The Messiah Factor in Bookselling

by Tom Congalton

Saturday, Apr 29, 2006

A version of this text was originally delivered as a speech before the Fellowship of American Bibliographic Societies (FABS) at the Rowfant Club. The text is also reprinted in Book Talk: Essays on Books, Booksellers, Collecting, and Special Collections, edited by Robert H. Jackson and Carol Z. Rothkopf, published by Oak Knoll Press, and available through Between the Covers.

My first real entry into the antiquarian book world, was in the early 1970's, standing on line for library sales, where treasures could be purchased for a quarter or less. It was during the tedious hours of waiting where I had my first encounter with the Messiah Factor in bookselling. Granted, gasoline was expensive, and difficult to obtain, inflation was in full swing, and the mood in the country was generally surly. But the assembled booksellers, huddled in the cold outside of a small municipal library were the picture of optimism, and with good reason. The influx of oil money to the Middle East was going to transform the Arab nations into a hot bed of rare book collecting. What could be a more appropriate, and suitably extravagant use of the petroleum bounty than the purchase of rare and exotic books. Rumors abounded that various Arab Sheiks, and even the Sultan of Brunei, the world's richest man, were collecting books en masse, warmed the cockles of our greedy hearts, even of those, who like me, were only beginners. Surely this tectonic shift would enhance the value of my small stock.

We had heard the Good Word. The world might be going to hell, but we were all right. The Arabs were going to save us.

When I became a fulltime bookseller, in the early-1980s, things had changed. Gasoline prices had stabilized, and the new Messiah had already arisen, this time even further to the East. As I idled away my time, talking with other booksellers on the phone, awaiting orders from our catalogues, we were uniformly optimistic. We had all heard rumors of Japanese collectors and institutions snapping up Shakespeare folios, books of hours (whatever they were), and every available copy of Chagall's Jerusalem Windows. It didn't matter that virtually no booksellers of my acquaintance owned any Shakespeare folios, books of hours or anything like it. And those who might turn up the occasional copy of the Jerusalem Windows had no direct contact with the Japanese market.

We had also all heard rumors of American dealers who had carefully and profitably cultivated the Japanese market and the Japanese trade. While few of us believed in the freshly posited trickle-down theory, we were all perfectly willing to benefit from it. Presumably, our colleagues, flush with profits from the Japanese trade, were going to convert the gains from their Shakespeare folios into the hyper-modern first editions I was offering for twenty or thirty dollars each in my first few catalogues. We had seen the light - the Japanese were going to save us.

It is perhaps only a bitter footnote to remark that in the 1980's my total dividend from the Japanese economic miracle was $680, which I received when I sold an inscribed photograph of the grumpy-looking Japanese author Junichiro Tanazaki to a Japanese dealer at the ABAA's Boston Book Fair.

But by the late 1980s we had found a new deity. Well, not exactly new, but one that was rapidly becoming pervasive - the book fair. As shop rents increased and urban centers changed, many booksellers found it more convenient to close their shops and jump on the expanding book fair circuit. What could be better? Book fairs had previously been confined to the few run by the Antiquarian Booksellers Association of America, who had pioneered them in this country in the early 1960's, and a few others small regional events. Now in the mid- to late 80's a bookseller had his or her pick of regional fairs. On the East Coast at least, one could have one's choice of as many as three fairs on a single weekend.

Freed from the shop, dealers could meet new collectors and vice versa, as well as benefit from the efficiencies of scale that a book fair might provide. Scouting a fair with a hundred dealers was like going to a hundred bookstores. The conventional wisdom among dealers on the book fair circuit was that if you couldn't sell your way out of a book fair, you could buy your way out. One wise man in the book trade once remarked to me, and it has always struck me as true, that the way to judge the success of a book fair was not by one's sales, but by adding one's sales to one's purchases.

And at least one had easy proximity to one's colleagues - in the event of a total meltdown, colleagues could get together afterwards and commiserate over cocktails. On one such occasion 15 years ago, a couple of my colleagues and I, with the collective courage born of several post book fair libations, determined to buy a book from another colleague for $18,000. I'm chagrinned to admit that we still own it.

In the late 1980s I became a freshly minted member of the ABAA, and in short order a new Savior arose. Hollywood and the Entertainment Community were going to save us.

