September 2013 Newsletter

For those not on our mailing list, here is a look at our latest newsletter. We’ve also embedded our latest new acquisitions list at the end of the post:


Another month has come and gone, and as always we have been busy booksellers. This past weekend we exhibited at the 41st Annual Rochester Antiquarian Book Fair. We had more dealers than usual this year, and enjoyed a record turnout of browsers and bibliophiles. Everyone seemed very pleased with the Main Street Armory, the new venue for this year’s event. Here is a photo taken by one of our colleagues of myself and my fiancee Kristine:

Booths were bustling with activity throughout the day as customers inquired about books on display, or asked questions about their own collections. We purchased a number of items ourselves, including a first American edition of George Orwell’s Homage to Catalonia, a set of Shakespeare’s works in an attractive silk-lined publisher’s case, and a small collection of travel literature featuring decorative cover designs by A. & C. Black publishers.

Watch for these, and a number of interesting and scarce items acquired at the end of August, in next month’s newsletter. But first, have a look at what we have been working on for the last month:

New Acquisitions – Highlights

New Acquisitions – Complete

See a few things you like? Enter coupon code S10TWO013 during checkout, and when you buy three books you get another FREE! (Please make sure you have at least four books in your shopping cart, or the discount won’t work.)

Below is one of our favorites from this month’s acquisitions, a limited edition of Shakespeare’s complete works inspired by the famous Shakespeare Head Press edition printed in his hometown of Stratford-upon-Avon (commonly known as the Stratford Town Shakespeare).

The Works of William Shakespeare, in Ten Volumes – Shakespeare Head Press Limited Edition, #585 of 1000


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A hearty helping of Shakespeare

The Works of William Shakespeare, in Ten Volumes


We couldn’t wait until our next newsletter to share this gem with our followers:

[The Stratford Town Shakespeare]
Shakespeare, William; Clark, William George; Wright, William Aldis
The Works of William Shakespeare, in Ten Volumes – Shakespeare Head Press Limited Edition, #585 of 1000
Duffield & Company, New York / Shakespeare Head Press, Stratford-upon-Avon 1904. Limited edition, #585 of 1000. Large 8vo. Complete in ten hardcover volumes. Original beige cloth, paper spine labels. Printed on laid paper in a limitation of 1000 copies. This was the first work to be released by the Shakespeare Head Press, which was a fine press in Shakespeare’s hometown of Stratford-upon-Avon which undertook to carry on the sort of printing that the Kelmscott Press made famous. It is to this day the only complete set of his works to be produced in his hometown, and is often called The Stratford Town Shakespeare. This set was reproduced by Duffield & Company of New York in another limitation of 1000, which is the set offered here.

Very good. No jackets. Spine labels toned with loss from two volumes, boards of a couple volumes lightly soiled. Descriptive label tipped in on front endpaper of first volume.



Published in: on August 12, 2013 at 2:03 PM  Leave a Comment  
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August Newsletter

I thought followers of this blog might enjoy seeing our monthly newsletter, so I have copied our August issue below in its entirety, and embedded a PDF of our most recent highlights catalog. Those interested in receiving our newsletter monthly, please visit our website at and complete the web form on the homepage.


Before I get to the usual fix for our loyal bibliophiles, I have some news to announce:

I have officially been accepted as one of the newest members of the Antiquarian Booksellers Association of America (ABAA). This is a respected trade organization which promotes professional and ethical bookselling, and sponsors several of the largest, most respected book fairs in the world. This is a big step in my career, and a bright spot in the history of Yesterday’s Muse Books. Big thanks go out to those who encouraged me to pursue membership, and to the other booksellers who were kind enough to give their time to be my sponsors during the application process.
And now to the rest of this month’s news:

The sidewalk sale we launched last month is going strong – thank you to everyone who has stopped out for great deals. For those who have not heard about the sidewalk sale – every Friday and Saturday through the middle of August, we will be offering bargain books outside our shop. All books are $1 each, or you can fill one of our bags for $8.

A big project we just began work on last month is the Rochester Antiquarian Book Fair, which I am co-organizing this year along with Franlee Frank from Greenwood Books. This year it will be held on Saturday, September 7th at the Main Street Armory. Check out the fair’s Facebook page for more details:

Rochester Antiquarian Book Fair

While you’re at it, drop by the store’s Facebook page to view our This Just In album – check it out regularly to find the latest deals.

