I started this blog in June 2010, with the idea of making it a weekly record of my activities in the antiquarian book trade. And I’ve pretty much maintained that schedule. It’s just that some weeks are more active than others. This past week was one in which almost nothing happened. However, in keeping with my original intention, I’m making a record of it, too…
Spent all week packing for the SF/LA book fairs, a tedious procedure in which a few new items are hopefully cataloged, shined up, and put in mylar, and the remaining items – tired goods from past catalogs and fairs -- are sent like ageing streetwalkers into the world to try again. A rather depressing exercise, all in all. When it was done I had about 75 books and 200 flats – ephemera and the like -- in eight boxes. A little shy of $400K.
I drove these down to Washington DC, stopping Thursday night at a cheap motel outside Hartford. This wasn’t a rest stop. I usually do the 8 hour drive in one go. But I’ve got a writing project in hand, and I like to write in motels. So, after a walk through the snow to my favorite restaurant on Thursday night I put in a few hours of writing. Then another four hours the next morning. Hey, Nabokov wrote all his books in hotel rooms. My digs at “America’s Best Value Inn” would’ve done Humbert Humbert proud.
By Friday afternoon I was down in DC, delivering my load to John Thomson and Karen Griffin of Bartleby’s Books. They’re driving across the country to the fairs, and since we’re sharing a booth at both the San Francisco Book, Print & Ephemera Fair and California International Antiquarian Book Fair in Pasadena the next weekend, they kindly offered to chauffeur my books.
John and Karen have been through some changes of late. They lost their lease in Georgetown last year and decided to get out of retail and move their operation home. They refurbished their basement into a cozy and efficient work space and rented a couple of storage units to house what remained of their stock. Then they sat down and began quoting books to institutional and private customers. A catalog is coming soon. They’re making a go of it, but the transition has been hard work for them both.
They were on my mind during the ride back to Gloucester next day, and I had plenty of time to think about them, because I was driving through a snowstorm that covered the entire east coast. The trip took 11½ hours. Etta James had just died and, as I pushed my way north, I heard tributes to this wonderful singer on every college and NPR radio station in five states.
Maybe it was Etta’s death, or the Bartleby downsizing, or all the rolled over 18 wheelers and spun-out cars that sent my thoughts a strange direction, I don’t know. But the drive turned out to be a day-long meditation on the End Game. How will John and Karen exit this business? What comes after the move to the basement? What happens to Ten Pound Island Book Co. when I become too feeble for maniacal road trips?
Some people in this game have been careful enough to map out an exit strategy. Some have spouses with pensions. Some have been sufficiently disciplined to maintain IRAs. But many of my colleagues, I suspect, are like me. All our equity is tied up in our houses and our stock. Definitely not fungible assets. We plug along a day at a time. Our balance sheets are fairly healthy, but if something bad happened and we needed cash, we’d be in a tight spot.
This spring, when my new building across the street is finished, I reckon my monthly nut – including taxes, insurance and utilities -- will be increased by another $2500. There’s a 25 year mortgage on the place, so I’ll be hustling until I’m 91. And, seriously, folks. I don’t have a clue how I’m going to get that done.
I finished my white knuckle drive just as darkness was descending upon Gloucester, and I can’t tell you how good it felt to be home. By that time I’d come around to the happy realization that I do in fact have an end game, as simple and eloquent as the best financial planner could ever have put together. My retirement plan is to just keep working. My end game is to not stop.
And, as plans go, that one will work perfectly well until it no longer does.
So I suppose you could say I actually accomplished a lot this week.
Next week: California here we come!