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.

Monday, April 6, 2015

That's Why I Love My Job...

Okay. Hang on to your hats. Here comes the New York International Antiquarian Book Fair, presented by the ABAA. This is the Big Leagues, baby. The World Series of Book. From Thursday night through Sunday afternoon at the Park Avenue Armory, we'll be keeping company with some of the world's finest books and manuscripts – mindbogglingly rare and valuable items - sought by collectors of inestimable wealth (those unspeakably rich folks obvious to all but known by name only to Bill Reese, Don Heald, and their Continental cohorts); representatives of Institutions of Higher Learning whose annual budgets exceed those of many African nations; young men and women of good breeding who've attended the right schools and have decided to invest family millions in ruinous antiquarian ecstasy; smiling auctioneers and avaricious dealers cruising the floor like so many leopards, attended by their pimps and minions; suave counter monkeys contentedly grooming themselves, waiting for their chance; bloated industrialists, technocrats, and financial guys for whom “to want” = “to have,” and their pimps and minions.
Yes, it's a jungle out there. A prize fight fought in silk gloves which, this year, has spawned two undercard events – satellite book fairs promoted by Impact Events Group and Flamingo Eventz, two promoters who are themselves engaged in a good old New York turf war.
And somewhere down in the undergrowth lurks Ten Pound Island Book Co. and our several dozen peers. Creatures of the field who must eat continually or starve. Wily little critters seeking crumbs left behind by the megafauna.
As you can probably tell from the overheated rhetoric, there's a lot at stake in New York this week. Dealers become dysfunctional “getting ready for the show,” expending acres of 4 mil Mylar and hundreds of thousands of Brodart jacket covers in frenzied futzing, creating mock booth arrangements that somehow never work out in practice. “This year I didn't bring anything and I STILL have too much stuff.” Bleak depression follows irrational exuberance in steadily increasing cycles of mania. We cut ourselves. We snap at our spouses and significant others. We have bad dreams. Twisted book fair anxiety dreams that don't even do us the courtesy of being about the book fair. Oh, no. We'll dream about donuts instead of books, or find ourselves trapped beneath dunes of printer ink cartridges, dying of thirst.
Then, when it's all over, regardless of the outcome, we stagger home, wrecked. That's when the zombies appear...

Next Week we'll be coming to you from Command Central at Donohue's Steak House on Lexington Ave., with full reports on the main event and ancillary book fair wars.

Sunday, March 29, 2015

A Humanist Take

Colleague Mike Buehler of Boston Rare Maps  just sent me a link to a fascinating article on modern uses and readings of nineteenth century ship's logs – (dig the YouTube videos of whale ship passages over time!)
by a very cool guy named Ben Schmidt at Northeastern University. As near as I can make out, the writer argues for, and explains, the digital application of statistics compiled from ships' logs and journals. From these results he posits a discipline in which the traditional “humanist” reading of such materials would be altered.

Yes, it sounds complicated. Perhaps I should let him explain it.

The central conclusion is this: To do humanistic readings of digital data, we cannot rely on either traditional humanistic competency or technical expertise from the sciences. This presents a challenge for the execution of research projects on digital sources: research-center driven models for digital humanistic resource, which are not uncommon, presume that traditional humanists can bring their interpretive skills to bear on sources presented by others. We need to rejuvenate three traditional practices: first, a source criticism that explains what's in the data; second, a hermeneutics that lets us read data into a meaningful form; and third, situated argumentation that ties the data in to live questions in the field.

As I said to Mike, the man must be brilliant. But if I had to share an office with him, I'd probably shoot myself. Or him.

By contrast, here's a journal I just cataloged - definitely a "humanist" take...