Speaking of deals, in addition to the usual in-store coupon we include with our newsletters, here is a coupon for use this month on our website:

Enter coupon code A8TWO013 during checkout, and when you buy three books you get another FREE! (Please make sure you have at least four books in your shopping cart, or the discount won’t work.)

Here are links to our usual new acquisitions lists:

New Acquisitions – Highlights

New Acquisitions – Complete

This month we were lucky enough to acquire a signed first edition of Ayn Rand’s masterpiece Atlas Shrugged, as well as a sumptuously bound copy of Thomas A Kempis’s Of the Imitation of Christ. We also cataloged a few examples of early stock market material, a set of Theodore Roosevelt’s works, numerous books dealing with book arts and decorative arts, and a science fiction serial featuring the first appearance of Orson Scott Card’s Hugo Award winning Ender’s Game.


Below is the full highlights list:

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July 2013 Newsletter

At Yesterday’s Muse Books, we are in the habit of releasing a monthly newsletter detailing goings-on at the shop, and highlighting our most recent acquisitions. Below is our most recent newsletter:


This month’s newsletter comes a bit later – we wanted to make sure everyone had the time to relax and enjoy the July 4th holiday weekend.

This has been a great month for us. We revived our Musings blog, acquired some exceptional and important first editions, and launched our local weekend sidewalk sale.

For those who have not heard about the sidewalk sale – every Friday and Saturday through the middle of August, we will be offering bargain books outside our shop. All books are $1 each, or you can fill one of our bags for $8.

Our commitment to better book images has paid off by allowing us to better promote our stock on social media, our blog, and through catalogs. If you have yet to see our This Just In album on Facebook, check it out to find the latest deals.

For those interested in collecting, and purchasing books online in general, we have posted a number of helpful resources on our blog:

Condition Definitions

Identification of First Editions


Here are our usual new acquisitions lists, followed by a few samples to whet your whistles:

New Acquisitions – Highlights

New Acquisitions – Complete

This month we were lucky enough to acquire first editions of the two books shown below – the first the very first book published by the inimitable Dr. Seuss; the second is is a Pulitzer Prize winning play that inspired an award winning Broadway production. We also cataloged a nice collection of Rockwell Kent titles, and close to a dozen Philo Vance mysteries by S.S. Van Dine (mostly first editions). Have a closer look at the lists, as there is far too much to enumerate here…

And To Think That I Saw It On Mulberry Street First Edition

Death of a Salesman First Edition


Identification of First Editions

One of the basic skills the novice collector (not to mention the novice bookseller) needs to learn is how to properly identify first editions. Depending on the book, and the publisher, this can be a very simple task, or quite complicated. Within this article I will do my best to provide a series of steps you can use to verify the edition of the book(s) in question. I’ll also recommend a number of handy references that you’ll want to acquire if you are serious about collecting or bookselling.

First, look at the book. It seems obvious, but you would be surprised how often books are bought based on a belief that they are something they, in fact, are not, simply because the buyer did not look closely enough at the book. I can say this without any fear of appearing judgmental, because I have been a good example of this phenomenon numerous times myself. In the words of one of my colleagues with a knack for brevity, “We all allow our hearts to get the best of our heads every now and then.”

And so, I say again, look at the book. Are there any indications that this is a reprint, or a book club edition? (More on this later.) Statements such as ‘the bestselling novel, now with a new introduction’ or ‘over 1 million copies sold’ on the dust jacket are dead giveaways (though it is rarely this easy). Who is the publisher, and what date is listed on the copyright page? Based on the general appearance of the book, does this date make sense? Many reprint publishers simply reuse the printing plates from other editions, without adding information about when the reprint occurred. Other reprint publishers list no date at all. Still others produce facsimiles of original editions, sometimes providing separate information about the reissue on a different page; sometimes not. With some practice handling books on a regular basis, you will learn which publishing companies were reprint outfits (Grosset & Dunlap; Henry Altemus; M.A. Donohue; John Lovell), and which tended to release originals (Macmillan; Putnam; Scribner; Little, Brown). As with most rules of thumb, there are exceptions to these tendencies, but it is far more efficient to learn the exceptions than to discard the rule.

