Thursday, January 26, 2012

The Care and Feeding of a New Generation of Book Dealers... Part 1

So I was reading the blog from Between the Covers today -  Teaching Pigs to Fly   and it really got me thinking.
 In fact, it got me so engaged that I'm actually writing this post.  (I have been dreaming about a Buffy the Vampire Slayer blog post for the last week -- see how far THAT got me?)

But back to Between the Covers.

 The post this time (if you didn't bother to click through the link and READ it) is about one of the fairly new cataloguers who has been given the task of indoctrinating a new hire in the byzantine rituals of rare book cataloguing.  Ashley  has been cataloguing books for a year and the new hire is just that -- a brand new initiate who will be learning the art of correctly describing books and cataloging them for the shop.

I don't know if I've mentioned this before (I'm sure I have, but for continuity's sake, I'll mention it again) but  I've been semi-training my own apprentices in the book business: Son #1 & Son #2.  Ashley's blog post got me thinking about how book dealer training is, or can be, done.

In our household, the training is mostly informal. Either I happen to pick up an interesting book and one of my victims  apprentices is in grabbing distance,  thereupon, I expound, with book in hand - to mostly rolled eyes and long sighs; or, if we happen to go out and manage to end up at an establishment that has books - then we will all start peering through the stacks, each of us with a separate focus.  If either of my apprentices finds a book with potential, he'll hand it to me.  (ok, a little sidetracking here -- the latest deal in the household is that if either apprentice finds a book that I decide is worthwhile, then that child gets to "consign it" and receives half the profits when the item sells.)  I then will peer at the book and give them a thumbs up (with info on why) or a thumbs down -- with MORE info on why.

Then we bring our finds home and research.

Now the research part my apprentices "Get".  They understand how to do a quick check for price, condition, etc.  They know where to start looking.  They understand (generally) my personal method for pricing a book. They're great at gauging condition. They're doing quite well with identifying first editions.

The part that we are all finding more frustrating is the WHY of what books I will give my thumbs up vs those books that are tossed aside like moldy cabbage.

And here's the thing that I'm finding challenging -- it's just how many authors / subject areas that I am familiar with -- and what collectable / salable valuations I carry in my head -- that cannot be easily understood or accessed by them. 

Example:  One son offers me a hardback copy (with a nice dust jacket) of a Danielle Steel title.
Instant Thumbs Down.

I know why didn't even touch the book - much less check the copyright page or pull off the dust jacket to check for condition, but these two boys have never read Danielle Steel or heard of her; and that's the divide I'm straddling while trying to impart my pearls of wisdom.  You try explaining to a pre-teen or teen (as he walks away, dejected) why it is that Danielle Steel just isn't gonna make the grade.

Another example:  Son #1 pulled out and walked over a book that was in wonderful condition. It had a slipcase. It was Classic Fiction /Literature.   He had no clue as to who the author was -- but he knew that slipcases meant good things.   (and, unfortunately, I've forgotten the author / title on this particular book) 
I took one look at it, praised him for the choice of author and subject -- and gave it an instant Thumbs Down.


Because it was from the Heritage Press.

 In the meantime, at the same hunting ground - Son #2 pulls out an oversized photography book and hands it to me.  One look, a quick check for edition (he thought it was not a first edition, but had an idea that it might be interesting anyway) and condition and I give an emphatic Thumbs Up.

Again, why?

Aperture Press.

How do I explain the why of this Thumbs Up? 

How is a decently educated kid of 12 to understand?  Or is it just a case of learning the same way a child learns anything -- teacher says this, so this is what I do the next time.... and gradually understanding follows.

That's why I found Ashley's blog post about training a newbie so intriguing.  She's got a few advantages on her side: her newbie is older and has (presumably) some background with Literature. I am also assuming that the books for cataloging are already available to the two of them (I know nothing about the way Between the Covers buying / cataloguing routines are set up) and that they are not having to both buy and describe the stock.  

My apprentices are learning two disparate sides of the business at the same time: how and what to buy, and then how to describe the items and price them. They're doing a great job so far.  They have a long way to go, as I'm sure the newbie at Between the Covers is finding out, but they're constantly making progress.

In the end, I guess we'll just keep informally adding tidbits of information to what they know and the understanding will come on its own.

That's how I've been doing it for years now.


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