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Confessions of a Novice Bookman

Part Two:  What to Buy?  What to Keep?  What to Sell?

Joe Perlman

The decision to make the transition from collector to dealer had been percolating in my mind for quite some time and within the past year I had actually begun buying some books with the idea of re-selling them, rather than saving them. The act of buying books for resale, was in itself was a new experience for me.

It began one day when I spotted a first edition of Snow Falling on Cedars in mint condition for $4.00 almost hidden from view on the top shelf in a remainder store. I already had a copy of the book, but this was an opportunity too good to pass up. I looked around and the store appeared to be empty, so I walked up to the register and I handed it to over to the teenaged clerk along with a ten dollar bill. He put the book in a paper bag and rang up the sale. I picked up the bag and started to walk away. As I reached the door, I peered back at him out of the corner of my eye, and wondered why he was staring at me so suspiciously. I felt like the Woody Allen character in Take the Money and Run. How could he know that I already owned one copy? Surely he didn’t know the real value of this book. Then I heard, “Hey Mister, don’t you want your change?” 

A few weeks later, I was in a local branch of a major book chain and to my surprise found several copies of a self-published mystery novel that had recently been nominated for a major prize. For the first time in my life I scooped up and paid for the store’s entire inventory (all three copies). When the sales clerk disappeared into the backroom of the store I was worried that he was calling the FBI who would later show up at my house to arrest me for violating the Sherman Anti-trust Act.

Even events as innocuous as local tag sales became problematic. In the past I had spent many hours fruitlessly sifting through piles of books on my neighbors’ lawns, looking for esoteric items for my own personal collection. Suddenly, as a dealer, overnight my tag sale horizons had greatly expanded. While the chances of finding serious literary works were slim, it was relatively easy to find collectible genre books which were likely to be marketable. But, every time I sheepishly walked up to a neighbor with a stack of techno-thriller and horror novels, I would dream about the day when I would start making some money from this business, and could afford to order a custom embroidered cap with the word BOOKDEALER emblazoned on it, a subtle way of letting them know that I really wasn’t buying these books to read myself.

Book signings became the one arena where buying books for resale proved to be unequivocally useful. I could now nonchalantly walk up to an author with several copies of the new book, and then reach into my book bag and pull out all of the older books for signature without feeling guilty. 

After a few months of buying books for resale, I decided it was time to actually try to sell them. I began to do some research about registering with the on-line used book clearinghouses by logging onto my computer, locating the ones I have ordered from as a collector and reading their instructions on how to enroll as a dealer.  The modus operandi of each of the major services appeared to be about the same. To start, they all recommended that I list at least one thousand books. At first, one thousand books sounded like a nice, reasonable, round number.

In preparation for listing my inventory I went through the basement and the closets and the out of reach bookshelves in my den to retrieve the items that I had bought specifically for resale. I stacked them up and counted them. To my dismay I had only one hundred and forty-two books. While I was pleased with the fact that in eyes at least, they were quality items, I had a long way to go to come up with that nice round one thousand number.

Fortunately, I knew that I had barely scratched the surface. While I have somewhere between nine and ten thousand books in my house, only about a fifteen hundred of them are easily accessible. Some are my more valuable books, while others are just reading copies of my favorite novels. They represent my modern literary pantheon, and line the walls of my den so that they are readily available for any emergency, large or small. Once my children reached adolescence, I felt that if either of them ever expressed interest in a particular author or title, I had to be able to retrieve the volume almost instantaneously, or at least faster than they could wander off and the locate the peripatetic television remote control. In addition, because of their easy accessibility,  I had always hoped that if my house ever caught fire, I would have sufficient presence of mind to at least grab the early Anne Tylers before I ran out the door.

The remainder (and vast majority) of my books are safely tucked away up in the attic. These are the books that my wife thinks about every time she looks up at the bedroom ceiling wondering when it will cave in from their weight.  One hundred forty-two books down, eight hundred fifty-eight to go.  It was time to tackle the attic.