I mentioned book club editions earlier. These are hardcover editions reprinted either by the original publisher, or by special arrangement between this publisher and another. These are often a slightly stockier format than trade edition hardcovers, and are not considered collectible editions except in very limited circumstances. ‘Book clubs’ or ‘BCEs’ often bear certain distinguishing characteristics: 1) lack of a list price on the jacket, sometimes accompanied by a statement of Book Club Edition on the front jacket flap; 2) inexpensive boards [generally paper over boards instead of cloth]; 3) a small blind stamp on the corner of the rear board [often a square or a circle, which is sometimes colored in]. Some book clubs masquerade very convincingly as trade editions, though, so make sure to follow the other steps in this article even if your book does not match these criteria.

If the book passes muster so far, step two is to check it against references. I find Bill McBride’s A Pocket Guide to the Identification of First Editions (pictured below) an invaluable resource. In a compact 142-page paperback, he supplies identifying characteristics of first editions for hundreds of publishers. And, despite a peculiar tendency of ‘pocket’ guides to be anything but, this one will fit quite easily in one’s back pocket, so there’s no excuse not to have it on-hand when shopping at bookstores, antique malls, or book fairs. It will pay for itself quickly by saving you money on mistakes. We offer copies for sale at our shop, and it can also be ordered directly from the author quite easily. Common identification points listed here range from obvious designations (e.g., ‘states first edition on copyright page’; ‘states First published in <year>’) to rather complex uses of jargon (e.g., one publisher uses a two-digit code to represent month and year). You will find yourself memorizing the simple ones if you use the guide frequently.

A check of what is now in the trade simply called McBride’s should let you know that either 1) it’s not a first edition; 2) you don’t have enough information to determine this definitively. Again, there are exceptions to rules. In addition, there are sometimes states within an edition that make identifying true first editions a bit more difficult. So, just because the conventions stated in McBride match does not necessarily mean it is a first edition in every case. I could get into a larger discussion about states, but this is a subject unto itself, so sufficed to say that sometimes identification points for first editions can get complicated. Two useful references to consult  in these instances are, and another guide by McBride entitled Points of Issue (pictured below). These often provide minutiae related to particular titles that can be used to authenticate a first edition. For Fitzgerald’s The Great Gatsby, there are several typographical errors in the text that indicate a first edition. Sometimes the price listed on the jacket is a point of issue (i.e., a detail that helps differentiate a first edition from other imprints).

If these references do not provide enough information to make a definitive assessment, it may be necessary to locate a bibliography that treats the work specifically. A number of subject-based bibliographies, and bibliographies of specific authors, are available, and these often differ quite a bit in format. Some are basically checklists, and provide little information regarding bibliographic details or differentiation of editions. Others, collectively known as descriptive bibliographies, are exhaustive publication histories of known versions of works on certain subjects, or by certain authors. These are often the best available reference, and as a result bibliographies for particularly sought-after authors and subjects can be quite expensive. Again, though, they make up for this cost by helping us avoid acquiring books that are not, in fact, first editions, though represented as such (and in today’s world of online bookselling, this is a valid concern, as many transactions are happening sight-unseen, between individuals that have not met one another).

The first edition of And to Think That I Saw It on Mulberry Street we featured in our blog recently was authenticated using a bibliography of Dr. Seuss’s works written by Younger & Hirsch. This is a work that is readily available in various reprints, but sought after by collectors because it is Seuss’s first book.

If you determine that the book you have is a first edition, then your assessment of value should involve comparing it against other first editions. Other factors (e.g., author signature; condition; lack/presence of dust jacket; etc.) may play a role in this as well. But generally, determining whether you have ‘the real thing’ is one of the largest steps towards figuring the value. If you do your research online, you will of course need to apply again some of the steps detailed above to make sure that other people offering first editions for sale have actually done their homework. Do not simply trust websites to return only first editions because you clicked the ‘First Edition’ box when searching. Watch out for phrases like ‘First book club edition’ (which is on the edge of being deliberately misleading). ‘First thus’ is another one that can trip you up here, but this generally refers to the first printing of a work that was published previously, but has been updated to include new information or features (e.g., illustrations), or sometimes to the first appearance of a work in book form (as distinct from appearance in serial form – think Charles Dickens).

