Hi, Philobiblonians . . . My title is "Hey, Gang--Let's Put on a Book Store!" and those of you who read the blurb sent out by Tom Whitehead already know that that title springs from the following conceit: What if the "Let's put on a show" kids, Mickey Rooney and Judy Garland, came back today, suddenly possessed by the urge to bring all their energy, cleverness, ambition, and tap-dancing skills to professional antiquarian bookselling?
This rather surreal what-if springs from the fact that bookselling, like restaurant-running and country-innkeeping, is one of those businesses that does inspire such literally fantastic leaps of career-related imagination. "I do so love to read (cook, have company)--wouldn't it be FUN to have a bookstore (restaurant, bed-and-breakfast)!!"
The imagined bookstore varies, of course, with the plot of the Mickey and Judy movie or the personality of the real-life fantasizer--from an inventory shelved in a romantically creaky barn, with a cigar box to keep the money in; to probably another kind of inventory shelved in a dark-panelled room with oriental rugs and a discreet charge-card machine to print the money on; to yet a third kind of inventory shelved on one side of an old seaside cottage with a fishing-supply and boat-rental emporium installed on the other, and perhaps an old tackle box to keep the money in--this last only a slight embroidery on the fantasy PRB&M associate Jennifer Ward entertained, for a while. She was going to call the place "Books 'n' Hooks," which I loved; and if she ever does it, I selfishly hope not too soon, I personally will scout for her her first copies of Isaac Walton's Compleat Angler, Brautigan's Trout Fishing in America, and 101 Bass Recipes for the Blender--a book that surely must exist out there somewhere.
Yet if the instinctive fantasy image of "the bookstore" as "the proprietor or proprietress presiding over a personally expressive inventory" does indeed grasp the core of the thing--and it does, make no mistake about it--still it doesn't begin to express the half of it. Nor does it recognize new social, business, and technological conditions that have changed real-life rare and antiquarian bookselling dramatically since the days when Mickey and Judy might have starred in a movie called Andy Hardy and The Bookshop Follies. Those "behind the scenes" facts and those "new conditions" are my theme tonight. What might surprise or even confound Mickey and Judy, as their late 1930s or early '40s, and enthusiastic but uninitiated visions, met bookselling reality in the '90s?
I must start by emphasizing that I speak from experience with one particular kind of modern and real as opposed to fantasy, movie-set, or 50-years-agone bookselling; and I must tell you how shy I will feel referring to "my business, my business," more than feels comfortably modest, in the next half hour. But to talk about the book business, I must talk about the book business I know best. PRB&M is a strictly antiquarian and catalogue-oriented business--generally handling books printed before 1800, mostly quite a lot before, as we try to keep our focus "earlyish" in each imprint or subject category. Thus, we specialize in English and European imprints to 1660, though under temptation we allow ourselves and our stock to sneak up to maybe 1700--in cases of extreme irresistibility, even 1760. We handle books printed in what is now the U.S. before the War of 1812, sneaking up to about 1820. Mexico being one of our major subject-specialties, we there make a principled exception to the "earlyish" rule--we go to about 1850, though a printer was already active in the Mexican capital in 1539. We delight in books in languages other than English; and we are especially interested in New World Languages■from Mohawk to Cherokee to Nahuatl. We buy and sell chronicles and histories, books about early voyages or travels, and important law books, religious works, and Bibles. Among manuscripts, we seek and sell extended individual manuscripts and manuscript archives, well-kept-up personal diaries and travellers' journals, long-term domestic and business account books, and large or little parcels of personal or business correspondence. We like manuscripts in early or unusual hands, cartas de hidalguía and other patents of nobility, and manuscripts incorporating pictographs, rebuses, etc. My partner, David Szewczyk, and I have been in business together since 1984, and we now have three able associates in our shop--the aforementioned Jenn, Derek Plattowski, and Sean O'Neill--plus our biblio-familiar, the black cat Sessa, not present here tonight. (David would tell you he's off sulking because he doesn't have a workman's shirt with the shop's name and his own on it, like the rest of us; or maybe he's taking advantage of the humans' evening absence to hunch over an office computer cruising the Internet.)
Having defined the first part of my perspective tonight by telling you what PRB&M is, I must close my opening by noting what it is not, and what modern old-and-rare bookselling perspectives I can't speak from. PRB&M does not keep an open shop, like George Allen or Clarence Wolf; or a general one like Jocelyn Konigsmark; nor do we do autographs like Kady Barnes or prints like Don Cresswell. We have not mastered the art of doing frequent fairs like the Crawfords; nor do we have the expertise in and clientele for modern literature that David Holmes has, or know illustrated books like Jack Freas does. I know nothing about THE hyper market of this fin de siècle--modern and contemporary first editions. (Talk to James Jaffe.) We avoid the science and medicine John Hellebrand revels in, feeling that doing those subjects well amounts to a separate discipline. We will never have or sell as many books illuminating Renaissance education as Bruce McKittrick has; and we will never have Carmen Valentino's range of American ephemera, or his knowledge of it. (Let alone the command of Romanian books, Carmen.) Those booksellers would all have slightly different sets of realistic amendments to the fantasy bookseller picture, and perspectives on how things have changed in their niches of the trade over the past half century. Collectors have their own recollections of how things used to be, for better and for worse and just plain for different, in olden times; so I speak in large part to stimulate my fellow Philobiblonians' thoughts■and I hope that in the wake of my talk there will be more than a few additions, corrections, variant insights, and reminiscences.