Unlike our previous Messiahs, there was actually some visible evidence that this might be so. The tedium between sales at West Coast book fairs was leavened by occasional celebrity sightings: Brad Pitt, Lana Turner, Johnny Depp, Whoopi Goldberg, Jay Leno, and many others, were not only in attendance, but in some cases were actively purchasing books, and sometimes expensive ones. We had all heard the legends that the Heritage Book Shop and other strategically placed West Coast dealers had successfully cultivated the Hollywood carriage trade, but now we too, while not perhaps having had our brush with fame, had at least had our brush with the famous. Booksellers could casually mention in the company of their fellows that they were going out for a drink with Johnny, had Jay's home phone number, or had spent an amusing half-hour trading quips with Whoopi. Probably some of it was true.

Perhaps a single anecdote will help to elucidate those heady days. One afternoon I received a call from a woman obviously filled with misgivings. She identified herself as the accountant for a major Hollywood star, someone who everyone here has heard of. After some preliminary pleasantries she stated the purpose for her call. Her client had a $14,000 credit card charge with our firm, apparently filed under "research." Was this correct?

"Yes, it was."

"Could I ask you a personal question?" She asked, apparently more than a little afraid of the answer.


"What do you sell at Between the Covers?"

"Rare books." I replied.

"Oh, Thank God." she said.

While these interludes made for amusing cocktail chatter, and what income that came of it was certainly welcome, when subjected to any sort of objective scrutiny, it had become clear that for the vast majority of booksellers, Hollywood had not saved us.

No matter, because by the mid-1990s we had put all false Gods behind us and had accepted the one, and true Messiah - The Internet.

As everyone here knows by now, books were the perfect commodity to sell on the Internet: alike enough that they could be entered and stored in a well-ordered database, but different enough that their individual characteristics would be easily distinguished and searchable.

At first the fledgling Internet search services were a boon to savvy dealers and collectors. Collectors who had spent decades looking for a specific title, might with a few keystrokes have a choice of copies in a variety of conditions and price ranges. Dealers who received multiple orders for a book from their catalogues could often provide equivalent copies on short notice. Most of the online services provided some sort of capacity for maintaining want lists, with automatic notification when a copy of a desired item was put into the system. Dealers learned to be wary when they received a half-dozen or more orders for a book the day after they had listed it. Apparently they had dramatically under priced any books that elicited multiple orders.

This phenomenon required adaptable bookseller behavior. For example, one New Year's morning I stopped into the shop to feed our shop cats. Checking my email, I saw that one of my wants had come up - a nice copy of Hike and the Aeroplane by Tom Graham offered for $35. Experience dictated that I wasn't the only person looking for this book, and ordering it outright was bound to result in disappointment. In my machinations to acquire the book, I opted for a new and ingenious book buying technique: telling the truth. I immediately both emailed, and called, leaving a message on the seller's answering machine. They were offering Sinclair Lewis' pseudonymous and very scarce first book for a fraction of its retail value. I would pay something in the mid-four figures for the book depending on further details of condition. The bookseller was happy to oblige, sending me the book on approval, and receiving a check back in short order for the eventually agreed upon price. After we had completed the transaction he told me: "You know, I got over forty orders for that book, and no one else told me what it was or offered me a penny more than $35."

Let me stress that my behavior in this incident was in no way altruistic, or motivated by my love for either fair play or my fellow bookseller, rather it was a new strategy to cope with a changing environment. I had left myself plenty of room for profit, and unlike the forty other prospective buyers, I had the book.

Like all good Messiahs, the Internet had its Apostles as well - some of the high tech millionaires and even billionaires looking to acquire the trappings of wealth and taste saw rare books as part and parcel of the cultured and sophisticated life they could now afford. Bill Gates bought the Codex Hammar in a much-celebrated auction, and rumors that Gates, Paul Allen and other high tech moguls were amassing huge libraries were rife in the trade. Dealers flocked to the new Seattle book fair, expecting to exchange their stock for trunks full of money from new collectors flush with dot com wealth. On opening night at one ABAA New York fair I overheard one dealer excitedly telling another, that not only had he had two billionaires in his booth, but that he had had two billionaires in his booth AT THE SAME TIME! Apparently they traveled in packs.

