Silence

A grade school teacher of mine used to have the following statement above our chalkboard:

“Silence is golden. Let’s have a million dollars worth.”

I like silence, too. The quiet of a spring morning just as the sun rises is contemplaintive. I love to soak in the quiet after my two grandchildren leave my place with my daughter. That silence is broken only by a barely audible sigh. Silence as my head hits my pillow at night is wonderful. I think of silence as peaceful.

But there is some silence that just drive me nuts, mainly because I just don’t know what it means.

For example, I recently wrote via snail mail to a customer who lives out of state. The next ABAA book fair was coming up, and I had a few books I thought he might like. And I wanted to offer him a free pass to the fair. He had purchased nearly $10,000 worth of books at the previous ABAA book fair, so this seemed like a good idea. I don’t know if he has e-mail. I know that I don’t have any e-mail address for him, so I also asked if he would like to share that e-mail address with me so that future communications could be a bit swifter. Day by day passed. Each day I wondered if that day would bring a response, even if that response was, “Sorry, but no.” Instead, I was disappointed each day to receive only silence. I guess he declined, but it’s only a guess. Maybe he died. Maybe he’s been out of town. Maybe this. Maybe that. All I have is speculation. And the feeling that I’ve been treated rudely.

A couple of months ago an institution near me was interested in a rather expensive item costing $12,500. The librarian asked for several scans. I sent them, as requested. What do you think followed? Silence. She didn’t even bother to acknowledge that she had indeed received the requested scans. This is simply rude behavior. I’ve had this experience with a few librarians in the past. Does it mean that librarians are rude? That they are taught not to respond? Does her silence mean she wasn’t interested? Maybe she was still thinking about it, but wouldn’t proper behavior require her to let me in on what otherwise appears to be a secret? Once again, all I have is speculation. In this case it wasn’t me who initiated the offering. It was the librarian. Doesn’t she have some obligation here? In cases like this I ask myself, what would my mother have done. My mother would have responded, even if the answer was “Sorry, no.” If my mother can have good manners, why can’t librarians?

Unfortunately, I have no answers, just questions, and the belief that civility and good manners in the 21st Century, in this age of immediate wireless connection, has been left behind like some poor step-cousin.

http://www.jimbooks.com

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Book Fair Report

The best way to describe this fair, as to sales, is that it would have been a good shadow fair.  Most of us expected a better return for a book fair sponsored by the Antiquarian Bookseller’s Association of America (ABAA).

The ABAA sponsors its California book fair every February, with the location bouncing back and forth between Northern and Southern California.  This year the 49th California International Antiquarian Book Fair was conducted in Pasadena Feb. 12-14.

When the fair is in Southern California, a promoter independent of the ABAA generally takes advantage by sponsoring a shadow fair in Northern California the week before so exhibitors coming from the East and Europe (and even Asia) can get two fairs within this big state which, if it were a stand-alone country, would have the seventh biggest economy on the planet.  Makes sense, no?

Yes, but these shadow fairs generally produce lesser sales.  That was the case Feb. 5  & 6 with the shadow fair that took place in San Mateo in Northern California.

We ABAA members certainly got more in Pasadena, and we most definitely got a more professionally run fair from top to bottom, from open to close, worth every cent it cost exhibitors.  But exhibitors probably expected more sales when the real deal was happening in Pasadena.  After all, White Rain, our production management company, just can’t be beat. Load in and out was seamless.  Staff, including security, were personable, upbeat, fun.  I’ll give a shout out to Molly Glover.  I had no problems for her to solve this time around, but if I would have had an issue, Molly would have solved it.  Molly knows all, does all.

I would describe my sales as a disappointment, yet when I checked with other exhibitors, even those who sell books far different than mine,  I was ahead of them.  Sure, there were some who described their take as “fantastic,” but they would have been in the minority.

Let’s talk specifics.  I wrote eight invoices, three to the trade and five to civilians.  I can add one new collector to my inventory.  Sales totaled a meager $9,500.

Let’s take a day-by-day look. The crowd on opening night (Friday) was good-sized, but few were carrying purchases.  I sold nothing Friday, despite having a lot of lookers.  Reports from other booksellers indicated that there was a paucity of dealer-to-dealer sales.  That was a bad omen.  I did meet a few other Armenians.  We talked about our ancestry, the food our grandmothers made, etc.  That was fun and brought back some great memories, but for the most part I could have farted in my booth with impunity.

