Imust first qualify my title. I am referring only to the antiquarian booktrade; that is, used and rare books. It does not refer to the sellers of new books; which brings us immediately to the first of the secrets I will divulge:
Antiquarian booksellers are snobs – book snobs in fact. The truth is that antiquarian booksellers do not really consider new booksellers to be booksellers at all. That doesn’t mean we don’t think of many of them fondly. After all, while they are really only retailers selling whatever the publishers provide, they are at least selling, along with the tons of mindless crap which should never have been published, some worthy additions to civilization. That civilization of which we, the real booksellers, consider ourselves to be the true guardians.
Many of us antiquarians habitually enter new bookstores to buy current books for reading. And, of course, for many years, until the Internet rendered it futile, we regularly pillaged new booksellers’ remainder tables for first editions, bought when they are at their cheapest and sold later for handsome prices in the world of Modern Firsts, where all that counts is knowledge.
New booksellers, of course, seldom frequent our stores, nor even consider us, except as convenient scapegoats to blame for their stolen and missing books.
Would it be cruel to state that we look on new booksellers professionally, in rather the same manner that professionals in anything look at amateurs? With some affection, a certain respect even, but with the quiet unspoken condescension that the pro invariably contemplates anyone, no matter their passion for the subject, who hasn’t really reached the heights of professionalism? Don’t you first need to reach the “Bigs” before you can understand what it’s really like? We, the antiquarian trade, consider ourselves to be the equivalent of the “Big Game,” even though we are invisible to almost everyone else in publishing and bookselling. I have always found it a bit sad that our colleagues in publishing and new bookselling are mostly unaware that right into the first third of the nineteenth-century the entire booktrade was unified – the publisher, the new bookseller, and the used and rare booksellers – in the same person.
The pros, in sports, call the new players rookies, even though they probably have spent their lives preparing for the moment. So let’s be gentle, let’s call new booksellers rookies and not dismiss them. After all they worship the same Gods that we do – the “Gods of learning,” and of culture, and of civilization.
So, while it’s true that we view new booksellers in perhaps the same manner that real publishers view vanity publishers, who publish only with the assured profit of the author’s payment, we are not seriously prejudiced against them. In fact, we are often on friendly terms. Indeed, I could say that some of my best friends are new booksellers – although that doesn’t necessarily mean that I would be pleased if one of them wanted to marry my sister.
I have noticed that one characteristic new booksellers share with publishers is a certain distrust – even fear – of antiquarian booksellers. The only explanation I can provide for this phenomenon is because, generally, publishers and new booksellers are pretty clever people. And they share a characteristic of many clever people: they don’t like to be ignorant of one aspect, indeed a fairly large aspect, of a field they purport to know something about. They like to think that they are experts about books and bookselling and they become nervous when faced with evidence that they are lacking. In this case what they are lacking is knowledge of about 500 years of the history of their trade. And the evidence is us, the antiquarians. Actually, if we were to include in our mutual history the transcribing and selling of manuscripts, we go back not just five hundred years, to the invention of printing, but millennia, to the beginning of all recorded history, along with soldiers, whores, priests and medicine men. So though they like to dismiss us as unimportant or inconsequential, to what they do, we do not share their ignorance of a side of the trade that we don’t practice. Many antiquarian booksellers, including me, started their so-called careers working in new bookstores, so we often have direct experience of the day-to-day experience. Actually it’s pretty easy. You order a bunch of books from a catalogue, provided by a publisher, sell what you can and return what you can’t. No risk, no penalty, if your opinion of what might sell is wrong. I don’t think it’s cruel, or even unkind, to suggest that anyone who knows something about books could do that. Antiquarian booksellers on the other hand spend years educating themselves about books, paying for every misjudgment in hard cash. And, furthermore, we are forced to confront our errors every day as we encounter our mistakes sitting on nearly every shelf in our stores – unless we simply bite the bullet and throw them out. That leads to a certain humility, which I believe is a necessary counter to the tendency towards arrogance, the inevitable result of our daily interaction with that ignorant but powerful monster known to everyone who has had any contact with it as “The Public.” You can see the snobbery peeking through, can’t you?
That said, it is true that new booksellers, despite their historical deficiencies, are still immensely superior to your regular sort of merchants, who merely sell banal goods of no cultural significance.
And along with our mutual history going back five centuries with printed books, they also share that peculiar sort of character trait that isn’t daunted by the poverty that goes automatically with any sort of bookselling.
Our mutual acceptance of poverty ennobles both branches of bookselling, even if none of us necessarily knew that lifelong poverty was a certainty when we started out. All booksellers must be optimists. How else could we go on trying, especially those of us who have friends not in the trade? Who but an incorrigible optimist could so often enter the often palatial homes of the old friends we went to college with only to see $10,000 to $20,000 worth of electronic equipment, walls of CDs and DVDs and other expensive appurtenances of modern life, with the only books in evidence a shelf of old university textbooks, interspersed with three bestsellers from the last ten years and two coffee table books. Why wouldn’t viewing this gross negation of culture not induce a little bitterness? In our grandfather’s time any successful professional man would be expected to have a library for his leisure. Now expensive possessions seem to be the measure of accomplishment.
Perhaps a more gentle comparison between new and antiquarian booksellers would be found in the difference between a doctor and a veterinarian. The doctor needs to deal with only one species, while the veterinarian deals with all others.
A new bookseller needs to deal only with publisher’s catalogues and Books in Print; we antiquarians need to be able to deal with all the books ever published. How could we not end up assuming a certain sense of superiority?
But in the end new booksellers are our brothers and sisters, and we, despite the hints of bitterness expressed here, know it. They, unfortunately it seems, do not. That’s too bad, because if they better understood how we complemented one another in our noble contributions to all that is best in humanity, they might better understand our mutual destiny.