Friday, October 16, 2009

Antiquarian Books: An Insider's Account by Roy Harley Lewis

I love reading books about booksellers -- when I was first a newbie book clerk (though the owners didn't call me that, I was basically a girl-of-all-work that no one else had time for or wanted to do), I got a chance to read through many of the bookseller memoirs that the owners of the store had found or bought for their own use. Even back then, when I knew NOTHING about collectable books, I found these reminiscences both intriguing, and awe-inspiring. These were men (and a few women) who were casually jotting down their encounters with the likes of Gutenberg Bibles, Caxton press books, Edgar Allan Poe first editions, rare maps, all sorts of incunabula (early printed books from approximately 1470's-1540's) manuscripts, letters written by the likes of King Henry VIII and George Washington....

When I get a chance (mostly, I have to stumble across a copy of one of the books as I generally don't go looking for them at the moment) I read more of these memoirs.  The information inside is great. I can try and remember some of the more obscure bits to help if I ever come across something unusual, or actually start to research something that catches my fancy.

Mostly I read them because these are people who do the same sort of thing I do (well......).

The latest book I found is Antiquarian Books: An Insider's Account by Roy Harley Lewis.  Lewis is an Englishman -- most famous for his guide to bookstores around England called The Book Browser's Guide (which by the way is an hilarious commentary -- he cycled around England on his bike, stopping at any used / antiquarian bookstore he could find and made notes on when it was open, the sort of stock available, etc. BUT -- his pithy, sometimes snide, sometimes hilarious asides made the book a real treasure). The book covers all of the usual subjects: Auction houses, incunabula, interesting dealers he's known, bookstores of note, etc.

One paragraph I read last night, however, really caught my eye & I thought I'd share it for it's prognostication about the future of bookselling as an endeavor:

"On the subject of investment, it may not have occurred to you but, if there were a major swing in the City or on Wall Street towards buying books as part of a commercial investment programme, unrelated to aesthetic considerations, the antiquarian-book world would in effect become a mini stock-market, as with any other commodity. With individuals and organizations buying and selling as they would stocks and shares, what would happen if someone panicked? Or, if someone spread the rumour after a reliable tip-off, that incunabula were 'out'? An apparently wild analogy, on the face of it, but to continue the hypothesis, the offloading of valuable 'property' more suddenly than the traditional book market could withstand would result in a catastrophic drop in values across the board. Admittedly, we are fifty years or so away from that sort of nightmare, but it cannot be dismissed as idle SF speculation, because the wheels have already been set in motion."  (this was published in 1978 by the way).


If you're not a book dealer currently, you might not realize just how very true those last several sentences really are.

It didn't take a stock market approach to verify that reality -- all it took was a little thing called a computer.

A computer, and the ingenuity of men and women who turned the computer into a selling machine.

What once was a stable population of knowledgeable book dealers (prior to 1995 there were approximately 10,000 book dealers of all shapes and sizes in the US -- don't ask me what the world population was, I don't have info on that)  has, because of the computerization and ease of offering the stuff  found in your garage as saleable items, turned into a population of no less than 70,000 (and that's on alone).

Add to that round the clock behind-the-scenes programs that will RE-PRICE your books for you to match the LOWEST price listed on a site (courtesy of programmers who want to HELP people sell their products more quickly), you've got the perfect storm of price wrecking.  Books that can't even be SHIPPED for the cost at which they are for sale are being offered on every venue, by people who think that selling books as widgets is not only a good thing but think (and this without actually doing any cost accounting) that they are actually making money.

Of course, after the debacle we've had with the housing bubble and the stock market going ga-ga over imaginary money, Lewis's prophecies regarding books could also be quite easily slipped into these other markets and shown to be ever so true (but as I'm lousy at investments and finance, I'll keep my nose clean by just mentioning and not going anywhere near in-depth).

As for books --  who knows where this free-fall of book values (and here we're really talking about anything that is not truly RARE, as the really rare books have gone up in price.) will end.  Right now, we're in the middle of the roller coaster ride that is book values.  Add in e-books and on-line options and all the other electronic options that will be coming our way in the next 10-25 years and all bets are off.

Who knows what will happen down the road -- not me, that's certain.

Getting back to Roy Harley Lewis....

When I picked up the book, I was expecting a good read with lots of juicy details about great and rare books, strange and wonderful book dealers, and a bit about his own life and adventures in the book trade. I didn't think I'd get food for thought about the current state of book selling, but I did.

If you ever get a chance to pick up this book, do so.  Some of the information is a tad dated (any of these memoirs is bound to have old info, especially on prices), but the stories are great, the juicy bits are still juicy, the rare stuff makes me hunger for the rarified air of the million dollar businesses, and I got to think about what it's like to sell books in my own time.

1 comment:

Anonymous said...

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