What I Did On My Summer Vacation

by Tom Congalton

Wednesday, Feb 21, 2007

A standard annual ritual for American children is the first-day-of-school assignment of an essay about what each student did on his or her summer vacation. What better way to make the transition from the indolent days of Summer to the industrious busyness of the school year than a fond reminiscence of one's past pleasures and experiences? Summer is now long over, but in order to provide a little light in the depths of winter, I have assigned myself that theme for this issue of the magazine.

Before I talk about this Summer, I'll need to talk about the Summer of 2004 when my friend and colleague John Thomson of Bartleby's Books in Washington, D.C., decided that we needed to take a scouting trip, incorporating our exhibiting at the Denver, Colorado; and afterwards, the Little Rock, Arkansas Book Fairs.

John, tall and grave, is a good traveling partner. He is as taciturn as I am gregarious, and on long trips, nothing pleases me as much as the seldom interrupted sound of my own voice.

He deals in antiquarian books and Americana, I deal in modern literature, and thus we are unlikely to compete too much for certain types of material that we might discover on a trip. However, each of us knows just enough about the other's specialty to make for mildly edifying conversation on those rare occasions when I let him get a word in edgewise.

At home, both of our wives generally prefer us to eat and drink like gentlemen, encompassing a reasonable measure of sobriety, and a more or less healthy and balanced diet. Unconstrained by their good influences, John and I are as like as not to indulge in repeated nightly repasts of steak and beer. Indeed on these trips, in the interests of dietary balance, we have usually seen fit to reclassify smaller steaks, filets, pork chops, bacon, or sausage as belonging in the category of "fish." But at any rate, you see my point - we are companionable travelers.

Except for one event, I'll spare you the details of the three-week long trip (that is, until some later date, when I run out of other things to write about) that put about 8,000 miles on my then new vehicle. After the closing day of the Denver Book Fair we were invited to what was and is an annual ritual, a post-fair party to enjoy the relentlessly cheerful hospitality of John and Helen Dunning, owners of the Old Algonquin Books. John is also well known for authoring a series of biblio-mysteries featuring Cliff Janeway that began with the bestseller Booked to Die.

Curiously, in the middle of the boisterous revelries, the co-owners of the Colorado Rare Book Seminar, among them the booksellers Ed Glaser, Michael Ginsberg, Jeff Marks, Jennifer Larson, Rob Rulon-Miller, and Denver bookseller Lois Harvey, withdrew to a quiet corner of John and Helen's backyard to convene a business meeting in anticipation of the Seminar, which was to begin later the next evening, 90 miles south of Denver in Colorado Springs.

The Seminar, the longest running event of its kind, was founded in 1979 by Jake Chernofsky, owner of the now defunct AB Bookman Magazine, and Margaret Goggin, then the recently retired head of the School of Library Science at Denver University. The Seminar has been a launching ground for over 2000 booksellers, including several dozen who eventually became members of the ABAA. I was recently surprised in conversation with an important French bookseller, when he mentioned that he had attended the Seminar in the early 1980s. It has also reportedly spawned at least four marriages. In 2001, Jake, then ill, sold the Seminar to its long-time faculty members, including Ed Glaser, who has been on the faculty since the beginning of the Seminar.

However, with the inception of Internet bookselling, and the popular illusion that owning a computer and a few books was expertise enough to enter the rare book trade, the Seminar attendance had been falling steadily, from its halcyon days of the 1980s when it invariably sold out to its full capacity of 100 students, to just under 30 students in 2004. At the backyard conference, the owners learned that rather than operating the Seminar as a break even, or slightly profitable proposition, they would actually have to contribute their own money to cover the expenses of the Seminar.

Thus the following year (2005) was I impressed into service as the most economical choice to be the "Specialist Dealer" - basically an experienced dealer who gave a thirty or forty minute talk, and then fended off questions from the assembled students, and the sarcastic and snarky comments of the on-looking and kibitzing faculty.

Aside from my many august qualifications for this task, my inclusion provided several major benefits to the owners of the Seminar: I was going to be in Colorado for the fair anyway, didn't want to be paid, and would more or less pay my own expenses. I was a valuable commodity to a Seminar with no extra money to spend on guest speakers. However, my most valuable contribution to the Seminar was in enlisting my associate Dan Gregory, a bookseller and Internet graphics wiz, who the organizers figured actually was worth paying for.

My participation was intended to be more or less a one-day appearance, but as it was scheduled for the middle of the week, I came down for the first couple days of the Seminar and, captivated by the process stayed for the whole, exhaustive week.

While student attendance was only a little better than the previous year, I found it to be a thoroughly fascinating experience, from the opening keynote speech of the iconoclast and slightly befuddled bookseller Ken Sanders, all the way through to the detention by the campus police of two of our female students (including one the daughter of an ABAA member) who decided it would be a good idea to go swimming in the campus pool after hours, and managed to lock themselves into the pool enclosure - without benefit of clothing.

