Monday, May 25, 2015

Memorial Day

In 1967 I graduated college with a broken heart and no desire to continue my studies at a graduate level. My local draft board learned of my situation, and offered to cure my broken heart with a two year hitch in the Army. I was young and innocent but even then I knew that my college degree was likely to land me at the front of a patrol in some sticky jungle in Southeast Asia, so I “beat the draft” by opting for a four year hitch in the Navy. I thought a few years at sea would be a good way to learn about the world.
I had done a little jail time, and my generally bad attitude and unkempt appearance more or less disqualified me as far as officer's training school was concerned. But that was all right. In those days the Navy offered enlistees the choice of three jobs, with the promise that the enlistee would be assigned to one of them. I chose Journalist and Photographer's Mate – two positions for which I was superbly qualified, and... Well, I couldn't even imagine a third, so I chose the most absurd one on the list, Shipfitter, which is the Navy's version of a plumber. Whereupon the Navy promptly made me a plumber. I was beginning to learn something about the world.
I can't say I enjoyed my four year hitch. As Samuel Johnson famously observed, being on a ship was a lot like being in jail. But I had two wonderful buddies – Eddie Cobos, a little Mexican American with street smarts and an Einsteinian emotional IQ, and Joe Jacaruso, built like a linebacker and possessed of a genuinely saintly disposition – birds would eat from his hands. I loved those guys. We did our jobs, and mostly stayed out of trouble, and we had our sailorly adventures, and in the course of all of this we learned a lot about life and about ourselves. Mission accomplished. At this remove, I don't regret having done the time.
I didn't like the war we were in, and I didn't like the politicians who were running it. I sympathized with draft dodgers, and I wrote letters – as an enlisted man – in support of a friend's application for CO status. But I always thought it was a shame the way vets were treated in the 1960s and 70s. There were not a lot of programs, and there was not a lot of support for people who had seen combat (I had not). The great books about Vietnam had not yet been written, and nobody had the faintest idea what PTSD was. There were a lot of effed-up guys walking around, and they didn't get much respect for their suffering, or understanding of its causes.
Now, as if to make up for our past lapses, we've gone overboard in the opposite direction. Now, everybody who's recently done time in the military is a “Hero.” This kind of smarmy sentiment makes me gag (particularly since most of it comes from people who never were in the military). Very few of the people who ever served were heroes. Most were just regular people from varying walks of life - like Eddie or Joe or me. Some were jerks; a few were crooks.
And speaking of criminal activity, how about being sent to war by a Congress full of draft dodgers? (And speaking of the draft, one of the biggest mistakes this country made was eliminating it.)
Or how about Seymour Hersch's article on the real story behind the bin Laden killing, as portrayed in Zero Dark Thirty? Like, it's not the bad guys against the good guys; it's our bad guys against their bad guys and, as often as not, both sets of bad guys against us – the regular people, the ones who wind up fighting the wars.
Feeling pretty conflicted about my country today. Not in a very bloggy mood, so I'll skip right to the commercial.
In honor of this fine Memorial Day holiday weekend (cue card for applause, with Bud Lite logo), here's a vintage chart of Buzzard's Bay, done by the master chart maker, George Eldridge. 
Chart. West Chop to Point Judith, Including Buzzards and Narragansett Bay and Providence River. Geo Eldridge Hydrographer. Boston: S. Thaxter & Son, 1898. This is a chart on heavy paper, linen backed, measuring 43 ¾ x 29 inches. It gives a detailed view of coasts and waters between Point Judith and the western end of Martha's Vineyard, as far north as Fall River. Lights and areas covered by each light are indicated in red. The chart also shows frequent soundings, positions of lightships, and coastal locations. A very scarce chart, and is even harder to find in excellent condition, as this one is.$1500
George Eldridge senior became a chart maker in 1850, when an injury forced him to retire from fishing. Son George W. also spent time at sea, but soon took over the chart business and raised it to new heights. The Eldridge firm issued at least 11 numbered charts and 10 lettered charts covering the Gulf Coast to Maine, each in many iterations and updates. They also issued harbor chart books containing closeup charts of the harbors depicted on the charts, and tide books.
Eldridge was very much a down-home operation. In contrast to the finely detailed Coast and Geodetic Survey charts of the day, Eldridge designed his charts with clean lines, no clutter and clear soundings, so that they could be read with greater ease aboard a rolling vessel in poor weather conditions. Instead of engraving and electrotyping, he used lithography, and later photolithography, to produce clean bold lines. This resulted in enormous popularity of the charts among the fishermen and merchant sailors of New England. Eldridge’s son peddled charts and tide books himself from his catboat to the many vessels anchored at Holmes Hole (Vineyard Haven), which was a very popular port for coasting merchant vessels; his four daughters painted in the lights and scratched out old errors, and his wife even backed some of the charts in fabric to make them more durable.

