On Becoming a Specialist Dealer

by Tom Congalton

Wednesday, Dec 30, 2009

[Delivered at the 2005 Colorado Antiquarian Book Seminar]

When I was invited to speak here at the seminar as the "specialist dealer" I asked several of my colleagues what I was supposed to speak about, and received some, truth-be-told, dubious advice. Things like "talk about yourself, and then take questions" or "you know, books."

I can't thank the faculty enough for this helpful advice.

This assignment did however, give me cause to ruminate about the nature of booksellers — how some become specialists, why others remain staunch generalists, how these transitions are made, and what it all means to a young or novice bookseller anyway.

What I seem to have determined is that specialist dealers are sprung upon the world by way of two diametrically opposite forces — either by choice, or by chance.

I have no doubt that there are many dealers, probably beginning as collectors in very specific areas, whose interests and lifestyle choices compel them to launch themselves upon the book trade as dealers in very specific specialties.

There are some advantages to this if one's chosen field is specific enough.

Here's an example:

About a dozen years ago, my wife, Heidi, who likes books about wine, and had compiled a carefully chosen, but relatively modest collection, allowed herself to be persuaded by me to price and sell some of her books at the California Antiquarian Book Fair in San Francisco, which, as one might imagine, is something of a hotbed of wine book collecting.

Over that weekend, she sold several of the nicer books in her collection, for very respectable prices. She met and engaged many of the countries best collectors of wine books. She was generally complimented on her selection and the condition of her books, and she was invited to visit the libraries of some distinguished collectors.

In short, she was, for a little while at least, a success as a specialist dealer.

Because the nature of her specialty was specific enough, in the course of only three or four days she had emerged as one of the country's leading dealers in wine books. This achievement was only slightly diminished by the fact that there were only a handful of other wine book dealers in the country.

As a postscript to this stunning success story, about two weeks later, Heidi began to regret the lack of some of the books that she had sold, and, as there seemed to be no new worlds to conquer in her chosen field, she retired from the trade and resumed her status as a wine book collector, busily searching for other copies of the books she had just sold.

More than choice however, I suspect most booksellers become Specialist Dealers by chance. My own odyssey towards becoming a modern first edition dealer was determined more by chance than any other factor.

I began as a book accumulator haunting used bookstores, standing in line at library sales, and occasionally pestering established booksellers for their printed catalogues, a proposition that benefited them pretty much not at all. Most dealers would send me one or two catalogues, and then write me off, correctly, as a lost cause, a pest, a nuisance, or all of the above. But a few of these dealers, out of either indulgence, or more likely inattention, kept me on their mailing lists, some for many years.

Indeed I received the catalogues of the Current Company in Rhode Island, which was owned by Rob Rulon-Miller's father, for nearly a decade. For this indulgence, I believe Mr. Rulon-Miller, Sr. was remunerated by a single sale to me totaling in the amount of seven American dollars.

It was only decades later that I found in conversation with Rob, that my continued receipt of the catalogues was based less on Mr. Rulon-Miller, Sr.'s tender goodwill, or on his hopes for another seven dollar sale, than the fact that Mr. Rulon-Miller, Jr. was in charge of the mailing list, and wasn't paying particularly close attention, a quality he continues to cultivate to this day.

At that time, as a reasonably intelligent young book scout, I was buying fiction, local history, moldering leather books, and pretty much whatever else came to hand, but most importantly, as was befitting my finances, I bought whatever was cheapest.

I guess I was a generalist.

I would occasionally sell or trade a few books, but these few forays into the world of used or medium rare book commerce were few enough and insignificant enough not to be particularly educational.

My interactions with my local booksellers, at that time, mostly the proprietors of open shops, were also not particularly helpful in furthering my rare bookselling education. Perhaps the most distinguished-looking bookseller in my area was a retired English military officer who wore jodhpurs and a velvet sport's coat, and had a clipped military mustache. I later found out he came from Ohio.

The Colonel intimated to me that dustjackets were a nuisance on literary first editions and should be discarded at every opportunity. Among the other helpful lessons he imparted were that book club editions were no different from first editions, and should be valued equally, and also, that second editions were almost as valuable as first editions, especially if he was the dealer selling them.