Here's what I think Mickey and Judy might be "shocked, shocked" to discover, should they find themselves putting on a bookstore in the '90s:
First, they would be astounded to learn what is sold, and enthusiastically bought, in today's rare bookshops. When Philobiblon's Dr. Rosenbach, legendary bookseller to jazz-age juggernauts, gaudy defiers of the Great Depression, and '40s (even '50s) fast-trackers, was hanging around as a boy in the shop of his uncle Moses Polok, almost any Elzevir brought more money than a Franklin imprint. But already by the late '30s, American collecting had moved away from the Greek and Latin classics, and from the "early printed books" of the 16th century, towards American history and English literature--Fielding, Dickens, and Trollope up to Galsworthy. Incunables and Shakespeare materials, which had been extremely hot since the beginning of the century, retained cachet; but already by Mickey and Judy's time there were beginning to be fewer on the market, and while they were trumpeted and sold at high prices, they were not a large part of the trade. The Americana market was moving from an almost exclusive interest in the works and activities of the founding fathers towards western Americana; "voyages and travels" were coming in in a big way. Interest in "modern" and "contemporary" literary authors is not a new phenomenon of the '80s and '90s; modern books were seriously collected earlier, and we must remember that in 1940 Kipling, Wilde, and the early Conrad were "modern" in precisely the degree Hemingway and Steinbeck now are. Twain was only as far back as Fitzgerald; late Conrad and Joyce were to Mickey and Judy as Faulkner and Mailer are to us. Steinbeck was a "contemporary"--and collected as Toni Morrison is now. (Modernists, if I'm off on some of this, please correct me--kindly). But to cite one striking difference between collecting the "moderns" then and now--remember that Mickey and Judy's clientele could cap their holdings with complete book length holograph manuscripts, like the MS of Joyce's Ulysses viewable at The Rosenbach Museum and Library--being the last generation who could, for the typewriter had conclusively come in as the instrument of composition. Moreover, "modern press books" were collected in the '40s, with Kelmscotts being "modern" then just as Golden Cockerell or Cranach Press books are to us, 50 years later. Overall, the canon of collectibles was changing but still relatively narrow. It was decidedly oriented to the history of Anglo ideas and literature, to the productions of a short list of great printers, and to a core of élite themes like hunting and the Emperor Napoleon.
The range of materials treasured and available in rare bookstores today is much more various, and in ways that not only would surprise a time-traveller from the past, but that do surprise most people we meet at their first big antiquarian book fairs. The dealer specialty list in the directory of the Antiquarian Booksellers Association of America provides the only national overview I know how to access, of what markets and interests the rare book trade tries to serve today; and while 34 dealers are shown there as carrying Early Printed Books, Greek and Latin Classics, and/or Humanism and the Renaissance, 23 others list themselves under Ephemera, 10 are listed under Fairy Tales and Mythology, and 26 handle Detective Fiction and Mysteries. There are still more dealers listed as handling Americana than anything else--but definitions of Americana have exploded, with booksellers and collectors sub-specializing in everything from Folklore to the Federal Writers Project, Jazz and Blues to Mormonism, Trade Catalogues to U.S. Government Documents, and Western Fiction, the White Mountains, and Beat Literature to Baseball. Yes, by the '40s Schomburg had shown the way in Afro-Americana, there were people collecting women's and labor history, and H.G. Wells had his collectors and so did Edward Bellamy and Jules Verne; but these passions were by and large pursued in good used bookstores, not rare ones. American Judaica had already taken off in the '40s, largely thanks to the inspiring and guiding publication in 1926 of Dr R's bibliography--but English Bibles were not yet objects of unholy lust among Protestant collectors, and American Catholica was not collected at all--indeed it has yet to be sought after in the degree David and I believe it deserves. Dr. R's 1933 publication of Early American Children's Books had given that collecting area a push and pizazz--but our budding booksellers of the '40s, like newcomers today, would be positively staggered to learn that there could be over 40 ABAA dealers specializing in children's books alone. Over the first shock, Mickey would find that several of these offered mint Hardy Boys books, and Judy could note that five ABAA dealers explicitly list themselves as specializing in "Oziana"! All this represents a wonderfully enriched understanding of what history is, we think, and of what "valuable" is, and of what "beautiful" and "interesting" are--but it is a different, different, different understanding, almost unimaginably different, from that of 50 or 60 years ago.
A second, probably less quickly grasped new fact for Mickey and Judy would be how nonlocal even "local landmark" bookstores can be in the latter part of the 20th century. What is more a "Philadelphia institution" than Wm. H. Allen, Bookseller■yet when I was serving part of my bookselling apprenticeship there in the early '80s, even then there were over 23,000 names on the mailing list, representing all the states, several territories, and 60-plus countries. Jocelyn Konigsmark, from her charmingly old-fashioned premises in Wayne, is now buying and selling at least nationwide via the very modern Internet. Bruce [McKittrick] and [his wife] Wendy [Wilson] have attended the international ABAA/ILAB book fair in Japan, David Holmes if I remember rightly has exhibited in London, and John Hellebrand has taken his books to Germany. Even Clarence [Wolf, of the MacManus Company] went to the New York ABAA book fair last April--which some of you will recognize as the stunner it is--and a number of Philadelphia booksellers will be attending the ABAA's Los Angeles book fair in February. Uninitiated, Mickey and Judy would not necessarily guess these things from looking casually at these businesses.
