Larry McMurtry will receive the Los Angeles Public Library Literary Award this week. In an interview posted online, he talks mostly about being a bookseller. "I just don’t think about my work at all. I think about being a bookseller. I don’t think about being a writer," he said.
A recent email from one of our readers who collects historic newspapers, lead me to a small cache of YouTube videos about two leading newspaper dealers, Timothy Hughes and the Mitchell Archive. Hughes is definitely the leading dealer in his field and has a great many newspapers in inventory. His business turns out to be a family affair that has taken over what used to be his father's machine shop. This video shows it to be ephemera dealing on fork-lift and heavy-lift scale.
The Mitchell Archive video is a nice presentation about collecting newspapers. Mark Mitchell specializes more in highspots:
More videos are also available:
More Hughes Videos on Their YouTube Channel
This from "Bible Editions & Versions," the Journal of the International Society of Bible Collectors (April – June 2008):
"The Brick Testament. Constructed and photographed entirely by the Rev. Brendan Powell Smith. The largest, most comprehensive illustrated Bible in the world, with over 3,600 illustrations (the scenes are made from Lego blocks) that retell more than 300 stories from the Bible. First launched as a website in 2001, then as a published book series in 2003."
I love how deadpan the description is. The "Reverend" Smith is hardly reverent. He is, however, obsessive, and pretty good with Legos.
Image of Noah's Ark.
Yesterday I posted Chuck Rozanski's seven questions to be asked before getting into the comics business. Here are a few of his choice observations, which apply equally to the used book business:
"I remember reading a Small Business Administration (SBA) pamphlet 30 years ago which laid out the hard facts that 70% of new businesses started in America fail within three years, and that 85% fail within five years….For the specialized area of comics retailing, those percentages were actually a bit optimistic. Very few of the stores that were opened from 1988-1999 are still in business, and I'll bet that 75% of those that are still open could be purchased for net asset value, with no consideration given for the enterprise as an ongoing business."
"What most comics retailers never figure out (until it's too late…) is that they are losing money every day that they are open for business. They accumulate lots of inventory, and come to believe that owning lots of stuff is the same thing as making a profit. Well, that's only true if you have a cost-effective mechanism for turning your stuff into cash. If you don't own such a mechanism, you're not generating a profit, you're simply adding to your storage cost burden. Eventually that burden, combined with a lack of cash flow, will kill your business."
"Comics retailers are notorious for seldom liquidating slow product, and as a result, what you see in a store is not what their customers are seeking, but rather what they got stuck with."
And finally, in a much later column, Mr. Rozanski asks a question that I think all book collectors should ask. It's one that I've been giving a lot of thought to of late as I have been working with one of our regular contributors, Richard Goodman, on a story about what the book world can learn from the art world. A lot of people are concerned about an apparent waning of interest in books. The same is true about comics. I am reminded of the last lines of that famous Dylan Thomas poem: "Do not go gentle into that good night. / Rage, rage against the dying of the light." What Mr. Rozanski asks here is worth asking of everyone who loves books.
"To get to the nub of my question for today, I would ask you to consider what you are personally doing to try to save the comics world. I realize that there is not a single one of us who can have any measure of a significant impact solving this kind of dilemma alone, but I do fervently believe that great numbers of people working toward a common goal can create an astonishing level of positive change. To be a bit more specific, I would ask what kind of outreach you have done of late to try to bring new readers into comics? All of us have favorite stories that particularly resonate with us as an individual. Have you tried passing that book and/or comic on to a friend? How about giving comics to kids?…How about speaking about comics before groups of young people? I've been to numerous elementary, middle, and high schools during my career, speaking to young people about the merits of graphic storytelling, and passing out free samples. These are just a few of the ways that all of us can help encourage new readers."
Chuck Rozanski of Mile High Comics is one of the most interesting retailers of collectables. I have basically zero interest in comics, but I subscribe to his email list and read every one. He basically breaks every rule in the book, and doing so has made him the leading comics dealer in the world (he started out living in his car along with his inventory). Instead of keeping his emails short and to the point, he tells stories about his latest buying trips, what's going on at home, his adventures collecting Native American pottery, and whatever else happens to be on his mind. He also runs crazy promotions, like giving $10 gift certificates to everyone on his email list. The gift certificate had no minimum. Order $10 in comics and they were completely free except for the shipping, charged at the actual cost (no markup). In December, Mile High customers redeemed $50,000 in gift certificates.