I should say here that this advice was not imparted with any particular malice, but rather just ignorantly, or more likely out of indifference to the subject, as he was mostly interested in maps and prints. Luckily I was young and headstrong enough to ignore his advice - MOSTLY.

Turnabout of course, is fair play, and I am just grateful that I have thrived, or at least survived in the book world long enough to be given this opportunity to offer my own well-meaning, but perhaps equally ignorant advice. Don't be surprised if any minute now, I break into my British accent.

It wasn't until I actually met an actual living, breathing specialist bookseller, through a mutual friend, when I was in my mid 20s, that I understood just WHAT it was a specialist dealer actually did. He used his superior knowledge of a single subject to harvest the best books in that field from generalist dealers, book scouts, open bookstores, and the public, raised the prices according to his whim, or to whatever the market would bear, and then foisted these books upon the unsuspecting collectors who had found themselves in the unfortunate position of having enrolled themselves upon his carefully maintained mailing list, thus reaping outlandish profits for his minimal labor.

This sounded more like it to me.

And thus, I think, and in similar ways, are many specialist dealers born — the product of chance. A bookseller goes on a house call, and encounters and purchases a nice library on, well, anything — you fill in the blank. In the process of researching, pricing, and selling that collection or its parts, he or she acquires a storehouse of knowledge about the subject, learns to differentiate between the common and the uncommon, meets a few customers for those books, learns to identify and buy the scarcer books in the field when they come to hand, and through a process of seeming osmosis wakes up one day to realize that they have become a specialist bookseller.

If my first serious interaction had been with a children's book dealer, I imagine I would be lecturing you now about children's books, or if it had been with a dealer in Americana, I imagine I would be an Americana dealer. As it turned out, it was with a dealer in modern literary first editions, and as I was an avid reader of fiction and already had a predisposition to that field, and indeed, more by chance than design, I had nestled amongst the unjacketed book club and second editions that I had bought from the Colonel, a modest but likely looking group of modern first editions. So it was that I instantly became a modern first edition dealer.

For a few years, while I was running a small cabinet shop, I served an unwitting apprenticeship in the first edition trade, as a scout for more established catalogue dealers. When I finally quit the woodworking trade, and at the age of 32, with a wife and two small children, pretty much no savings, no income, and not too many books, I declared myself not only a modern first edition dealer, but a FULLTIME modern first edition dealer.

So now that I had established an identity for myself, I needed to make that identity known to the rest of the world, or at least to the small part of the rest of the world that might think that this was something worth knowing.

With Internet bookselling now the logical entry into the book trade, the path that I followed to bookselling, as well as the paths followed by many other established dealers must seem quaint to you... it even seems quaint to me.

Today, of course, my first step would have been to build a database, create or have created for me a website, and offer my books both there and on various Internet search engines, accumulating the names of customers as they bought books, and quoting books to the most receptive of these customers. But it wasn't quite so simple then.

The first step THEN in crafting an identity was to create a catalogue and in order to distribute it effectively, a mailing list was required. Typing a catalogue, especially for someone with no typing skills, and with personal computers then mostly considered little more than a novelty, was both torturous, and frustrating. Compiling a mailing list was time and labor intensive.

I quickly found that the greatest resource then available to me, and which I still think is the greatest resource available to dealers, was other dealers.

I bought, for a very modest sum, another first edition dealer's mailing list, with the proviso that I had permission to trade names from it to another first edition dealer of my acquaintance, as long as I agreed to share the names that I received in return.

I began to exhibit at book fairs, and collected the names of anyone who was even remotely interested in modern first editions on a sign up sheet. This method turned out to be an incredibly inefficient, but not completely useless way to find new customers. I quickly realized that every couple of months I would add about one hundred names to my mailing list from book fairs. After having sent four or five catalogues to each of the one hundred, I would drop all of those would had not bought from any of those catalogues - on average I would drop about ninety-nine of the original one hundred names.

Of course and invariably, the same people would sign up again the next year and more often than not, unless we were paying close attention, the process would be repeated. After these catalogue collectors had been dropped several times, and we finally could reliably identify them, many would whine that they still wanted to receive our catalogues, and we hit upon the idea of charging a subscription fee to those who didn't buy, and surprisingly several dozens of these people now pay for the privilege of not buying books from us. In a few cases, subscribers have actually developed into decent customers - I imagine that they feel they have enough invested is us that they might as well go ahead and buy some books.