Manuscript. Log of Voyage in Sailing Vessel "Mantra" - Capt. Clifford Asbel. Starting Tahiti - French Polynesia May 1983. Edward M Southern, M.D. F.R.C.O.G, FALOG. Late Surg/Cmdr RNVR. 4to, unpaginated. About 45 pages of manuscript entries. $200

This looks at the outset like a fairly ordinary journal of a 20th century Pacific pleasure cruise, written by a recently retired MD. Soon, however, we realize that Dr. Southern is undergoing considerable mental anguish – perhaps a late midlife crisis. The journal begins April 30, 1983 as an accounting of expenses during a road trip from South Carolina to California. By May 1 he is comparing his experiences on the beaches of Normandy in 1944 with the present moment, as "possibly the worst day of my life." The trouble, it seems, is with his daughter, Judy. He is ending his relationship with her because he "can no longer stand the arrogant contempt of her prig of a husband who thinks he is perfect and has nothing but contempt for 'less people.' I am 20 times the man he will ever be."
After a day of driving he purchases a ticket to Hawaii (on route to Tahiti) via California, where his son(?) Michael lives, carefully keeping accounts as he unravels mentally. “A new life awaits me if I do not have another heart attack or go back into deep depression again.” He drives 12 hours to Augusta, where he picks up a girl, though they do not quite have sex,
then on to Birmingham, Baton Rouge, Houston, Phoenix, and Los Angeles – none of which is recorded in the 30 blank pages Dr. Southern has left to be filled in by a later iteration of himself. Then, on June 3, we find him in Tahiti, with Cliff, aboard the Mantra.
Things seem to be going well enough there, with gourmet meals and interesting young women, until he begins wondering if he is "being screwed" financially by Cliff.
He dismisses these fears, then treats us to an engaging illustrated tour of Polynesia – including Papeete. Morrea, Discovery Bay, the Bounty replica, and assorted beach combers and other characters he encounters along the way.
Great fun! But a week later he's back to obsessing over the manner in which Cliff in preying on him financially. A few days after that, regarding his nemesis Cliff, "He appears to WANT to fight.”
Dr. Southern is ready to leave Tahiti and the Mantra, but is trapped because his pension checks, being sent by the estranged Judy, have failed to arrive. He holds out hope that Michael will be able to sell the car he left behind in California. The Mantra returns to Papeete where, on Jun 16, cashing in his ticket, Dr. Southern flies back to California, his fantasies of a Pacific ramble dashed. The back of the book contains several pages of frantic, obsessive money worries and calculations, as he tries to imagine how he will live out his days.
Fascinating journal of a troubled man, the kind you hope never to meet in your travels.

After spending two months with Dr. Southern, I think I'd take that office with Ben Schmidt afterall.

Monday, March 23, 2015

What could be more fun than spending two days pouring over old magazines, pamphlets, prints, letters, diaries, photos,
advertising, account books, political fliers and broadsides, trade cards, baseball cards, posters, menus, valentines,
 historical documents, song sheets and songsters, 
alphabets, juveniles and primers, post cards, 
labels, stock certificates,
 passports and old newspapers – to name only a few?

If your answer is “Nothing!” you needed to be at the Hyatt Regency Hotel in Greenwich, CT this weekend, for the 35th annual Conference and Paper Show of the Ephemera Society of America. The theme this year was “The Sporting Life” and conference organizers provided a full slate of sports oriented lectures, presentations, book signings, social events, an auction and, oh yes, a paper and ephemera show.

Of course, since we are still in the grips of the memorable “Winter it Snowed,” it snowed. 
Over six inches in as many hours – just like a Viagra ad! The white stuff brought its usual quotient of misery during load in
but, interestingly, had little effect on attendance. Most of the attendees were there for the other Conference events, and were already ensconced in the comfortable Hyatt Regency hotel.

For this reason, and because of continuity of venue and promoters, AND (big “and” here) because of the credibility provided by the Ephemera Society, this is the most stable of all provincial fairs.

The benefits of stability are many – there are no unpleasant surprises. Vendors know how to load in and move out; they know (for the most part) what kind of material to bring; 
Ten Pound Island Book Co. - Not a SINGLE book!
they know what to expect from promoters John and Tina Bruno of Flamingo Eventz (If you yell loud enough Tina will come and help you, and at some point during setup John will make a public announcement in which he addresses the gathering as “boys and girls”); they even have a pretty good idea of who will be in attendance, and what sort of material they're looking for.

