As booksellers, we have to hunt for books. Indeed, the thrill of the hunt is perhaps the most enjoyable part of the job for some of us. Good books can be found everywhere, but the right books in the right condition at the right price are elusive. Booksellers must buy books with the belief that when they sell the books they will make money. Where, then, to scout for saleable books?
You can start with the ubiquitous estate sales and library sales. You won’t find hundreds of volumes of good material at one time, but these sales are excellent places to start. Library sales give a new bookseller a chance to see books of all editions and all conditions. It was at a library sale that I saw enough book club editions of books that I began to learn how to distinguish most of them from a real first edition. You won’t see any book club editions (at least I hope you won’t) in a true antiquarian bookshop, so it’s hard to learn if that’s the only place you shop. It was also at a library sale that I learned to differentiate a good from a very good, a very good from a near fine, and a near fine from a fine book. Seeing the wide range of conditions on so many books helped me to know to know the difference. A library sale will add volumes to your education as a bookseller, if not to your bookshelves.
Don’t despair that you see a lot of dreck at most library sales (and you will see a lot of dreck). The term book hunter suggests that we must know the dross from the gold. If you are new to book collecting or bookselling, you need first to learn to recognize the dross in order to separate it from the gold. Once you attend the same sale a few months in a row, you will get pretty good at this and no longer feel like you aren’t seeing anything saleable at your library book sale. Also, if you inadvertently purchase some “mistakes”, you won’t have broken the bank to do so. When these mistakes happen to me, I chalk it up to “bookseller’s tuition”. After a few years of attending my local library’s monthly sale, I can now walk past a shelf and tell very quickly whether it holds any books I want to examine more closely. What attracts my attention and merits a closer look? Any number of things — A particular author or illustrator, an unusual or a well-known title, a decorative or a very plain binding. The more time you spend at such sales, the better you’ll learn what attracts you to the good books. You will also need a little something called “fingerspitzengefuhl”, which I’ll discuss in more detail tomorrow.
When you’re confident at a library or an estate sale, start scouting your local historical society. Many of these organizations hold regular sales. Mine even has an open used book shop. I’ve been lucky enough to find books and ephemera donated to the historical society that have the bookplate of a prominent California historian (now deceased), and that added somewhat to their already saleable value. I’ve blogged here about my local historical society and why I like it, if you want to know more.
Another place I shop frequently is the open (and/or online) shop of my fellow booksellers. A very valuable part of my bookselling education has been to get to know other booksellers. Experienced booksellers can help answer your questions and help you discern a first printing from a first state from a first issue. Once you have some basic knowledge, it is worth your time to cultivate a relationship with more experienced sellers. I now know a few well enough that they’ll buy a particular book with me in mind, hoping they can sell it to me. I’ve also been able to supply a couple of booksellers whose likes and dislikes I’ve gotten to know. Most of them are very helpful when I have a question I can’t yet answer on my own.
You know from past posts that I love book fairs. (Look at the sidebar on your right. There’s an entire category of posts on book fairs.) A book fair can offer 50 or more booksellers in one location. Frequently, sellers offer books at fairs that they do not offer online or in their shops. You can also find deals among booksellers looking to sell off books they acquired that aren’t a part of their specialty. They are wonderful places to scout and to meet your fellow booksellers in person. And don’t even get me started about the merits of selling your own books there. This is a post about finding books.
I do go to the occasional book auction, though I don’t often find bargains there. I also buy some books on ebay, but not unless I know a lot about the book I’m about to purchase. There’s nothing worse than a seller purporting to have a first edition and then seeing the actual book and finding out it’s a book club edition. Better to know the points of issue ahead of time and figure out for yourself if the book is actually a first. I’m wary of signed books sold on ebay, too. It’s just too hard to determine authenticity in most situations. Still, when you know what you want and you’ve done your homework, you can find interesting books there.
Purchasing an entire estate of books also leads to some good finds, but take care to research how to evaluate and negotiate such a deal. I’ve purchased such an estate once before and it was a good experience for me and for the seller, but I asked the advice of more experienced booksellers as to the protocol of housecalls before I agreed to look at the customer’s books.
Finally, read Larry McMurtry’s entertaining novel, Cadillac Jack. It’s a fun read and is a great portrayal of the mindsets of collectors and sellers, even though the characters in the book are neither booksellers nor book collectors. The narrator, Cadillac Jack, repeats a mantra when he is looking to buy items he can resell later: “Anything can be anywhere.” In my (albeit limited) experience, I have discovered that, more important than where one hunts for books, is the attitude with which one hunts for books. I have had some of my best book finds when shopping while employing Cadillac Jack’s “anything can be anywhere” motto. Sometimes, the Cadillac Jack attitude combined with a little book knowledge has led me to bag the big game on my book hunting adventures.
Tomorrow: Fingerspitzengefuhl and the Strangest Place I Found a Good Book. Anything Really Can Be Anywhere