Silly Season in America

by Tom Congalton

Sunday, Jun 21, 2009

The Silly Season in America, the seemingly interminable period of time leading up to the Presidential election, has finally ended, with the nation's expectations high about the victor, the Democratic candidate, and now President-elect Obama. Anyone who is even reasonably paying attention doesn't need to be told by me that, given America's checkered struggles with the question of race, the election of an African-American president is an historic event.

Interest in the election has run high. Unexpectedly, more Americans voted in the Presidential Elections than voted for the latest winner of the television talent show "American Idol." And while the Obama campaign seems to have rejected my proposed campaign slogan: "This Time for a Change, Let's Elect the Smart Guy" (presumably it wouldn't have fit comfortably on a bumper sticker) the American people apparently decided that this was a better criteria than the apparent deciding factor in the last election: "Who would you rather have a beer with?"

The addition of Alaska Governor Sarah Palin to the Republican ticket helped to stimulate interest not only in the race, but apparently in the loins of conservative white commentators as well, and contributed generally to the alternating horror and merriment of those who are actually capable of expressing a thought in reasonably fluent English.

Her use of a wealthy campaign contributor's credit card to outfit herself and her family for the campaign inspired many press stories about the looting of posh department stores like Neiman Marcus by the Wasilla (her hometown) Hillbillies, and generally helped to further elevate the national dialogue

Obama won with a grassroots campaign that included over a million volunteers, and with record contributions. His fund raising campaign was enormously successful, and consisted, as near as a close reading of my credit card statement can determine, of getting my wife Heidi to make many small contributions, to the point where the campaign was actually sending her money! I'm not kidding about this, as she contributed to the point where she exceeded the legal limit for individual contributors, necessitating a refund from the campaign.

As a bookseller, she wasn't alone. FundRace2008 ( is a website that publishes political donations, which by law are a matter of public record. In the 2004 election you could search by name, or by geographical location. This was a great way to find out how your neighbors felt about the candidates, and apparently caused vast embarrassment for many who financially supported candidates that their neighbors or social set disapproved of.

But for this election, the website added a delightful "Search by Occupation" feature, so you could also find out who your colleagues supported! Although different variations on bookselling (rare bookseller, antiquarian bookseller, or just bookseller) as an occupation resulted in different results, I'll give you just one. Of the people that listed their occupation as "bookseller," among whom were many antiquarian dealers, 254 people gave $205,186 to Democratic candidates, and 17 people gave $10,654 to Republican candidates, a 20-1 ratio.

Given that a substantial amount of the meager Republican contributions were to Ron Paul, a candidate in the Republican primary who was so far to the right that he managed almost to come full circle to the left, guess which side of the cultural divide the American bookseller landed on?  Curiously, this doesn't even include my own contribution, and presumably others, which weren't recorded yet, and that when tallied, will, I think, cause the discrepancy to be even more pronounced. The lonely booksellers who supported John McCain mostly trod softly at book fairs in the last few months, and on the online discussion groups, but they did occasionally and bravely poke their heads out to retrieve a little abuse from their fellows, who were not slow in providing it.

In case anyone has been a coma for the last couple of months, the American Presidential Election also coincided with the biggest financial crisis in at least my memory. How this will affect the rare book trade has been the subject of still more lively discussions among dealers, and even among concerned collectors.

One John McCain supporter, a well-heeled ABAA dealer, pulled out of the Boston Book Fair and went on vacation, claiming that the financial crisis, for reasons only to those with his arcane knowledge, is all Obama's fault, apparently based on Obama's stated desire to let the tax cuts for the wealthy instituted by George W. Bush expire. Presumably wealthy book collectors will not now be able to buy rare books, and we will all go bankrupt. He firmly contends that we will never sell another book, and his long-term solution is to attempt to collect any outstanding invoices, and hunker down in the basement with some fresh water and packets of instant rice until another four years have passed and we have reversed the terrible error of our political ways.

Oh, well, it was fun while it lasted.

Others who have operated their book businesses through earlier hard times suggest that the trade is slow to react to financial downturns, but not immune to them; and equally slow to respond in boom times as well, which seems to fit with my own experience. Our sales continue apace, but there is certainly an air of apprehension out there.

One is disinclined to get too exercised about the possibility of a prolonged economic downturn, come what may, if only because, as an antiquarian bookseller, I, and most of my fellows are unqualified to do much of anything else.

I guess I'll just keep selling books until President-to-be Obama can fix everything. Presumably there is only one end of the World and this isn't it. At least not quite yet.

This article first appeared in the December 2008/January 2009 issue of Rare Book Review - the last published issue of the magazine.