(Sorry, my service provider decided to take the Labor Day weekend off. He musta drunk too much because things are still screwed up… “Composer detected issues in your platform: Your Composer dependencies require a PHP version “>= 7.2.5″. There has been a critical error on this website. Please check your site admin email inbox for instructions.”)
Anyway, where was I? Ah, yes!
Back when I was putting kids through college I did about twenty book fairs a year. I had two employees – Joe and Amanda. Joe was 13 years older than I. We had a retail location in those years, and he took shifts at the store along with two other part-time bookstore clerks, Bud and Harry. (Actually, we had five retail locations – sequentially, not all at once – so there was plenty of that sort of work to do.) He accompanied me on road trips, helped set up at book fairs, and took care of the scutwork that our presence on ABE required. Amanda was younger. She managed the office work and all the other tasks that no one else was available to do, like womaning a booth at the shadow shows, so I could get in early and shop.
Then, as they always do, things changed. Amanda went on to become a wife, a mother, and a damned good poet. Joe accepted his dismissal without a care. He used his free time to work on his art (Joe can draw like an angel, and his watercolors are sublime) and his pool game (free tables down at the Senior Center!) I’m happy to say that the three of us are still good friends.
Lately I’ve been thinking of them, and of those days, because I just hired a new helper. But hiring this kid, just a few years out of college, was different than hiring Amanda and Joe. Back in the day, I had only a murky idea where this job was headed, mostly because I didn’t really know what being a bookseller entailed. I needed people to mind the shop while I went out and explored the world of old books.
Now, at the other end of my career, I know exactly where I’m headed and what the job entails. That is, for the grave, and not sticking my poor widow with the job of cleaning up the messes resulting from 50 years in the trade. Maybe, if he’s any good, the kid and I might work out a plan where he buys the business from me. Maybe he becomes a partner. Maybe we just make a buncha money, like in the old days, only it goes into a “retirement fund,” since I don’t have to pay any more college tuitions. Maybe Pom Harrington or Jim Cummins buys him. Maybe we send the whole shebang off to auction and wife and I retire to the Azores or Cape Breton or Ireland.
We’re starting at a day or two a week (he has a “real” landscaping job, which he’ll be keeping for the summer, at least) and things are looking good so far. He knows how to work and can type like a demon. I sent him to Antiquarian Book School in July and he came back with basic cataloging skills well in hand. So it’s looking promising. Last week, he helped me at Papermania – his first show. We talked a lot while we were sitting at our booth. I introduced him to other dealers and showed him some basic stuff about buying new material.
I also told him there were two qualities he’d need to survive in this trade. I didn’t know if he possessed those qualities and, at the moment, neither did he. We’d only discover them as time went on. If he possessed them, and if he decided to make this his life’s work, he had a chance to succeed. (For the moment we overlooked the interesting question of what defines “success” in the rare book trade.) Without them, he might have a career as a helper, and there’s no shame in that. Many men and women have made decent livings working for big book companies. But without those two important qualities, his career as a dealer in the trade would certainly be painful, and most likely short.
He asked what those two qualities were, which I took as another good sign. At least he’d been listening.
The two qualities, I told him, were high tolerance for risk, and a passion for the hunt. I explained that just about everybody “loves old books,” but if you weren’t something of a natural-born predator or explorer, you’d burn out eventually, and move back into your mom’s basement. If you didn’t have that fire in your belly, the business was just too damned hard to endure for long. He nodded gravely. I could sense him taking inventory of himself for risk aversion and belly fire, which I took as another good sign.
But he won’t know, and neither will I, until we get a good deal farther down the road.
I didn’t want to overload him with too much information, but there’s a third necessary quality. I refer to it as “Relief Pitcher Syndrome.” That is the ability to learn from your most recent mistake, no matter how egregious, and then to forget the mistake completely and move on, while retaining the lesson learned. Bookselling is even harder than baseball. We all make mistakes, but without the forget-about-it-and-move-on mindset, your life will be a torture. Unlike risk tolerance and belly fire, however, which are innate, “Relief Pitcher Syndrome” can be learned.
At least, I was able to “learn” it to some degree. And I must say, of all the things I’ve learned in the last 47 years as a book dealer, that one took the longest and caused me the most pain. But I didn’t tell him about that.