I was once set up at a book fair next to a well-known and very successful autograph dealer. Rather than a sign-up sheet, he had a professionally printed "Application for our Mailing List" sheet that the "applicant" had to fill out in thorough detail. Most of the time, after the "applicant" had walked away, he would glance at the application, mutter under his breath, "application rejected" and drop it in the wastebasket. His method seems to have worked better than mine.

I continued to buy books by any economical means I could devise, but when money wasn't available to buy books, I would trade books with other dealers - an effective way of making one's inventory fresh again. The dead stock of those dealers looked new to me, as mine did to them.

My first catalogue, issued nearly 20 years ago now, sold about 19% of the books by volume, with total sales of a little over $2300. The road to riches lay opening before me.

At that time book fairs were more important to my own, and to many other bookseller's businesses than they are now. I, and many other dealers would travel long distances hoping to peddle our wares, and indeed traveling to different locations would place us in contact with collectors and other dealers that we either didn't know at all, or knew only by reputation.

On one rather embarrassing occasion, which I will tell you about only to preempt [fellow faculty member] Jeff Marks from telling you about it later, the Massachusetts dealer Ken Lopez and I drove all the way from the East Coast to exhibit at the Glendale, California fair. After a full day of set-up, on the evening before the fair's Saturday morning opening, we found ourselves in the cocktail lounge of the Holiday Inn near the fair, as guests of several distinguished modern first edition dealers who we knew only slightly, or by reputation alone. Nervous about being is such august company, and secure in the knowledge that someone else was paying for it, Ken and I, I fear, made rather merry.

Imagine our delight, when we awoke the next afternoon to learn that we had effectively missed the first full day of the fair that we had driven nearly 3,000 miles to exhibit at. Our booth, located on the stage of the Glendale Civic Center, where it was particularly conspicuous, and which he had carefully set up the day before, had been helpfully and completely draped in white sheets by the fair organizers to discourage pilferage, looking as if perhaps the artist Christo had stumbled into a California bookfair, and not knowing what else to do, just couldn't help himself from making our booth into an installation.

Although we were not in attendance, I understand we were the talk of the fair. And they say there's no such thing as bad publicity...

Book fairs, with the exception of the ABAA sponsored shows in New York, California, and Boston, and a few scattered regional fairs that remain robust, now seem to have been greatly diminished as engines of the trade.

While I am a pragmatist, and have happily embraced modern bookselling methods, I nevertheless still find this relegation of book fairs to the backwaters of the book world sort of sad. It is less that I miss the preparation, drudgery, and boredom involved in exhibiting at a book fair, as it is a symptom of what the used and rare book world has become, and what it may further become - a world of disembodied practitioners hunched over keyboards in their basements, lonely and isolated. I imagine that some percentage of today's Internet booksellers consider themselves lone-wolves, out for themselves and themselves alone, in competition with everyone else, and ironically and completely alienated from those whose experiences are the most similar to their own.

At the time I became a bookseller, I joined an established and pretty much orderly community. When I exhibited at book fairs I put myself in proximity to booksellers of far greater experience and expertise than myself, and who to one degree or another were usually willing to share some parts of that experience or expertise with me. Sitting through a quiet day at an ill-attended bookfair talking to one's colleagues, mostly for lack of anything else to do, fostered friendships, partnerships, and occasional deals that booksellers who restrict their activity to the Internet may never get to experience.

An example. After I had pretty much established myself as a first edition dealer, I continued to buy interesting looking lots of books where I could, particularly from house calls, or at auctions. At one point I had managed to accumulate a small but attractive selection of sporting books - books on hunting and fishing (subjects which, by the way, I have very little interest in). Finding that these books sold pretty well at book fairs, as well as to other dealers, I thought that I might make the subject a sub-specialty, or to put it in more academic terms, I was going to "minor" in sporting books.

During the course of one particularly somnambulant Sunday during a Carlisle, Pennsylvania book fair, now long defunct, a dealer whose booth was across the aisle from mine, found himself with little choice but to stare at the bookcases full of sporting books I had trundled out to the fair. Before that Sunday was over, and because neither of us had anything much else to do, he found himself owning those sporting books — all of them.

