Saturday, December 29, 2007

All's Fair in Love, War and Library Sales

It was at a library sale of yore that I first picked up a copy of "All's Fair" by the political polyblend power couple of James Carville and Mary Matalin. I was holding this book up to read the dust jacket blurb further when it was snatched out my grip by an aggressive white-haired matron. Somewhat bemused to let this "hot" book go, I thought then and often since about how the prevailing myth at library sales is how aggressive booksellers are. I can honestly say that I have never seen one of my bookseller colleagues display any rude behavior at such a public venue. It just wouldn't be good business sense to push local book people around to make a quick buck on a book when the longterm ill will would harm your sales. The number of book people in a community is slim and they share information readily, so it just wouldn't be a good idea to act like a warthog at a crowded public venue.

There is, however, another sort of biblio-creature, the book "dealer", who elbows out any competitors during the opening minutes of a library sale and zooms in to a favorite section to hog all the books. Then the dealer sits in a corner and decides whether or not to invest 25 or 50 cents on each title, often accompanied by a ponderous thumping of a handheld Internet device. The leftovers sometimes get put back in their proper sections, but often as not, it's a long-suffering library volunteer has to restore book order so the rest of the crowd can have at the books.

In the first years of our shop, Dan and I went to a lot of library sales to get store stock. One of us would have to mind the young 'uns (so they wouldn't get brained by one of the dealer rudies) and the other would try to shop quickly. Inevitably, the fog of book zen would take over and we would hopelessly lose track of time. We soon discovered that it was much more pleasant and safer for our offspring if we went on off-times. (Also less opportunity for the baby-sitting spouse to carp on the book-befuddled gleaner) The kids would glom onto the free magazines piles for some reason (shinier pages?) even as we tried to steer them to the children's literature. One year they both decided to buy the biggest and heaviest books they could -more bang for the book- and miraculously they each had a pricey out-of-print history reference in their stacks. I had to barter with these ruthless babes to swap out some suitable book replacements. It turns out they wanted to press flowers in them.

Now that our shop is more mature and the kids can be left at home while Dan and I check out the library sales, it is a pleasant book date for us to go on the last day of a sale and hoover up books by the bag. It is much less cutthroat and we often get to chat with customers or fellow booksellers in between scanning the spines. We can get into book zen mode and it's an especial biblio-frisson when we scoop up a rare book from among the picked-over tomes. One time I got two signed Katharine Anne Porter titles during the closing hour of a library sale; another time it was a first edition of Zora Neale Hurston's "Moses, Man of the Mountain", mixed in with dusty religious pamphlets and innumerable copies of Robert Schuller's writings. On another occasion, my biblio-truffle was a rare Irish country cookbook picked out of a pile of romance novels.

Back to Matalin and Carville's "All's Fair". As with most books about politics or current events, they have a pretty short public attention span, and this title soon showed up in our shop, in triplicate. I got to read snippets of it and have a copy on our politics shelves. Now, if only someone would come to snatch it out of my hands now....


Anonymous said...

I would have to disagree with you concerning some area booksellers. there is a husband- wife bookstore owners on the lake who have VERY sharp elbows...even when they are at the front of the line. And being librarians, they also have first choice at several library booksales.
A few years ago, at a local auction, the husband left early and totaled a parked car...a witness ID'ed him by his personalized(concerning books) license plate.

Bookshop Blog said...

We've had some similar experiences but all in all things haven't gotten so bad here in Montreal. I'm in a lucky situation where I've donated boxes of books to church sales, now I often get an invitation to come look the stock over (and purchase at will) the day before. They know that if I spot an expensive or desirable book I 'll suggest they move it to there 'special' section. It pays to have a reputation as a contributor in your town! Dealers/Takers can fight amongst themselves, just sad that honest patrons get caught in the crossfire.

Anonymous said...

I did sales for a few years, even once doing the "Get up at 3am to be first in line" thing. After a few sales I decided 1) My dignity would not allow me to participate in the mad rush when the doors open. If that is what it takes to succeed I would try another business. 2) Going later on allowed me less hassle, and much less return on the time invested, as the rare finds were truly that - rare. 3) Spending time developing a relationship with the community and letting them know I would give fair prices and fair appraisals wound up serving me far better and resulted in a lot more interested inventory walking in the front door rather than having to be scrounged.

So far that philosophy has held strong and I rarely sit there and say "Gee, wish I could get my hands on more inventory!" Now, if the person with a few hundred thousand in high end rare books wants to drop in and ask me to come by, I would REALLY enjoy that! ;-)