So, to summarize:

1) Look at the book – is it a reprint or a book club edition?

2) Check your references – does it follow the conventions that publisher used to designate first editions?

3) Invest in a bibliography.

Once you have followed these three steps, you should have a good idea whether you have a first edition. If it is a book you own, congratulations! If it is a book you intend to buy, do some research to see whether the price is reasonable; if so, and you can afford it, and it matches any other guidelines you generally follow when collecting… buy it! If it is a book you would like to sell, visit your local secondhand book shop to see if they would be interested in purchasing it, or try to sell it yourself. Make sure not to misrepresent what you have, though, and be sure to mention your research.

If the above still leaves you wondering what you have, contact a local bookseller, or consider inquiring with one of the trade organizations associated with collectible books. These are the ABAA (Antiquarian Booksellers’ Association of America) and IOBA (Independent Online Booksellers Association). For those located outside the United States, try ILAB (International League of Antiquarian Booksellers) – this is the worldwide organization of which the ABAA is the American chapter. Booksellers are, in large part, very congenial and helpful in this regard. And if you find that the one you choose to contact is not, worry not… There are plenty of us, so just try the next one on the list; it is important that those you deal with in the book trade are people with whom you feel comfortable, and who display that they are trustworthy.

Jonathan Smalter, Bookseller
President, Yesterday’s Muse Books
Vice President, IOBA
Sellers of fine books in all categories, with specialties in:
Castles & Military Fortifications; Dystopian Literature
32 W Main St Ste 1
Webster, NY 14580
Phone: (585) 265-9295

Worth every penny.

Worth every penny.


The Importance of Being a Bibliophile

NOTE: This post was originally written in April of 2012.

Wow, time flies when you’re cataloging books! I’ve been away from the blog for about two weeks, knee deep in a recently acquired World War I collection, and the project is still only about 1/4 completed.

Stay tuned for a giant subject list of material ranging from modern accounts of The Great War, to contemporary books and ephemera. Also peppered throughout are various peripheral items, and a few sub-categories (e.g., women during the war, African-Americans during the war, etc.).

Working through this collection has me marveling at the power of a single individual to collect and curate. While much of the material is not particularly scarce, the scope of the collection is grand (about 2,000 volumes), and the previous owner maintained a careful cataloging system of his own to keep track of what books he owned, and where they were. Any well-known work pertaining to WWI is represented in the collection, sometimes several times over, and many obscure titles as well, plus a smattering of other military history (Civil War, WWII, Vietnam, etc.).

A few highlights so far: a history of a company in the American Expeditionary Forces, inscribed collectively by the company to the parents of a fallen soldier; a copy of Lawson’s Thirty Seconds Over Tokyo signed by 18 members of the Doolittle Raiders; several issues of the scarce WWI periodical ‘Gas Attack’…

This is the tip of what is quite a large iceberg. Also included in this gentleman’s collection were numerous periodicals on everything from American history to automobiles, from the U.S. military to railroads… and that’s just in the part of the collection I’m handling.

He also collected vintage toys and advertising, war memorabilia (including original photographs, various textiles sewn by French women during WWI, military medals, portraits of soldiers, etc.), phonographs, furniture…

The capacity for people to collect is an amazing one. Those who excel at it often exceed professional historians and archivists in the scope of their activities. Indeed, within this collection is evidence that the owner aided military historians by providing otherwise unavailable source material for books and articles. The urge to preserve is not one we all share, but for those of us who do, the compulsion is an easy one to understand. The importance of scarce items, especially those that hold particular historical value, need not be explained to our fellow addicts.

Anyone who has had the pleasure of viewing a well-chosen collection knows that its quality is immediately apparent. The shelves upon which the books rest seem almost to glow with a borrowed radiance. Closer inspection only increases the level of excitement. The level of discernment becomes apparent in the condition of each volume, in the care with which they were organized on each shelf, in the careful insertion of related material within certain volumes.

Everything, even those things easily obtained, has been elevated to a higher status. You can almost hear a voice saying, “Sure, Speer’s Inside the Third Reich is nothing special. But this is my copy, the best one I could find in my 45 years collecting. I first read a tattered paperback copy, then found a hardcover missing the jacket at a thrift shop, and finally upgraded to a first edition in jacket, and one in exceptional condition. I bet it’s among the best copies you’ve seen.”