Nor would most people expect PRB&M's shop in the Philadelphia working-class neighborhood of Frankford to have received visitors from South Carolina, Rhode Island, Louisiana, Washington, California, Texas, Arizona, Illinois, and Tennessee; Connecticut, New York, and New Jersey; and England, Japan, the Netherlands, and Mexico. Two weeks from tonight, David and I will be in Spain to see private clients and visit the national library there. Derek told me a week ago that we had mailed over 10,000 copies of our catalogues and sales lists this year on our domestic bulk account alone■not counting those sent abroad or sent first class--and this when we've been cutting back on the mailing list. He regularly ships to England, Japan, the Netherlands, Spain, Austria, Ireland, Switzerland, Wales, Germany, Belgium, Canada, and Australia; Jenn has spent many a ten minutes, leaning over our local post-office counter, challenging the clerks on the registry and parcel-post arcana for these countries--not to mention Peru, Venezuela, Colombia, Argentina, and Guatemala. AWESOMELY, to me, these interactions with the great world take place from the "leetle" PRB&M house in Frankford that many of you can visualize even if you haven't visited, from its picture on our lists' back pages. No--every '90s rare bookseller's life isn't like this, but I'm sure that other Philobiblon booksellers have similarly international visitors-books and post-office records, and this stuff is part of doing business for more of us than you might imagine.
Such nonlocal outreach is not totally new, mind. When David was working at The Rosenbach, he saw in its archives plenty of bills associated with trans-Atlantic liner-trips of Dr. R's. But Rosenbach was a bookseller celebrity--if not quite a uniqum, a damned rare bird. And according to Edwin Wolf's biography, even his was a "Philadelphia house" for at least its first ten years, with more than half its revenues coming from local sales, and he made his last trip to Europe in 1930, though he was to be in business for another 22 years. What's changed is that now a much larger number of us birds in the bookselling flock make so much of the world our realm--and feel we must do so not to be "wildly successful," but simply to be viable.
To strike a theme that will be struck again, the implications of this nonlocality in money terms--in postage, shipping, travel, and other sometimes-mercifully-unfocussed-on costs--is considerable. The costs of cosmopolitanism aren't necessarily individually large, but they add up. Getting my passport in order for Spain came to about $80, complete with unflattering picture; and I guess I count our bank account lucky that this time, we don't have to spring for Japanese lessons, like Bruce and Wendy did in preparation for their last big trip. A primary message here is that the '90s Mickey and Judy will need more capital and cash flow for a very different array of oddments, in the era of the global village, than they might have thought of in the days when travel was on the local trolley that went clang, clang, clang--and when, when you went to St. Lew-ie, you had gone about as fur as you could go!
A third '90s surprise for Mickey and Judy would certainly be that the downtown open shop that probably sparked their fantasies of owning a bookstore in the first place had become an endangered species, the victim of now-unmeetable rents for the kind of space they require, and of changed elite housing and shopping patterns. Sunday's Philadelphia Inquirer had an article on rare bookstores in the suburbs, mirabile dictu; and what might our '40s duo make of the notation next to the names of more than half the ABAA booksellers in the directory that they are open to visitors "by appointment only"? I am reminded of a reporter who once came to our shop to interview us for a feature in a local newspaper who was--I think the only word is titillated--by the idea of a store open only by appointment. Her article was a good one, more accurate and thoughtful than any we'd yet been the subject of even in papers of wider distribution, but the headline was a doozy. It read, in big letters, "CUSTOMERS ARE AS RARE AS THE BOOKS HERE." (Think about it!) You can imagine it gone straight into a Mickey and Judy movie--the screen fills with the blur of a newspaper, spinning around and around and moving ever closer, as in Citizen Kane or The Front Page, until the image freezes on that 60-point headline. Cut to Mickey and Judy, viewing this wonder--eyes wide and open mouths round as plums. (Visualize David and Cynthy, 45 years later, ditto.)
So. What are we '90s booksellers doing in these closed shops, 40-plus hours a week--our spouses might say, way too many "plus" hours a week? Well, a lot of us are producing catalogues; and a fourth surprise for Mickey and Judy, both as visitors from the past and as novices, might be that for a catalogue-producing bookstore like PRB&M, the next highest-value asset, after its inventory and its building, if it owns that, will probably be its reference library. I think our reference library appraises out actually at a higher figure than our building. Shelved in one rank, the PRB&M reference books would extend from the endzone to the 35-yard-line of a football field--bibliographies, histories, histories of printing and printers, dictionaries on many languages and subjects, guides to the whereabouts of manuscripts, library exhibition catalogues, and multivolume encyclopedias of biography, religions, general knowledge, and more. (I'm sure there are other booksellers with lots more.) Selected other-dealers' catalogues fill several 7-foot high sets of shelves in our basement--these are kept not just for price and rarity reference but for their scholarly usefulness■and then there are the current and retained auction catalogues, for which I believe we pay out about $1500 a year to Christie's, Sotheby's, Swann's, Freeman's, etc.
Additional reference sources come in new and expensive forms unimagined in the era of "M&J." We have the National Union Catalogue of Pre-1956 Imprints and a dictionary of Spanish biography in microform: these take up a 3-x-4-foot, 16-drawer case in David's office, and with their reader on top they account alone for over $14,000 of the reference library asset. Twenty years of American Book Prices Current is now out on CD-ROM--much easier to work with than the books, but a $1600 outlay, this year, as opposed to $100 for last year's paper update (and we had to buy, under Sean's supervision, a CD-ROM driver to be able to use it). Access by computer, via telnet, to a wide range of university library catalogues and proprietary data bases has been a wonderful addition to our research capacity in the last year; but it has involved us in thinking about reference library costs in a whole new way, for not only have we had to budget for software purchases and installation, and the expenditure of a lot of learning time, time being money--but on some of the most useful internet data bases, each search must be paid for individually and, if made repeatedly, paid for repeatedly. This is really, really different from the old days, like two years ago let alone 50, when, once you bought a reference source, you could use it as heavily as you liked without additional expense, and when indeed additional uses effectively reduced the price of each use.
