I had no mentors when I started in the rare and collectible book business in 1980, but there were three booksellers who were inspirational to me in one way or another. This reminiscence is a bit of a thank you to them for leading by example.
First, let’s go back to my first collectible book acquisition. An old girlfriend gave me a rather shabby copy of The Grapes of Wrath while I was a 19-year-old college student at San Jose State University in 1967. She paid $35 for the book and got ripped off. While the book is a first edition, it’s missing a preliminary leaf. It’s missing its dust jacket. And the book has what looks like several ink stains on the front cover. That $35 should have been able to buy her a book I would have called “totally bitchin’” back in my San Jose State days. That was one of those lessons learned the hard way. Between age 19 and 22 when I graduated from San Jose State I managed to buy a couple more first edition books, and while I claimed to be a book collector (it sounded as if it made me a more substantive, interesting person), I was far from sophisticated. In many ways.
A few years later, after I graduated and was working in my field of journalism in Southern California, I upped the ante. I got out the phone book and looked up “book dealers, used and rare.” I found one that sounded interesting called B & L Rootenberg in Sherman Oaks. Barbara & Leon Rootenberg were sellers of rare and collectible books. I called them. Barbara answered the phone. The conversation went something like this:
Me: Do you have any Steinbeck first editions?
Barbara: Sure. I’ve got some inscribed firsts.
Me: Does that mean the author may actually have written something inside the book?
I eventually visited their home where they did business. I was astounded at what I saw. There was a first of Walden by Thoreau. There was this, that, and the other thing, all of which blew my mind. I wanted to buy them all. Barbara was extremely patient with me and eventually corralled my darting attention and got me to focus on the task at hand — first edition books by Steinbeck, some of which were inscribed by the famous author. I ended up buying five books. I had to take money out of the bank to pay for them. It was my first big purchase.
Over the following few years I purchased a number of other books and related items from Barbara. I liked her, and she liked me. She had the kind of books I wanted. But more importantly, she was knowledgeable and willing to share what she knew to increase my own sophistication level. And, even more important than these attributes, she possessed something money can’t buy — integrity.
Here’s an example. At some point we had a conversation about a Steinbeck first edition that is very difficult to find titled The First Watch. It’s one of only 60 numbered copies. Now remember that this was in the early 1970s, so don’t be too surprised when I say that the cost of the book being offered was $350. And while that is a pittance compared to its present value, that $350 was a lot of money for me to spend as I started to more actively pursue this book collecting thing. But Barbara made me an offer I could hardly refuse, and it is one that I hadn’t expected. She said that as long as I committed to buying the book, it was mine, that she would hold it for me at that price, and whenever it was that I had the $350 I could pay her and the book would come into my possession. Well, I didn’t have that “extra” $350 until nine months later. That was okay with Barbara. And what was also okay with Barbara was that I still had to pay only $350 — despite the fact that the value of the book nine months later was something like $1,100. Now that’s integrity. That transaction and all that it meant in totality has stayed with me ever since.
Now it’s a few years later and I have moved back to Northern California, working in Sacramento as state capitol bureau chief for a small chain of daily newspapers. Naturally, I hit the few used/rare/collectible stores in that area. One of them was Argus Books then owned by a man named Herb Caplan. I was hardly his best customer. It is doubtful that he would have remembered my name , but I still remember him, long after his death. Why? Because he was willing to share what he knew about books with me, despite the fact that he probably didn’t know my name, that I wasn’t his best customer, and that I asked him questions he didn’t have to answer, but he did. Remember that first big purchase I made from Barbara Rootenberg? While I had no doubt whatsoever that Barbara treated me right in that transaction, I was still a newspaper reporter unafraid to ask impertinent questions. So, one day I asked Herb about two of those books. One was The Pastures of Heaven, Steinbeck’s second book. The other was To A God Unknown, his third book. The latter was a practically perfect copy in a like dust jacket. The former was more like a very good copy in like jacket. Maybe a bit better. I asked Herb if the price I paid was accurate, in his opinion. He said that the prices I paid were pretty close to the top dollar value, but that the prices were still within reason. It confirmed what I already knew, that Barbara was indeed treating me right.
Now this would have been in the mid-1970s. I had paid Barbara about $450 for the pair of books a few years earlier. Today, many years later, they are worth in excess of $20,000 as a pair. Apparently I have indeed been working with the right people. Yet another lesson in my education.
And while I was in Sacramento, I hooked up with another bookseller who, like Barbara, is still in business today. His name is Barry Cassidy. Once again I was never going to be his best customer, but Barry very much treated me as if I was, willingly sharing his knowledge, his judgment, his time — just as Herb Caplan and Barbara Rootenberg did before him.
At some point Barry called me to say that he had a unique Steinbeck item that I should buy. Was Barry being proprietary? Sure, but he was also doing me a favor. He didn’t have to pursue me to sell this item. He gave me first shot at it. The item is a broadside (a printed poster) in which Steinbeck writes about three teachers that were important to him in his life. It’s titled “…like captured fireflies.” It is one of only 12 copies. 12! Now this wasn’t a book and it surely wasn’t an item that was familiar to me, so it was hardly a slam-dunk decision for me to buy it. I hesitated. I also didn’t have an “extra” $125 just lying around. This is where Barry did two things that I have never forgotten, lessons that have stayed with me forever. First, he said I could make $25 payments. Regular payments would be grand, but not necessary. In fact, I think it took me several months to pay it off, but more importantly, I could tell that Barry was trying to tell me that I should buy it, that this was an important purchase, that I wouldn’t regret it. It wasn’t hard sell whatsoever. It was him knowing more about this item and its rarity than I did. He had a better perspective than I did, and he was trying to take care of me and my collection. I could see that there was a message there even if I had to read between the lines. I learned that when you deal with the right booksellers they will tell you some things that you might read as only proprietary, but if you listen closely you will see that they are actually trying to take care of you.
So, I finally paid my $125, in payments. This was the mid to late 1970s. A lot of years have passed. In 1980 I became a bookseller myself. The lessons I learned from Barabara Rootenberg, Herb Caplan, and Barry Cassidy have stayed with me, and I have employed them in my business. I try my best to deal with my customers the same way that this trio did with me. Recently one of my customers lost his job right after he purchased some books from me, while still owing me $800. Did I call him up or e-mail him demanding my money before his ship sunk? Hardly. I told him to not worry about me, to right his ship, to get a new job, to achieve whatever his new normal would be, and that when he was ready he could pay me, but not until paying me wasn’t going to be a financial burden. I’m sure he will return to financial well-being, and when he does, I’m sure he will remember that I treated him well.
Oh, by the way — remember that broadside I purchased from Barry? I paid $125. I have it for sale today now that I am a bookseller. Price? $10,000.