Every time I visit his shop, which is my favorite bookshop in the world, I try to pick his brain and extract a few words of wisdom. Every time I visit he proffers no advice, and I leave after making a small purchase, no wiser than when I had walked in. The truth is, I didn't really want to buy the book (I could have purchased an identical copy for half the price online). I only want to leave feeling like I have a compatriot in the world of bookselling. Instead, I leave feeling like I am nothing more than an annoyance to this old codger. And I probably am, with all of my talk of turning him into a millionaire. The truth is, he has a system of doing things his way, he has fun all alone with his books in his impenetrable fortress of solitude, and who am I to change all that. Lord knows there is nothing I would rather do than hole up in my basement with my own collection, so me and the old school bookseller have much more in common than we do differences.
"An ordinary man can . . . surround himself with two thousand books . . . and thenceforward have at least one place in the world in which it is possible to be happy." Augustine Birrell (1850 - 1933)
Last time I visited the shop, he was as unthrilled as ever to see me, and once again offered no words of wisdom, although he did kindly enough go upstairs to find a book he had in stock which I was interested in after complaining of my interrupting him (talk about spectacular customer service). We began talking about our recent purchases and he mentioned that "if I can buy two large collections in one year, then it has been a good year." At first, this seemed like a ridiculously low number, but the more I thought about it, the more I thought that two seemed like a reasonable number. While I attend a steady stream of sales throughout the year, I only rarely receive calls from collectors who are interested in selling their entire life's pursuit at once.
The last collection I purchased I happened to come across by dumb luck. My young, friendly neighbor Anthony mentioned one day that he had a friend with a ton of books in a storage unit that he wanted to sell. I immediately imagined a unit full of musty, mildewed National Geographic's and Encyclopedia Britannica's and said something like, "That's nice, but I have all the books I can handle right now," which is always true (I always have more books than I can handle), but also never true (I can always handle more books- the sign of a true bibliomaniac). A couple of weeks later, when I must have had 30 minutes of free time, I asked Anthony if those books were still there, and what kind they were. Eventually, I met the owner of the books and the storage unit, and was pleasantly surprised.
The books were what was left of the collection of a book critic on a national radio program, and besides the faint odor of smoke, this was a man who cared for his collection and obviously had a passion for reading. Many of the books were review copies, sent directly from the publisher, still bearing the laid-in publication information, and mostly true 1st Printings. The collection was composed mainly of History, with many nice University Press titles, Entertainment/Film, Historical Fiction, True Crime, and a large portion of it being General Fiction/Mystery.
The collector's sister had inherited the collection, and had been selling some books herself online, but due to some health problems, had no interest in continuing the backbreaking project that bookselling can be. That's where I came in. We were able to arrange a consignment agreement that minimized my risk and was the fairest agreement for both parties. What people typically ask for a collection is too high, and what I can typically afford to pay is too low, so a consignment agreement can come in handy for large transactions such as this. There must have been five thousand books altogether, 80% of which could not be sold on the Internet, but will eventually find a nice home in the Andover Public Library.
Featured here is the True Crime section of the collection, which I currently have up for auction on Ebay. You can view the auction here:
Incredible True Crime Collection For Sale on Ebay
In closing, my advice for the new school bookseller would be this- make sure everyone you know, including your neighbors and acquaintances (Post Office workers, Starbucks employees, pastor/priest/rabbi, etc.), knows that you buy and sell books. Put up a flyer in your local grocery store and library. Pass out business cards with your name and "I Buy Books". See if running a classified ad in your local paper results in any leads. Do anything and everything you can to market yourself and your services. For every 10 collections you look at, 9 will be of little value, but the 2 collections a year that you do buy will keep you busy. Personally, I would like to set my sights on buying 4 or 5 large collections a year, and I would also like to buy more collections outright than selling them on consignment. This will just take more ability in being able to appraise entire collections, and being willing to take more of a risk to realize more of a return. New school bookselling can be like playing the stock market at times, the excitement level can be great, and over time, your returns should be excellent. But a smart investor is not a gambler; he makes calculated risks based on his expertise. And contrary to what I try and tell my friend the old school bookseller, there is no getting rich quick in bookselling, it is a lifetime pursuit of backbreaking hard work, and I wouldn't have it any other way.