long-time dealers like me isn’t actually true. Or at least not in the way it may seem. What bothers us is the ignorant misuse of our knowledge. For the good antiquarian dealer freely gives from his vast hoard of knowledge and experience to his customers on a regular basis. What normally occurs in a business like Antiquarian books is a student/mentor situation in the beginning, which is based on a shared passion – for the books, or for the subject. The client’s interests and the professional’s experience, result in shared experiences, and the collector’s increased sophistication.

This leads, more often then not, to friendship. When I say, as I often do, that most of my long term customers become friends, I am not exaggerating. Book collecting after all is an activity, which, while based on reverence for some of man’s noblest instincts, and regard for man’s greatest accomplishments, also operates in emotional areas which are fuelled by some of man’s least attractive habits. Greed, acquisitiveness, and profit based competition may be the foundation of collecting, but they are generally leavened by the mutual respect and regard that so often grows between the dealer and the knowledgeable collector.

I had a joke once that I used to test people with. I would point out that dealers and collectors were, or should be, by essence, natural enemies. After all, think of this; I have the book and you want/need it (and if you don’t understand that a collector needs the book the way you need your dinner, or sex, you haven’t grasped the basic core of collecting.) So not only do I have what you need, but I get to set the price that you have to pay to own it. The only restraints on my greed is my need for money to survive, and whatever civilized regard I have for the social contract. If this is essentially true (and I believe it is) surely it is a measure of our civility how we deal with this situation. When I would put it this way it usually elicits a laugh – but the laugh usually is followed by a thoughtful pause while the listener realizes the basic truth of my premise.

A very hard lesson for a collector, to learn, or for that matter anyone buying anything which doesn’t have a fixed commercial price, is to recognize when it becomes necessary to bite the bullet and pay a price one is certain is too much for a coveted object. The value of things relates to need; a bottle of water in the desert is of obvious value; the trick with books is to learn to measure the level of your lust.

A few years ago a colleague showed me a proof copy he had just bought for a buck or two, of what I consider the greatest political novel of the 20th century, Arthur Koestler’s “Darkness At Noon”, to my mind more compelling then “Animal Farm” or “1984”. Proof copies seem to be out of favour amongst collectors these days probably due to the modern practice of publishers issuing them like “review copies”, in very large numbers. But when “Darkness At Noon” was published, proofs were still issued in quite small numbers, mostly for in-house use. I wanted this one badly. I asked my colleague for first refusal hoping that the fact that he’d paid a dollar or two for it might mean I’d get a bargain. He said sure, but I heard no more for a couple of years. Then I entered his shop one day and he showed it to me in a special box he’d had made for it. I’d hoped that at worst it might be $2000 – and was prepared to pay $3000 – but he was asking $5000. I knew he would not have located any selling prices for it. Nor did I think he would even find selling prices for the first edition to use as a benchmark comparison. For some reason the first edition of “Darkness At Noon” is itself a rare book. No copy in dustwrapper has appeared at auction in 30 years and I have only ever seen two copies, one of them defective (note: in 2008 after this was written a copy of the first appeared at auction in a “restored dustwrapper”. It sold for £950. Today we find on ABE a reputable British dealer offering the first edition in the dustwrapper for Can. $6400.00. This dealer claims, perhaps accurately, that this title, noted by him as “of infamous scarcity”, was destroyed by enemy bombing in WW2. On the other hand if all the stories of books which I have seen described as scarce because of the bombing of a publisher’s warehouse were true, there would have been little left of London after the war.) So I was forced to use the formula I suggest to my clients as the final arbiter, namely – “Do I want that enough to pay that price for it?” For there is no “real” price for a rare book, only a scale of factors to measure the personal value to you. It took me less then 30 seconds to buy it at about double what I thought its value should be. Of course, an old saw in the booktrade says “When your competitor sells a $5000 dollar book it is criminally overpriced, when someone buys your $5000 book you sold it too cheap, in fact you probably gave it away for nothing, indeed it’s obvious you were robbed.” Such is human nature. In the case of this book I asked an English friend whose firm has been in business almost a hundred years and has kept a record of every book they’ve owned, if they had ever had a copy. When he informed me that his firm had never had a copy nor had he personally ever seen a copy, and that should I sell it, I would “do well”, my overpriced $5000 folly immediately became a $15,000 certainty, and now some 5 years later it is, in my mind at least, a $25,000 book. So far, my lapse into momentary insanity, has yielded a profit of $20,000, albeit untested yet by the reality of the market place. And it goes up almost daily in my mind. Who knows where it might end? But it hardly matters because I won’t be selling it. See how easy it is?

Now that I have established some of the horrors which the new electronic revolution has brought to the area I know something about (and if you think other fields where I share your ignorance might be different, let me say that experience tells me they won’t be), you will see our concern.

And, there are still factors that I haven’t even touched on yet.

Most days I feel like a Blacksmith must have felt just after Henry Ford started making his assembly line Model T. Almost the only thing which rescues me from acute depression is my age. There’s not much more they can do to hurt me short of a major catastrophe and, curiously, this is mainly because of two character traits which in almost any normal business would be considered major defects.

The first is that I am one of those lucky people who don’t much care about money. It was once pointed out to me by a psychiatrist that there might be some connection between this and the fact that my father was a banker, a revelation which I found a bit disconcerting when it was brought to my attention, but which later became, and remains, a source of some amusement. But I am very grateful for the gift no matter the source. Richard Jessup’s “The Cincinnati Kid” is a small classic, which Norman Jewison turned into not a bad movie. In it the young gambler (played by Steve McQueen in the movie) is interrogated about money by his girlfriend’s father, a dirt farmer in the Ozarks.