Now: What are all these snazzy reference sources used for? And can't Mickey and Judy just do without them?--as they might plausibly ask. Well, they could have, then, and we '90s dealers can now, if we are selling books at relatively unscary prices to people who can decide to buy or not based on a gut judgment of whether or not a book appeals to them "that much"--and where the very basic "is it complete" question can be answered satisfactorily simply by riffling through the thing--and where we are selling books, and kinds of books, in which there is constant and visible trade that lets us and our buyers develop a good comfortable mutual sense of what prices are in and out of line, without appeal to reference beyond mutual experience.
But when the prices get higher, buyers quite reasonably want more information as to the nature and value of what they're buying. They want--and I think this is just and lovable--frankly most of them need--reassurance as to the sanity of their agreeing to pay the asked prices. They need this not only to have something convincing to tell their spouses, Janice [Fisher; see "I Married a Book Collector"]--but to encourage and justify themselves in their decisions. For no matter how much money you have, it doesn't do to spend it foolishly! At the level where a book described as "not uncommon" may appear in the worldwide market only two or three times a year, and other books thought of as not very rare may come on the market only two or three times a decade, a bookseller's pricing can't be based solely on his own direct experience, or intuition. PRB&M has recently been fortunate enough to handle some books not seen on the market in several generations; and how to price them? The answer is that while pricing is not a science, it is more an explainable art than a true mystery, the bookseller systematically addressing a consistent array of variables to discover comparables, just as a real estate appraiser does. And the comparables are discovered and the calculations worked out with the aid of the reference library.
For example, the "is it complete" question is not necessarily simple with early books. Was the lengthy dedication published with all copies? Are ALL the engravings there? Is a half-title or a license leaf called for, and is there supposed to be a frontispiece? If your customer is buying "earliness," well, HOW early is the work? For an imprint of its region of the world, for its printer, for its font and layout, for its subject matter, for its author? Was the author an interesting guy, or just another deservedly obscure (however virtuous) 16th-century Dominican? Do you have in hand the first edition, the best edition, the most influential edition, the first illustrated edition? Is this a famous artist's sole effort as a book illustrator? How IMPORTANT is the work--in the history of ideas, the history of printing, the history of book-artistry? Your reference library tells you this stuff, and it becomes a bonus that many librarians and serious collectors will own their own copies of the key bibliographies in their fields, so you can efficiently communicate what you have discovered by referring to the entries in those bibliographies rather than writing the results of your research out at length.
If your customer is buying rarity, he needs to know how rare the book is, and that in several separate, researchable realms. How rare is it in libraries overall, for example--or in the U.S. or even in one part of the U.S.? How rare has it been on the market in the last 50, 20, or 5 years? '90s booksellers use not only auction records and dealer catalogues but NUC, RLIN and ESTC (two of those computer data bases), and bibliographies from Goff on incunables to Bruccoli on Fitzgerald, to assess rarity to their own and their buyers' satisfaction--and not one of those sources was yet available to Mickey and Judy, at least in their start-up days.
Another focus of modern research is provenance. "Pedigree" has always been added if an item in hand was ever in a famous collection, and that can increase cash value as well as provide a sometimes useful footnote to intellectual history. But the story of a book or manuscript's travels from collector to collector can nowadays have further very practical applications. Many European and New World countries have antiquities laws, and any book or manuscript of significant worth can be subject to the law of replevin if its current owner cannot prove that it was conclusively out of the country of its origin prior to the date of promulgation of that country's antiquities law. Moreover, there have been all toooooooo many rare book thefts in the last 20 years, and not all the stolen books have yet been identified and returned to their rightful owners. It is not unknown for a '90s bookseller to look up an exciting new acquisition and discover that there are supposed to be only two copies in the U.S., one of which has exactly the same quirks and flaws that his does. At which point he may get out his neat little ultraviolet light (another device, and expense, unknown to Mickey and Judy), and discover that on the title-page he can see something that looks like it might be an erased institutional ownership stamp. The honest bookseller is there presented with a horrible situation, but he has not compounded his problem by selling stolen property, and tossing a hornet's nest into the lap of his potential buyer.
It should never be forgotten by either collector or bookseller that part of what a client is buying from his bookseller is certainty of clear title, and this is one of the points where the bookseller is lazy at his peril. Partly for this reason, '90s booksellers' descriptions record far more in the way of ordinary ownership signatures, bookplates, etc., than old ones did, though '40s collectors and booksellers got the same huge charge any of us would today, out of owning or selling a Heber-Hoe-Huth-Ashburnham-Bennett-Pierpont Morgan-Poole copy.
The last major factor in pricing, condition, is of course not primarily addressed through the reference library; one looks directly at books in hand. But even here, the effort to identify a binding as "contemporary," or as by a specific binder, can send you to your library. And a sense of what counts as "a little wormed" or "heavily foxed" or "with the frontispiece lacking as usual"--that comes from experience and study that involve the catalogues and books about books in your library, as well as from direct, careful, and attentive bookhandling. Of course Mickey and Judy will eventually "just know" a lot of the necessary facts and lore along all these lines--but never all of it, or for all books.