For my part, I was woefully unfamiliar with the more important identifying characteristics of billionaires. I have recently taken up bird watching, hoping that the lessons inherent are transferable to this more lucrative pastime.

Talk at book fairs had ceased to be of rare books, but now was almost exclusively devoted to the Internet. Increasing numbers of dealers listed their stock on the net, and collectors were eager to embrace this new method for finding books.

However, it rapidly turned out that for dealers in very modern first editions, the new Messiah showed signs of being a wrathful Old Testament-style Deity, unforgiving and quick to disperse our traditional marketing base - those collectors who bought almost exclusively from our catalogues.

Moderately uncommon books from the '70s through '90s, for which there existed regional disparities of supply, but copies of which an active dealer could usually find in his or her daily rounds, were now listed in profusion on the search services. Where before one might reasonably expect to make continuous and repeated sales of specific titles in the $50 to $500 range, now one could only be confident of selling them if one had the cheapest copy for its condition on the net.

If the ABAA's proprietary Internet discussion group was any indication, a few dealers in antiquarian, or "brown books," found this fitting revenge for the brisk commerce they had been forced to observe at modern first edition booths in the past decades of book fairs, as well as for the assumed inferiority of the product that modern dealers were purveying. Even if the market for their more esoteric antiquarian books remained relatively small, at least they were confident in the knowledge that because of the limited supply, there would be only modest price competition on the net.

The feeling among at least some of these dealers was that the Internet had finally revealed the egregious depredations and practices of the modern first edition dealer. One listed example of these outrageous practices was that some first editions of recent vintage, such as John Grisham's A Time to Kill, were then selling for $2000.

In one exchange about this topic on the ABAA discussion group the most vocal of this small group of dealers had in his most recent catalogue a single book that was identical in price to A Time to Kill. It was, as I now recall, a second edition of an eighteenth century Swedish book on meat carving. While one might have been hard pressed to defend John Grisham novels as the pinnacle of Western culture, I was pretty sure they were in no way exceeded by an 18th Century how-to volume devoted to slicing up Swedish rump roast.

Another unforgiving factor of the Internet was that we were selling TOO MANY BOOKS. Books that we had previously devoted little or no time to selling, as they were not worth including in a printed catalogue, were once ensconced in one's database, now available for sale to a large and not neccesarily discriminating audience. Many dealers reported to me that they were, and I too was spending, the greater part of our time processing orders for relatively inexpensive books. At Between the Covers it became increasingly apparent that if we continued to experience this large volume of Internet sales of cheap books, we would be unable to devote our time to the more expensive books that had become responsible for the largest part of our income. We were rapidly going to go bankrupt. Again, we had to develop a new strategy to address this.

In our case, we sought out another local bookseller with a different problem, but with the same cause. The walk-in traffic in his shop had dissipated, apparently because his regular customers were spending their book buying budgets on the Internet.

We formed a company, bought a large but inexpensive building, contributed our less expensive stock to the venture, and hired relatively low wage employees to list large quantities of books on the net. The resulting company, named Alottabooks, now has nearly two hundred thousand books listed online for sale, and mercifully, I can go about buying and selling the more expensive, and what are to me, the more interesting 19th and 20th Century first editions.

Of course, every self-respecting new Messiah wants to destroy or discourage the vestiges and symbols of its predecessors. What former icons of the rare world has the Internet displaced or weakened?

For one, the few remaining open shops, as booksellers increasingly discover the benefits of selling books in their underwear, and in the comfort of their own homes, unencumbered by the expense entailed in running a shop, and undistracted by the occasional idiosyncrasies of those likely to be found haunting rare bookstores or, as they are known in the trade, the collectors.

Book fairs for another. Two of the best regional book fairs, the Florida Antiquarian Book Fair in St. Petersburg, and the Long Island Book Fair, both of which have had longtime waiting lists of over a hundred dealers, reportedly now have little or no waiting lists at all. Other fairs have folded completely.

Many of the lower level dealers who did these fairs and who had previously hoarded books to bring there, had already sold the better ones through the search services or online auction sites, and now saw no reason to go to the trouble and expense of exhibiting at these events.