Monday, May 18, 2015

Randi White's Secret

The evidence has been pouring in for a decade or more, as big box venues gobbled up mom 'n pops, and then were themselves brought low by the likes of Amazon and online used book markets such as ABE and eBay. Now everybody knows it's a bad idea to open a retail used book store in a small town unless you have a mate with a good job, or are a comfortably retired book-besotted romantic, or unless you have a death wish. Being a retiree with a comfortable pension AND a death wish is probably the optimum situation. But Randi White, owner of the Book Barn in Niantic,Connecticut, apparently never got the message...
It was 1990 or thereabouts and we were spending Spring Vacation at my mother-in-law's in Connecticut. Our two sons, aged 11 and 14, were driving everyone crazy, so I volunteered to get them out of the house. Whew! We drove through eastern Connecticut on an all boy road trip, scouting books at places like John Gambino's, Books & Birds, and Bibliolatree, with stops for arcade games and burgers in between. And candy. LOTS of candy. Finally we got down to the shore, and I took us to this new place in a basement under an antique shop. 
Nothing more than a mess of cheap books, but the boys quickly disappeared into the science fiction and gaming section, and I was able to spend an hour or so scouting up several boxes of books. The total bill probably didn't top $75. I liked what I saw, and added this new place to my book scouting route.
Every time I went back the owner, Randi White, was buying books. He never paid much, but he tried to buy everything, which was important to the people streaming through with their boxes and bags full of unwanted stuff. He made sure that his inventory moved by pricing it low – ridiculously low, in my estimation. But it worked for him. Dealers, collectors, and voracious readers with book junkie habits poured through his stock. Saturday mornings there'd be a line at the door before opening.
At some point the antique store upstairs departed. By the mid 1990s Randi owned the whole spread and soon started working on the spacious grounds, installing outbuildings to hold more books. 

