When my husband and I first reveal that we are booksellers, there are a few different responses that we may get. One of the most puzzling ones goes something like this:
It’s really too bad… the person standing across from us will say.
Then he’ll sort of sigh and stare off into the middle distance – perhaps stroking his mustache absently – before continuing, his voice a mixture of superiority and gloomy resignation, a feeling that we are expected to share in, to revel in…
It’s really too bad no one buys books anymore.
It’s a strangely depressing thing for a person to say, especially when talking to someone who has just said that they sell books for a living.
When I was small, I used to love spending time in my dad’s library.
He collected books…Wall to wall books…Books that were arranged on shelves…shelves that formed little library-like rows on the soft seventies style speckled avocado carpeting that covered the floor of that large downstairs room that could be found in the house I grew up in.
In the late 70s and early 80s, my father wrote for a small, obscure metaphysical press that he ran with a good friend of his. In his own way, my dad has always been a scholar at heart, relentless in the pursuit and accumulation of knowledge. He collected many obscure occult and new age books, as well as books on other subjects that held his interest…science, nature, poetry, mythology…He even had a nice selection of illustrated children’s books, including many from the golden age of the early nineteenth century.
He ended up having so many books that he actually started to maintain a casual lending library for his friends and associates, just so that he could keep the information circulating and so that they could all talk about it together later. Thus, it came about that every book in the room had a carefully pasted in sheet of paper in the front, lined, and covered with date stamps (like the kind that were once standard issue in most libraries).
I would sit there for hours amongst all those shelves and I would look up to watch my dad as he sat there at his desk reading or writing. At his elbow was his cup of tea, and next to that a stick of incense was always burning, the smoke curling up over his head and mingling with the morning sunlight and the dust motes in the air. The whole thing, it was like a high-ceilinged, wood paneled, glorious temple to the written word. And I loved it.
We grew as a family and eventually that library room, which was easily big enough to be two rooms, became the bedroom my brother and I shared. The books went elsewhere, first to various office spaces my father rented, and then, for a time, to storage. After my parents separated, they went with my dad up to the mountain cabin that he lived in for nine years.
On that ninth year, a freakish and rapid moving wildfire blew its way through the mountain valley, lingering just long enough to consume my dad’s home and everything in it. He got out just in time, carrying his two squirming cats and a small backpack packed with a few essentials.
The books all burned up.
My dad estimates that there were thousands of them, including a treasured first edition set of Emerson’s complete works, as well as countless other rarities. If you look for them, you can still find little charred corners of pages mixed in with all the ashes and the strange mangled parts of household appliances strewn about the property.
My dad lost pretty much everything in that fire, but the one thing everyone always focuses on is the books. All those books… they say slowly and mournfully, Thousands of books…As if by saying it out loud, they can somehow wrap their heads around the idea of that kind of loss.
My husband’s father, in particular, took it especially hard when he heard about what happened with my dad’s house and all those books. He too has a reverence for the printed word, as a writer and an avid rare book collector himself. Two pages of manuscript, handwritten by Mark Twain, count as especially prized objects of his collection. The room that contains his library is done in gorgeous Craftsman style, with muted lighting and old world sensibilities, like it belongs in some sort of a movie depiction of a reclusive author.
Long before he made a living as a writer, my father in-law sold rare books for a living. It was actually at his urging that my husband and I even considered becoming book sellers ourselves.
Of course we resisted for a while. Which is, of course, appropriate when parents give out even the most helpful of suggestions.
When my husband was a kid, his father was working from his home office as a rare book dealer. He would come up with a bi-monthly typewritten catalog of all the books he had available, complete with detailed condition notes and pricing information.
So when we started selling books, he gifted us with a binder containing all his old catalogs, complete with his markings and notations about what sold, who bought it. It is a fascinating resource, and almost genealogical in feeling.
At the top of the first column of every catalog, written neatly in typewriter font, is this text:
Ordering information: You may confirm orders by mail or phone. An answering machine is available to take orders when I am out of the office. Calls accepted between the hours of 9 am and 10 pm Mountain standard time. Orders will be held for payment for seven (7) days.
What strikes me the most about this statement (beyond the excessively generous 13-hour window for taking business related phone calls) is the moment in time in which it was written. A time when people commonly ordered things by mail or telephone. And the telephone in question was one of those deals that plugged into the wall, and it had one of those long curly cords connecting the receiver to the base. There was probably a little rotary device too, that a person had to spin around multiple times, in order to dial a phone number. And the answering machine had one of those “answering machine” cassette tapes in it, the label adorned in alternating brown and rust-orange stripes. Even the fact that there was an answering machine seems so delightfully charming. An answering machine.
In the world of books, a world that is as familiar to us as the respective houses that we grew up in, my husband and I straddle the two realities between now and back then. There is no printed catalog that we mail out. No landline with an answering machine attached to it. Instead, we run our business through our website, as well as our various web presences on sites like Abe, Biblio, Ebay and Instagram. If we are buying books from or selling to someone locally, we text with them so we can set up a time to meet.
And yet we do sell books. Actual physical books that people still buy, even in this age when every form of media can be delivered digitally and often instantaneously.
I can understand why a person would say that…that no one buys books anymore.
And yet, people like to talk about books, whether they’re doom and glooming it about the decline of the book or mourning a burned down library or – in what is happily more and more becoming my reality – talking about how much they love books. And, in so far as our very subjective experience as people who sell books goes, people do buy books.
They buy the collectible books we sell online and they buy the more affordable books we sell at our occasional pop up event. What we’ve seen is that books hold a romance, an allure for people and that every reader has their own uniquely personal relationship with books.
Maybe I’m wrong, but it would be downright silly to get your Kindle signed by your favorite author, and it’s just not as fun to appreciate great cover art on your I-pad. And then of course, there’s the whole actual art of the binding, the page edges, the typography…not to mention the smell of new ink and paper, or in older books, that lovely musky library smell (a scent that is, in recent years, available in bottled form through various hip perfumeries).
Then there are of course obvious parallels with vinyl records, and the fact that people still keep coming back to such a tangible form. We live in an age of specialized interests, probably due in large part to the fact that there is such a massive availability of information out there in the online ethers. But amongst all this intangibility there must be tangibility, objects that anchor all this information in. So many people want to curate their own personal library, perhaps to remind themselves of who they are, but also perhaps so that they can say to a friend, “Hey, have you read this? Here, you can borrow my copy.”
Of course, there are some books in our personal collection we will unconditionally never loan out to a friend. Even the dearest of friends.
For my husband, there are two: One is a hardcover limited print run of a Roger Zelazny book, a lesser known science fiction and fantasy author who has had a profound impact on his own writing. The other is a special handmade edition of a book written by his father, it is housed in a clamshell type casing, the edition is numbered 1 of 2 and there is a special inscription on the title page, written from father to son.
Mine is also a gift from my father. A flimsy staple-bound paperback, that contains a handful of stories by a famous fantasy author, done in graphic novel format. My dad got it at a book convention over 20 years ago.
Could you sign this for my daughter? he had asked the funny older man sitting at the fold out table. Of course Ray Bradbury cheerfully obliged, signing the front cover in thick black sharpie.