Monday, January 26, 2015

Chapter I. Dicky's Dream

He'd been having a dream; one of those turgid, anxious dreams you might get from eating too much before going to bed. In the dream he'd been sitting in a car with his family watching an exciting basketball game. Then he realized it was 5:50, leaving him only a little more than an hour to get to his hotel uptown and then get back down to meet his friends. He said his goodbyes and began to leave, then remembered he'd forgotten his suitcase, which was not much bigger than a big briefcase. It had a zippered pouch in front and he shoved his documents in and zippered it up and went onto the Avenue, probably a dream representation of Broadway, to hail a cab. Then he was uptown, in the 60s, and he couldn't remember the name of the hotel. The driver could not help with the name of the hotel, but he waited in the cab while Dicky went across an alley toward Lexington Avenue. But it was getting dark and, somehow, the alley did not lead to Lex, and when Dicky went back, the cab was gone with his twenty dollar bill. Then he was in a large, rather fancy restaurant named O'Reilly's, built underground, like at Grand Central, and when he came back out to the street it was raining, hard, and he realized he'd left his suitcase in the cab and that, for some reason, he was no longer wearing a shirt. Then instead of some avenue on the east side the sign on the corner said Park, and it was still raining, but not as hard, and it wasn't dark anymore, and it wasn't a dream.
Or if it was, Dicky was stuck in it, because here he manifestly, undeniably, was. Dripping, but not shivering. He wondered if he should call his father and dismissed the thought, not wanting him to have to drive all the way uptown. But what should he do now? He walked past a fire station and in the glass of the big garage doors he saw his reflection and realized he was not a young man, as he'd thought he was in his dream, but an old, skinny disheveled wreck of a man with short gray hair and a gray stubble and sucked in cheeks from lack of molars, and no shirt. He wasn't going to call his father because his father had been dead for decades. And he wasn't in Manhattan; this was some smaller town, with a skyline of two story buildings.
He fought the panic that was rising in him. There was an explanation for this; he could still think; his mind was clear. He was certain he could reason it out. But where in God's name?... He thought about where he'd come from. A town. He could almost see it, almost remember its name, but this information was fuzzy, faded, as if it had been part of the dream, too. All he needed to get control of this situation was one piece of something that wasn't floating around. He could build from there. But there was nothing to latch onto. The fear came back in another wave, a battalion of scorpions in his gut. He couldn't just stand there. That would be a bad thing to do.
Dicky walked around the corner of the brick building, opened the side door, noticing it was no warmer in the fire barn than it had been outside – summer, that was a good thing – and went up three steps to a landing. Directly ahead of him was a door to the fire barn. He could hear the voices of firemen in there. The stairs continued up on his left, and to his right was a small glassed in office with a switchboard and three telephones. A pudgy fireman with a flat top looked up from his magazine at Dicky, standing uncertainly in the doorway.
“Sorry to bother you,” Dicky said. “I know this sounds strange, but I must've had some kind of stroke or something. I don't know where I am and I can't remember how I got here.”
The fireman rose and clapped him genially on the shoulder. “Dicky! Another bad night, eh?”
Upon hearing his name, and receiving the knowledge that he was known, Dicky let down the guard he'd been maintaining so fiercely against the fear. The situation got dreamlike again after that. They put him in the Chief's car and took him to the police station. On the way, Dicky realized he was having some kind of attack of nerves, and that what he needed was a drink, just to calm him down. This thought was what he'd been seeking – something to attach to, something to build on. It became an obsession. In the police station he told them, “I just need a drink, is all. Just something to settle me down.” He said it over and over.
They sat him in a chair in a detective's cubicle and gave him a glass of water and a pill. Someone boiled water on a hotplate and made him an instant hot chocolate. It was warm, and sweet, and good. They all knew him, the cops, and they were as friendly as the firemen had been. The drink spread its warmth through him, and the pill began its work. He dozed off in his chair.
When he woke he said to Sergeant Langley, “Man, that was a bad one.”
“You okay now?”
“Yeah, I'm fine. I guess I should just go home.”
“Sounds like a plan.”
“You guys want a coffee or anything?”
“Jesus, Dicky. It's 3:00 a.m.”

Monday, January 19, 2015

The Emerald Isle had a surprise for me when I arrived.

