Burgues, "Installation des Vaisseaux". (1798) More info below
Closing in on the final stages of getting ready to pull the permits and secure the variances that will allow us to prepare to start building our new gallery and shop. Sounds torturous doesn’t it? Because we’re building a commercial structure there have been many, many unexpected regulatory hoops to jump through, involving plumbing, access, structural engineering, fire safety, and drainage. Seems like every agency in the city needs to issue us a permit of some kind or other, and those things ain’t cheap, folks!
We’ve also been soliciting bids from the different contractors who will be involved in the project – landscapers, demolition people, excavators, concrete guys, carpenters, plumbers, electricians, and HVAC specialists. The process has been enlightening.
Every contractor wants to get the job, of course, and each of them has his own way of playing the game. Some just bang the estimate out by the square foot, producing a low number that will inevitably rise; some drive you nuts by seeking to micro-manage every detail, resulting in a mostly incomprehensible list of specifications that make it impossible to compare their bid with anyone else’s; some game the process by saying, “tell me the lowest bid and I’ll beat it;” some throw their hands up and try to convince you that the best deal would be for you to hire them by the hour, on a cost plus basis. A few - a very few - look you in the eye, explain what they can and cannot do, give you some idea of what you’re paying for labor, and break down expected material costs and overruns.
On the whole it’s been an interesting study in human psychology. But because of the feeling of being continually gamed, it’s not one I’d care to repeat.
My experience with the building trade has gotten me thinking about my own trade. I’ve been struck by the way this slightly uncomfortable process resembles the ordeal the novice endures when selling a library or buying an expensive book or manuscript.
Suppose you’re charged with acquiring a rare book as a retirement gift for the head of your department at work. Or suppose your aunt dies, leaving you with the task of selling her lifetime collection of Victorian children’s books. You fire up the computer, get on the phone, and suddenly you’re surrounded by any number of dealers, each of whom is trying to gain the advantage. You, meanwhile, know nothing about whatever it is you’re trying to buy or sell, and feel overwhelmed by a dizzying array of numbers, terms and possibilities. You move quickly from overwhelmed to slightly suspicious to slightly more annoyed to wishing you could just get the damned business done.
As the years go by we tend to take the details of our trade for granted. But to someone who is not familiar with our world the book business is a swamp of esoteric terminology, arcane bits of knowledge and bizarre financial contortions. Despite energetic PR campaigns by auction houses and the fondest hopes of the database jockeys over at Americana Exchange, the market is anything but transparent.
Over the course of my career I’ve been involved, as a dealer, in hundreds of transactions with inexperienced civilians. Now that I know how it feels to be on the other side, I’m going to put a little more work into emulating that “look you in the eye” contractor. It’s never too late for good karma.
Meanwhile, in the hard-knock life of the antiquarian book world… My arm is still in a sling, so I can’t drive. But I found a perfect excuse to pass another week without having to endure the drudgery of trying to learn to buy books on the Internet.
On Thursday and Friday, July 21st and 22nd, Eldred’s Auctions held a huge two day auction of marine and export art, books, manuscripts, and antiques.
Accordingly, I devoted Monday and Tuesday to studying the catalog – hard copy, of course - all marked up with my scribbled comments and coded price estimates. Then on Wednesday I got my dear long-suffering wife to drive me out to East Dennis on Cape Cod to preview the goods.
I loathe auctions, especially these summertime sales that are as much social affairs as business deals. White pants and straw hats. So I left my bids, sixteen of them. Then after an excellent lunch with fellow maritime book dealer Dick Hawkins at Columbia Trading Company, schlepped back home with Anne Marie.
I must say, I was a little glum on the ride to Gloucester. After the exhilarating experience of handling those lovely books and manuscripts it was a downer to realize I probably wouldn’t be able to buy much of what I wanted. Bob Eldred has been running these summer maritime auctions since the 1960s, and by now has accumulated a world class clientele. I knew there’d be a lot of money bidding against me. Prices would be at retail and above. I didn’t stand much of a chance.
But something funny happened. As expected the art and antiques went for top dollar. But nobody seemed particularly interested in the books. I won eleven of my sixteen left bids, almost all of them going for less than my limit.
I’ve been saying for years that people are losing interest in books (in favor of visual items such as maps and broadsides). But it’s a little frightening to see my dire prediction played out in the marketplace.
Maybe I should’ve gotten into the construction business.
Here's one of the nicest books I bought at Eldred's:
Burgues de Missiessy. INSTALLATION DES VAISSEUX. Paris An VI (1798). 4to, xii, 403, (1) pp. Design and construction of a 74 gun frigate, showing full hull construction, bow and stern views, deck arrangement and interiors. A scarce book. Polak 1322. Scott 456. Light water stain on lower edges of pages, but still a very nice copy, with eight folding engraved plates. Bound in original full calf with gilt spine decorations. $2750
Next week… How to continue avoiding learning to buy books on the Internet. And our special feature – Things you are surprised to learn you cannot do with only one hand.