There was a better crowd Saturday, but it lacked excitement and electricity.  Half the day passed before I sold a book.  One dealer took mercy on me and made a small buy which brought my sales to the three-figure mark.  Whoopee!  It took the appearance of my best customer and then another very good customer to break the thousand dollar mark.  One could play the game of “If I were to back out this sale or that sale because I could have quoted it without doing the fair,” but that just provides diminishing returns.  Those thoughts would not have occurred had sales been brisk.

The Sunday crowd was small, but it was about what I would have expected.  I had a good sale to a dealer and then to a civilian who will undoubtedly buy from me again, but adding her to my customer base was a lonely experience and those were the only sales to keep me awake.

Let’s talk about some peripheral points, both good and bad.

Just about my only complaint tied to White Rain (or maybe the venue) was that both my display case and my trophy case were filthy, especially the trophy case, to the point that I never truly could get them clean to my standard.  My memory from previous fairs in that location and in Northern California is that cases were provided in an already cleaned state.  The carpet was a bit lumpy, and it seemed to take right up to the opening bell Friday to finish laying it all out and getting the job in a finished state.

The exhibitor’s hospitality area was excellent.  Coffee was plentiful and delicious.  I keep thinking back to the abomination that we called coffee in the old Concourse venue in San Francisco.  The plentiful fruit was so beautiful I wasn’t sure it was real.  It was.

While the Sheraton is a convenient hotel, just a stone’s throw from the convention hall site, it just isn’t a very good hotel, definitely not a luxury hotel  —  despite the better rate exhibitors received.  My tush is a two-ply tush.  The Sheraton remains committed to one-ply.  Terrible.  Its elevators operated in slow motion.  The air conditioner in my room was so loud that it woke me up when it went off in the middle of the night.  A motorcycle would have been quieter.  Why there was an alarm clock/radio in the room when one can secure a specific wake up call is beyond me.  This anachronistic device went off at 6 a.m. Friday.  I haven’t used such a device for decades now and had no idea how to shut it off.  Not good.  Concession food at the venue site was poor.

Was the sales disappointment tied to the sluggish economy, the sluggish stock market, the beautiful, warm weather?  One can kick that can around forever without reaching a satisfactory conclusion.  Will I exhibit again?  Sure.  I’m looking forward to the 50th California International Antiquarian Book Fair a year from now in Oakland, CA, site of my best book fair ever a year ago.  Despite sales this year to the contrary, I remain optimistic.

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My Logo

This is my logo.

logo

You might be surprised just how many people don’t get it.

Those that do get it seem to like it, and a few have asked its history.

It goes back to the very earliest days of my transitioning from private book collector to book dealer back in 1980.

My wife used to leave notes for me on our kitchen table that would show her and our daughter as ant people going shopping or whatever it was that had them leave the house so I would know where they were (sort of). The Momma ant might be pushing the baby ant in a grochery cart, for example. She was an artist. The notes were funny.

Sometimes I would leave her a note in which I would crudley draw a Poppa ant, with a huge moustache, about to whack the hell out of a golf ball. She knew where I was.

When brain-storming about the book business, I thought a logo would be a good idea. So I had my wife paint what you see as my logo. That’s me reading The Grapes of Wrath. My moustache was bigger then. It was my idea to have him look askance at the angry grapes sitting next to him. I think she captured the idea very effectively. I like the books on the shelf in the background, too.

I’ve used the logo ever since on everything  —  letterhead, business cards, invoices, e-mails, envelopes, mailing labels, website, you name it.

My unscientific guess as to its effectiveness in making my business better, however one measures “better,” is that it has been better. It appears that I’m known as the Steinbeck guy. The logo is part of that.  I think that means a lot, although I’d like to think there’s more to my business than just Steinbeck.

And I almost enjoy watching people who don’t get it. Once in a while you can actually see the light go on as they do get it. That’s fun.

http://www.jimbooks.com

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I Was A Virgin

I’ve never exhibited at the Seattle Book Fair. This year I choose to skip the Sacramento Book Fair in favor of Seattle. It was an experiment. I’ve never driven 800+ miles each way to exhibit at a fair. At 67 I wanted to see if I could do it physically, withstand the rigors of the road, sleeping in strange beds, deal with changes in my regular diet, etc. And I’ve heard nothing but praise for the Seattle fair. It’s also run by Lou Collins who is also a member of the Antiquarian Bookseller’s Association of America (ABAA) of which I am a proud member. Of the 98 exhibitors, 48 were ABAA members. Good start.