By the '40s, bookseller-provided research, collations, and extended description were already much more common than they had been back at the turn of the century, when Bernard Quaritch would sell a book priced at half an élite-class civil servant's monthly salary with no more information provided than barebones recitation of author, title, publisher, date and size, and the notation of binding in "boards" or "half leather." No collations--and no guarantees of completeness or anything else. (A "collation" is "the bibliographical description of the physical composition of a book, expressed in a more or less standardized formula"--Carter's definition).) By the '40s, Dr. R--whose real advantage and unabashed schtick was the scholarship he could bring to his connoisseurship--Dr. R did own, and he and Edwin [Wolf, then his assistant,] did cite, Sabin, Hildeburn, Hain-Copinger, Palau, and the Schwerdt catalogue on hunting, hawking, and shooting books. They used the STC, BMC, DNB, and DAB, and the Gesamtkatalog; and they cited such catalogues of individual collections as the Arents catalogue of tobacco books (which The Rosenbach Company published). Yet Dr. R sold many an astronomically expensive item without any real documentation of its specifics at all, simply gloating over it as "the goddamnedest copy you ever saw." A '90s observer is floored by the fact that his '40s catalogues have 7-line all-cap headlines but still no collations. And Edwin makes it clear that he never could make out any rule for the Doctor's pricing structure, other than what each particular collector could be made to bear.
Do our '90s customers quite realize that all this research, this vetting--this analysis of completeness, of nature, of clear title, of comparables--is going on, on their behalf, behind the scenes? Do they quite realize that it's in large part this extensive and explicitly reported research, and the guarantee of its correctness, that they're paying for? And I wonder, as a somewhat separate question, If they know, does it please them? For a bookseller is unlikely to underprice a book on which he has the right reference books and for which he has done his homework. On the other hand, he is unlikely to overcharge for it based on the natural human logic, "it must be really rare; I've never seen one before." Nor will he overcharge in good faith for a book that is incomplete though it "looks" to him and will look to the buyer just fine. This is what surely happened at least at some points in the chain of the famous scandal of 1939, when it emerged that a very imperfect, much sophisticated copy of Tom Jones had gone through the hands of [the English dealer] F. Sabin, [Philadelphia's] Sessler, Jerome Kern, the Anderson Galleries, Dr. R, Owen Young, and Gabriel Wells to Victor Rothschild, always being held and sold as pristine, the only copy known in original binding, with all edges uncut, etc., etc.: The thing had apparently never been collated, or even looked at very critically. Oh for the good old days, but the '90s biblioconsumer is far better informed. Everybody makes the occasional mistake, but ABAA booksellers and many others guarantee as a business principle that their descriptions are accurate--and that if one turns out not to be, the purchased item can be returned at any time. The guarantees of these '90s booksellers are much more complete than those offered by auction houses, now or of old; and I should mention one more place where the '90s bookseller is selling guaranteed research and documentation of research at a level undreamed of 50 years ago--i.e., when it comes to appraisals.
Tax appraisals were not much in the picture, when Mickey and Judy started up, but insurance appraisals could be required; and I have been told that in that less litigious and bureaucratic age, they came to the bookseller as pure profit and joy--this because everybody understood the appraisor to be being paid for his informed opinion rather than for documentation of values among comparables. And of course an "opinion" can be written up in just the time it takes to run pen over paper! One of my least favorite things to do is explain to people who want appraisals that we have to actually look at the things, hands-on and with time-consuming care; that an itemized list must often be made of them; that research on them will be required that will take at least as long as the listing and looking; and that all this will probably cost a bundle. "Can't you just write me a little note," they say, . . . and I sympathize. But suppose a flood destroys the note-holder's library; suppose the insurance company, doing more research among comparables than the meaning-to-be-helpful bookseller did, pays only 20% of the appraised figure or refuses to pay at all, charging fraudulent intent? Suppose the note-holder then sues the bookseller, for the difference or his whole loss?
And we sign our lives away, when David completes an IRS form 8283.
So then. The '90s bookselling firm can really look more like a cross between a special collections library and a publishing office than the movies' 84 Charing Cross Road, and in fact we get calls all the time from people confusing us with The Library Company--I don't know if they also get calls for us! The image of the rare or antiquarian bookseller clicking away at his word processor or sitting alone at a table with the book that's the focus of his research and writing, surrounded by reference works, is, to those of us who fancy it, a pleasant one--but it's quite different from the fantasy of mornings spent arranging and rearranging fine books on your shelves, dusting them occasionally, keeping coffee hot for those to come to browse and chat about ideas, dipping when they leave into your own beautiful books for your own reading pleasure, putting your reading down only to receive another interesting visitor, selling a book or so, and then toddling out for a two-hour lunch . . .
The question I think I'm third-most-frequently asked, as a bookseller, is, who buys rare books today? Well, in considerable degree, they're the same people who populated the bookshop in '40s movies and in that period's real life: We serve, as Mickey and Judy and you might immediately imagine, university professors--and their graduate students, some of whom have to pay for their treasures in installments. We have on our mailing list a number of ministers, a mining engineer, an oil man, a few managers and other workers in government or in utilities, a mortgage company owner, the multiterm mayor of a state capital city and an ex■U.S. President, a label-maker, some architects, a retired motel-owner, an array of small- business owners, a security guard, and a soap magnate--along with the president of the Mexican phone company and the English lord who is the sole surviving member of Winston Churchill's wartime cabinet. There are additionally a very diversified crew of corporate executives, investment bankers, lawyers, and dentists and doctors, and there are many, many more men in the crowd than women. Mickey and Judy would recognize virtually all of them. The computer guys, and the chief owner of Venezuelan television, they might have a hard time placing--what's a computer? what's a television? but overall, they would not be surprised by any of the private-collector demographics of our mailing list (though it strikes me that neither of them would recognize the word, "demographics"). In their day, such collectors were almost the whole market. The titans Huntington, Clements, Brinley, Hoe, and Folger were gone from the earth by that time; but Hogan, Lilly, Bell, Houghton, and Pforzheimer were still active. So were Streeter, Wagner, the Hydes, Bradley Martin, Seymour Adelman, and Estelle Doheney; some of you in this room will think immediately of others you can't believe I'm not mentioning. The middle Mr. Scheide was slowing down his work on the family library, but our generation's Mr. Scheide would grasp the reins as its master before too long; and there were many lesser but still important collectors who eagerly dabbled in the pursuit of book collecting--as part of their executive, professional, gentlemanly good life, in a day when the houses built for men of that ilk had rooms that the architects labelled "libraries." Andy Hardy's dad the judge, for example, might have had a rare Blackstone--or a choice little collection of early state laws.
