Tuesday, August 26, 2014

The Colorado Antiquarian Book Seminar 2014: Accept No Substitutes!

I am a long time bookseller, having owned a used bookstore since 1996 in upstate New York. I am now also a 2014 Colorado Antiquarian Book Seminar (CABS) alumnus and grateful recipient of an Antiquarian Booksellers' Association of America (ABAA) scholarship to attend CABS during the first week of August. One might think I had enough bookselling experience so that the CABS sessions wouldn't have taught me much that was new, in which case you'd be completely wrong.

The Hill Behind the CABS Classroom at University of Colorado, Colorado Springs

I learned an enormous amount; about what I have been doing reasonably well, but more importantly, about all that I have been doing wrong. I also learned about aspects of bookselling and research that were not even on my radar. CABS is simply an essential education for anyone who is serious about being a better bookseller. My seminar certificate has given me bookseller credibility, friends, colleagues, revitalizing energy, inspiration, edification, thirst for additional knowledge and more. In the weeks since CABS ended, I have already put some of my new found skills and knowledge to work at my shop, evaluating incoming books with sharper, fresher eyes and greater confidence.

Professor Terry Belanger with CABS Students

Most CABS attendees this year had some experience selling or collecting books, but there were also a few novices and some veterans, like me, who SHOULD HAVE attended many years ago. A sprinkling of librarians and book collectors also filled our ranks, and we learned volumes of book knowledge, the compressed equivalent of a semester of rare book university curriculum.

Imagine learning about early printed books from one of the foremost booksellers of such material, Nina Musinsky, and the Eric Weinmann Librarian at the Folger Shakespeare Library, Daniel De Simone, or about high spots of American literature and Americana from the legendary Rob Rulon-Miller, a former ABAA President and CABS Director, or book scouting and the history of American radicalism and other social movements from top shelf bookseller Lorne Bair. There were lectures on bookseller catalogues, websites, databases, and photography from marketing expert Dan Gregory (check out a Between the Covers Rare Books catalogue sometime to see what he pioneered). University of Tennessee Dean of Libraries Steve Smith introduced a wealth of book references and revealed how to approach academic libraries and what they are looking for as they develop special collections. Booksellers Sally Burdon of Asia Bookroom and Brian Cassidy offered reams of information on how to run a profitable specialty book business and shared precious, hard-won advice on current trends in book collecting. Then there was Terry Belanger, Founder of Book Arts Press and the Rare Book School, Professor Emeritus, and Wikipedia entry, who tutored us on printing history, book anatomy, collation and repairs.

Dan DeSimone with Penny Clipperton of Calgary's Sparkle Books

There were libraries of reference books to peruse, rare and beautiful books on which practice cataloguing techniques, breathtaking books to be auctioned at Thursday's CABS auction fundraiser, books that displayed various bindings and features (a 3-D version of John Carter's ABC for Book Collectors), and an array of rare and unusual books from Rulon-Miller Books for the very last book evaluation exercise of the seminar, Rulonomics.

CABS Students Examine Some of the Shelves of Antiquarian Books

The CABS Class of 2014 was a fascinating group. Among us were artists, writers, lawyers, geologists, physicians, a chemist, a midwife, an advertising executive, a pair of flower farmers and even that most increasing rara avis, the bookseller from an open shop (I counted a dozen of that species, including Nelson Harst of Antifurniture, who carries and hawks his wares en plein air around Manhattan's SoHo neighborhood). After the first day, I had twin personal goals for the week ahead: 1) examine all of the fantastic books on display; and 2) have at least one conversation with all of my fellow Seminarians. I ran just shy of both goals, but I still consider that a smashing success.

Warning: It takes a lot of physical and mental fortitude to keep up with the faculty and CABS participants. One must have:

-The Brains of a bookseller,
-The Hands of a medieval scribe (I filled up one spiral notebook and one legal pad full of notes),
-The Bladder of a camel (constant hydration therapy required for this high altitude location has predictable results),
-The Liver of Charles Bukowski (one can get well-marinated during the after hours bull sessions),
-The Guts of a book scout (some guts are instinctual, but guts honed after CABS function so much better).