I stopped shopping there around that time. My business was headed in a different direction, away from general used books. But I kept hearing about Randi. The Book Barn was booming. The yard around the main building had become a sort of theme park full of book huts where kids could play while parents browsed. The prices stayed low and the quality of the stock remained consistent. Randi kept buying and the people kept coming. The Book Barn, conveniently located in a tourist friendly seaside town, became a destination.
Last week I had an appraisal to do at Mystic Seaport and, just for old time's sake, I took the 20 minute drive over to Niantic after I was finished, to look in on my old pal Randi.
It was a sunny May morning and the parking lot was already half full. Randi was busy buying books, 
Randy and Chuck at work
so I took a walk around the book huts, then went upstairs in the barn to the main desk.
There, T (“My real name is Terry but everyone calls me T.”) was checking out a lady who'd purchased a large bag of books, and explaining to her husband why they don't have a list of all the books they offer for sale.
“It would take a lot of work to catalog all these books,” she told him. “To pay for it we'd have to raise our prices. Same with the Internet. Everybody says, 'Why don't you have these books online?' But to do that, we'd have to charge more for them because of the labor costs. We've asked our customers again and again, and they all say they prefer cheap, uncataloged books that aren't on the Internet.”
The man smiled and nodded, but it was clear he hadn't really understood what T was telling him.
I, on the other hand, was flabbergasted. No inventory, no stock control, and no Internet. This flew directly in the face of everything we think we know about the used book trade.
Finally Randi had a moment and we sat at a picnic table and swapped stories.
He told me he'd started working at a Paperback Booksmith with his buddy Chuck (still part of the Book Barn operation) nearly 30 years ago. They both loved books, and they had their retail bookselling experience to guide them, so they opened their own place, with the master plan of buying cheap and selling cheap – of, above all, keeping the cash flowing. But Randi readily admits he had no idea how successful this idea would prove. He now has four stores, each about 2500 square feet, right in the same town, filled with about half a million books.
“People come all this way,” he says, “They want to see something. The more books the better, If I were starting in this business today, I'd want to be as close to another book store as possible.” 
He employs 20-25 people, depending on the season (his book theme park is open all year). At the height of the summer he needs parking lot attendants to manage traffic. He'll sell books to 500 – 600 people daily, and might have as many as 50 people selling him 4000 books that same day. And sometimes they are the same people. He pays by check or with a store credit option. His four locations are open 9 am to 9 pm every day. He reckons he works - “sorta depends on what you call 'work', doesn't it?” - about 80 hours a week. Most of his customers come from at least 50 miles away but, surprisingly, he buys all his books in his home state. “There are a lot of readers in Connecticut,” he says.
 I asked him what his secret was, and he just smiled and surveyed his kingdom. “The ability to lift heavy objects... Nobody in their right mind would do this, would they? But here's the good part.” He leaned toward me confidentially. “We get to be in the book business! I still get excited when I see a good $5 book.” Randi White, who still works like a stevedore, and who considers himself blessed to have found a job he loves, owns a home and a substantial commercial property. He pays the salaries of a couple of dozen employees, and has put two kids through college. All on $5 books.
He admits he was lucky to have started at the right time (the age of flourishing used book shops) and the right place (a tourist location with relatively inexpensive real estate). But he still thinks cheap used books are a viable concept. “I'll tell you,” he says triumphantly. “It's the postage that's making it for us. Those online people can't compete. We each have a book for $5, but when you buy it online you have to cough up another three or four bucks to get it delivered. Here, we put it in a bag for you, and you walk out feeling like you've just saved $3.50.”
“And I'll tell you something else. KINDLE DIDN'T WORK. They sold all those machines at first, and now it's going downhill. And you walk into one of those mega book stores and what you you see, right up front? A whole table full of Kindles! They're cutting their own throats. It's crazy. Anyway, no reading machine will ever replace the experience of browsing in a place like this, because here, you never know what you're going to find. You explore a world of books. You make discoveries. You can't do that on a Kindle, and Amazon can't do it for you either.”
This is all well and good. But Randi has another secret, and he'll never reveal it because he doesn't even know he has it.
Aside from his prodigious personal skills and his gargantuan enthusiasm for books, Randi White has absolutely no ego as a bookman. He doesn't mind selling what others would regard as low end crap, and he's happy to work as a lumper in his own operation, routinely lugging 40 pound boxes of books from one end of his compound to the other. He buys and sells to a steady 5:1 markup (quite modest for this sort of operation) and if a book doesn't move, he'll put it on the dollar table. After that it's the recycling bin or the dump. When people come in they expect to see fresh stock, and Randi makes sure that they do. Inevitably, rare books find their way into his operation, and when this happens Randi has a short list of preferred customers and dealers to call, insuring that the rare tome will be moved along, swiftly and efficiently, at a fraction of its fair market value. “If I sell you a book for $5 and you sell it for $500, that's good. I'm happy for you. I've made some money and so have you.”