I arrived at the venue the Thursday before the fair. It’s a drop off only day. I couldn’t set up until Friday. Why did I arrive Thursday? I guess because I could. It was the mistake of a virgin exhibitor, especially since I found out upon arrival that I couldn’t actually drop off until 4 p.m. I kept asking myself why did I bust my ass getting there if that was the case. I wish I had known. I also wish there was some signage about the fair, where to go. There isn’t a sign on the building to say it’s the Seattle Center Exhibition Hall. I guess everyone already knows. Everyone but me. As I said, it was my first Seattle rodeo. Rookie mistake.

When I arrived to set up Friday, it was about 64 degrees in Seattle. I loved that cooler weather since it had been in the 90s where I live in California, but it was at least 20 degrees hotter inside the venue compared to the outside. I don’t sweat a lot, but I soon had huge wet spots all over my T-shirt and was physically uncomfortable for the first few hours. I guess air conditioning is expensive in Seattle. It was like this EVERY day of the fair, even in the early morning hours. I kept asking everyone if it was just me. It wasn’t.

On Saturday morning, first day of the fair, I dressed in my best duds. I didn’t bring my umbrella despite the light rain. The rain during my short walk to the venue wasn’t an issue, but the accumulated rain from hours before was a distinct problem. As I stood on a street corner waiting for the light to change, a car roared through a huge rain puddle. You got it. Suddenly a 12-foot tsunami drenched me. Head to foot. I dripped water from every part of my body. I was soaked through to the bone.  It was a comedy show, although when it happened I distinctly remember not laughing.

Was this an omen?

Thankfully I had another shirt and another sweater inside my attache case.

The show opened with great crowds and it stayed crowded for most of the day Saturday. I got no stupid questions, which was great, and a few people asked good questions. The questions didn’t result in any sales, but it helped pass the time pleasantly. Of course there was the usual assortment of business card collectors, note takers, and be-backs, but that’s true of all such fairs.

Of course any bitching by me about logistics and procedures means little if you leave the fair with a large bag of loot, so what was the bottom line?

I had no pre-fair sales, but that’s not unusual. I sold my first book, for $250, about 11 a.m. Saturday. I sold a $50 book around 2 p.m. That was it. I had one sale Sunday. It was $175 from a fellow dealer. I think it was a mercy transaction, but I was happy to have it. So, total sales were $475. The trophy case and booth fee came to $1,200. Hotel bill was nearly $600. I stayed with friends along the way up from California, so my expenses there were very light, but gas cost me another $200.

I heard, from my very unscientific survery of other exhibitors, that just about everyone did better than I, but only a few were happy beyond expectations with their sales. Most grumbled slightly. Nearly all who wrote about their experience with this fair praise Lou Collins and Bill Wolfe, the promoters, year in and year out. I think the logistics could have been better. The air conditioning should have been better. People driving their cars in Seattle could have been better, but only some of these issues can be dropped in the laps of promoters who I should say were responsive to my needs. And I don’t blame the promoters for my dismal sales. Not their fault in any way, shape, or form. Sometimes exhibitors have bad results.  And despite the high praise for Lou Collins, Seattle remains a regional fair.  What does that mean?  It means it’s not an ABAA-sponsored fair.  Like Sacramento, or the Bustamante fairs in Southern California, or even the shadow fairs associated with the ABAA California fairs, expectations should remain low.  Everyone loves a well-run fair, but the fair being well run doesn’t pay the bills.

There is one potential saving grace. I did meet a couple who are not yet book collectors, but they are thinking seriously of beginning to collect. I had serious discussions with them. They are especially interested in a $6,000 book. I should know if we can consumate the deal within the next two weeks or so. They are also interested in other titles I have, so I think this could be the beginning of a beautiful relationship. Maybe not, but with 35 years of experience in judging potential customers from those who only talk through their hat, I feel relatively confident that the financial aspect of my fair experience may turn around. As usual, we’ll see.

The question is, will I exhibit there again? It’s not an easy answer. What do you think?

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Every Once In A While

It’s summer. It’s the slow time in the rare and collectible book biz. It’s the famine part of the feast or famine nature of this business. You just have to work harder and be more creative in your approach to your business. It also helps to be lucky.

At the beginning of summer, I got lucky. I got a call from a long-time customer who collects Armed Services Editions (ASEs), those mostly wider than they are tall paperback books given to American GIs from 1943-47. She had not made a buy for a few years, but in the past she had made several large lot purchases.