Another casualty is likely to be price guides. Obviously price guides have always been something of a hit or miss affair, often obsolete as soon as they are published. When the first edition of Allen and Pat Ahearn's general price guide Collected Books: A Guide to Values was published, the date of publication was timed to coincide with opening day of the 1991 New York Antiquarian Book Fair, then held at the Sheraton Hotel. A few minutes before the fair opened, another first edition dealer, Jeffrey Marks, and I encountered Allen Ahearn in the elevator carrying a beautiful copy of The Sound and the Fury. Jeff and I expressed our interest in the book. Allen allowed that it was priced at $17,500, and that we could of course avail ourselves of the reciprocal 20% discount, making the final net price $14,000. Our efforts to convince him that the book was worth $7500, according to his new price guide, issued on that very day, fell on deaf ears. Allen was smart enough to write and publish his price guide, but not dumb enough to follow it when his instincts told him otherwise. I now forget whether it was Jeff and I who bought the book, but I do remember that Allan sold the book before the fair was over.

I expect some price guides, including the Ahearn, will survive, but many more seem destined for oblivion, most of the information inside them outdated instantly, with more current, and more reliable information easily available for free on the Internet.

Perhaps another casualty of the Internet might be bibliography. In the past the mark of a serious collector or dealer would be a reference library numbering from the hundreds, into the thousands of volumes. Bibliography was the foundation on which most booksellers built their careers, and most collectors built their collections. According to California bookseller Mark Hime, attempting to challenge accepted bibliographical knowledge was akin to dating outside one's own species: rarely satisfying, and mortally embarrassing if caught.

Now with millions of books listed on the search services, each accompanied by a more or less competent description, a bookseller without any reference library at all can appropriate the research and descriptions of their more, or occasionally less, competent fellows. On the ABAA Internet discussion group much time seems devoted to the proper form of "cease and desist" letters aimed at those who have lifted painstakingly crafted and researched book descriptions from member dealers for use with their own books listed online.

At one recent book fair I was sharing a booth with Boston dealer Peter Stern. During the first night of the fair, Peter and I were forced to leave our booth in the care of one of his employees. We had to decide where he should leave the key to the glass case that contained perhaps a half million dollars worth of books, for us to retrieve the next day. The choice was clear - beneath the massive Gibson and Greene bibliography of Arthur Conan Doyle that Peter had recently had reprinted, prominently displayed on a table for all to examine. There was obviously no safer place to hide the key, especially in a crowd of a hundred or so booksellers, than under a bibliography.

On another occasion, one of the young cataloguers at our shop misinterpreted some penciled notes in a book and listed a common title as being in the "scarce first state dustjacket." Now, as far as I know this book had no second state dustjacket. Over the course of the next few weeks, we were bombarded with email from various booksellers not of our acquaintance, demanding to be enlightened as to the point of issue on the jacket. Motivated equally by science and malicious curiousity we declined to change the description, or to respond to any of these emails. No matter - within months, dozens of copies of this title could be found online, confidently described as being in the "scarce first state dustjacket." Most of these dealers were probably right, they just didn't know why they were right.

This reliance on the net as the final arbiter of all bibliographical knowledge has led to a couple of my favorite new bits of bookseller jargon: "Not on the Net", or "Not on eBay"

And what about eBay, and the other online auction sites? These sites, used judiciously by the experienced, can be beneficial to one's collection or stock. But nothing is so disconcerting or amusing as an experienced dealer or collector browsing amongst the offerings of an online auction site. Buried beneath the mass of misdescribed books and inferior copies of desirable titles, there might lie the occasional gem, or modest bargain - but to me, it hardly seems worth all the effort. In applying myself with a certain degree of attention to the online auctions, I have found that I average buying about one book a month.

Another phenomenon is the bookseller or collector who deals exclusively, or almost so, online. I was recently treated to the first book fair appearance of a dealer who had bought most of his stock through the online auction sites. Let's call him dealer X. About half of the more expensive books X was offering for sale as authentic were sporting photocopied or otherwise reproduced dustjackets. The jacket on one F. Scott Fitzgerald first edition that he offered me for $24,000, turned out on closer inspection, to be a color copy of a First Edition Library facsimile jacket, the original of which had had the facsimile notice sanded off. X had bought this jacket for $7,000 on a popular online auction site from dealer Y who also dealt almost exclusively online. Eventually I became involved in X's effort to return the jacket to Y, who told me that he had bought the jacket from dealer Z for $4,000 on the same auction site. This is an example of what is known in the rare book trade as provenence.