“All my life,” says the old farmer, “I’ve been trying to understand money and I can’t seem to do it. But, you seem to get it.”

“The thing to know about money,” says the Cincinnati Kid (who is only in his 20s), “is that it’s necessary but not important.”

This quotation seemed to me at the time the best description of the true significance of money in our lives that I had ever seen anywhere, and it seems so still.

So, if you don’t need a lot of money you have an edge. We need enough to be free to pursue our destiny, as the Cincinnati Kid knew, but to waste time in getting more than is necessary, seems silly to me. After several years living hand to mouth in Europe, where I began to educate myself, I had trained myself to not want anything that I didn’t need. When I returned to Canada I found I could walk up Yonge Street without even looking in a window (except a bookstore window, of course) because I didn’t want any of the junk the stores offered, the junk which causes so many people to sacrifice their dreams for the security of an income.

The second factor which should save me for the 10 or 20 years I might have left is my buying style. From the beginning all I have cared about is books and since I started bookselling I have spent every penny not needed for the necessities on books. So quickly did I build up a stock that word filtered back to me through the grapevine that it was believed that my father was rich and was funding me. My father loaned, not gave, me $500 which is all I had when I began and I never got another cent, so such gossip angered me at first. But I saw it didn’t matter what they thought, in fact it said more about their philosophy of bookselling than it did about me. For the fact is that I did it all myself, and the simple truth is that I want books, not money.

No, it was my love of books which propelled me and now I have a large stock of very good books all carefully chosen by me with all the skill accrued from 40 years experience. For instance, because I bought obscure editions of many of the earlier writers, instead of only first editions, I now have a lot of books which are only to be found in the stocks of the best specialists around the world. Books that get regularly ordered on the Internet now, because they are becoming unobtainable. I also for many years bought books which I thought were good but which the world hadn’t yet caught up to. When you’ve been around for 40 years you’ve seen lots of books go from being unwanted – “dogs” we call them – to much sought after with commensurate rises in value. When I grew to recognize this obvious phenomenon I bought heavily in areas not yet held in esteem by other dealers, many of whom in my view spend much of their time competing for the latest flavour of the month. There are right now several areas where I buy heavily, although quietly. Since some of those areas are made up of things which the rest of the world (at least around here) doesn’t seem interested in, and since, given my age, the world view may not catch up with me before I die, I have taken to telling my partner Debbie that I am investing for her old age. A couple of years ago in an interview one of the questions was; “Are there any new areas that are overlooked, where one can still buy bargains? And if so what are they?” My answer short and succinct was; “Yes there are, but I’m not telling. Use your imagination.”

That I continue to get away with buying far more than I sell is now largely due to my partner Debbie, who operates under the delusion that if she sells enough, (and she is ten times better at actually selling a book than I am), then we might eventually enter the middle classes. I do not attempt to dissuade her of this for it allows me to continue buying books, and this is all I want to do.

In retrospect, another of the many ironies I see in my so-called career is that my father, the banker, after working at the same job all his life and doing everything properly had a comfortable retirement, but in the end left very little. I, on the other hand, did everything wrong and am a terrible businessman (as are most booksellers), yet when I go I will leave behind a few million dollars worth of books (admittedly worthless until someone buys them). I will die a very rich man and I have had a wonderful time amassing these riches. And if I don’t sell them I have the pleasure of looking at them and of handling them. And of course, the most important pleasure, reading them.

Larry McMurtry, a highly respected bookseller for a very long time as well as a fine and prolific writer, won the Academy Award for his screenplay of “Brokeback Mountain”. When he accepted the award he cheered all us booksellers enormously, first by stepping up to receive his award in a dinner jacket, dress tie and jeans, the traditional garb of the trade (the jeans, not the dinner jacket, and certainly not the dress tie) But what most warmed us all was when he said in his acceptance speech: “And finally I'm going to thank all the booksellers of the world. Remember, "Brokeback Mountain" was a book before it was a movie. From the humblest paperback exchange to the masters of the great bookshops of the world. All are contributors to the survival of the culture of the book. A wonderful culture, which we mustn't lose.” McMurtry also dedicated his most recent trilogy to the used booksellers, as follows: “The Berrybender Narratives are dedicated to the secondhand booksellers of the Western world, who have done so much, over a fifty-year stretch, to help me to an education.” This sort of public acknowledgement of our place in the grand scheme of things makes up for a lot of the humiliations and indifference to which we are being subjected in the last few years, makes it a bit easier to deal with what will probably only become worse.

Like the Blacksmiths, we may be doomed but let me make a prophecy. We are not going away. If we are doomed, it is only to more of what we have always had to deal with and we will deal with whatever comes next in the same manner. Fairly soon we will no doubt be selling books as quaint artifacts like antique dealers and we will be selling fewer books to fewer people. But the truth is that most dealers I have known won’t much care as long as they can survive to buy another book tomorrow. And read another one tonight.

My father, the banker, despised the book business and despaired of the life he foresaw for his son. But, he was in fact very pleased that his son was doing something he loved so much, and for which he had so much passion. As a banker his conservatism was a given, but in the 50s – that most conservative time in the 20th century – his advice to me was: “Never mind the suit and tie, never mind respectability and security, find some work to do that you can love and do it as well as you can.” I thought that trite at the time but I don’t now. It was the best advice I could have had, even if I didn’t catch on for many years. And it remains the best advice I could give to any young person setting out now. For doing something you love makes up for everything the world will throw at you. Even after 40 years I still wake up every morning wondering what exciting thing will happen today. And what book I will buy that I never thought I’d own.

Published in Canadian Notes and Queries, Issue No.76, Spring / Summer 2009, and on The article is presented here by the kind permission of David Mason.

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