Generosity

Most areas of commerce are fairly cutthroat. Competition is fierce, and as a result those vying for the same customers can resort to some rather ugly behavior when dealing with one another.

For a number of reasons, this is not true of the used book trade. In fact, the very opposite is true. Professional booksellers tend to share information freely with one another, provide helpful advice, and make useful suggestions, sometimes even at their own expense. The generosity that pervades the trade continues to impress me.

Recently I sent two items to a colleague on approval; neither were in my areas of expertise, and the object was to sell them quickly at a considerable discount. One, an album of photographs, did not match his expectations (which were based on my description) at all. Rather than knocking me around for being wrong, he took the time to call me, explain some salient details that I had unintentionally represented incorrectly, and even sent me some material on his dime to illustrate some key points. I, in turn, gave him a great deal on the album.

Another great example of this within the book trade is the Colorado Antiquarian Book Seminar (which all the cool kids just call CABS). It consists of a week-long immersion in the antiquarian book trade, guided by a handful of the country’s most successful book dealers and prominent bibliophiles. I had the pleasure of attending last summer on a scholarship awarded by the IOBA.

Most people would laugh and say, “Yeah, right,” if I told them that the seminar basically involved the best in the business handing over their most useful strategies and techniques. But that is exactly what happens. (Strange how so many of the things that warm our hearts are considered anathema by the ‘business-minded’… but that is probably another blog post altogether.)

What is wonderful about this practice of generosity is not just the singular result of any particular interaction. It is the tendency of those on the receiving end of such generosity to ‘pay it forward’. We help others because others have helped us. Or perhaps others help us because we have been helpful.

It brings back memories of my fascination with eastern philosophy during college, and the idea of karma (which, by the way, literally means ‘doing’, despite our tendency to characterize it as ‘you get what’s coming to you’). It is better to give than to receive, not just because it sounds like something a generous grandmother might say, but because it actually results in a lot more people receiving. It makes the world better.

The best booksellers I know are also the most generous. They are not successful because they clutch things possessively, muscle out the weaker fish in the sea, or carve out some sort of exclusive ‘territory’. They are successful because they are magnanimous, honest, and congenial. I am lucky to say that I work in a microcosm of what I think the world could (and, I would venture to say, should) be. Perhaps that is what drew me here. It is definitely one of the reasons I will stay.

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