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Confessions of a Novice Bookman

Part One: What’s in a Name?

Joe Perlman

I have been a serious bibliophile for most of my life. My personal definition of a bibliophile is pretty straight forward:  a bibliophile is a person who no matter where he or she lives, always has more books than shelf space to display them. I have always had as many cartons of books as clothes in my closets, and when I moved into a house, I quickly had more books in storage in the attic, than on the hundreds of feet of shelving in the rest of the house.

When the books reached up to the rafters and my wife noticed that the bedroom ceiling was beginning to sag from their weight,  I knew that it was time to make that time honored transition from serious reader/collector to used book dealer. I had dreamed about this for many years, and always assumed that the process would be fairly simple: sign up at the business registry, sort through my collection and select what I want to sell, price the books and list them on one of the internet services, and wait for the orders and the money to come rolling in. Little did I know at the time, that each step in the process would be so fraught with so many obstacles to overcome.

The first and easiest step was to choose a name for my business. I suppose that the average person would spend many hours thinking about and obsessing over a name. For me, the task was simple. One day out of the blue, the name came to me- Mostly Useful Fictions. I knew that this was actually based upon the title of a modernist work I had once seen called Useful Fiction(s), and it seemed perfect to me. After all, while my general specialty was modern fiction, I had tried to avoid genre books and popular novels, and concentrate serious works of modern literature, works which I, at least, would consider useful both to read and to have on hand.

Now that I had name, I needed some business cards. When my son, the techno-wizard, was home on vacation from college, I cornered him one day and  asked him to show me how to make the cards on the computer. He sat down at the keyboard and I handed him a mock-up which I had drawn on paper. Before I could say “mostly useful fictions,”’ the printer was chugging away and out came a sheet of  shiny new business cards. When I asked him to explain the process to me, he shrugged, and suggested that I concentrate on the books side of the business and leave the technological side to him. He printed off a few more sheets, which I carefully separated into individual cards and placed in a brass cardholder on one of  the bookshelves in the den. Periodically, I would walk into the den just to stare at the cards. “Great name!” I thought to myself.

A few days later, my younger child, the family chief of protocol, came up to me:

“I was in the den and I saw a cardholder with business cards on the shelf. What’s going on?” she asked.

“It’s my new business.” I answered.

“ I don’t get it, “ she said. “ Is it mostly useful fictions, or is it mostly useful fictions?”

“ It’s both,” I replied. “It’s deliberately ambiguous.”

She looked momentarily puzzled, then nodded and walked out of the room.

The next step was to register my business name with the County Clerk. In my county, the clerk’s office is 45 miles away. One bright September morning, I took a day off from my 9 to 5 job, and with a mixture of both elation and trepidation, headed off to make my business official. As I sped along the interstate, I felt like as bold as Columbus sailing off into uncharted seas all alone, hoping to return in triumph, but well aware of the possibility  that I might fall off the face of the Earth. To my dismay, when I arrived at the Business Registry, I realized that I was no longer alone, but had to stand in a long line of  other explorers. The day I picked (the Tuesday after Labor Day Monday), turned out to be a popular time to register a business. With the children back in school there were pairs of housewives eager to band together to start home-based craft ventures, and out-of-work construction workers hoping to strike it rich as independent contractors.

Line one at the Business Registry was to verify that ones new business name was, in fact, unique. I stood around for awhile wondering why the line was moving so slowly until I got closer to the desk, and could over hear the conversations:

“How about Reliable Contracting?”        

“Sorry, the name is already taken.”

“Try Big Mac Construction Company”

“It may be taken, I‘ll check the computer ….. Sorry.”

“What about Well-Built Construction?”

Finally, it was my turn. I walked up to the desk and smiled. “Mostly Useful Fictions,” I said. The clerk looked startled. “Well,” she said, “I’m sure that name is available. I don’t even have to look that one up.”