Sunday, May 10, 2015

Hit Me Again, Please

A couple of theorems about the biz are in play this week:
  1. Most of our profits in this trade come from occasional “big hits,” but our viability depends on being able to survive the trek through the valleys between those big hits.
  2. Every time I think I've figured this business out, it changes.
Thus the inadequacies of the general used book store concept, circa 1980, led to the development of specialties at Ten Pound Island. Thus the failure of those specialties to meet the economic demands of an escalating real estate market drove Ten Pound Island out of the retail trade in 1993. Thus the computer and the fax machine put an end to TPI's flourishing postcard-driven nautical book search operation, which itself - owing to the need for a place to store the thousands of books accumulated in the course of this evolution – put TPI back in the retail business. Thus the rise of the Internet and the degradation in the value of low end maritime books, which had hitherto been Ten Pound Island's stock in trade, resulted in TPIs penultimate exit from the retail trade. Thus the paradoxical combination of rising cost and increased availability of rare books drove TPI into manuscripts, ephemera and documents. Thus the failure of provincial book fairs, which had hitherto been a major source of sales and stock, forced TPI into further dependence upon the Internet and the cultivation of institutional customers. Thus sales at TPI dwindled from thousands of mid range transactions to hundreds of larger ones. Thus the intervals between cash infusions increased. Thus the owner of TPI woke up one morning at 3 am with his hair on fire, recalling theorem #1 and thinking, “I've got to get more low end stuff out there on the market, to fill in the gaps between big hits.
Thus, as recounted a couple of blog entries ago, I surprised myself by purchasing that collection of low end maritime books. Thus I hired the guy down the street to start putting stuff on eBay for me - $200 - $5000 books that have been sitting on my shelves for years. No auctions, just “Buy it Now” and “Best Offer.” Get those doggies to start paying their rent! Thus I started digging through piles of old uncataloged stuff, looking for material I could use to fill those gaps between paychecks.
Yesterday afternoon I was diligently working my way through a stack of relatively undistinguished manuscript items. 
I'd already cataloged Captain Clement Ryder's account book for two coasting schooners – the “Velocity” and the “Columbia” $150; "Abstract Log Ship 'Carlisle Castle' on a Voyage from London Towards Melbourne. Commencing May 23rd 1885, Ending Aug 31st 1885... Kept by Arthur F.B. Portman 2nd Mate." $350; and “Accounts of Coasting Schooner James Martin, 1870 – 1872.” $150.
The next item in the stack was a raggedy, chaotic mishmash of an old navigation lesson book 
and a couple of scribbled log entries from... 
Wait a minute. 1772? And look at this, right on the first page - “Saw a spalmeccty could not come at her the wind S & E we sald & got one porpoise...”
 An American whaling log from 1772!
And in a single lovely moment I ceased trudging through the valley and was surveying the world around me from the pinnacle of another big hit. It had been sitting on the floor of my office for the past two months in a pile of junk.
I love this business.
Manuscript. Whaling Log of "Good Sloop Dolphin of Boston Isaak Freeman Commander 1772 Wrote by Zenas Phiney.". Folio, unpaginated. Fifteen pages of manuscript entries.
This is the daily log of an early whaling voyage not documented by Lund or noted in any other reference source. It records a voyage off the Western Islands and "from the Grand Banks to Cape Cod" from the end of May to the beginning of October, 1772. The log begins with a faint, and difficult to decipher, list of the crew. The first entry is May 22. Daily entries give names of vessels and captains, and there is much talk of ships spoken and who got and did not get whales. The "Dolphin" catches a porpoise and chases a sperm whale. Then on "SaterDay 27 Day of June 1772. Fine weather Saw plenty of whales chast most all day but cold not strike till a bought 7 a clock we got aught and struck one." On July 1 "We finished triing out our whale which made 80 barrals." A week later Phiney reveals his status as a colonial, "As wrote July 8 day 1772 for the 11 year of the rain of our Sovering Lord George the the third wrote by Zenas Phiney." The log continues with tight, crabbed entries, noting weather, latitude, sail handling and ships and people spoken and gammed with, until September 10. The log then jumps to the other end of the book and assumes a tabular form, with columns for time of day, speed, bearing, winds, position, and remarks - still kept by Phiney, and continuing without interruption from September 11. In this latter part the “Dolphin” is on the Grand Banks, then headed for Cape Cod. The log ends, "I have bene to sea from the 6 Day of May to the 4 Day of October which is 5 months except 2 Days and have not let my feet on land for the time." This is followed by a 23 page navigation lesson book, with instructions and diagrams in someone else's fine hand, written only on the rectos, and with Phiney's rough notes below and on the versos of many of the leaves. Then 6 pages of Phiney's notes on navigation, including rules for calculations employing the "Sons Dicklination." Then what looks to be an invented practice log of an "Intended Voige", and another of an "Entended Voige, each 2 pages in length.
In summary, what we have is the whaling voyage of the sloop "Dolphin" of Boston, in the summer of 1772, broken into two parts, separated by Zenas Phiney's navigational workbook and notes.
American whaling logs of this vintage are rare. Sherman cites only seventeen pre-1800 examples 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. The log of the "Susanna", 1784, sold at Swann’s in the second Barbara Johnson sale for $18,000 in 1997. It was incomplete, sixteen pages in length. Swann claimed, “This log represents one of the earliest logs in existence and also one of the most complete of the early examples” This log predates that one by a dozen years and is equal in length and detail Hand bound in canvas covers. $12,500

Sunday, May 3, 2015

“And That's the Way It Is”, May Third, 2015...