And there’s the rub.

Collecting books actually has very little to do with intrinsic value at the outset. It has very much to do with the peculiar tastes and tendencies of the collector. Because, in a very real way, your collection is who you are. It is a complex, living document of your own existence.

I often think of my bookstore in this way. I look down the rows of shelves and say, “Everything here is part of a set of footprints. Looking at the rows of books is like reading a menu of what we’ve been up to as a society recently. What authors people recognize. What local lore has remained in our collective consciousness. What historical figures intrigue us. What we wish we were brave enough to do, but read about instead. What books from our childhood we still cherish. What we view as beautiful, or holy, or worth holding onto.”

The tricky part is making other people think that way too. But that’s my job, and I don’t think I’d rather do anything else.

Published in: on June 24, 2013 at 11:40 AM  Leave a Comment  
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Thoughts on the Bookseller-Collector Relationship

NOTE: This post was originally written in March of 2012.

I was recently asked by the president of the Rochester Bibliophile Society to present a talk at their monthly meeting, which took place last night. I thought readers of the blog might be interested in the subject, so below is a transcript of the talk:

Since the advent of the internet, there has been a lot of uproar about the fate of the independent bookstore. Everywhere you look, people are asking, “How will the independents survive?” “Will Kindles and Nooks mean the death of the book?” “How can anyone compete with Amazon?” Increasingly, professional booksellers find themselves competing with everything from giant conglomerate companies with millions of books in inventory, to hobbyists selling out of their homes. Don’t worry, this won’t be a talk about all that – I think the topic has been sufficiently beaten into the ground.

Given the trials facing today’s booksellers, you might be surprised when I say the purpose of this talk is to demonstrate how the internet is hurting book buyers. But that’s what I have set out to do. Along the way we’ll learn a bit about what makes books valuable, why people should collect, and how that’s different than buying to read. A brief history of the book business should

For the majority of the history of the printed word, booksellers were a rare breed of world travelers. They had to be – printing was either expensive, time-consuming, or both, and as a result most works were scarce. Typical customers were nobility or wealthy merchants, and most books were literary, historical, or scientific.

As literacy became more common, things began to shift; the emergence of a mass market led to cheaper books, books geared more towards entertainment than education, and larger print runs. Somewhere along the way was born the curmudgeonly bookseller, complaining about the marginalization of the written word (see Morley’s Parnassus on Wheels for some great passages in this vein).

Fast forward to the era of AB Bookman: it was a candy store menus delivered by mail. Each issue was eagerly awaited, and it proved extremely effective in linking up collectors and booksellers. Meanwhile, book fairs abounded, and shops peppered the nation, rife with interesting ephemera, toothsome tomes, and beautiful bindings.

Good times.

Then the internet came along, and at first it was good, too. Traditional dealers were able to offer their well-chosen stock to millions. Collectors could fill in the gaps in their libraries with relative ease (though at times the prices they paid in eBay’s heyday were outrageous).

Fast forward to today. Borders just closed. Independents are dropping like flies. Barnes & Noble is struggling against Amazon’s ruthless tactics to carve out a bigger and bigger stake of the publishing business, and the e-book has everyone questioning the future of books.

A sad side-effect of these growing pains is the marginalization of the collectible book market. On sites such as Amazon, Barnes & Noble, Alibris, eBay, etc., new books, used books, and collectible books are piled atop one another without differentiation. It has led to these markets being treated as though they are the same, an unfortunate misunderstanding on a par with
equating fine art galleries to photo processing centers.

Semantics aside, though, why is this such a big problem, and what can we do as buyers and sellers to fix it?

It’s a problem for sellers for a number of reasons, but all of these are reducible to one main factor: context.

Let’s look at it from the perspective of a dealer in collectible books. An example will be useful here, and given the venue of tonight’s talk, I’ll use a modern one: Say I have a review copy of The Help by Kathryn Stockett in fine condition – the best-looking copy you could hope to find. Put this in a glass case at a book fair with a display card containing a brief description, and a price of $250 doesn’t seem unreasonable. A signed copy is probably worth about $500. It has a lot going for it – author’s first novel, adapted to film, relatively small first print run… I am quite justified in asking a high price.

