So What's a Bookseller to Do in February?

by Tom Congalton

Wednesday, Feb 15, 2006

Despite what T.S. Eliot might tell you, in the northern half of the U.S., February is the cruelest month. Northern booksellers are generally confined to their desks as the Arctic winds blow. So what's a bookseller to do in this darkest and dreariest of months?

Americans are renowned for turning every event into a selling opportunity, so the first thing for a bookseller to do is to look forward to St. Valentine's Day. The origins of St. Valentine are a little murky (and indeed there seem to be at least three of them), but in the U.S. he seems to have become defined as the patron saint of the florist and confectionary industry. At Between the Covers, we generally try to do our part to expand the gross national product by producing a Valentine's Day Catalogue devoted to trashy romances, mostly from the 1920s and 1930s.

Every year we laboriously accumulate a couple or three hundred of these romances in bright and/or lurid (indeed the more lurid the better) dustwrappers, and issue a catalogue of them. We would like to think that this came about because of our boundless intellectual curiosity and the scholarly rigor required to investigate a much neglected field, but I fear the truth is closer to our magpie-like tendency to be attracted to any brightly colored objects, in this case the aforementioned lurid jackets.

In order to justify our attempt to foist these tawdry potboilers on an unsuspecting public, we were forced to develop a rationale for this activity, and much to our surprise, there actually were several reasons - some of them good! One was that the jackets themselves, now three-quarters of a century old, were indeed exceptionally uncommon, and represented several different and attractive schools of design, and individual designers.

Additionally, as virtually none of these books met the prevailing standards of literary or social respectability required for libraries to consider them worth preserving, they were genuinely uncommon - searching library databases seldom revealed more than a handful of copies, and searching auction records or most dealer catalogues was a complete waste of time. As the new century dawned, some farsighted librarians and collectors were scrambling to preserve the minor fiction of the 20th Century, much as librarians and collectors had done for the century before. Many of the books were either written by women, or depicted the lives of working women, or both, and provide otherwise unavailable insight into those lives

Indeed my perusal of these tomes has helped me develop an entirely new theory of how the Great Depression came to the U.S. If one is to take these novels at face value, apparently all of America's working class jobs were taken up by the handsome but ne'er-do-well younger sons of the British aristocracy, who had come to the U.S. to either make their fortunes or redeem their reputations as anonymous industrial laborers, there to be redeemed by the love of a poor but vivacious and beautiful American girl. Deprived of these industrial jobs, apparently the American proletariat was forced to go en masse to California in order to pick fruit, where they were subject to many depredations, but where at least they didn't have to put up with another freezing February. But of course, I could be wrong about this.

Another February event, unique to America, is "President's Day," which falls on the third Monday of February in order to make a three-day weekend celebration, and which, if one is to believe all of the newspaper and other media advertisements for "Presidents Day White Sales," is a holiday intended to celebrate every American's inalienable right to buy new bed linens, towels, and dishrags.

I could be wrong about this, too, and it might be prudent to clarify this point with one of the good northern dealers in Americana like Bill Reese, Mike Ginsburg, or John Thomson of Bartleby's Books. Additionally, I believe there are several good Americana dealers in California who might have an answer to this question, but they are probably too busy wind-surfing, or competitive tanning, or whatever it is they do out there in February, to answer your queries. This holiday might well be a good excuse for a bookseller's Americana catalogue, but as I have very little Americana, I wouldn't really know, now would I?

February used to have two separate holidays celebrating the birthdays of Presidents George Washington and Abraham Lincoln, usually considered the consensus choices for the two best American Presidents (with perhaps FDR nipping in at the wire to take the bronze). Apparently however, large sections of the American public were unable to tell these two apart (a refresher course for our British friends: Washington - "The Father of Our Country," powdered wig, and wooden teeth. Lincoln - tall, gloomy looking, stovepipe hat, and funny chin whiskers), so the powers that be determined that a single long weekend was all that was required to sell the requisite number of linens.

And finally, as if a weekend-long attack on one's pocketbook wasn't enough, the entire month of February is traditionally designated, usually with a Presidential Proclamation, as "African-American History Month." This of course affords American booksellers with the opportunity to shower collectors and institutions with catalogues on black history, literature, and culture.

As this is one of our specialties at Between the Covers, we have pretty much given up on sending a February Black History catalogue, usually preferring to make incursions into our customer's disposable incomes in January, before their funds have been exhausted by the many events and opportunities clamoring for their attention and money, or in March, when their reserves of both have been replenished. Not so Swann Galleries who this year presents their eleventh annual sale of African-American History and Literature, the only event of its sort that we are aware of, conducted under the oversight of the estimable Wyatt Houston Day, which will occur in the last week in February.

With all of this going on, its amazing that American booksellers even have the time to travel to balmy Southern California for the Los Angeles Book Fair in February. However, for we northern booksellers, it provides a welcome respite from the icy weather, and from creating excuses to pick our clients pockets, and instead provides a new opportunity for scheming about how to claim a portion of the movie wealth of Southern Californians. Did someone say "books into film?"

This article
first appeared in the February/March 2006 issue of Rare Book Review.