Walter Cronkite - the most trusted voice
Big day for me yesterday.
I was featured in an article in Bruce McKinney's “Rare Book Monthly.” In fact, I got a mention “above the fold” - in the lead text appearing on the home page. Even better, Bruce McKinney referred to me as “ABAA commentator Greg Gibson.”
I've never been called a “commentator” before, and I like to think that term confers a certain dignity lacking in the “jackass” and “loudmouth” appellations I usually endure. Walter Cronkite was a commentator. When commentators speak, people listen.
In an attempt to defend himself against my charge that he was a shill for the auction houses, McKinney quoted from last week's blog entry at considerable length. The anecdote I presented was an example of an auction house colluding with a dealer against the interests of a buyer - anything but the honest, efficient, transparent brokers McKinney has in mind.
Since there was no defending auction houses on those grounds, McKinney chose to critique my article thus:
In Mr. Gibson’s account a collector that buys only at auction and a dealer and auction house collude to get the collector to pay more at auction than they would privately. What he is actually suggesting is that some collectors are stupid.
Yes, Bruce. That is what I am actually suggesting. Some collectors are stupid. Some dealers are, too. And auction houses, and commentators, and editors of online monthly trade journals. No one has the concession on brains around here.
He continues his defense:
Auctions loom large because the disparity between dealer prices and auction realizations has grown so extreme.
Now that, my friends, is where Bruce McKinney and Rare Book Hub jump the shark. I invite him - or anyone with sufficient time to waste - to compare the prices of items I have on offer with auction records for recent sales of comparable items. In most cases, mine will be cheaper.
The thing I most dislike about auctions – aside from the fact that they've convinced people that they are the most transparent and efficient market – is that they're too damned expensive. And they're often too damned expensive because the thrill of being an auction room bigshot tends to attract people with more money than brains. Which skews the market, as far as I am concerned.
Oh, I almost forgot – while all this was going on Marvin Getman and SNEAB (Southern New England Antiquarian Booksellers) were having a book fair at the Shriner's Auditorium in Wilmington, Mass.
At least, I think it was a book fair. But it could have been a wake or a support group for those unfortunate souls whose lives have been torn apart by book lust, or a bake sale at the Senior Center.
What it actually was, was mystifying. There was absolutely no reason for this to have been such a sleepy show. It was the end of a long, brutal winter, and people should have been itching to get out. Dealers should have been eager to rent booths and to display their wares. After being snowed under for three months here, at least, was a chance to make some sales. Marvin Getman did his usual excellent job organizing and publicizing, and SNEAB got the word out, too.
Unlike Sandy Smith, Marvin Getman provides lunch for dealers
But no one, it seems, got the message. There were fewer dealers exhibiting as this fair than ever before, and fewer customers walking the aisles. And none of us had a clue as to why. Even the scrum at the Brattle Books booth – usually a slugfest – was a sedate affair involving half a dozen dealers who politely helped the Brattle staff unload their boxes.
I did find a copy of the American edition of Malhalm's Naval Gazeteer. I looked the book up in Bruce McKinney's “Rare Book Transaction History” database, but apparently no comparable copy had appeared at auction in quite a while. Instead, there were listings for individual maps from this work which had sold in the $100 - $400 range. I recalled having sold a copy of the entire book for $3000 a few years ago, so I bought it.
But mostly I passed an enjoyable afternoon chatting with my colleagues and reading “Rare Book Monthly.” Late in the afternoon I posted a rebuttal to McKinney's article, which read as follows:
Thanks for keeping this always interesting discussion going. I'll stand by my observations – I think they're self evident - but must note that I usually preface my "McKinney is anti-dealer" rants by praising the database you've created. It's far and away the most useful tool available to dealers, and the reason I maintain my subscription to RBH. - Greg Gibson
I look forward to reading Bruce McKinney's rebuttal to my rebuttal in next month's “Rare Book Monthly.” His lead sentence should read something like, “Big day for me last month. I was featured in an article in Bookman's Log by ABAA commentator Greg Gibson.” 
Malham, Rev. John. The Naval Gazetteer; or, Seaman’s Complete Guide. Boston: 1797. b/w fldg charts. (3)-xlvi, (1), 8-436; (3)-573, (3) pp.
First American edition of this important early gazetteer, with folding maps - made by mapmakers in New York and Boston - of the northwest and northeast coasts of America, West Indies, South America, Africa and the South Pacific, as well as European and Asian seas. Text descriptions include physical characteristics but also navigating information for mariners, for thousands of locations, including recently discovered waters in North America and the Pacific. It contains, for example, the “Correct Chart of the Northwest Coast of North America from Bhering’s Straits to Nootka Sound,” 
which was the first map of Alaska published in America, and of great importance to American fur and China traders. Maps show occasional foxing, but are generally in good or better condition. Sabin 44119. Evans 32415. Bound in contemporary full calf. probably American. Outer hinges cracked; sewing tight. A scarce set. $300o