But put these next to the brand new copies offered at huge discounts. The hardcover is still in print, and for hot titles discounts can run as high as 50%. I won’t get into a discussion of the particulars, because a quick internet search will show how cheap new copies, and suitable used copies, are in comparison.

My contention, though, is that this is comparing apples to oranges. It is losing sight of what it means to call something collectible. Furthermore, it is damaging our definition of value. Think for a moment about that. What does it mean for something to be valuable? Generally valuable things are well made, and as a result are not mass-produced. In relative terms, this means they are scarcer.

When speaking of collectibles, valuable items tend to exhibit qualities that are not present in other items that are similar in type. Furniture that is dove-tailed, not stapled; real wood, not particle board; hand-carved, not extruded from a machine. Jewelry that contains precious metals, not materials crafted to emulate them; authentic gemstones, not laboratory-engineered facsimiles.

In the world of books, these factors exist too: edition, condition, format, provenance, literary and historical significance, scarcity, originality and style of binding, etc. The problem is, the marketplace as it exists today is not designed to accentuate these characteristics. By many it is not even viewed as necessary to present them. They are lost in the morass of look-alikes and

What if Sotheby’s began offering box lots of book club science fiction hardcovers? Or Swann’s decided to mix in first editions with facsimile jackets, unauthenticated signatures, and common vintage paperbacks with the material it currently handles? This is not to say that there is not a market for such things, but merely to point out that this market and the collectibles market are, or should be, separate things.

Most online venues do not provide this separation. Some attempt to, but merely make them different columns on what is essentially the same spreadsheet. This may not seem like a big problem, but the definition of value we discussed above tends to be skewed when dealing with simple commodities. ‘Value’ has come to mean ‘paying the lowest possible price’. I don’t know many collectors who would want the cheapest available first edition of The Great Gatsby. Putting two markets with different purposes in front of two types of clientele with different goals must have a subconscious effect on how (and maybe even if) books are bought.

Alright, so we’ve established that there are some challenges faced by today’s booksellers. The average book buyer might say, “Who cares?” Perhaps understandably so; after all, why should customers worry about what goes on in the back rooms of book shops, or in the warehouses and offices of online sales outfits? Well, it turns out that some of the same factors cause problems for buyers, too.

Strangely, the problem we face in this brave new world of bookselling is the sheer quantity of books. Though the tools we have for sorting through information are more powerful than they ever have been, they are still not equal to the task of parsing the data. Anyone who has done an ABE Books search for a particular title knows what I mean – “Why is it returning book club editions when I searched for firsts? Why do these copies come up when I ask for signed copies?”

In today’s world, if it isn’t listed for sale online, it is assumed that it doesn’t exist. So what is the natural tendency? Well, to list everything for sale online of course. Everything. And that means that all the library copies and rebound school editions of classics are there to gum up the works when we search for collectibles, or even just for copies in gift-worthy condition. There are ways
to get around it all, but at this point you need to be quite the search ninja. Even then, all the improperly described copies still clog the page – you can’t read through them all, so it’s sink or skim.

Keep in mind, these are the difficulties faced when a buyer knows exactly what he is looking for. I can’t imagine what a nuisance it must be to browse just to see what’s out there. Returning to the above example… there are currently over 400 hardcover copies of The Help available for sale online through various venues. That’s a lot of skimming. I’ll return to this point later when I talk about booksellers as curators.

Now, what about the truly rare books, the extremely scarce collectible paper, the near-mythical ephemera? Say, for example, a first English edition of Euclid’s Elements, or a signed letter written by Dante? This, at least in my opinion, is where the bottom falls out — online stops being the place to shop. Even were I to assume that everything online is authentic (an assumption we
all recognize as foolhardy), the probability that I would be the one to locate and buy something this scarce is remote. Chances are, it will be listed for sale and sold before I even hear of it. More about this later as well, when I discuss catalogs and book fairs.