When Books Went to War, front cover

When Books Went to War, front cover

This customer had been reading When Books Went to War by Molly Guptill Manning over the Memorial Day holiday. Molly’s book is a great read about ASEs and the Council on Books in Wartime. The collector in question wanted to buy every ASEs I had in stock. My stock had already been depleted over the preceding months because of new customers and because others had also read Molly’s book, spurring them in to acquiring a few ASEs. At one time I had about 1,100 of these books on my shelves, including duplicates. When this customer made her big buy, I had a few less than 100. She took every one of them.

Alrighty then!

But hey! I’m supposed to be the ASE guy, but suddenly I had none. Cupboards were bare. You would be correct if you said go out and buy some more, but that’s easier said than done.

Luckily for me, I know many ASE collectors, both private individuals and institutions. In fact, I have completed two private collections and have filled in a few others to the point that they are just a small handful of books short of completing their collection. I gain a rather significant charge from completing a collection. I’m the guy who places the cherry on top of the sundae, who finally fulfills a collector’s dream of many years. 1,322 is a lot of books. Some of them are seemingly impossible to find. Even long-time collectors sometimes wonder whether the few books they are missing actually exist. They do, but they are awfully hard to find.

I approached one of my other long-time collectors. Seems that he liked the idea of consigning me some of his duplicate books. One of them is No. E-150, King’s Row by Henry Bellamann. Some of these E-numbered books are difficult to find, but they really aren’t among the most difficult to find. However, E-150, King’s Row is still on the want list of several of my customers. And I checked my records. In my 35-year career of selling rare and collectible books, I had never had one. Hmmm.

King's Row, ASE No. E-150

King’s Row, ASE No. E-150

One of the institutions that wanted that specific book was the University of Virginia, ably represented by Dr. Molly Schwartzburg, curator of the Albert and Shirley Small Special Collections Library. I had been looking for a copy for her, and the university, for some time. It would be the cherry on top of their sundae.

So, guess what showed up in that box of consigned books? Yup, E-150, King’s Row. To say that Molly was thrilled when I offered her the book is a mild understatement. She’s writing her own blog about its acquisition. So now I have completed the ASE collection of an instiutution as mighty as the University of Virginia.

But let’s back up a moment. Seems that the University of Virginia had a very good head start with its ASE collection. Back in 1963 it purchased the nearly complete collection of Philip Van Doren Stern. Stern, formerly an editor at Pocket Books, became the general manager of the ASE project, according to long-time ASE collector, ASE expert, and rare book seller Michael Hackenberg, also a member of the Antiquarian Bookseller’s Association of America. Stern’s collection had never been distributed. Thus, that collection was in beautiful condition. But it lacked about 10 copies. Now it doesn’t lack any of them. We know that the Library of Congress has a complete collection. There are two private collections I completed. The University of Alabama and the University of South Carolina are two other institutions that are very close to completing their collections, and there are a couple of other private collections that are nearing completion. It can be done, with a little luck, and some hard work by both bookseller and collector/librarian.

Love those sundaes, especially with those cherries on top.

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My First Book

Can you point to your first book? I can.

No, it wasn’t the first book I ever read, but it was the first collectible book I ever obtained. It started me on a journey that took me from nascent book collector, when I really had no idea what that meant, to sophisticated book collector, to professional book seller, to member of the Antiquarian Bookseller’s Association of America (ABAA).

The year was 1967. I was a 19-year-old sophomore at San Jose State University. My girlfriend at that time knew I was a big John Steinbeck freak, having written just about every term paper in high school about him and his works. He was my hero. He died a year later.

For Christmas that year she gave me a book — a first edition of Steinbeck’s masterpiece, The Grapes of Wrath. I was thrilled. It was a very thoughtful gift, one that I would never have anticipated.

At that time I knew nothing about collectible books, but let’s take a peek at this specific book, which I still own, to see what I may have missed 48 years ago.

Front cover, sans jacket

Front cover, sans jacket

My first thought is that it’s missing the dust jacket which Elmer Hader so ably illustrated. Even a beginning book collector knows this is a major problem, a major flaw, but this missing dust jacket meant nothing to me back in 1967.

Grapes-3

The cloth of the front and back cover has stray ink marks. Kind of ugly, eh? The spine panel is both faded and darkened. It’s far from being a sharp copy. Upon opening to either the front or rear pastedown and free endpapers, it’s easy to see that both are well-darkened. There is also a name stamp. These might be forgivable sins, but the book is missing the leaf that has the half title on the recto and a list of other books by the author on the verso. Uh-oh. This isn’t just a major flaw. It’s a serious defect.