Monday, April 27, 2015

Real Books!

Two vol. set $20
Last week I got a call from a world class professional model maker who was closing his studio. The market and its fashions had changed, he told me, and rich guys were no longer commissioning his beautiful models. He might still make a few things to sell in ship model galleries, but after they took their cut his hourly wage would be about what he'd get working at McDonalds. So he took a position as a museum curator and moved his workshop to smaller quarters. He planned to keep about half of his extensive reference library and he was hoping that I'd sell the rest for him on consignment.
Fine condition, in dj. $25
So I went over to his shop and took a look at the books – about 400 of them – and realized immediately that I'd lose my shirt on a consignment deal. They weren't bad books, I explained to him. In fact, they were excellent books – standard reference works in very good condition - the kind of items I used to make my living buying for $5 and selling for $35 or $50 or $150 to people just like him. I was a specialist dealer, and ship modelers, or marine historians, or writers, or curators or collectors who needed particular books in this field would contact me because these were the kinds of books I gathered and resold.
Fine condition in dj. $20
Of course, the Internet ruined all that. With millions of titles listed online, those specialized books were revealed to be more common than we'd thought, and now there are dozens of copies of most of them available online in a wide range of prices and condition. So I explained to him that his consignment idea would not work. It would require hours cataloging, photographing, putting them online, and then storing them, waiting for them to sell – which they would not. Not when there there were 20 other copies of each title online in similar condition, competing for the customers' dollar. He nodded sadly and told me he thought that might have been the case. Then, before he could ask me what he should do with them, I did something strange – something I'm still trying to understand. 
Fine condition in dj. $25
I said, “I'll give you $2000 for the lot.”
At that moment, I think I had a fleeting idea of putting them across the street in the art gallery, for summer tourists to browse. People come to Gloucester because of the ocean, and they stop in Flatrocks Gallery
often looking for souvenirs of their visits – what better than books about boats? Cheap books about boats! 

And maybe I will. And maybe they will. And maybe I'll have my $2000 back before the summer season ends. But I think something else was going on.
I think I bought those books because I missed them. After years of puzzling over ancient, arcane manuscripts, letters, documents, photos, charts, and journals, I missed good old honest Twentieth Century hardcovers, with ISBNs and dustjackets – Real books! Whose salient features could quickly and easily be entered into “title,” “author,” “place of publication,” “date of publication,” “pagination,” and similar database fields. Here, at the far end of my career, I wanted to spend a little time again with these denizens of my early days.

Sort of like going to a high school reunion and seeing old classmates, most of whom never amounted to much, and never had much going for them in the first place. But you grew up with them, and were comfortable with them, and after the initial shock of seeing them old and gray, you realize you look that way, too, and that you never amounted to much, either. And then you realize it's not about "amounting"; it's about living a good, decent life, and having a healthy, happy family, and enjoying your job and your friends. And that's what you see around you, and it's not so bad – except for the guy over by the bar who went to Yale and sold a startup, and now has millions. But everybody knew he was going to do that, anyway, and they felt kind of sorry for him, in a funny way.
Somehow, that's the song those 400 books sang to me. I got an excellent workout boxing and removing them, and then unboxing and shelving them here in my office, and then I started in on cataloging and photographing the collection. Not in a frenzy, but pretty steadily for a couple of days. I mean, I'd take breaks and do other things, but I was definitely focused on the job. And it was fun. I mean, it was fun in the same way that raking leaves or painting the house might be fun. Tedious, actually. But you don't have to think.
This morning, just to see how far I'd gotten, I pulled up an inventory list on Bookhound and printed out a Value Report. Here's the top of the first page. Salient numbers are on the second line – 65 books with a total retail value of $1695. Oy.