So we have established several things. Common books are easy to find, and generally quite affordable, provided that one’s only criterion is the title. More unusual and specialized material is available online as well, as well as quite a lot of material in great condition, but these factors often make the right copy a headache to track down. The nature of the purchasing process is also quite impersonal and detached. The copy one chooses to buy is based on some
amalgamation of considerations that includes price, condition, convenience, and an educated guess on reliability based on feedback ratings, fulfillment rates, etc. Who we buy from becomes a consideration on par with the presence of a dust jacket; sometimes it is a complete afterthought. Loyalty is so last century. After all, why should I be loyal when I can save a few bucks?

For the general reader, this seems like a step in the right direction. Availability has increased, price has decreased, in many cases precipitously. But for anyone shopping based on more stringent standards, the buying process is often rather difficult. We have recreated online the disaster that is the poorly organized book shop. Innumerable volumes are scattered everywhere, the visibility is poor, one must lift whole stacks of books to get at anything, and one’s confidence in hastily scrawled designations such as ‘first edition’ or ‘very scarce’ is shaken. It’s overwhelming, confusing, and even downright maddening. If this were a suspense film, we would be at the part where the world starts spinning, we are bombarded with creepy imagery, and there is disembodied laughter as the hero cries out in despair.

Alright, things are getting a little gloomy here, so at this point I think I owe it to everyone to start providing some solutions to the problems I’ve listed. Happily, there is a lot of good news for all the collectors out there.

First of all, print catalogs and traditional book fairs are alive and well. In fact, many very successful and reputable dealers report that the largest percentage of their business comes from catalog sales and transactions at book fairs. I know, based on all of the above it sounds far-fetched, but I have the stats to back it up.

Second, these are both places you can find the items that are so difficult to track down online.

I know what you’re thinking. Won’t the books in these catalogs and at these fairs just be stuff I can find online anyway? No; most successful dealers, and certainly those specializing in particular subject areas, save their best material for fairs and catalogs, only listing it online when all their best customers have already had a chance to see it. In short, if you’re out of the loop, you’re out of luck, or at the very least you’re at the back of the line.

Fairs also involve a lot of dealer-to-dealer business. Who are dealers buying all those books for? Well, if you’ve played your cards right, the answer is you. The more purchases you make through catalogs and at book fairs, the likelier it is that dealers will contact you when that one unbelievable item you’ve been wanting comes along.

Some of you might say, “But wait, that dealer is just going to mark the book up, so I’ll have to pay more for it.” Not so. Traditional dealers offer one another discounts to facilitate these sorts of sales. Say I buy a book for you at a fair in Boston. I get my discount, present the book to you and charge you that dealer’s original price. I pocket the difference for my time, the other dealer makes his sale, you get your book. Everyone’s happy.

Forgive me, I may be telling you all things you already know. But I think that it’s important to discuss these particulars, because the truth is that many customers don’t know about any of what goes on behind the scenes. And this may be why the way consumers shop for books mystifies the traditional dealers in the trade.

To quote an overused phrase, “What we have here is a failure to communicate.” We dealers don’t understand why customers put up with the frustrations of buying books online, and customers don’t understand why traditional dealers refuse to sell hardcovers for a penny. It’s not anyone’s fault. Both groups are just trying to treat the book market the same way they used
to before the internet existed, and the waters are muddied enough that neither side realizes it doesn’t need to be this way.

Again, there is a solution. We can talk to one another – we have the technology. I promise it won’t hurt that much. You will probably learn something, you’ll probably end up teaching a few things, too, and you might even make a few friends. Birds of a feather, right?

Now, I mentioned catalogs before and then sort of trailed off into a bunch of talk about book fairs. Never could resist a good tangent. Catalogs are your pipeline for learning more about the area you want to read or collect in. Their purpose is to present the best of the best, and they are usually focused by topic or some other distinguishing characteristic. And book fairs are great
places to get them. Find the booksellers who deal in the types of books you enjoy, and get on their mailing lists. Again, the worst that could happen is you will learn a lot, and end up with a few valuable books.

So, if these are the most effective ways to obtain the best books, why doesn’t everyone shop this way? I think it has a lot to do with the way society is arranged these days. Most things are geared towards instant gratification – movies on demand; DVR; Google; fast food; Facebook & Twitter, video chat. It makes us feel that if we need to wait for something, there must be something wrong with it.