And so ended my career as a specialist sporting book dealer. At least for now.

Before I became a bookseller, I already had an inkling that this eccentric bookselling community existed. As a teenager with a part-time job in the local public library, I found that a good method of avoiding the labor for which the public was paying me a munificent one dollar and fifty cents per hour, was to hide in the stacks and read one of the bookseller biographies that the library stocked, and were usually available to me, as they were rarely or ever taken out by the patrons. I'm sure that every bookseller probably has a few favorites in this obscure genre. One of mine was The Adventures of a Treasure Hunter by Charles Everitt.

Although I read Mr. Everitt's book more than once, I remember little about the details of the book. The one thing that I do remember is that all dealer-to-dealer interactions seemed to break down along the following lines:

Bookseller A acquires Rare Book.

Bookseller B finding out about Rare Book, visits Bookseller A and offers him X number of dollars for Rare Book.

Bookseller A tells Bookseller B to Go to Hell.

Bookseller B calls Bookseller A a greedy, thieving Sonovabitch.

Booksellers A & B grumble and snort for an unspecified period of time.

Booksellers A & B conclude the transaction, shake hands, and go off to a lovely lunch, usually accompanied by an unspecified number of libations.

Booksellers A & B part company, each one secure in the knowledge that he has gotten by far the best of THAT transaction.

It was this sort of collegiality that made me want to be a rare bookseller. I fear many young booksellers are missing out on this kind of experience.

Lest one thinks I am waxing a tad sentimental about community, collegiality, and friendship in the trade, there are very practical and mutual benefits to these kinds of associations.

For one thing two heads are almost always better than one. For the first three years of my career, after evenings in which I would indulge my family in a reasonable facsimile of human interaction, I would catalogue books after they went to bed, usually from midnight until about three o'clock in the morning. Most of that time I would be on the telephone with Ken Lopez. If one of us didn't know an issue point on a book, the other might know, or know how to price it. If one of us was unfamiliar with a collector for the books one of us might have in hand, the other might know whom to call.

 On many other occasions I have been party to the purchase of a library that I or the other parties to the purchase would not or could not have accomplished by themselves. Buying an expensive library with partners of roughly equal experience in the trade affords an excellent way to share the costs and the risks involved, as well as provides multiple opportunities to sell the books you've purchased.

This of course, can be carried too far. On one occasion at a New York Antiquarian Book Fair, an exhibiting dealer who specialized in nautical books was offering an exciting library of first editions that hadn't seen the light of day for decades. When the dealer unpacked these books, as you might imagine, a frenzy ensued, much like that of sharks reacting to blood in the water.

A number of first edition dealers, of which I was one, and my fellow faculty member Jeff Marks another, rather than engage in grabbing, shoving, fisticuffs, and excessive harrumphing, decided we would act in a reasonably civilized manner, and pool our aggregate purchases together.

When we had paid, and lugged our hoard back to a neutral location to code and price our treasures, we determined that we would need an ownership code to write in the books that would reflect the group of partners involved. For some reason, now shrouded in the mists of time, this code ended up being the letters O-O-P-S, or oops. The appropriateness of this ownership code later became apparent, when upon the sale of each Oop's book, I would receive a check for one-fifteenth of the final sale price. This wasn't insignificant after we sold the jacketed copy of The Great Gatsby, but was slightly less amusing when I would sell a hundred dollar Somerset Maugham first edition, and have to go through an entire book of checks in order to pay my partners. I still have a suspicious feeing that somewhere I might still have an oops book in my inventory, and find myself living in the fear that I might actually sell it.

I have generally found most first edition dealers to be friendly and generous with advice and information. Leaving aside the now mostly defunct Oops partnership, I probably own books with nearly twenty other dealers. I have found that many dealers, particularly after having established personal relationships of long enough standing that have convinced them of the trustworthiness of their fellows, are usually very comfortable buying books in this manner.

Probably the first time I bought books in partnership with another dealer was on those cross-country trips with Ken Lopez. After a six or twelve hours companionable drive to a bookstore, it rapidly became clear that Ken and I would rather share whatever we might find at our next stop, than the alternative scenario: having to sprint to the first edition section and our sweaty attempts to out-scout each other.

And yes, I could sprint back then.

