Back in the early 2000s I came into some dough and spent a good bit of it trying to learn to be a rare book dealer. I had no idea, really, how to go about this daunting task, but I knew who the rare book dealers were and I tried to buy material reminiscent of the goods that filled their juicy catalogs. When you have money, that part is easy. The hard part, it turned out, was finding customers for these rarities. Where, for example, was I supposed to go with something like
280 b/w gelatin silver photographic prints documenting the copra trade and native life in the Hermit Islands of the western Bismark Archipelago, Papua, New Guinea, including Aua, Wuvulu, and Maron, circa 1909-1920.
Logs of the Whale Ships Harlequin and Leviathan, Brookhaven, NY to Davis Strait, 1768 and 1769. (Two pages of descriptive text follow) Sherman cites only seventeen pre-1800 held in American institutions. Very few pre-Revolutionary American logs have ever been offered in the trade, and most of these have been in poor condition or incomplete. Forty-eight of these pages comprise the complete journals of two whaling voyages.
Perhaps I shouldn’t complain. I mean, I’d take this splendid stuff to book fairs and it would be snapped up in short order… By rare book dealers who had what they referred to as “clients.” Apparently, these were individuals and institutions that could afford the items on offer. All I had was “customers” and they couldn’t afford my rarewares, not by a long shot.
Gradually, however (and I mean gradually as in very slowly), I began to meet people with money, brains, and the collecting urge. Then Sarah Baldwin and others got us hooked up with RBMS and the verdant continent of librarians opened before my eyes. I never did manage to think of my newfound friends and patrons as “clients,” but my customers were knowledgeable and well-funded. My ascent of the learning curve began in earnest.
A good thing, too, because the financial excitement of 2008 pretty much wiped out my cash reserves. I was on my own with nothing but my wits, such as they were, and a scrawny checkbook with a constantly imperiled overdraft line.
The rhythms of cash flow were different. My income changed from the steady drip of retail, online, and bookfair sales to heavy chunks of cash landing at irregular intervals, with always too much time between landings. I closed my shop and sold my retail stock, plowing the profits into a piddling few rarities. Some of these sold immediately, but quite a few more sat accusingly on my shelves, waiting to be sent back into the trade at cost minus whatever I needed to sell the damned thing. Cash flow!
Eventually I figured out enough about this end of the trade to survive, but I sure haven’t gotten rich. The problem now is that I often know where to sell a piece before I purchase it or take it on consignment. This is a wonderful problem to have if the material is in plentiful supply. But all too often I’m forced to remember that one of the meanings of “rare” is “not readily available.” These days it feels as if I’m selling the damned stuff faster than I can buy it.
All by way of saying I’m in a quandary about this April’s New York Book Fair. As I have done for the past two years, I have my suite rented in the Lombardy Hotel, just blocks down Park Avenue from the Armory show. But at this moment – on my way to book fairs in Pasadena and San Francisco and then on to the Ephemera Society show – my stock is thin. My cupboard is just about bare. I’ve sold it all!
And what’s the point of renting a suite if you don’t have the books to fill it? Oh, it’d be fun entertaining my friends in grand style. But I’d have nothing to offer them other than chat and refreshments. A losing proposition in terms of dollars and cents.
So the next couple of months will be a test of my luck and skill – luck mostly, to be honest. If I find enough good material, I’ll see you at the Lombardy Hotel next April. And you, and you too. If I think I might have something of interest to you, I’ll let you know, and hope to see you at the Lombardy.
Otherwise, it’ll be Friday night at some midtown fleabag, Saturday at the Shadow Show, and home again home again, jiggety jig.