Mr. Rozanski wrote a column for a comics publication, and then posted them on his store's website. It's very good reading, and although it is about selling comics, a lot of what he writes applies to books as well. His columns are particularly honest about being in business, too. He describes the downside of rapid success and how the sudden growth of his business to $10,000 per week in 1980 nearly bankrupted him—the cost of hiring lots of new employees, renting warehouse space, investing in desks and equipment, and acquiring enough new inventory to keep the sales going ate up all the cash and then some.
One series of columns addressed the desire of collectors to enter the business of selling comics. Mr. Rozanski offers seven questions every potential dealer should ask. Change comics to books, and the list works for bookselling, too.
About the motivations for entering the business, he writes, "If your answer is that you want to sell comics for a living because you have have a passion for comics, I'm unimpressed. Alcoholics have a passion for liquor, but that's certainly not a good reason for them to be operating a liquor store. In fact, I've seen a large number of comics stores fail because the owners were so wrapped up in their love of comics, that they forgot that they were running a business."
Here are the seven key questions. They aren't the usual ones people ask when starting a business, which is why they are so illuminating:
1) Do I have the ability to self-motivate myself?
2) Am I willing to forego all other activities in my life to be a comics dealer?
3) Can I make it my foremost goal to serve other comics fans?
4) Do I have the ability to ignore my own personal tastes?
5) Do I have the desire and intellectual curiosity to endlessly educate myself about new areas of collecting?
6) Do I have the mental toughness that will enable me to persevere, even when the odds seem hopelessly stacked against me?
7) Do I communicate well with others?
Read the first part of Mr. Rozanski's advice here. Don't forget to hit the "Next" link at the bottom of the page for the continuation of his comments.
Does anyone know who made these illustrations? I just bought seven original paintings and drawings from an unknown children's book that appears to have depicted scenes from countries around the world. The artist signs his or her paintings with a capital T (shown below):
Here are two typical examples. These fish are labeled "page 24 Islands – Java – Ceylon." The caption, typed and pasted on the bottom edge of the illustration, reads "Watching so many funny things, / Bright colored fish and fish with wings."
A couple of the illustrations are monochromatic. I assume that some pages in the final book were in color and some were printed just in black. The example below is "page 50 Spain." It is captioned, "An orange-laden donkey spied / Burdened with fruit on either side."
I've tried googling the text of the captions and tried Amazon.com's "Search Inside" feature, with no luck. Anyone recognize the style?
Bibliophile Bullpen posted this video from Loomis Antiquarian Books in Stillwater, Minnesota, which is closing at the end of the month. It joins Book Baron (Los Angeles), Bogey Books (Davis, Calif), and Blue Dragon Books (Ashland, Ore.) in closing near the end of the year. There are probably more stores that I haven't heard about. As readers of this blog know, my wife (the author Amy Stewart) and I, with our friends, Jack and Peggy, bought Eureka Books as it was about to close. Here's Amy's take on it, as published recently in one of our local papers:
Last week, I called my brother in LA and told him that my husband Scott and I were buying an antiquarian bookstore. He considered our occupations–magazine editor, author, and now bookstore owner–and said, “Wow. Books, magazines–you guys are really getting into a growth industry up there.”
“Yes, we believe the printed page is the wave of the future,” I said, “and we’re investing in it heavily.”
Yikes. As I write this, I have been the part-owner of Eureka Books for less than 24 hours. It’s a grand, glorious old place, crammed to the ceiling with odd and offbeat treasures like Victorian marriage manuals, yellowed sheaves of sheet music, and even a Zane Grey novel bound in flamboyant marbled papers. A few days ago, a book scout came through looking for inventory to sell to dealers, and he pulled out what may be the first novel about Alcoholics Anonymous. The term ‘alcoholism’ was so new, back in the 1940s when the novel was published, that it had to be defined on the dust-jacket flap. The scout paid four bucks for it and may sell it for twenty to a dealer who specializes in AA books. The dealer might sell it to a collector for $120. Every book finds its home eventually. So it goes in the rare book trade.