Think about that tendency, and you’ll realize it goes counter to the whole idea of collecting. Collecting is about the excitement of not having everything you want yet, and being able to enjoy the process of gathering it. The reason we collect is not to have the things, possession is quite secondary to the whole activity. And that’s exactly what collecting is, an activity, maybe even a lifestyle. It is the domain of those passionate enough to invest time and money in the curation of a private library, one that represents their interests, and reflects their personality.

Think about the books you have in your personal collection at home. My bet is you know the story of how you acquired many of the volumes, why you bought them, and maybe even how much you paid.

I’ve noticed something interesting in my own buying exploits. If I purchase books at a house call, from another shop, at a book fair, or across the counter in my store, I am likely to remember where I got it, sometimes years later. But if I got it through an online auction, or from another seller on ABE, and you ask me a month later, I might not have a clue where it came from. That tells me something.

I mentioned the word ‘curation’ a moment ago, and I’d like to expand on that a bit. It ties in with a larger belief of mine about the trade:

Booksellers do not sell books.

I think this is a critical concept to understand, and one that goes unrecognized by the vast majority of people, even the majority of readers. It seems counterintuitive on the surface: of course they must sell books – that’s what their shops are lined with, not toothbrushes! Well, turns out that’s just an illusion, or at most a convenient coincidence.

What booksellers really sell is knowledge, in several varieties. First, they sell their knowledge of what books are worth owning (I say owning rather than reading because some books are worth purchasing simply because of unique format, cultural significance, or some other factor not related to the text). Now, ‘what books are worth owning’ sounds like a simple enough phrase,
but a lot goes into this. Remember the curmudgeonly bookseller from earlier? He has some opinions on what makes the grade. Whatever the criteria a particular bookseller uses, these are the sieve through which everything passes, and as a result his inventory becomes a sort of tapestry, composed of all the various literary threads he deems significant. He has curated a vast library, weeding out the inferior, ignoring the insignificant, and filtering out all sorts of other nonsense. You’ll know when you’re browsing a well-chosen collection, because a picture larger than any of the individual volumes begins to coalesce in the mind, giving you a sense of the import of each work, how it contributes to the structure of the whole. Why it is worth having. I spoke earlier of the tendency to list absolutely everything for sale online, and why it was harmful to the browser. A good bookseller helps us avoid this pitfall altogether.

Booksellers also sell their knowledge of editions – the variations available of certain titles, the relative priority of these, and the reasoning underpinning those considerations. Why is an 1891 Charles Webster reprint of Huckleberry Finn worth only $150, when an 1884 first edition, published by the same firm, is worth thousands? As a bookseller, my answer had better not be, “That’s what it says on ABE Books.”

Booksellers sell knowledge of the book trade’s history: How many times has this book been available for sale in the past 30 years? What prices has it realized at auction or in a retail situation? Are these prices on the rise, or no? How does condition affect all of this? These are valuable details, and ones not readily available to the general public.

Booksellers sell peace of mind – buying from a reputable source is important when it comes to confidence in the authenticity of signatures, the designation of edition, etc. I can’t count the number of stories I have heard, firsthand and otherwise, of customers recounting the deal they got on a first edition on eBay, only to be gently corrected and given the upsetting news that
they’d been ripped off.

Last, but certainly not least (in fact, this may be one of the more important ones), booksellers sell time. Your time. The time you would have spent doing everything they do for you. As we discussed, this is often a significant amount of time, and it is often not time enjoyably spent, but frustrating, bang-your-head-against-the-wall-because-you-just-want-to-be-able-to-find-it sort of
time. And sometimes it still results in being among the deceived or misled, when the book that arrives is a book club edition, or missing the jacket, or the signature is clearly just a printed facsimile.

Is it possible to accumulate all this knowledge on your own? Sure. But if you’re going to go to all that trouble, you might as well be a bookseller yourself. How do you think I got here? It’s alright if you want to accumulate your own knowledge – for some, this is part of the fun. But the truth is, no one can know everything, so it can’t hurt to have a friend in the business.

And I want to make it clear that, at least in my case, this is what I try to be. I think too often the roles of customer and merchant are viewed as competing sides in a chess match, and while I enjoy chess, I just don’t want any part in that. My best customers are the ones who know, at least in a general sense, what they want, trust me to provide advice, but who I never feel I have
to convince of anything. They aren’t interested in competing with me, they want to work together. So in the end, we both win. Food for thought, I think.

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