Aging Ungracefully in the Rare Book Trade

by Tom Congalton

Monday, Jun 05, 2006

On Saturday morning before the opening hours of the Los Angeles Book Fair, I found myself seated on a raised dais with a microphone propped in front of me, part of a panel with four other veteran booksellers. We were addressing the subject of the past, present, and future of the antiquarian book trade, before a crowd of something a little less than 100 people, almost all of them booksellers.

Despite the fact I have been a fulltime bookseller for about twenty years, it was with some chagrin I realized that the majority of the attendees were booksellers whose experience in the trade was largely equal to, or more often greater, than my own.

While this was probably not so for the other more distinguished members of the panel: Lou Weinstein of the Heritage Book Shop, John Crichton of the Brick Row Book Shop, Ian Smith of Bernard Quaritch, and Michael Ginsburg, I felt rather like the half-bright student who had been selected to address the assembled faculty of his primary school on the topic of the future of education.

Afterwards, I was greeted with the sort of fond, lukewarm compliments that rather suggested that my colleagues, although perhaps unenlightened by my contributions, seemed rather proud that I hadn't embarrassed myself unduly, or had at least kept reasonable control of my bladder during the proceedings, the way a good teacher might feel about a student that they had a special interest in.

In what other trade does a fifty-two year old man with twenty hard years in the trade, seem like barely more than a tyro? It got me to ruminating on the nature of age and aging in the rare book trade. If I were a member of a medieval guild would I perhaps be no more than a newly-minted journeyman: able perhaps to ply my trade without constant supervision, but also not to be left alone for too long with the more precious tools or materials of the trade?

The casual reader must recognize that both the knowledge and financial barriers necessary for entry into the trade can be formidable, although all too often a healthy inclination towards faking it - a quality occasionally found on Ebay and the Internet - seems to be a workable alternative for obtaining the requisite qualifications. Steal someone else's bibliographically correct descriptions and you are a scholar. Selling a few forgeries might provide some needed working capital. One has to start somewhere!

I started collecting books at age 16, became a reasonably serious scout to other booksellers at age 26, and a fulltime bookseller in my early 30s. When I joined the ABAA at age 35, I was considered something of a young phenom, or at least considered young, although not nearly so much as booksellers like Owen Kubik, who joined the organization at the same time that I did at the tender age of 25; or Michael Ginsberg, who started selling books at age 15, and became an associate member of the ABAA in 1961, at age 21.

It is only in the past few years that I seem to have been accepted as a functioning and reasonably useful middle-aged member of the trade.

A couple of years after initially "hanging out my shingle," I formed a loosely defined and informal, but effective partnership with the slightly older Ken Lopez, and John Wronoski of Lame Duck Books, who was and is a couple of years younger than myself. We were enthusiastic, aggressive, voracious in our pursuit of books, and to listen to our betters, both creative and avaricious in our pricing.

Booksellers of only slightly greater seniority were overheard referring to us as "the brat pack." Larry Moscowitz, then a partner in Joseph the Provider Books (and now proprietor of Loblolly Books), encountering us in a frenzied book-hunting trip, "complimented" us on our greatest strength - our ignorance: "You haven't been around long enough to know just how common these books really are."

Peter Stern, who knew us only slightly at the time, claimed he was going to cede to us his eye patch and "Jolly Roger" signifying that we had taken his place as the leading pirates in the modern first edition trade (at least we think that's what he meant, we are a little squeamish to think about what else he might have meant!). Jim Pepper sent both Ken and me attractively engraved plaques. Mine still hangs by my desk, so I'll quote it verbatim: "The Pantheon of the Book Gods Presents The Demigod Award to Heidi & Thomas Congalton for Most Audacious Bookselling 1991." At last, every boys dream - I was a demigod! Unfortunately in this instance, I'm pretty sure the emphasis was intended to fall mostly on the "demi."

Around that time, Mark Hime of Biblioctopus approached Ken and me at a New York Book Fair and noted with apparent sympathy and solicitude that we were no longer prey to our fellow dealers, not long enough in the trade to be effective predators, and without sufficient standing to convince established customers that we were to be trusted or indulged.

Another bookseller, who shall here be nameless, referred to me in confidence as "the best young bookseller of your generation." As the same dealer is also known to regularly mention how thin I'm looking, this seemed testament to either his shameless tendency to flattery, or his execrable poor eyesight, so I asked if I could quote him. His response: "I'll deny it."

I later found out that he would pretty much refer to any bookseller as the best young bookseller of his generation for an extra 5% discount on any specific purchase.

Through all of this I felt myself to be the recipient of a genuinely avuncular and kind interest, albeit slightly bemused or amused, from my seniors in the trade. In retrospect, I think that maybe they were all correct to a certain degree.

Just lately I have noticed that enough reasonably young booksellers have now entered the trade that I found myself mumbling about the "brat pack" at the Los Angeles Book Fair.

Apparently some of these brash young tyros amuse themselves after hours at fairs by playing penny-ante poker, as I observed with bemused amusement in the hotel bar at the L.A. fair. This recalls talk of the legendary bookseller poker games of the 1970s, but I'll leave the recitation of those stories to someone who might actually know something about them.

Chicago-area bookseller Jeff Hirsch, who at age 34 now claims to be the youngest member of the ABAA, rushed up to me at the fair, breathless with the sort of tremulous excitement that I had previously associated only with love struck adolescent girls, in order to relate that on his most recent visit to Atlantic City, he had met Doyle Brunson, apparently a dusty and crusty septuagenarian Texas card player who adopts a cowboy persona, and who in the poker world seems to have transcended demi-god status. Apparently poker players, like the Village People, are required to have a clearly defined "identity."

These young booksellers all seem to be carefully cultivating their own eccentricities for that day when television beckons them from the bookselling ranks to participate in one or another of the seemingly endless poker tournaments relentlessly televised in the US, and for all I know, elsewhere as well. Luckily for them, at least temporarily they have attached themselves to a trade that encourages such eccentricities, so that if they ever do get the call, they should have their screen personas already carefully honed. Wouldn't it be ironic if the rare book trade eventually fizzled out altogether because all of its most eager young practitioners had left to play card games?

Ah, youth!

This article originally appeared in the April/May 2006 issue of Rare Book Review.

Tom's notes for the Q&A panel discussion which prompted this article can be viewed here.