Monday, January 12, 2015

Same Old, Same Old..

Same old white knuckle whiteout snowstorm drive down I-84 Friday morning. Same old cold and gray Hartford. Same old dank concrete basement, with its toxic lights, slushy galoshes, 
weary porters, and slightly bewildered staff. Same old dealers. Same old customers. At least some of the paper was new.

In all the years I've been exhibiting at Papermania in January in Hartford, Connecticut, the scene has hardly changed at all. If you were to compare an image of booth 92 taken on Sunday, January 11, 2015 with an image taken at the same booth in any other year between now and 1988, there would be very little difference between then and now. More paper, maybe, fewer books now. And more weight on Gibson, not boothmate Frank Wood (of DeWolfe and Wood Rare Books)
Truth to tell, this whole show is getting a little tired. Yes, the people still come out, but they're the same people. There's still a feature on local TV, and a story in the Hartford Courant, but it's the same story. The hall was crowded Saturday morning, but there was a lack of focus and energy. People flitting from booth to booth like nervous sparrows, unable to stop and feed. Very few questions – always a bad sign. From the perspective of this grizzled veteran, the Hilltop Promotions people are pretty much just mailing it in – doing exactly what they did the year before and the year before that. It's comfortable. It's reliable. But it's tired.   

I'm tired, too. “Bookman's Log” has issued 239 posts in the past 4½ years.  

So I'm going to take a break. Heading over to the house in Ireland for the rest of January and February, to work on making some more Used Books of the Future. Maybe some good writing will result, maybe not. But at least it'll be a change of pace. Same old, same old gets old after a while. 

For the record, I spent about $6000 on purchases at Papermania. Of that total $3250 was “I'm a genius!” $1000 was, “Oh, you idiot!” and the balance was sensibly expended... on the same old sort of stuff. I grossed $915, so the show was typical in almost every respect. Just a little – as I've already said - tired. 

If I think of anything to add from the Old Country, I'll put it here. Otherwise, see you at the Washington Antiquarian Book Fair, March 6 and 7, 2015. 

And thanks for reading!

Monday, January 5, 2015

Home of the Camel

Every winter I pay a visit to The Camel. This distinguished dromedary lives on a balcony in a huge steel and concrete structure reminiscent of an airplane hangar. 

He is tended by kindly old men in funny hats who prefer to do good things for sick children rather than just sit around and drink and tell bad jokes and tired stories. Or, they do good things for sick children AND sit around and drink and tell bad jokes and tired stories. 
I'm speaking, of course, of the Shriner's Auditorium just off Interstate 93 in Wilmington Mass. Every year, in this venue, promoter Marvin Getman produces an event known as the Boston Antiques & Design Show & Sale. And every year I participate in the show, setting up my wares in the area his promotional materials now refer to as “Book & Paper Row.” And every year I write a blog about how refreshing it is to see something more than just books and paper. It's good for the eye; good for the intelligence; good for the spirit.

But I must have written that blog one time too many. Because this year, when I wheeled my cart into the auditorium all I saw was gray floor

under death ray florescent lighting, hanging from a ceiling that looked to have been imported from a Russian gulag. 
The day was raw and a cold wild blew through the big doors where dealers parked their dented vans and schelpped their wares into the hall – their seedy, tired, threadbare wares, into the freezing gray hall. The dealers looked seedy and threadbare, too. I hoped they had pensions or wives with jobs. And health insurance. And thermal underwear. 
I passed a seedy mirror and noticed, to my horror, that I looked just like them, that I was one of them. I hauled my wares from their tired boxes and placed them on threadbare shelves. 
Mind you, the goods on display were not at the level of flea market or yard sale junk. But they certainly were not the sorts of goods you'd find at a toney antiques show. All the jewelry and fabric and prints and furniture and pottery and sculpture and art looked like it had come through a time warp from the attics of a nation of grandmothers, bound for living rooms and dens in an alternate universe inhabited by grandchildren. Homey, funky stuff. Some of it junque, but most of it “interesting” if you had eyes for “interesting.”
I had neither eyes nor stomach. I set up my booth, went out to dinner with boothmate Orville Haberman of Connecticut River Books, ate and drank too much as usual, and slid deeper into a funk, which was unusual. Driving to the show next morning for the 10 a.m. opening I told him, “I've got a bad feeling about this one, Orv. We're doomed.”