The classes, most of which are held with a single faculty member expounding on a specific topic, with the rest of the faculty forming a panel to comment and contradict, was highly instructive, and I'm inclined to think that I should probably have been paying tuition for the privilege of sitting through at least some of the classes. Dan De Simone, well-known to the rare book trade in his previous incarnation as a bookseller, and for the past several years Curator of the Lessing J. Rosenwald Collection at the Library of Congress, conducted a class, Selling to Libraries, that seemed to me to be worth the entire cost of the Seminar, and that has since resulted in my constantly pestering numerous institutional librarians with quotes of, or queries about rare books, not entirely without success.

Of course, I wasn't paying any tuition, and didn't actually offer to pay any tuition, but it at least seemed worth it! I also enjoyed sparring with my friend and occasional nemesis, Jeff Marks, who specialized in frightening the students about the future of the book trade, with me taking the opposite tack.

Discouraged after the 2005 Seminar, the owners dissolved the corporation that owned the Seminar, as it had become a financial liability. A few of the owners, Ginsberg, Rulon-Miller, Harvey, and new investor Dan De Simone determined to try it for one more year. After checking with Heidi to see how much money I was allowed to lose each year in order to be a part of it, I let my enthusiasm lead me into becoming one of the new "owners" of a money losing business - not altogether unfamiliar terrain for many antiquarian booksellers.

Again I found myself in Colorado Springs, teaching at the Colorado Rare Book Seminar in August of 2006. The faculty had chosen this beautiful location, on the campus of Colorado College, surrounded by mountains, including the majestic Pike's Peak, in order that the faculty and students could spend a week of twelve hours a day in a classroom without windows. Apparently the only true benefit of the location was that the high altitude made one dramatically more susceptible to the effects of alcohol, thus lowering one's bar bill, assuming one had the time to amass one.

A number of curious things intervened this past year to make the Seminar more interesting and marginally more successful. For one, several scholarships were made available by the ABAA (Antiquarian Booksellers Association of America), the Rocky Mountain Booksellers Association, and others. Also, the Seminar faculty's recognition that the Internet had to be more thoroughly covered as a topic, as indicated by the reaction to Dan Gregory's contribution, and the addition of Chris Volk, a well-known Internet bookseller, to the faulty, resulted in attracting more students. Perhaps most importantly, we were able secure the services of Terry Belanger, Director of the Virginia Rare Book School, and recent recipient of a Macarthur Foundation "genius" grant, as our keynote speaker, and he was additionally prevailed upon to teach the bibliography course long taught by the departing Jennifer Larson.

Another, I think, is that some of the more astute and advanced of the Internet-only booksellers had finally figured out that they don't actually know everything there is to know about rare books, and saw the Seminar as a logical first step towards finding out more. Indeed after Terry Belanger's fearfully erudite bibliography lecture, I asked one young woman if she had understood what Terry was talking about. She answered, with a blissed-out look that I hadn't identified since seeing it in the late 1960s on someone whose name was "Sunshine": "I was really confused, but I'm really, really happy," a sentiment that seemed to have been shared by many of the participants in their post-Seminar comments.

What this indicates to me is that the brightest sprouts of the new generation of booksellers, weaned on the Internet, are now making the first steps towards participating in the traditional rare bookselling world, and I don't see that as a bad thing. Just as our blissed-out student indicated, many of the students hadn't learned everything, but they had at least learned enough to know how much they didn't know. In each of the last two years, the post-Seminar written evaluation forms submitted by the students have been overwhelmingly, indeed almost orgasmically positive.

The result of director Rob Rulon-Miller's efforts was an attendance of about fifty students. According to Jeff Marks, Rob made sure to repeatedly keep Jeff, who had left the faculty and abandoned ownership as a bad investment, informed as each new student enrolled and the Seminar became increasingly profitable, in order, as Jeff told me: "just to annoy me, and it's starting to work." Rob says it was rather the opposite - that Jeff was using the reports of impending profitability to scourge himself.

As an ethical journalist, having now revealed my part ownership, I should be making all sorts of caveats about my use of this article to promote the Seminar. However, with a perversity that perhaps only other booksellers will appreciate, now that the Seminar has become at least theoretically profitable after this past year's event, the owners decided that in order to preserve the Seminar for the future, we would re-incorporate as a non-profit entity. Non-profit - now that's something most booksellers really understand!

This article originally appeared in the December 2006/January 2007 issue of Rare Book Review.
Find out more about the Antiquarian Book Seminars.

Editor's Note: From its founding through most of its history the Antiquarian Book Seminar was privately funded and operated. However, it is now a non-profit and tax-exempt institution.