In the foregoing anecdote the names have been changed to protect the ignorant.

My observation and one that I've heard from others as well, is that collectors have already reaped the benefits of a one-time windfall. Most of the professional dealers that will list their stock on the net have done so. Although increasingly larger numbers of books will be listed online, and surprises are bound to be among them, the vast majority of these books will be of the used, not rare variety. Already I've noticed that the relatively uncommon books that were for a time available in profusion, have started to be absorbed into the market, restoring some equilibrium between dealers and collectors.

The Internet seems, in my opinion to have greatly broadened the market for rare books, but not necessarily to have deepened it. Through this window, many more people have been exposed to the rare book world, and some of them, happily, have been attracted to it. I think that this is most immediately evident in the two fields that seem to function as the entry level genres for book collectors: modern literary first editions and children's books. Not surprisingly, it seems that very few new collectors begin by collecting incunables.

Many of these new collectors are affluent members of the baby boom generation at the peak of their earning capacity. And like many affluent collectors they want to start at the top. Thus, the past few years have seen a remarkable rise in the prices of prime condition high spots in those two fields. This great increase in demand has caused the prices of available copies to rise dramatically. At the recent Christie's East auction of the collection of Henrik Falktoft, a Danish collector of both modern first editions and children's books, who had paid close attention to condition, the prices realized where generally adjudged stunning - The Sound and the Fury brought $58,750, To Kill a Mockingbird and The Catcher in the Rye, brought $32,900 each, and The Lord of the Rings brought $56,400. On the children's side, The Wizard of Oz brought $64,625, Where the Wild Things Are, nearly $20,000, and The Cat in the Hat, over $10,000. But what is really remarkable is that most, and maybe all of these books were bought by dealers. The Christie's sale was strategically held the day before the opening of the New York Antiquarian Book Fair and two of these books were exhibited by the successful bidders. As is the quaint old custom in the trade, the prices were duly raised - and both sold at the fair.

How have these prices affected collectors? They have set a discouragingly high bar for new collectors who want to accumulate recognized high spots. Conversely this has worked to the advantage of veteran collectors who assembled their collections in a more forgiving era, and have seen the value of their collections grow exponentially.

It has affected dealers of high spots by making them compete with collectors for the best available copies of the best books. And also encouraged dealers to do what dealers have always done - when the available supply of high spots has dwindled or disappeared, we have looked for new candidates to be promoted to that status. The collector who once accused me of being criminally avaricious when I catalogued a nice first edition of To Kill a Mockingbird for $275 a dozen years ago is probably still waiting accusatorily in the wings to denounce me for the price of the next future high spot that will appear in my catalogues.

So then, maybe the Internet isn't the new Messiah, just a very large and unexpected bump on the rare bookselling landscape.

The theory that I cling to now in my apostasy, is that the new Messiah is really the old messiah, he, or she, who will save us has been there all along - the determined and resourceful collector. The smartest one percent of rare book collectors and librarians set the agenda for all of the others in the trade. They determine the subject and scope of their collections and set out with all their tenacity and a good portion of their resources to construct them. Following close on the footsteps of this charmed one percent of collectors, are the smartest one percent of booksellers, who take their cues from the collectors, faithfully and industriously fulfill their wants, and by use of their wiles and imagination, attempt to, and often succeed in, forcing the boundaries of these collections ever outward.

I should here mention that this last observation is offered as a generally crowd pleasing remark, as I've never yet met either a collector, a librarian, or a bookseller who didn't consider him- or herself to be among the smartest one percent of their respective breeds.

The Internet is neither the new Messiah, nor the ultimate bookselling weapon, but just another arrow in the quiver of the working bookseller and collector. While some can survive exclusively on Internet sales, in my observation the booksellers most serious about their trade, and the collectors most serious about their collections, will continue to use the Internet to their advantage, but will also continue to scan catalogues, attend book fairs and auctions, and do pretty much everything else they can think of to advance their agendas.

The contract between collector and bookseller is still very much in force. We can frustrate or enlighten one another, delight or infuriate one another, but one thing we surely can't do, is survive or thrive without each other. In other words - the collectors are going to save us.