Of course the “no surprises” regimen has its downside. Even though this is an unusually healthy show, its very stability can make it a tad boring. There's always a good rush in the few hours after opening – despite the bad weather this year's crowd, for reasons mentioned above, was about the same as in years past – but after the initial buzz dies down it's yawnsville for the dealers, while the paper people frolic in boxes and trays of old magazines, pamphlets, prints, letters, diaries, photos, advertising, account books, political fliers and broadsides, trade cards, baseball cards, posters, menus, valentines, historical documents, song sheets and songsters, alphabets, juveniles and primers, post cards, labels, stock certificates, passports and old newspapers – to name only a few, just like Scrooge McDuck in his money bin.
As a result, reports from dealers cluster around the “same as last year” level, with predictable variations - “I had a great show last year and I got spoiled” or, “Last year was terrible so this year looks pretty good by comparison.” Ten Pound Island Book Co. inadvertently had a very good fair, selling $36,000 worth of stuff intended for the New York Book Fair April 9-12. I had brought the material down to this ephemera show to teach it how to sit in a booth and, inexplicably, people came along and bought it.

So it will probably be a slow New York for me. But that's okay, because I'll be spending most of my time reporting on the Book Fair Wars. (See our blog from November 2, 2014 “Book Show Wars Heat Up.”) The New York International Antiquarian Book Fair and its two (Flamingo and Impact Events Group) shadow shows are the biggest events on the American book fair circuit. There was already a New York vibe on the floor at the Greenwich show, a sort of nervousness, an expectation, a girding of the loins, in anticipation of that April weekend and the surprises it is bound to bring. 

In the best of all outcomes, there'll be enough for everyone. At worst it'll be a weekend of Mutually Assured Destruction. Stay tuned!

Monday, March 16, 2015

Carried Away

Clipper Ship *****
People tend to get carried away by the romance of old books and paper, and it's easy to see why. The thrill of the hunt, the joys discovery, and the marvelous stories locked up in dusty old letters, journals, and books provide a perfect escape – an antidote to the stresses of our daily lives. Unfortunately, overworked librarians and book dealers often find that their interaction with books and manuscripts devolves into an insistent time/money proposition. As much as we'd like to linger over an ancient text, or just sit down and read the damned thing, we've got to get that bugger cataloged and shelved. There's work to be done! We wind up stressing out over the very things that should be affording us relief. So it's a delight when, every once in a while, something comes along that is so arresting and charismatic that it commands our complete attention and gobbles up our time, productivity be damned.

I came across just such a lot on my way to the Washington Book Fair ten days ago, and I'm happy to report that this material has been holding me hostage all week. The lot consists of thirty or so nineteenth century sea charts. 
They're all in good condition, and they're certainly marketable, so they merited some individual attention. Naturally, the closer I looked, the more interesting they became. Many of them bore pencil markings of courses sailed, of dates, of sailing directions, and of notes about navigational sight lines and hazards. On closer inspection the dates grouped around the 1850s. Looking closer still, I saw that many of the plotted course tracks belonged to a ship named the *****
Furthermore, it became apparent that there was continuity to the charts. Almost all of them described waters leading from the Bay of Bengal though Malaysia to the China Sea. In other words, these charts would have been used by ships - particularly one named ***** - engaged in the China Trade.

As it happened, I had some familiarity with the ***** She was an extreme clipper ship, designed and built in 1851 by the great marine architect and shipbuilder William H. Webb. (Her plans and lines are included in Webb's magnificent book, Plans of Wooden Vessels of which I happen to have a copy for sale (See this page for a description). Between 1852 and 1861, according to Howe and Matthews, she made numerous trips to China, and many of these are documented in this lot of charts.

Just to be certain, I checked with the collector from whom I'd gotten them. His memory was a little fuzzy on the matter, but the broad outlines of the story were reassuring. The charts had come in a single lot, from a single estate in Stonington, Connecticut, some time in the 1970s.

Questions remain. The ***** was sailed by two great clipper ship captains, both of whom drove her to record, or near record, voyages. Somehow, a family associated with one or another of the captains, or with the New York shipping company, had kept those charts together until they turned up in an estate sale in Connecticut. But which family? Was there other material? Many of these charts were published by the English chart maker James Horsburgh, intended for use with his pilot book The India Directory. (Almost all the early charts of those waters used by Americans were English - they got there first.) What happened to those books? And who got to keep the charts after a voyage? Was it the captain? The owners? The shipping company?

While we're chewing on those big questions, perhaps some scholar will be pouring over the charts themselves, figuring out how the ***** found her way through the Carimata Passage, and what, exactly, she was doing in the China Sea on August 24, 1856.