I was too busy questioning the meaning of my sorry existence to note or photograph the giant crowd lined up at the entrance. That picture would not appear in this year's blog. This year's blog would be different. Might not appear at all...
Then, next thing I knew, I was talking to people, meeting new customers, selling them things. Somehow, Marvin Getman, uber-promoter that he is, had gotten these folks to come out in droves. 
I wondered what would happen when they discovered that they'd been tricked – that there were no fancy antiques and design items here at the Home of the Camel, that this was decidedly NOT the Winter Antiques Show.
But, of course, there was no trick. This was exactly what the people wanted. This airplane hangar full of unsifted, unvetted, under-researched stuff had potential that was limited only by the imagination of the viewer. 
When you go to a fancy show, there are few surprises. You know what you are going to find there, and you know that you will not be able to afford it. The Shriner's auditorium was full of stuff people could afford to purchase, and it seemed to me quite a few of them were doing just that. At least in the booths of Ten Pound Island and Connecticut River books.
Others had less productive shows. But no one could complain about the crowds. I asked Marvin how he got all those people to turn out and he replied, “It's the New Year weekend. What else do they have to do?”
Maybe. But I suspect there's more to it than that...

Here's a splendid piece of paper that no one bought at Marvin's show. Apparently no one this weekend was furnishing a “Shipwreck Room.”
Manuscript. Contemporary Fair Copy of Instructions from John Wentworth to James Morris for the Establishment of a Life Saving Station on Sable Island. Folio sheets. Ten pages of manuscript. About 1500 words.

Sable Island, also known as “The Graveyard of the Atlantic,” has a long and unhappy history. Because it is a narrow, low sandbar in a place where none should be, and because its exact outline shifts over time as the sand erodes in one place and builds up in another, it has accounted for hundreds of shipwrecks and drownings. At the beginning of the 19th century, the British Admiralty decided to do something about this hazard to navigation.
Dated Halifax, 4th October 1801, these are detailed instructions for the establishment and operation of a life saving station on this infamous hazard to navigation. The original plan was for Morris, a Nova Scotian veteran of the Royal Navy, and four men, to do an eight month tour on the island, erecting a shelter and storing supplies for the purpose of "preventing Shipwreck, or Preserving Persons or Propertry which may be there wrecked." They were charged with warning ships off when possible, and preventing looting, salvage and wrecking in the event of a shipwreck. Morris moved his family there and established a central station, two boat stations, and lookout posts and survival shelters. He remained on the island until his death in 1809. Somewhat soiled and dusty, but completely legible, with short tears at folds. An important document in the history of North Atlantic navigation. $1250

Monday, December 29, 2014

Used Books of the Future (continued)