Part of being a bibliophile for me, means that I tend to acquire as many books as I can on topics that interest me. The fact that many of my interests have changed over time, means that I have acquired large quantities of books on topics which I thought I couldn’t live without at the time of their purchase, and now don’t even remember that I have. 

I pulled down the attic ladder, boldly climbed up the stairs and switched on the light. I stared across the low-ceilinged room at what was literally a sea of large black plastic garbage bags. In some places they were piled on top of one another reaching up to the rafters. Each of these plastic bags was filled with books.

At first I thought to myself, “Gee, these books have been through the wars. They have survived constant weedings out in the early years as I moved from one small Manhattan apartment to another. They have endured a basement flood when I first moved into the house, a leaky attic roof, a silverfish infestation. Some of them were leant out impulsively to friends and relatives and were actually returned. Now, here they sit, in almost pristine condition after all these ordeals. I shouldn’t try to sell them. For going above and beyond the call of duty each one deserves the Congressional Medal of Honor.” But then in the back of my head I heard the mantra “ One hundred and forty-two down, eight hundred and fifty-eight to go!” so I began to open some of the bags and sort through them.

The bags closest to the stairs contained a good portion of my Latin American collection.

Back in the seventies  I began amassing a large collection of the South American literature in English translation. I had become enchanted with the early works of Gabriel Garcia Marquez, and began buying up anything written by any author from south of the border. At the time my rationale had been that these books were hard to find in the local public library. I had envisioned developing a complete collection of the best of these writers which I would read and then eventually donate to the special collections department of my alma mater.  I could picture my name emblazoned on a brass plaque on the wall above the glass enclosed mahogany bookcases. Now, twenty years later as I sorted through a number of bags of these items, I realized that even though I would probably indenture both of my children as well as all of their future offspring before I sold my first English language edition of One Hundred Years of Solitude, at this stage in my life I am as likely to read the complete oeuvres of Machado deAssis or Jorge Amado, as I am to pull out my battered college French dictionary and read all of A La Recherche de Temps Perdu in the original. So, I packed up many of these items, carried them downstairs to be catalogued for sale, and erased that image of the brass plaque before it became permanently etched in my brain.

The next group of  bags which I opened up contained hundreds of uncorrected proofs and advanced reading copies mostly of literary first novels which I had bought up cheaply over many years in hopes that even if the author’s first effort languished in literary obscurity, in time he or she would produce that breakthrough novel which would result in a resurgence of interest in the earlier work. I sifted through these volumes and separated them into two piles, those I wanted to keep and still take a chance on, and those that it was time to sell and give someone else the opportunity to take a chance on.  When I finished sorting through the proofs, and reflected upon my skill thus far in picking winning Lotto numbers,  I was sorely tempted  to increase my odds by reversing the two piles. 

As I was carting these bags of proofs downstairs to be catalogued, I froze. I had suddenly started thinking about Nathaniel West, whose work was ignored for decades. Perhaps I was about to make a major mistake. I might be offering some collector an inexpensive proof  by a writer who would turn out to be the next Jean Rays, a writer whose breakthrough novel Wide Sargasso Sea wasn’t published until at least thirty years after her earlier books. “Think like a dealer,” I said to myself, and modified the mantra to “Three hundred forty-two down, six hundred fifty-eight to go.” It was time to take a break.

The next day I decided to tackle the books left over from my various and sundry careers.

Bookselling will be my third major career. My first career, which lasted about ten years was in Social Sciences. When I switched over to my second career financial Data Processing, I weeded through my extensive Social Science library, and discarded as many of the books as I could. Out went the old college textbooks, the complimentary copies of the many books I avidly solicited from publishers when I was a part-time college teacher, and boxes of professional journals.  What I couldn’t part with at the time were the primary sourcebooks themselves, those weighty volumes of original thought (of Freud, Jung, Piaget, etc.) which I had spent many a late night puzzling over.  When I had packed them away, I must have thought that one day I would want to go back and reread them, to help understand some stage in my children’s development, or finally figure out the workings of my own inner psyche. I picked up a few of them and flipped through their well-thumbed pages. Suddenly I felt liberated. My children were almost grown, and eccentricity is generally assumed to be one of the primary requirements for entry into the world of used bookselling. With nary an once of ambivalence, all of the social science books went into the sell pile. 