Value of Inventory April 27, 2015
Total Cost 0.00 | | Retail: 1,695.00 (65)

37831 Figureheads and Ornaments on Danish Ships and in Danish 0.00 | 50.00 (1)
37832 The Old Wrecks of the Baltic Sea. 0.00 | 0.00 (1)
37833 The Art and Archaeology of Venetian Ships and Boats. 0.00 | 20.00 (1)
37834 The History of the French Frigate. 1650-1850. 0.00 | 50.00 (1)
37835 Brick de 24 Le Cygne 1806-1808. 0.00 | 50.00 (1)
Very good condition in dj. $15
The skin on my fingertips is starting to crack and I've still got more than 300 to go. And what are all those French, Dutch and Danish titles? I didn't notice them before!

Sunday, April 19, 2015

On the Transparency of Markets

item #7 - "Etchings of a Whaling Cruise"
Before I got married my girlfriend and I adopted a darling little tabby kitten named Nanny. The girlfriend departed and, for logistical reasons, I was granted custody of the kitty. Nanny and I set up housekeeping, and she soon grew up to be not a graceful mommycat, but a nasty, tough, wonderful old tom – the perfect companion for a randy young bachelor. Nanny ruled the neighborhood and often took longer road trips to lands and ladies beyond the boundaries of his kingdom. He'd return from these rambles with an eye puffed shut or an ear hanging by a thread, and sleep for a week.
That was how I felt upon my return from New York last Monday, except I didn't get to sleep for a week. My website was down, my email had blown up, two week's worth of bills were sitting on my desk, and Maritime List 229 desperately needed finishing.
item #12 - Trade Card for Whale Oil Lubricant
So I hitched up the mule and started plowing and, and after four days (and several hundred dollars spent on computer geniuses) things were more or less in order. Only then did I have a moment to reflect on my experiences in New York the week before. All the things I'd seen and heard needed to be considered, digested, put in perspective.
Most remarkable was a story told to me by a colleague with whom I'd done a great deal of business over the years.
He had a wealthy, impulsive, and very skittish customer who had become convinced that all dealers were, to a greater or lesser degree, stacking the deck against their customers, and that auctions were the only fair and transparent market.
It makes sense intuitively – people competing openly against one another rather than trusting any single individual. As Forbes Magazine put it: 
Auctions, in theory anyway, determine price and possession in accordance with the laws of supply and demand, and adhere, again in theory, to some measure of transparency: if you want something, you just pay more for it than anyone else will, and the price—but not the purchaser—will be a matter of public record. Gallerists, by contrast, unilaterally determine a sale price, and then anoint a buyer, based on their own arcane calculations of what’s best for their artists, their clients, or themselves.
Substitute “book dealers” for “gallerists” and eliminate “artists,” and you have a succinct summary of the mindset of my colleague's skittish customer. Certainly, auction rooms have been vigorously promoting this view, and venues like Rare Book Hub, for example, publicize auction houses while suggesting that private dealers are inefficient and obsolescent, if not downright untrustworthy.
But back to my colleague and the wary customer. Inevitably, as his high opinion of auction houses solidified, the customer began buying exclusively at auction. My colleague had a great deal of interesting material to offer this fellow (some of which he'd bought from me) but was completely frustrated by the customer's steadfast refusal to deal with a “middleman.”
item #16 - Brooks Shipyard, East Boston
So my colleague went into partnership with a prominent auction house, which purchased an interest in the material he had intended to offer to his customer. This material will be featured in a forthcoming auction. The wary customer will get the catalog, of course, and he'll also get a friendly call from the auction house, doing him the favor of alerting him to some interesting material that will be coming up for sale. Presumably the customer will purchase the material - probably at prices considerably in advance of what my colleague would have sold it for – completely satisfied that he'd cut out the middleman (my colleague) and had made his purchases in the most open and transparent market.
It's just a story, I know. Typical of the juicy tidbits one picks up at a book fair. But here's the takeaway:
While it is easy to point to the Internet as the major game changer in our trade over the past few decades, the rise of the auction houses has been every bit as disruptive to what once passed for the norm. Auctioneers have been wildly successful in promoting themselves as the only fair and transparent venue, and now that they've gained dominance they've begun to squeeze – with buyer's premiums up to 25% and with an ownership stake in more and more of the material being offered for sale. When I started in this business in the 1970s, established dealers could routinely expect calls from estate lawyers, collectors, or institutions interested in selling material. The times they are a changin'.
Maritime List 229 has just been posted on the Ten Pound Island Book Co. website. You can view it by clicking here.
item # 26  - Pirates Anne Bonny and Mary Read