Back cover

Back cover

None of these thoughts would have dawned on me way back then. In fact, it would be nine years later before I had even an inkling of this book’s faults when I first discovered the Bible of all Steinbeck’s bibliographies, Goldstone & Payne. That bibliography was based on the collection of Adrian H. Goldstone aided by John R. Payne, then a bibliographic librarian at the University of Texas which published the book.

By this time, I had grown as a collector and knew this book had faults, but I didn’t think it had this many, or that they were so egregious. I also had more experience as a buyer of my own collectible books so that I also knew that the $35 she paid in 1967 was way too much for this turkey. In fact, in 1967 she should have been able to find a total bitchin’ copy, with dust jacket, and minus all these flaws, for that same 35 bucks. In short, she was taken.

Still, I loved the thought behind the gift, and I have kept that book with me ever since, both as a reminder of her thoughtfulness, but also as a lesson to know your bookseller, how they describe a book, how they price a book, whether they stand behind their wares or whether they sneak away like a thief in the night once they have your money.

It wasn’t my girlfriend’s fault. She knew nothing about collectible books either. She simply found a local bookseller and relied on him. She didn’t realize that her bookseller of choice was a pirate. If either of us had a touch more sophistication, we would have known to find an ABAA dealer who specializes in modern literature. That would have resulted in my receiving that totally bitchin’ copy.

But owning such a copy way back then would have been lost on me. I might have kept such a book, or I might have sold it. I would not have remembered it. I might have kept it all these years, or I might have upgraded it. But never would I have learned the lessons I learned because of my first book.

It’s a very humble copy, but it has meaning far beyond its physical quality. It first taught me what kind of book collector I wanted to be back in those early years and then what kind of bookseller when I first went into business in 1980. I found those kind of booksellers when I joined the ABAA in the mid-90s.

Do you have such a book?

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I Sell Rare Books

Actually, I sell rare and collectible books.

What’s the diff? All rare books are collectible, but not all collectible books are rare.

Huh?

Okay, I have a copy of John Steinbeck’s first book, Cup of Gold. Just an ordinary copy of the first edition, first printing, but without its dust jacket. It’s a collectible book. Why? It’s the first book by a major author of the 20th Century. He was awarded both the Pulitzer Prize and the Nobel Prize for Literature. But it’s not a rare book. Scarce maybe, but not rare.

Now let’s say that I also have a copy of the same book, but with its famous flamboyant dust jacket illustrated by Mahlon Blaine that is filled with tattooed and colorful pirates. Dust jacketed copies of this book certainly border on the descriptive word “rare.”

Now let’s say that I not only have such a book as the above, but it’s also inscribed by Steinbeck to his sister. I actually own this book. This book, because of its various elements (the dust jacket and the author’s inscription to a close family member), can now be elevated to the rare category.

But let’s back up for a moment. When someone who isn’t a sophisticated book collector hears that I sell rare and collectible books, they assume immediately that I have hundred dollar bills falling out my pants pockets when in reality I feel a body blow if I were to lose a quarter.

Why? I spent more than 30 years of my adult life working in the restaurant business as a waiter and sometimes as a bartender and restaurant manager in order to finance my life as a bookseller, starting in business 35+ years ago with no books, no brains, and no money.

When I say I sell rare and collectible books, it means just that. Sometimes the books are collectible, even if they are plentiful, and once in a while I have a book for sale that is indeed rare. Again, when peole hear what kind of books I sell, they assume every book is rare and worth a million bucks. Not so. Or that every book I have is priced at $10,000 or more. Not even.

Let’s examine a book that illustrates what a collectible book is, and it is one that is very accessible to those who have yet to inhabit the “rare” world.

First Trade Edition

First Trade Edition

The book in question is Rabbit Is Rich by John Updike, published by Knopf in 1981. It is Updike’s third “Rabbit” book. I have the first trade edition with its dust jacket. It is NOT a rare book. According to Allen Ahearn of the firm Quill & Brush, noted antiquarian booksellers and a long-time member of the Antiquarian Bookseller’s Association of America, the print run for the first trade edition was 60,000 copies. This is noted on the advance uncorrected proof of the book.

Well, that’s a helluva lot of copies, you might say. Yup. That’s why it’s not a rare book. But the book won Updike the National Book Critics Circle Award, the National Book Award, and the Pulitzer Prize for fiction. Not a bad triumphrivate, eh? So now what we have is a major novel by a major author of the 20th Century, a triple award winner. That’s a collectible book. And at $25, less than the cost of just about any new hardcover book, it most certainly is affordable.

http://jimbooks.com/items/JD30794.html

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