Going into business in 1938, or '40, Mickey and Judy would have known about a lot of their day's collectors from the popular press, for book collectors were famous as book collectors, in the eyes of the general public, in a way that their successors are not today. In the '20s and '30s, Dr. R wrote regularly for the largest-circulating middle-class magazine, the Saturday Evening Post, and he got so used to the idea that the battles of the auction rooms were generally newsworthy that he took to calling up the papers to see what had distracted the scribes when book news WASN'T reported. Even after the war, biblio-coups were covered in the papers' front sections--as the sale of the "Henry the Lion" manuscript and Bill Gates's purchase of the Michelangelo manuscript have indeed been, more recently, but more often and with more excitement. The media were intrigued then, as they are not now, by book collecting as a gallant sport for the captains of industry, and they presented it as a locus of glamour not only in the '20s, when everything was glamorous, but well into the '30s and '40s--when amid depression and the horrors of war, glamour was perhaps a precious distraction. What happened, I wonder? Did the reportage con brio cease because what A.E. Newton called "the book collecting game" truly became less glamorous, and so was less reported? Or did book collecting become less "popular" because its thrilling moments were for some reason less reported in the popular press? I don't know; I'd love to hear others' thoughts. In any case, private collectors and their collections are much more anonymous now than they were then, and much harder for the neophyte bookseller to discover. Indeed, in David's and my experience, collectors find YOU, in the end, at least as often as you find them. We once had a guy call us all breathless from a street phone in New York City, telling us that he'd memorized our number from one of our catalogues seen upside down on a desk in another dealer's nearby bookshop!
Let me say one thing more about private collectors. Always, they are spurred by many different motives. Assembling a truly great library offers intimations of immortality that certainly motivated Huntington; Countess Doheney was partly motivated by religious faith. There are the thrill of the chase and the thrill of competition--quite different, but both important. There is the sheer personal LOVE of books, as objects of beauty and examples of technological ingenuity, as reverenceable expressions of human ideals, ideas, beliefs, and feelings. But some collectors have also been attracted by investment pitches--one pre-World War II writer referred to these as "Babbitts in Bookland"--and pre-World War II booksellers quite often used such pitches with abandon, promoting their books as high-civilization trophies and sure-fire investments in tandem. That is, as Edwin [Wolf] put it somewhere, they sold "the Pill of Culture sugar-coated with financial optimism." Responsible rare and antiquarian booksellers would never try to get away with this nowadays. . . . It's perhaps fair for us to meditate aloud on the fact that while book prices indeed collapsed horribly, roughly by half their value, after the crash of '29--still, darn few stocks held up that well. It would be fair for me to remark that in my own time, when the Richard Manneys had to sell virtually all their fabulous acquisitions of the '80s during the recession of the early '90s, the book prices--lower than the art prices to begin with--held up far better than the art prices did. And it's an undeniable observation, that a collector's hobby of book collecting will provide him a considerably better return, in the end, than spending the same amount of money on the hobby of playing the great golf courses of the world. But to suggest, as Dr. R freely did, that a collector could plan to achieve a yield of several multiples by buying a rare book at his retail price, holding it for two, three, or a mere half a dozen years, and then selling it again (probably wholesale, which he didn't happen to mention)--uh uh. We don't do this today, and in fact are more likely to say to the would-be amateur dealer, "Nonprofessionals: Do not try this at home!"
The thing that would really surprise Mickey and Judy about the '90s customer base of a store like PRB&M is its institutional component. By their imagined opening, the Huntington, the John Carter Brown, the Newberry, the Morgan, and I think the Folger Library were all well known players in the market, as were a few of the great public libraries. And Dr R, for one, had a very clear sense that most of the private collections he was helping to form were one day going to become institutional collections. But the real library orientation of the business was to come in two waves, and after Mickey and Judy's start-up although squarely within their time. First, immediately post-World War II, the libraries of Europe would need to be restocked with rarities as well as with workaday books, after the war's destructions; and second, in the '50s and '60s, first the GI-bill generation and second the baby-boomers would spur the expansion of U.S. public institutions--and the ambitions of those institutions to shine and to serve. The day was dawning when state schools that had had, perhaps, only a few representative rare books in a treasure room, would become real, bona fide research centers. The economy was booming: Private and public monies were laid on in university libraries for nationally and regionally patriotic motives, as well as for intellectual ones.
Today, many of the libraries a Mickey and Judy would serve are the ones you and they would immediately expect: Harvard/Yale/Princeton and their fellows; the premier research-supporting state universities like Minnesota, North Carolina, Michigan, Texas, and California; the national libraries, like the Library of Congress, the British Library, and the Bibliothèque Nationale in Paris; and the great private research libraries like the now-venerable ones mentioned above. But actually many more libraries than these are active today, on levels lofty and low, and many are much, much less obvious. Yes, on a roll Mickey and Judy might guess that Notre Dame and Georgetown could be offered Catholica, and that Texas should be sent their short list of Texas books. But they couldn't intuit, they would have to LEARN, that Villanova collects not just Catholica but Augustinian materials specifically, and has one of the greatest collections of it in the world. They would have to LEARN that Texas collects modern literature--and that Ohio State collects Cervantes, Kansas State collects cookbooks, Indiana State collects dictionaries, and Loras College, in Dubuque, IA, collects Horace. McMaster University, in Toronto, collects English literature in French and German translations, and French and German literature in English translation. Mickey and Judy would have to learn that, locally, the history of technology collections at Eleutherian Mills are stellar and still growing; that Temple collects lithography; that Penn collects chemistry and Aristotle; and--if they were going to get into ephemera--that The Library Company has, and presumably is still adding to, a perfectly terrific collection of advertising posters from dozens of the Quaker City's turn-of-the-century beer breweries. Learning all this, and deciding whom to quote the most recently arrived, most wonderfully choice library-proper morsels to, is many a '90s bookseller's prime challenge, and frankly, for me, it is one of her greatest delights.