Our CABS faculty displayed all these anatomical features and more. They gave us constant gifts of invaluable information and patient answers to our many questions. CABS is incorporated as a nonprofit, so having the faculty members take a week away from their businesses -as well as all the time spent organizing, writing and rewriting the lectures, traveling and recovering from this tumultuous week- is no small effort. It was evident that CABS faculty sincerely wanted every last one of us to share in their knowledge and success in the antiquarian book trade. While the sessions were full of information and entertainment, there was also plenty of sincerity and heart.

Sally Burdon of Asia Bookroom celebrates with newly minted CABS Alumni at the Closing Ceremonies

The best way I know how to repay these smart and dedicated book professionals is to incorporate their teachings in my own business and to impart what I've learned to others coming into the book trade. As they exhorted, I don't want to be a quasi-bookseller, I want to really "look at the books", and I don't want to give them Schulduberkatastrophe (Dan Gregory's fanciful phrase for guilt over having overstimulated and overwhelmed by all the information packed into the seminar week.

In short, my advice to anyone who is serious about studying, collecting or selling antiquarian books and ephemera, is : Get thee to CABS 2015! There are a number of scholarship opportunities that can help ease your decision and it will jump-start your further education in the trade. There is still much research and work ahead for me and the others in the 2014 CABS crop (they never did get around to showing us the secret bookseller’s handshake) but it was a wonderful introduction to an arsenal of skills, research techniques and range of antiquarian bookselling business models to explore further. 

And that’s how I became a CABS-evangelist.

Thursday, August 14, 2014

Book Hunting Down in Denver at the Rocky Mountain Book and Paper Fair & Aboard The Magical Mori Van

I was off in Colorado last week to attend the Colorado Antiquarian Book Seminar (CABS). Heeding the advice of CABS alumni, I gave myself a couple of extra days on the front side of this epic bookseller education to rest up for a week of adrenalin rushes, high altitude and sleep deprivation. I flew into Denver airport on Friday, August 1st, surrounded by flat grasslands and wondered where the vaunted Colorado Rockies were. It wasn't until after I had an early morning stroll around my hotel the next day that I caught a glimpse of the spectacular Front Range looming off to the West.

I caught the hotel shuttle to the Denver Mart, where the Rocky Mountain Book Fair was being quartered and happily browsed the 80 booths of booksellers from near and far. I was happy to greet former acquaintances and lots of new ones. I chatted about the Bibliophilegroup email list with Eric Mayer of Bluebird Books, bought a Hemingway bibliography and some bookseller memoirs from the delightful Richard Chant of Abacus Bookshop; 

applauded Clausen Books' brilliant idea of displaying their travel books in a vintage suitcase;

and admired the Brobdingnagian ear decorated with acupuncture points displayed in the booth of Lori Hughes, Cookbook Lady, of El Sobrante, California, where tasty titles abounded- everything from the incomparable "Eat a Bug Cookbook" to antique gelatin cookery pamphlets;

I also scored a good illustrated horseshoeing title and a couple of other history titles from Orrin Schwab  and chatted about antique children's books and illustrated books at the booth of Ken and Shirley Donner (yes, they are related to those Donners).

I was delighted to meet some of my fellow CABS classmates, including designer Barbara Mortkowitz and book fair exhibitor Gail Santfleben of Read'em Again Books, gushing about our forthcoming adventures. I had the chance to hear bookseller Sally Burdon of Asia Book Room in faraway Canberra, Australia, one of the wonderful CABS faculty members, give the keynote address at the Fair, and looked over letterpress printing and book repair demonstrations.

Richard Mori, Road Warrior of the American Book Fair World, on the right, in one of his trademark fancy shirts (this one had Maxfield Parrish-esque scenes)
Instead of only spending a couple hours at this Book Fair, I lasted the full 7 hours on Saturday. I do regret that I never did get to penetrate the force field of constant customers and fellow booksellers that encircled larger-than-life bookseller Ken Sanders. His exploits in hunting down book thieves are outlined in two excellent books I had previously read ("The Man Who Loved Books Too Much" by Allison Hoover Bartlett, and "The Poet and the Murder" by Simon Worrall). I'll have to wait until another book fair.