She handed me a form to fill out, and told me that when I finished I needed to go stand in Line 2 to have it notarized. I glanced down at the form which looked like a legal affidavit. Was I signing my life away? All it required was the business name, plus my name, address and signature. It looked simple enough, but as soon as  I pulled out my lucky fountain pen, I froze at the very first blank space - Business Name. Was it Mostly Useful Fiction or Mostly Useful Fictions. Suddenly, I couldn’t remember. I didn’t have my business card with me, and I didn’t want to drive the 90 miles roundtrip to check. So I took a couple of deep breaths and boldly wrote Mostly Useful Fictions, with the s. That was the name that I wanted. If my business cards were wrong, I’d simply have to rip them up and ask the techno-wizard to redo them. Fortunately the remainder of the form left no room for ambiguity.

Line two was much shorter. Before I had time to finish checking over my completed form, I heard a voice calling “Next!”. I cheerfully walked up to the desk and handed the notary my form. She took it, glanced at it briefly, then looked up as her neutral expression quickly transformed into a glare.

“You used the wrong color ink,” she said. “There are regulations, here.”

She handed me a blank copy of the form and a twenty cent black BIC pen. I sheepishly put my lucky fountain pen back in my pocket and copied the information onto the new form. Then, I handed it back to her.

She looked over the form carefully and said, “That’ll be six dollars, please. No checks” 

I wondered if the fee would have been less if I hadn’t wasted the first blank form, but I didn’t feel comfortable asking her, so I simply counted out six crisp one dollar bills.

She, in turn, signed the form and affixed her notary seal. It was now time to wait in the third and final line.

This line, too, moved fairly quickly. When I reached the counter, I smiled and handed the a grandmotherly looking clerk my notarized form. She smiled back and said, “That will be thirty-three dollars. No checks.” Again, panic struck. Did I have that much cash? I always assumed that in the business world, everything was handled by check. If not, what would I use for a receipt? I opened my billfold and flipped past the half dozen blank checks looking for hard currency. I came up with thirty-one dollars in bills. Then I reached into my pockets and started pulling out the change I carry for emergency phone calls, and parking meters. I could tell from the look on the clerk’s face that she was convinced  that I was scraping together my last thirty-three dollars and that my business was doomed to fail.

“Sorry,” I said. “I was expecting to pay by check.”

She looked at me suspiciously and said, “Cash only around here. Too many checks bounce.”

For my money I received two photocopies of the notarized business registration form which would enable me to open a bank account under the business name, as well as a promise that the business name would be officially entered into the county business registry. I stared at the papers and smiled. At last, I’m official, I thought.

On the long ride home, I no longer felt like a bold explorer. Mostly Useful Fictions as a business entity was now officially less than one hour old, and it had already used up all of my cash and made me look like an incompetent in front of three different government officials.  Maybe the name was a bit odd. Maybe I wasn’t cut out to be an entrepreneur.

I made a brief stop at the local discount office supply chain store to buy a new ledger book to record my expenses, and an accordion file for my business papers. Fortunately,  they cheerfully excepted both checks and credit cards.

When I got home, I entered my expenses in the ledger book, and filed the business registry forms in the new accordion folder. Then I decided to take a few days off from the book business to recuperate, and return to my nine-to-five job.

A few days later, I was relaxing in the den, after a particularly grueling nine-to-five day.

The family chief of protocol walked in and handed me my usual stack of mail.

“Guess what?” she said. “ You got a few letters today addressed to Mostly Useful Fictions.”  

I was taken aback. The orders couldn’t be rolling in. I hadn’t listed anything on the Internet yet. I eagerly sorted through the envelopes and smiled. I realized that the county business registry lost no time in selling lists with my name on it to other entrepreneurs, and I was already being flooded with offers for business phone listings, printing services and applications to accept credit card payments.

In spite of the fact, that this was junk mail, just seeing my business name typed on an envelop was a boost my morale. As I prepared to go bounding up to the attic in order to sort through and price some of the books,  the chief of protocol stopped me.

 “ What a minute. “ she said. “ I still don’t get it. Is it mostly useful fictions, or is it mostly useful fictions?”

“ It’s both,” I replied adamantly. “It’s deliberately ambiguous.”

On to Part Two