While for many booksellers the nurturing of private collectors is still the primary part of the business, so much is the '90s rare book market for some kinds of books a research-library market, that dealers in those areas directly craft the form and content of their cataloguing to reflect university norms and practices. (A lot of the modern emphasis on technical points and bibliographical research, stressed above, is primarily due, in fact, to the expectations of libraries and librarians.) And it has also happened that in the last 15 years university budgets have been relatively and absolutely depressed (and so have librarians); so, as university budgets have shrunk and librarians have felt more and more harried, booksellers have taken on a lot of what once were the librarians' "shopping" tasks, as "selling" tasks. It is now part of our business to find out whether a university has a given book before we fax to offer it. One librarian recently told me that he wished all our published catalogues let him know whether or not his university held the book■and some dealers do indeed make a stab at doing this, by listing the NUC's holding institutions in parentheses after the book description. [Since this paper was first written, dealers' thus expending the resources to search and publish the NUC's report of holdings has become inadequate. Now, we must be able to supply notes on what RLIN adds to NUC (searching RLIN does not replace the NUC search), and we are sometimes even asked, "What does the the on-line catalogue of my institution say?"--which I think deserves a ! Fearing and loathing cost-driven price increases as much as the next merchant, I have not yet had the courage to calculate what this emerging "standard" adds to the cost of our processing each book we offer, reducing its profitability and, therefore, the operating capital we'll have to pay for similarly searching the next book to come in.] At the 1995 conferences of the Rare Books and Manuscripts Section of the American Library Association, there was lunch-table talk of having some booksellers catalogue directly into MARC format, the library-standard machine-readable data-base format, so that if a library bought a book so catalogued, and approved the bookseller's cataloguing, that cataloguing would not have to be re-keyed into the union data base.
I'm not sure how much of this institutional orientation is transparent to the general reader of rare book catalogues; this is a point that interests me and I'd particularly like to hear ruminations on it. As a student of rhetoric by academic training as well as commercial necessity, I am very aware that different issues and keywords are "foregrounded," in the exercise of describing a book for the knowledgeable private collector and for the knowledgeable librarian; I'm not sure how much the needs and priorities of each interfere with those of the other. In any case, my '90s Mickey and Judy would have to decide to serve libraries the way libraries need to be served or NOT to serve libraries--for there would be consequences, whichever road were taken.
As I leave this subject of how and to whom booksellers sell books, I note in passing one now-lost little Mickey-and-Judy opportunity for sales, and one big one that's been gained since their time. David observed the other day that once, when an executive was going from Cleveland to Europe or Asia, he got to his port city on the train and usually had a significant layover there, in the city center, before he could catch his ship--during which hiatus he could visit Mickey and Judy's bookstore. Now, of course, he goes straight from Ohio to Odessa by plane, and if that plane touches down at all, at one "edge" or the other of the U.S., he never leaves the airport. If he shops, it's for electronics from the airline magazine--or from a bookseller's catalogue he has brought along in his briefcase. He can order over the airplane's telephone, and wouldn't that have been a Buck Rogers scene in the '40s! On the other hand, the antiquarian book fair has sprouted, flowered, cast seeds widely, and become a perennial amazement: To say more would be to begin a whole separate "talk."
And I shall close this next to last section by addressing the second-most-frequently asked question I am asked as a bookseller: Where do you get books? This is another point on which I'd appreciate comparisons from my seniors. When Mickey and Judy started out, I'm sure they'd have gotten their first inventory from some combination of auction, other dealers (both by purchase and by consignment), and from their own libraries and their friends'. As their career developed, they would buy books from collectors, and perhaps from institutions; they would probably take more consignments, particularly from their own customers; and certainly they would buy from people who wrote, called, or wandered in with books. That's not very different from what's happened in my own experience. But what I don't know--maybe someone can tell me--is how much the proportions coming from those sources varied, 1940 to now. I know that the auctions in Mickey and Judy's day were the arena of dealers--collectors and librarians did not normally bid there for themselves--and that many more books, and more valuable books, were sold in lots than now, when Sotheby's won't handle books that aren't individually worth at least $1500 and Swann's "bread and butter books," according to [Swann's president] George Lowry, go for $500 to $2000. (Swann, by the way, was founded in 1942.) I also know it was a factor for my Mickey and Judy that in the late '30s and very early '40s books were still flowing in from abroad, in numbers not seen since--as English estate-holders confronted post-World War I labor and tax stresses, and German library owners tried to deal with inflation, and everybody tried to combat the forces of depression. Of course many a library-owning family here in the U.S. raised money on family books, to weather the economy. But I don't know whether, or how much, the percentage of retail has changed, that a reasonable or generous bookseller offered to an off-the-street seller (as opposed to a client deaccessioning). I would just love to know that.