When things cooled down about an hour before closing, I managed to get the attention of my New Hampshire bookseller colleague Richard Mori, who had offered me a ride from Denver down to CABS in Colorado Springs by Sunday.  I never did get a firm idea from Richard about how we were actually going to get my carcass, suitcase and now a heavy bag of book purchases down to CABS.  Richard had remained steadfastly and unnervingly vague about the logistics of this travel when I was in the planning stages of this trip.  He just told me check in with him at his exhibitor's booth at the Book Fair on Saturday, the day before CABS officially started. Not wanting to pester him with any more followup emails, I made sure I got to the Fair shortly after it opened. I kept circling around his booth, but, consummate bookseller that he is, he was constantly busy! How unsettling for me, if lucrative for him.

Finally, I butted into a conversation that I was certain was going nowhere (the "customer" was asking for advice on how to get a fellow bookseller to go way down on the price of one of his really great books, which Richard wisely kept redirecting into advice on pouncing on good books when they present themselves to you). Richard just cryptically stated that we'd "work it out" after we had packed up his booth. That took a really long time (he was the third to last bookseller to leave the Denver Mart) because I kept gasping at the amazing books he kept nonchalantly showing and describing to me as we packed up his wooden shelf boxes and loaded them strategically into his Magical Mori Van. Understand that Richard's the Mad Max of the American Book Fair World, impressively showing at 50 BOOK FAIRS PER ANNUM). His van ALWAYS has room for more books, since he buys almost as much as he sells at each weekly book fair.

When we were done he offered me a tour of Denver's neighborhoods topped off with dinner (an awesome green chile burger) and more bookseller advice. So much for resting up for CABS, but Richard, like most other members of our book trade, was so generous with his time, advice, encouragement and book lore, that I just couldn't beg off early.

The next morning he picked me up from the hotel which amazingly still had room for me and my suitcase and we were off on more book adventures, having breakfast with the lovely Lois Harvey, a longtime Denver bookseller and mentor. Lois was instrumental in helping found the Denver Book Fair and was on the CABS faculty for many years, so I was impressed already. They showed me more of downtown Denver by car and on foot, including the many streets that are named after authors (Lowell, Tennyson, Alcott).

Richard was off to buy Boy Scout books from someone who had stopped in his booth the previous day (would they fit into the van?) so I was free to shop in Lois' handsomely stocked and creatively adorned bookshop, Westside Books, housed in a former auto garage.  The shop had a wealth of unusual titles and in the seemingly short burst of time before Richard returned, I managed to purchase an armload of books about books, and a book for my own personal collection, I'm Papa Snap, a children's book by Tomi Ungerer, whose wry text and illustrations always make me laugh.
Westside Books in Denver with the Magical Mori Van parked in front
By now I was really barricaded into the passenger seat, holding my suitcase with my left arm so that it wouldn't clonk me in the head every time we made a right turn and gripping my new book purchases between my shins in the Magical Mori Van. Unbelievably, there was always more room for book purchases in this Van of Infinitely Expanding Space. I expect that a student of quantum physics might like to examine this van and would make discoveries enough for a spectacular dissertation thesis.

We stopped at four more Denver bookstores, all of whom were hosting a welcome brunch for CABS participants: Broadway Book Mall (bought a matted print of a screaming librarian), Fahrenheit Books (bought local history, Tasha Tudor, cookbooks and Gladys Taber), Gallagher Books (took advantage of their one-day CABS discounts to pick up some wonderful regional history titles and a book on wassail.) Plus they shipped it all back home so I could fold back into The Van.

Sue Gallagher, Scott Austin and Don Gallagher at the beautifully appointed Gallagher Books in Denver

After our Gallagher Books haul, Richard and I headed next door to Printed Page Bookshop, a group shop, where I traded cash for books about caving around the Helderberg Mountains and more regional history. From there, we entered the special time-space continuum of The Van and made our way to Colorado Springs, where I checked into the CABS dorms at the University of Colorado. I  burbled about books with my new roommate, Libby Ware of Atlanta's Toad Lily Books until the kickoff lecture with noted book collector Michael Zinman later that evening.

Phew. So much for saving my mental and physical strength for CABS.

To be continued......