Another group of  bags contained the books and manuals that I had bought in the flurry of excitement over changing careers and attempting to learn finance and computer programming.  These bags were probably the most disappointing of all, as the only things that become outdated faster than Computer technology materials are computers themselves.  As I looked through the old manuals, and stacked them up in the paper recycling cans, it brought back memories of clearing my childhood possessions out of my parents’ basement when I got my first apartment, and all of the “junk” I threw out which would now be considered “collectibles”. I sighed and said to myself “I know I need room for inventory, but some day I’ll be sorry I threw these out.”   

Another day, I sorted through large bags of what I call the “travel" books. For me one of  the best parts of traveling is that it is an excellent excuse for buying books. First, there are the travel guides necessary to help plan the trip, which I run out and buy as soon as the plane reservations are confirmed.. Unfortunately, these guidebooks have a shelf life only slightly longer than the old computer manuals. Then there are the travel essays, and the novels set in the places one is traveling to.  The appendices of the better travel guides list several pages of these so I usually start collecting them on the same shopping trip than I purchase the travel guides. I like to start reading them at least a month before I leave to put me in the right frame of mind for the vacation and if  I’m lucky, I manage to read about half of the books before my departure. Once I return, my mind is so full of my own impressions, there is no room left for anyone else’s and I certainly no longer need or want to read every mystery novel set in that vicinity. 

Also mixed in these bags were many of  the books that I had bought on trips as souvenirs. As I sorted through these books I could remember the circumstances surrounding the purchase of each one; the little leather pocket editions of the Shakespeare tragedies I bought in a Stratford on Avon bookshop, the French edition of Villon I found in a kiosk on the quays in Paris, and D.H. Lawrence’s impressions of Mexico which I couldn’t find in the States but was readily available for a huge mark-up in every large Mexican airport.  There was a collection of naturalists writing about Cape Cod which I had purchased over many summer visits, but for some unexplained reason I only found captivating reading while I was actually on the Cape. I found a one thousand page history of the tower of London, which I doubt I make the time to read even if I was incarcerated serving a twenty year to life sentence. 

The day finally arrived when I considered this phase of the project finished. I had opened and sorted through every single bag, and all of the books to be catalogued and listed for sale had been taken down from the attic. Somewhere along the line I had lost count of the books to be sold, but I knew I had many more than the requisite one thousand. Then

the inevitable happened.  I started reading some V.S. Naipaul for my reading group, and remembered that I had an old brief introduction to the author’s work which might have some useful information in it. Sure enough, it was among the stacks of books to be catalogued and sold.

“What do I do?” I asked myself. “Do I dare remove it from the sell pile and place it back on one of the  bookshelves?” I paused for a moment, and decided to impose a rule which I would heretofore consider to be inviolate. I could remove any book that I wanted from the sell pile, but for each of the books I removed, I would have to replace it with at least two other books. Up to the attic I raced, looking for two replacement books. I started sorting through some serious literary novels which I had read and put away, hoping that the authors would eventually come up with hot breakthrough books and chose two. I carried them downstairs, and gingerly placed them on top of one of the sell piles and picked up the book on Naipaul. As I thumbed through it, I felt a new wave of awareness wash over me.  I realized that I didn’t really need to keep this book, so I pulled out a scrap of paper, jotted down a few ideas from the it, and tossed it back in with the books to be sold. As I picked up the two novels, the thought of putting them back in the attic wafted slowly into my consciousness as gently as a soap bubble, and evaporated just as quickly. I put them back on top of a stack of books to be sold and left the room. 

“Ah ha,” I thought to myself,  “Now I’m finally beginning to think like a dealer.”