The Ethics and Etiquette of the Scrum

by Tom Congalton

Wednesday, Oct 01, 2008

Let us examine the dynamics of the set-up hours of a book fair. This is the time before the public is let in, when the dealers trade gossip, complain about the location of their booths, and prepare and primp their displays for the open hours of the fair, carefully laying traps for the much anticipated, but not very unsuspecting collectors.

It is these same collectors who have often and persistently expressed to me their envious and bitterly held belief that these are the golden hours when well-capitalized and avaricious dealers blithely snap up impossible bargains from their less fortunate or clueless brethren:

"What's that? Five dollars for this nearly mint first edition of The Sun Also Rises? What about this minuscule chip on the jacket over here? Will you take three dollars? And eleven dollars for this Vesalius, you say? Preposterous! You've clearly overlooked this bit of foxing in the margins my good fellow. Be reasonable!"

Would that it were so, and perhaps, once, in the rosy glow of nostalgia, some of our senior fellows believe it was. But how many more times I have heard one ravenously roving dealer looking for bargains during pre-fair, remark dispiritedly to another of his species, the all-too-frequent truth: "Too many sharks, not enough prey!"

While it is true that dealers, and collectors too, for that matter, relish the opportunity to dine out on stories of the occasional fabulous bargain, more often than not, pre-fair dealer buying is an exchange of stagnant inventory between one dealer that has grown weary of owning a particular book, and another dealer who thinks they may have a new customer for it, or can see their way clear to fractionally raising the price of a book in order to bolster some particular part of his or her inventory or catalogue.

It is thus seldom at a book fair that a seemingly clueless dealer delivers a wealth of interesting and under priced inventory. But when it does happen, much as a single drop of blood in the water reputedly attracts sharks from miles around, so too do their bibliophilic doppelgangers assemble for a feeding frenzy or its more human equivalent, the scrum.

At the just past New York Book Fair I found myself in the middle of one of these in the half-sized booth of Pittsburgh's Caliban Books. At this fair, a half-sized booth is ten feet deep and six feet wide, but in this case, additional booth equipment, a glass case and a table, had made the booth six feet square.

Into this booth space was crammed an array of humanity that would have impressed even college students of the 1950s when confronted with an empty telephone booth

Joining me in the scrum were Peter Stern, Jeffrey Marks, Rob Rulon-Miller, David and Natalie Bauman (as well as several of their most trusted and most ubiquitous employees), Adrian Harrington, Adrian's Son-In-Law John (I am absolutely certain that John, a pleasant and perspicacious young bookseller, has a surname, but in this circle he is doomed forever to being called Adrian's Son-In-Law John), Chicago photography book dealer Jeff Hirsch, Bibi Mohammed of Imperial Fine Books, the children's book dealer, Joanne Reisler, and maybe a few others here overlooked in the hugger-mugger.

And did I mention the thirty boxes of books? Even granting that the scrum spilled over into the neighboring half-booth, one became perhaps more intimately acquainted with one's colleagues and competitors than one might otherwise have reason to hope.

And despite the pleasant alliterative quality of my title, let me here disabuse you of one notion: there are no Ethics in a scrum. There is however, Etiquette.

If one has been handed a book by another dealer that he has discarded, one is duty bound to either place the book safely on a shelf, or if possible, hand it to another unsuspecting dealer, thus abrogating one's responsibility for that particular book, and at the same time tying up the hands of one's potential competition.

One must not set aside a book unless one is willing to commit to buying it. The temptation to deny one's competitor an attractively priced volume must not interfere with the orderly progression of the scrum unless one is willing to pay for the privilege.

One must also honor one's Alliances, which are quickly made, and as quickly set aside, much in the manner that one imagines sharks are wont to do. By handing a dealer in more antiquarian books something that he obviously covets, with a knowing crook of an eyebrow, a first edition dealer may implicitly profit by his new ally's expertise, and vice versa.

Usually, however, one relies on pre-existing alliances: in this instance my scrum-mates were Peter Stern and Jeff Marks. Jeff is tall, Peter is short, and I am wide, making for a perfectly complimentary set of qualities: Jeff could spot the books and grab the boxes, Peter could grapple about in the midst of the scrum, and I could block access to others with my girth. As is often said in the trade - there is no getting around me.

And most importantly, and this above all: Thou Shalt Not Reach Into A Box in the Possession of Another. One dealer who disobeyed this cardinal rule in New York was chastised, and subsequently shunned by the pack: handed nothing that would appeal to them, and blocked off from the general scrum.

Leaving a scrum with a substantial pile of books is very satisfying, although the examination of the books later on might allow one to repent at leisure, or question one's essential business sense. After one notable scrum several years ago, I found myself the proud owner of 1/15th of a large pile of books.

Although for a few of the better books in the pile this actually made sense, for most it was just silly. Selling a book that came from that trove for $100 obligated one to write 14 separate checks for $6.66, even assuming that one was willing to cheat each of one's partners of something more than 6/10th of a cent. Far better to not report the sale until each of the other 14 had reported a sale to you, and then magnanimously command them to deduct $6.66 from what you were owed.

After a few such transactions, one is apt to think that the dealers whose inventory created such a frenzy, such as Caliban, or the Brattle Book Shop, whose booth at the Boston Book Fair resembles more closely the start of the Boston Marathon, are less clueless than they are wisely aware of, and willing to profit by the acquisitive proclivities of their more aggressive colleagues.

What's that? I'm not a genius after all?

This article first appeared in the June/July 2008 issue of Rare Book Review.