Years ago a colleague named Owen Kubik sent me an enigmatic manuscript. After considerable headscratching I determined it was the journal of a young naval officer sent to the Pacific to capture a sociopath who had committed murder and mutiny on the whaleship Globe. We sold it to the New Bedford Whaling Museum, and felt quite pleased with ourselves.
Then it occurred to me that this manuscript would be an excellent frame for a new non-fiction book about the gory events aboard the Globe. Owing to the unexpected success of Philbrick's In the Heart of the Sea, there was a bull market for maritime non-fiction books that year. I wrote a cracking good proposal and sent it off to my agent. She loved it, and several publishers loved it (because it closely resembled a book that had already proved to be successful) but there was a catch.
Another writer had already sold a proposal for a book about the Globe, and he was being represented by the same agency that represented me. The idea of the same agency representing two competing authors writing about the same thing created a minor scandal in the publishing world. Many people considered it unethical. My agent, God bless her, didn't care what anyone else thought. She was young and brave, and had her eyes on the future. She sold my proposal to Little, Brown for $150,000.
The resulting book, Demon of the Waters, came out at about the same time as the other fellow's book and, to everyone's considerable surprise, the two books demolished one another. Despite author tours, advertising, and good reviews everywhere (including the New York Times) sales were terrible. Demon of the Waters did not come close to “earning out” - selling sufficient copies to pay the publisher back for the advance they'd given me. My competitor, who was rumored to have signed for even more than I got, didn't do any better. Our books faded into obscurity or, as I prefer to put it, they turned into "Used Books of the Future." You can find used copies of my book, and his, by the hundreds - literally! - on Internet used book sites. Sadly, Little, Brown lost tens of thousands of dollars on me. The editor who bought my proposal lost her job.
Time passed. One day last winter my agent asked me if I wanted to turn Demon into an e-book. The book was out of print and the rights had reverted to me, so I dug up a digital copy of what I thought might have been the final text, and sent it off. Amazon made a computer generated “cover” (the Big A disdains all things literary. For the past decade their home page and its content have been 100% computer generated.)
for the Kindle version, and I forgot about the whole silly business.
That is, until last week, when I received a royalty check for $33.19. 
I reckon, after accounting for Amazon and agency deductions, the $3.99 Kindle version of Demon has sold something north of 150 copies since last spring. That was good for a Christmas chuckle, but then I realized what else that $33.19 meant.
There's Little, Brown, taking the initial financial risk, then spending additional money editing and publicizing a book on which they ultimately lost $100,000.
And there's Amazon, investing nothing and making a profit on that same book.
No wonder traditional publishers are scrambling.
Here's an interesting manuscript about a subject that turned into a non-fiction maritime book. The book has no reviews on Amazon, and does not exist as an eBook. It was most likely self-published. Maybe I should tell the author about the riches awaiting awaiting him if he Kindles it.
Manuscript. Log of the Clipper Ship John Milton. From Boston to San Francisco, and Callao to New Orleans, February 1855 to May 1856. Folio. Unpaginated, about 200 pages of manuscript entries. The "John Milton" was a medium clipper ship of 1444 tons built in Fairhaven, Mass. in 1855. The Captain on this voyage was an ex-whaling master named Edward McCleave. This journal was kept by first mate William Othwell (?) and since it was the "Milton's" maiden voyage, much attention was paid to how she handled and how much she leaked. She rounded the Horn about two months out, and made San Francsico 136 days after leaving Boston. There are good port entries in San Francisco, documenting cargo discharged, including coal, and ballast taken on. A list of discharged crew members suggests that the first mate, named with the rest of the crew at the beginning of the journal, was the keeper. (It was not the captain,since the journal keeper consistently spells his name incorrectly.) They took on ballast and a new crew (named) and then headed to Callao, and the Chincha Islands, where they discharged ballast and took on a cargo of guano. The account continues until early May, when they arrived at New Orleans. This is an interesting and informative clipper ship log which has added interest because of the "John Milton's" tragic end two years later - running aground in the winter off Montauk Point with the loss of all hands. The story of the wreck was told in a recent book, "They Were All Strangers: The Wreck of the John Milton at Montauk, New York." See also Howe and Matthews "American Clipper Ships" volume II, pp. 315 - 316. Bound in worn calf over marbled board, which are detached but present. Writing is clear and legible. $1500

Sunday, December 21, 2014

Venting and Flogging

Rant alert. If the pressures of the Holiday Season have left you feeling a mite tetchy, you are advised to skip directly to the interesting offerings at the end of this essay.
My annual gift issue of the magazine Sea History arrived this week. They send it free every Christmas to former subscribers, with an advertising supplement attached. This year the supplement was from A.G.A. Correa, a company that sells cute gold stuff to wear around your neck or wrist – lighthouses, seagulls, clam shells, rope knots, sailboats. Prices range from hundreds to mid-thousands. Hey, it's 14K gold.
Ten Pound Island Book Co. advertised in Sea History for years, as did Edward J. Lefkowicz, Carola Paine, Caravan, and a few other nautical specialists of high repute. After a while, though, the ads ceased to bring in new customers, so I dropped them. My fellow advertisers died or retired. Now the only book sellers to be found in its pages are Sea Fever Books  (an Internet shop run by my old friend Frank Crohn, who happens to be selling some of my low end stock on consignment), and J. Tuttle, daughter of Caravan, who is retiring, and who keeps offering the same dwindling stock over and over at “bargain” prices, in hopes that it will someday disappear entirely.
This melancholy situation coincides with the general decline of interest in American maritime history. Remember Operation Sail and the early Tall Ships parades of the 1960s and 70s? People came out in droves to watch those magnificent ghosts from our maritime past as they strutted their stuff. 