I don’t know a damn thing about rare books—I like my paperbacks cheap and tattered—but I know that I plan to fight long and hard against the alleged demise of the book. Let the National Endowment for the Arts make dire predictions about the decline in reading. Let Sony, Apple, and Amazon roll out one handheld e-book device after another. I’m having none of it. I love the smell of an old book, I love the heft of a hardcover, and I love getting to know a person by browsing their bookshelves. Surely I’m not the only one. Antiquarian bookstores all over the country are closing their doors, but by God, I’m going to wedge my body in the doorway of this one and keep it open.
Scott, who founded a magazine about rare books, is in charge of figuring out a strategy for making a nineteenth century-style bookstore viable in the twenty-first century. He’s been a book dealer before and he’s in touch with the movers and shakers in the antiquarian book world. Most of them are well past retirement age and their kids aren’t interested in old books. They give him fatherly advice and drop hints about where a few good private collections might be had for a decent price. Several of them have told him that he’s crazy for buying a bookstore in this digital age, but they say it fondly, the way your dad might tell you that you’re crazy for restoring an old Mustang or taking your rock band on the road. It’s crazy, but in a good way.
As for me, I hope to pull a shift in the store once in a while so I can live out my romantic writer/bookstore-owner fantasies. Just yesterday, I was browsing the shelves when I came across a whole section of books on a bit of obscure botanical history that I’ve been interested in lately. I started to pull the books off the shelf to see if I could afford them, and then I thought, “Wait a minute. I’ve already bought them. I totally own all these books.”
That’s a dangerous thought. On second thought, maybe I shouldn’t be allowed to work in the store. I never could stand to part with a good book.
(reprinted from the North Coast Journal, December 12, 2007 issue)
The community support for our acquisition Eureka Books has been extraordinary. Booklegger, the used book store on the corner, sent over a cake, the restaurant down the block brought us lunch over the weekend, and several shop owners have dropped by to wish us well. Yesterday, the local paper put a story about the store on the front page.
There's a story in Publishers Weekly's email news blast today. I don't know if it will be in the magazine as well. Better yet, we've had four good days in a row. We spent the weekend moving furniture around and reorganizing the front of the store. Yesterday, Christmas decorations went up. Today I'm back at work on the magazine.
This will be short as I have to open the store this morning. First, thanks to everyone for all their support. We really appreciate it. Second, here's one of those little miracles that can only happen in a bookstore like Eureka Books (see post below for details). On our first day as owners, a fellow from Los Angeles wandered in and found what's left of the estate of an LA-area photography teacher. We acquired it from his daughter who lives in this area. The photos mostly date from the 1950s and 1960s. Our LA guest was flipping through the photos when he came upon an 8 x 10 black-and-white portrait of his uncle. Needless to say, we sold it to him at a significant discount. You never know what you're going to find browsing in a real, honest-to-goodness bricks-and-mortar store.
This is Eureka Books, one of the last classic antiquarian bookstores on the West Coast. As of 10 a.m. Wednesday, I own it (along with my wife and our friends Jack and Peggy Irvine). I like this picture because in black and white you really can't tell if it was taken last week (which it was) or twenty years ago. Those of you who scouted in Northern California probably know Carlos Benemann, the previous owner who is retiring from the book trade. He started out working for John Howell in the 1960s and opened his first shop in Humboldt County in 1982.
Eventually, we moved from Oregon to Eureka, California, where I had the good fortune to immediately go to work for Eureka Books. The eight years I spent at Powell's taught me a lot about the book business, but the two years I worked for J.B. Bowden at Eureka Books taught me about books. J.B. was a stickler for searching long and hard through mountains of reference books to price a book correctly. Keep in mind that this was pre-Internet or, at least, just at the beginning of its rise to fame. Eureka Books did not even have a computer when I worked there, so I was forced to learn to price my books the old-fashioned (correct) way. I couldn't just jump online and see what some other idiot was pricing a book for and then undercut him by two dollars.
Mark Shikuma, who holds down the fort on the weekends, is a veteran of Gotham Book Mart in New York City, and a number of other bookshops around the country. Ann Hunt, the newest bookseller at Eureka Books, has been plying the book trade for ten years and is our master of the local history section. I look forward to working with them as Eureka Books starts its second twenty years. The next time you're in Northern California, beyond the redwood curtain, stop in and see us.
As for the magazine, it's business at usual. The January/February issue is just about in the can, and the stories for March are already flowing in. Now when people accuse me of not knowing what I'm talking about when it comes to the nuts-and-bolts reality of the book business, they may be right, but it's not for lack of trying.