The last point of comparison I would raise between Mickey and Judy's "then" and our "now" is that business simply as business has changed enormously in 50 years, and the bookselling business has been changed as radically as any. The business sense of time has totally changed. The efficiencies offered by cheaper long-distance rates, fax machines, and computer-related capacities including e-mail and desktop publishing--not to mention the pressures of higher interest rates■have transformed us. Mickey and Judy never saw a computer. They would have kept inventory in paper ledgers and on index cards, not a database, and generated book offers on typewriters and kept carbons, not photocopies. There are still booksellers, and good booksellers, doing this, but they are increasingly rare. Even a Dr. R thought three times about long distance telephone calls between here and New York, and he mostly decided not to make them. He WROTE to his customers and they wrote back; when he offered a book by letter, he seems to have expected the recipient to take up to two weeks to respond. Glen Dawson noted recently that the ideal customer wrote back air mail in those days if you wrote him air mail, but that still took how long? And cost what? Mickey and Judy never saw a charge-card machine. The costs and requirements associated with having employees have mucho changed . . . and security operates at a new level now. Always there were safes or vaults, in rare book stores, though then as now some of that was for panache, and to enforce the idea of the preciousness of the wares, rather than out of actual fear that somebody would break into the place and take something. There were always locks, and watchful eyes. But the idea of electronically monitoring a whole shop, via a centrally connected alarm system á là ADT--that would be new for all but perhaps H.P. Kraus, new technology as well as a new perceived need. It was possible in 1940 to get a package of documents or a book from here to Phoenix in 24 hours, but to do so involved moving mountains and paying piles: The idea that anybody could call 1/800/PICK-UPS and have somebody come and just take care of the whole thing, as a matter of course and for the price of a couple of movie tickets, would have been science fiction. Production of a Rosenbach catalogue, from pasting-up of individual typewritten descriptions through typesetting and proofreading and the correction and approval of proofs, and printing and binding and delivery, normally took three to four months. If PRB&M is assembling a list today (one entirely of previously catalogued books, a necessary qualification), it takes us about a week to get the thing out--and that all on site. Most of this represents wonderful increases in productivity--but it also involves us with more, and more complex, machines to try to choose wisely, pay for, care for, maintain service contracts on, and insure. The capital required for "putting on the bookstore" comes in at a whole new level in this machinery-regard--as we have seen it do with reference library costs, research-time costs, travel costs, and more.
My best advice to Mickey and Judy, coming back to contemplate bookselling in the 90s, is--go for it. But be prepared to spend more money than you have, work more hours than there are in the day, study subjects you never heard of, and be responsible in ways that scare you to death. Be willing to fight with your partner, change roles, change approaches. Realize that one of you, at least, is going to have to learn not just about books but about BUSINESS. Face it, and learn to savor it, that you will learn more than you ever wanted to know about seven or eight categories of insurance; and that a photocopier can cost more than a car. Expect your days to be extraordinarily varied and not always along highbrow lines: Yes, you'll spend a lion's share of your time on that research and writing, and yes you'll venture, elegantly dressed, into posh surroundings where you'll discuss the finer points of publishing and intellectual history; but--David has painted walls and stained bookshelves; Derek and Sean have painted the porch and planted daffodils; Jenn has taken cars for service, ground out probably a couple thousand letters beginning, "The partners have asked me to call to your attention the book described on the leaf following," and gone on shopping trips in rain as well as sunshine, urgently seeking cat litter. I once got to drive an 18 foot van, and have been shut into a vault in the bowels of Citibank, NY--the former was great, the latter an adventure all too spine-tingling, given how claustrophobic I am. Derek has written and David and I have signed, this year, about a thousand checks; I've done the painstaking, sometimes hair-tearing budgeting that has made that possible. Sean, who has been with us only a year and some months, has already overseen several minor and at least one major computer-system upgrade--and revealed himself as an incredible proofreader. I haven't begun to talk, and won't, about what Mickey and Judy would have to set themselves to learn about book care, and what kinds of binding and conservation attention are required, advised, or verboten for books and manuscripts in our care in the '90s; but I will say they'll have to learn to arrange for checks in foreign currencies, and how to keep a specific identification inventory. They'll learn to bundle bulk mailings (then relearn, when the rules are changed), and will internalize the rhythm of the auction season. They will learn the languages of accountants and lawyers, editors and catalogue designers, and job printers, computer techies, and bankers, as well as the language of bibliographers and librarians, and something of the lingo of the Peterman catalogues. I warn them, they will have gloriously busy days when they're just trying to keep their hands straight, answering the phone, taking orders, producing invoices, recording sales for accounting and mailing-list purposes, and receiving and shipping books; they will have to learn to deal with the doldrums, when they work and work and work and NOTHING comes of it--no sales, no kudos--and the cat becomes essential as furry psychotherapist. I would say to Mickey and Judy, Good employees are pearls of great price: treasure them.
I would say to Mickey and Judy, Have fun. Be brave and creative as you confront the tension between the needs of your book business as a business, where time is money, and the counterdemands associated with the mantle and burden that bookstores have accepted of being little oases of civility and human decency. (I once let a little old lady's offer of a completely unsalable Bible go without response for a week and got this veeeery huffy, but weirdly touching letter, saying, "WELL! I would have thought people dealing in Books! IN BIBLES! would have had a little more courtesy!") You do what you can, and try to remember to say Please sir and Thank you ma'am; you try to like your clients, and have clients you like. I would say to Mickey and Judy, Join Philobiblon: you'll like it.
I would say to Mickey and Judy, Follow the adages. If you can stay alive as a business long enough, in spite of being honest--you will discover that honesty IS the best policy. Haste makes waste. Do unto others as you would have them do unto you. Never, never assume nuthin'. What goes around comes around, and the game isn't over 'til the fat lady sings. Most of all I would say to Mickey and Judy, Don't let anything, ever, shake your faith in the essential greatness, and importance, of great books. Don't let ANYTHING shake your faith in the people who love them . . .