South Street Seaport was booming, and Mystic Seaport and the Mariner's Museum were virtual money machines - amusement theme parks where the theme was ships and the sea. Now South Street is an event center, trolling for tenants on the Internet. Mystic and Mariners, though they will never admit it, are in decline.
In my early days with Sea History I still had a bricks and mortar shop, catering to retail customers. Tourists were a big part of the trade, but during the slow months I was sustained by local collectors. These were men and women of a certain age – civilized people who regarded books as an essential part of life. Some of them were well-to-do, but nearly as many were operating on tight budgets. It was just assumed back then that persons of intelligence would have a shelf of books that dealt with the history of the town in which they lived. Or perhaps a collection of literary high spots, or poetry, or gardening, or motor cars. I even had a fellow who was an avid hunter and collected everything he could find about the natural history and topography of our area. Books were not trophies, they were sources of information, and it was pleasurable to have this information, in book form, at hand. Every Saturday morning half a dozen of these folks would come in to see if I'd gotten anything new. It was fun while it lasted, but by the dawn of the Twenty-first Century, they had stopped coming in.
As I leafed through Sea History something made me remember those bygone days. I read the names of the people who organized and attended this year's Maritime Heritage Conference, and the names of the luminaries who attended the conference Awards Dinner. Then, sensing I was onto something, I read through the entire page of names of patrons of the magazine, and then I read the articles, and the names of people who wrote them, and then I read the ads.
Of these hundreds of people, only two had ever subscribed to my catalogs. (I took over Ed Lefkowicz's list and combined it with my own, so my mailings had excellent coverage) One fellow made a purchase of $44 in 2012. The other, though he was a bigwig in the National Maritime Historical Society, had never bought a thing.
That was when it struck me that these guys don't read books.
They're great at having their pictures taken in tuxes,

and they're pretty good (but never good enough) at raising money to save old hulks – and God bless 'em for that. They might even buy 14K gold gewgaws for their wives. But the intellectual tenor of this gang was indicated by the celebrity author at their dinner and conference. Clive Cussler.
 Call me a snob. But how effective are they going be at “preserving our maritime history and culture” if their primary experience of it is at a banquet table or on the deck of a New York 40? 
I think the decline of collectors that I noticed in the 1980s and 1990s paralleled the decline of interest in American maritime history. And both reflected the fact that people pretty much stopped reading – or collecting – in the manner that they used to read and collect. A loss for me, but a greater loss for us all.
Having vented my spleen I will now flog my wares.
Whistler's First Published Engraving
(Coast Survey). Report of the Superintendent of the Coast Survey... 1854. Washington: GPO. 1855. b/w folding charts. 4to. 288 pp. plus 58 charts. This particular issue contains the first published engraving by James McNeill Whistler, chart #43, “Anacapa and Smith’s Islands” executed while he worked for the Coast Survey. The DAB calls Whistler’s effort “rigidly but ably drawn.” The plate is in good condition, with light tanning at the fold. In addition, you get fifty-seven other charts including harbor charts of Portland, Portsmouth, Gloucester, Plymouth, Monomoy, Nantucket Shoals, Beaufort Harbor, Savannah River, Charleston Harbor, etc., down through Florida and the Keys and up the West Coast. Most show similar tanning at folds. Bound in original government cloth, which is worn. The backstrip is lacking. However the plates are clean and free of foxing, and this is a good copy of the most desirable of the Coast Surveys. You can go online and buy the Whistler map by itself for $975. Or you can buy the whole shebang from us for only $750
Rare Yachting History
Mott, Henry A. (editor). The Yachts & Yachtsmen of America. NY: International Yacht Publishing Co, (1894). Folio. 692 pp. b/w gravure plates, line ills, halftones. Prized especially for its 90 toned photogravure plates of yachts by Frederiksen, Bruce, Bolles, Stebbins, and Johnson, this is a source book for American yachting up to the turn of the century. "Histories of individual American yacht clubs, drawings of important or typical yachts, photographs and brief biographies of American yachtsmen... For each club data is provided on members, boats, regattas and rules"—Toy 102. Morris & Howland p. 97. Because of its massive format, the book is usually found in a broken binding, when it can be found at all. The last complete copy to come up at auction was in 1991. The last copy I offered was in 1996. The most recent copy I've seen in the trade was an incomplete copy offered in a Lefkowicz catalog in 1999. One of the scarcest and most desirable yachting books. This copy is complete, and in excellent condition internally, with no foxing or tanning. It has been rebound in one large volume, in red cloth, with original gilt leather front cover preserved. The front inner hinge is cracked. $3750