Then, as now, one of the specialties that Ken was known for was Vietnam War Literature. One of our more amusing stops was at a bookstore in Denver that had a large and good quality stock of Vietnam books. In almost every book would be a small citation clipped from one of Ken's catalogues, or a small handwritten pencil notation stating something like: "In Lopez for $40 - our price $25." This looked discouraging, except that we discovered that whenever this dealer couldn't find a particular Vietnam book in Ken's catalogue, determined that it probably wasn't a book worth having, and would then price that book $6. And thus it was that we bought all of his rare Vietnam books for $6 each, less dealer discount.

Even when firmly established as a specialist dealer, I can't help but notice that most dealers are constantly finding themselves torn between becoming specialist dealers or remaining generalist dealers.

Many years ago I found myself in Alabama on a mission to look at a library in the company of one of your faculty members, a very, very focused dealer in expensive modern first editions, whose identity shall be withheld by me under pain of death, or until somebody buys me a drink later and asks me who it is, whichever comes first.

The material that we had traveled South to purchase having been secured, and our mission accomplished, we found ourselves traveling around central Alabama, looking for something to do, and certainly not expecting to find any more books to buy. Suddenly in the midst's of a suburban shopping center we ran into an attractive-looking used books store. I insisted we stop and scout the store. Over the objections of my colleague, we went inside. The following exchange took place:

Me, to bookstore owner: "Hi, we're booksellers and would like to look around a little bit."

Bookstore owner: "Go ahead."

Other dealer, to bookstore owner: "Where do you keep your inscribed Faulkner and Hemingway first editions?"

Bookstore owner: "Uh, we don't have any."

Other dealer to me: "I'll be in the car."

I insisted that he stay, and as I had the car keys, he was forced to. We managed to find a few books.

Sounds like a pretty committed specialist dealer, right? Well, just about two months ago, I found myself exhibiting at the same book fair with this dealer, who was exhibiting non-fiction books for $5 each. Two years ago at that fair he was selling pulp magazines. The last time I was in his garage it was filled with very large wooden boat models that he had just happened to run across at an auction. I didn't see them all, because he had sold some, but I understand that some of the models were so large that they had required a trailer to move them.

I think as much as some of us try to define ourselves as specialist dealers, most of us are constantly reinventing ourselves, chafing perhaps against the restrictions that bind us into one narrow specialty or another. My involvement as a first edition dealer has acted as a springboard to related fields, rather than as a restriction to a narrower focus. African-American literature is encompassed in my specialty of modern first editions, but I soon found myself interested in early narratives, memoirs, and non-fiction books by African-Americans about their experiences, and have issued perhaps a dozen catalogues in those fields. Certain types of genre fiction are generally considered fair game for first edition dealers, or can be a specialty in their own right - mystery and detective fiction, and science fiction among them. For me, more recently, my inventory of baseball fiction has expanded to encompass early non-fiction books on baseball, mostly very difficult to find, and which have proved a rewarding challenge to search out.

Some days I can't wait to get up, just to see what field I am going to try to specialize in next.

It goes almost, but not quite without saying, that if one chooses to become a specialist dealer, than one lives or dies by one's specialty. This is especially the case if you choose to deal in very specific sorts of books.  If you choose to deal in books about the early history of computers, you will have very little interaction with the vast universe of children's book collectors. If you choose to deal in Western Americana, well-healed first editions collectors will not flock to your shop, or your website, or your book fair booth.

Of course, one of the more uncomfortable secrets of being a specialist dealer is that we all rely, usually much more than we would like to, on a small core of more or less reliable collectors to earn our daily bread.

Once again, if you deal in very specific books, you might find yourself relying on just one or two collectors. Upheaval in the lives of these collectors — divorce, illness, death, or financial reverses, might result in upheavals in your own life as well.

So what's a specialist dealer to do?

The answer is simple, although it might not always seem so in one's hour of need.

Adapt and diversify.

With the advent of the Internet these past several years, formerly curmudgeonly, intractable, and hidebound book dealers of all sorts have become transformed by necessity into an especially adaptable species, and I suspect the uncertainties of the marketplace will continue to make this so.

Once you have embarked on your own bookselling career, you may or may not choose to specialize in a particular subject or type of book, but don't be too surprised if a specialty chooses you.