Monday, April 13, 2015


In the week leading up to this year's New York International Antiquarian Book Fair, and its two “shadow” fairs, I'd been in a state of preternatural excitement. Two promoters - Marvin Getman of Impact Events Group and John and Tina Bruno of Flamingo Eventz – were going head to head for supremacy in the satellite book fair market. First Getman crashed the Bruno's turf by scheduling a rival New York shadow show, then the Brunos trumped Getman by moving their shadow show to a new location just across Lexington Ave. from the big show at the Park Avenue Armory. Cold war ensued. It began to get nasty, and I became increasingly excited by the steady stream of blog fodder. There could not be two more different promoters – in terms of personality, management style, and business practices – than Getman and the Brunos. By last Friday night I'd half convinced myself that their collision would result in a black hole of such magnitude that the entire trade would be sucked behind an unbreachable event horizon, allowing us all to go home and rake our lawns.
But something else happened. Or maybe I should say nothing happened.
I rose early Saturday after a fitful sleep, and walked uptown to the Getman show. I presented my free pass, entered a spacious and well lit room, and started talking to my colleagues. 
By their report setup had gone smoothly. Some were having good fairs, some were not. I bought a few things and headed down to the Bruno show. I paid my admission fee (free passes were not widely distributed),
entered a somewhat more claustrophobic show space,
and began talking to my colleagues. They reported a few snafus during load in, but by Saturday morning everyone had managed to get set up. Some were having good shows, some were not. This pattern held throughout the day. The crowd died off rapidly uptown, but move out was just as seamless as setup had been. There was a shouting match or two downtown, but the adjacent fine press fair (a Bruno innovation from the previous year) added life to the event. I returned to the venue after lunch and there were still customers coming in.
In other words, what we wound up with, despite my feverish prefair puffery was nothing more than a couple of regular old book fairs. No mutually assured destruction, no nuclear holocaust. Just a Getman show and a Flamingo show to go along with the big ABAA-ILAB show at the Park Avenue Armory.
It was refreshing to see that there was enough for everyone – enough dealers to fill three venues, enough books to fill the booths of those dealers, and enough customers (well, there are never really enough) to attend the three fairs and to send everyone (well, never really “everyone”) home happy.
Given this fact, neither Getman nor the Brunos did themselves any favors in the course of their turf battle. There was a lot of sniping, rumoring, and shoving, and much of it was unseemly. At the end of the day (or actually at its beginning), their head-to-head 8 am winner take all confrontation was a disservice to the buying public who were forced to rise early and scoot uptown and down on an already busy weekend. Final score: Brunos 0 - Getman 0.
Ten Pound Island zeroed out, too, in one of the worst New York book fairs I've ever endured. I had some tasty bits of China Trade and American whaling history on offer, but the buying public did not seem interested in tasty bits of China Trade and American whaling history. I wound up selling $4000 and buying $5000 for a total of $9000, which was about what I spent at Donohue's for the week.
European and Asian dealers remain convinced that New York is where the money is. Nearly half of the exhibitors at the ABAA/ILAB show were non-American. And maybe the money is here, but I did not see it being spent on classic rare European treasures. Instead, what seemed to be selling was modern stuff – popular culture of the past century, zines and whatnot.
And I use the term “whatnot” advisedly because, as an antiquarian, I have only the vaguest idea what this stuff is, beyond the fact that beatniks and hippies are involved and it's colorful and often pornographic and generally fun.
Daniel Crouch's $1.26 million Apianus just sits there like the crown jewels,
while Ken Mallory has “the best fair I've ever had” selling those zines and whatnot, and dealers like Cassidy and Kahn report strong sales with their fascinating, zany stuff. It feels as if the market is turning away from the antiquarian toward the visual, the pop, the immediate. And maybe this show is morphing into a subspecies of the contemporary art show. And maybe tasty China Trade and whaling bits are dead in the water. And maybe I am, too.