Monday, December 15, 2014

Putting the Book Back in Bookselling

My favorite thing about IOBA (Independent OnlineBooksellers Association) is the chat line. On the chat line I learn over and over how diverse a business this is. Here's a fairly typical string in which IOBAns help each other sort out a problem: 
...I thought I had figured out a way to up the prices by a fixed amount in Excel. The problem was I ruined all the 978 ISBNs and didn't even realize it for a few months. It seems BookHound uses some kind of equation in the ISBN field, which I guess helps with the 10-digit, 13-digit conversion. When the .txt upload files are opened in excel all of the ISBNs are lost and the listing upload with the equation parameters because that is now filling the ISBN field...
...No, you didn't do anything wrong. Turns out, I didn't go far enough. When opening a CSV file, Excel automatically converts things that look like numbers into numbers. Then, it applies its built in maximum for turning long numbers into scientific notation...
...I was able to revert the numbers to the 13-digit numbers and delete the original isbn column without losing the numbers. Turned out that they reverted back when I re-opened the files... I’m just going to use AOB. I’m not enthusiastic about having to remember to manipulate the isbns every time I upload books, which is generally every day. It was hard enough remembering to up the prices manually and I often forgot...
This is one of IOBA's great virtues. It is a forum where booksellers can compare experiences, hash out important issues, and help one another deal with problems.  
Another recent discussion concerned Amazon, eBay, ABE, and individual websites, and which venue was best, in the long run, for sales. There was a strong faction favoring eBay, including one fellow (who sells commercial book software as a sideline) opining that, "There is no question that eBay is the selling site for the future." No one seemed to really like Amazon and its increasingly difficult and unresponsive interface, but for many it was a strong source of sales. Then, of course, there was a vocal minority who touted the virtues of the proprietary website, reminding us once again that we are INDEPENDENT Online Booksellers, and how independent can we be if we depend on eBay, ABE or Amazon to sell our books?  
These questions are of great interest to me, but sometimes I become disoriented. The impassioned arguments about the practices of our trade seem to deal chiefly with market share, sales percentages vs. cost, ease of uploading text and images, and procedures for altering such variables as price and shipping cost. I understand that these are important issues for any business. But it often seems we could just as well be talking about plumbing supplies or shoes. 
It is worth noting that, in the ISBN conversion conversation quoted above, the noun “book” occurred only once. Even those proprietary websites that aim to provide a steady stream of sticky content revert all too often to hackneyed factoids and Wikipedia clips. Mark Twain this and Sherlock Holmes that, blah blah blah. Give me something a little spikier. For example, Garret Scott's The Bibliophagist. Consumer of Books.
Something with “book” in it, please.

On a not entirely unrelated note, I am pleased to announce that the Gibson family Christmas tree business - “Gourmet Trees” - had another successful year. We sold our stock of 100 trees in just about two weeks. My share of the profits (estimated to be in excess of $300) will be deposited in the Greg Gibson Starving Artist Writer's Shack Construction Fund, which is accumulating dough for a modest writer's shack up on the farm in Cape Breton. Crowdsourced donations are welcome.
Gibson family analysis (no, not that kind) revealed several reasons for our success:
We had a quirky, funny name, with a family backstory that made for a “sticky” brand.
This brand was efficiently marketed on social media, primarily the Celia's Flower Studio Facebook page, and by word of mouth, primarily by Celia, who knows everybody.
We owned our building and did the work ourselves, so the overhead was relatively low.
This enabled us to offer an excellent product at a reasonable price. (Trees we sold for $55 were on sale elsewhere for $75. Our profit margins were identical.)
We offered high quality, customized service in the form of a slightly drunk old guy in a red hat who would cut trees to any length, secure the purchase to the vehicle, and deliver a nonstop stream of corny jokes - “These trees are so fresh they still got birds in 'em.” etc.
I was going to write a blog about how I might apply these principles to the book business. Then I remembered that, for cultural reasons, a substantial percentage of the population feels compelled to buy Christmas trees.
The same, I'm afraid, could not be said for books.