Meeting other booksellers has been one of the best parts of my life as a bookseller. To have a friend who doesn’t immediately leave the room when you’re discussing the merits of Howes, USiana, Final Edition versus Howes, USiana, Second Edition; to have a colleague who sends good books your way; and to have a compatriot with whom you can commiserate when you’ve made a mistake (and you will make mistakes) is more valuable than any first edition.
I probably don’t sound like it on this blog, but, in person, I am shy upon first meeting someone new. I always have been, and I think my shyness often drove me to books when I was a child, as a way to avoid having to interact with my more socially confident peers. I hate to start conversations, though I do relax once I am actually involved in a conversation. Despite the fact that I have matured enough to be outgoing when called for, this shyness has carried over somewhat into my adulthood.
Last February, I had the privilege of working for my mentor, Mr. Z at the ABAA Fair in San Francisco. Unfortunately, Mr. Z came down with a nasty cold the week of the fair. Feeling awful, he returned home immediately after set-up, to try to rest up for the grueling long days of the fair itself. Before he left, he insisted that I attend the booksellers’ reception that evening, held in the rooftop room at a swanky hotel smack in the middle of Union Square, and try to get to know some other booksellers.
I was petrified. I would have felt much better if I could have been introduced to other booksellers by Mr. Z. Caught offguard by Mr. Z’s unexpected absence, my shyness kicked in, silly thoughts filling my head. Why would any ABAA-level bookseller want to speak to me without an introduction from Mr. Z? What if they just ignored me? How do you start a conversation with someone who is obviously more knowledgeable and experienced than you (and a few of them will be sure to let you know that fact right off the bat)? Worse, how do you start a conversation when all of the other booksellers in the room already know each other and have plenty to talk about without your rookie questions thrown into the mix?
Time for a gut-check. I asked myself how much I really wanted to be an antiquarian bookseller. I was certain that other booksellers never felt intimidated on meeting each other. The answer to my question: I want to be an antiquarian bookseller as much as a collector wants a Gutenberg Bible, even if I look foolish. Stop whining, then, I told myself. I swallowed my shyness and self-consciousness and marched aboard the shuttle bus from the fair to the hotel, where I was seated next to a bookseller from England, from (oh God) Bernard Quaritch.
“What’s the name of your shop?” he asked.
“Book Hunter’s Holiday.”
“I’m not familiar with that one, but” he added generously, “there are so many booksellers here.”
“Oh, I’m just getting started as a bookseller. I have an online shop only right now, and a small one at that. I’m working for Mr. Z for the duration of the fair to gain experience.”
“What do you specialize in?”
“Illustrated editions of Dante’s Divine Comedy.”
“Brilliant! We just did the catalogue for an exhibit of a Dante collection at Cambridge University. It was really nice. If you have a card, I’ll send you the catalogue from it. Will you send me your catalogue?”
I was thinking to myself that while my Dante books are interesting, they are probably not worthy of an exhibition put on by the likes of Bernard Quaritch at such a prestigious University. I wanted to hide under my seat for having the presumptuousness to pick such a high fallutin’ author as Dante. I had no Aldines, no Velutellos, no Blake illustrations. What was I thinking, bragging about a Dante catalogue to a bookseller who could assemble a fantastic one at the snap of his fingers? Was it possible for me to make a great catalogue out of unusual but lesser known editions? I hoped that the man from Bernard Quaritch would quickly forget me and my Dante catalogue.
Off the bus and into the reception, where I met my husband (who is plenty outgoing and who knows a lot of people, but no booksellers). The room was filled with many of the heavy hitters of the antiquarian book industry . . . and me, the former English teacher with a website. I was lucky enough to know one other ABAA bookseller, sort of, Mary and James — we’d met at a reference book workshop the month before. Prior to going home, Mr. Z had asked them to meet me at the reception. They were very kind to talk to Thoughtful Husband and I about book adventures for quite a while. We broke off to get some food, and then I stood in a corner at a cocktail table and ate my food, alone except for poor Thoughtful Non-bookish Husband. I might have looked forlorn in that corner, but I was actually happy just to be surrounded by sellers of such fine and elegant books, a fly on the wall.
Suddenly, I heard, “Chris!” from a few feet away. It was Brian, another bookseller I’d met at the reference workshop, and he was working for Mary and James during the fair. He was with his friend Kent, who works for another ABAA bookseller. They were laughing because Brian had called my name twice and, lost in my happy thoughts of bookseller heaven, I hadn’t heard him, but stood gaping mutely into space. Brian and Kent graciously stepped in to rescue me and Thoughtful Husband from bookseller oblivion, and we talked about all of the great books we saw during set-up and how we thought the fair would be. Suddenly, I noticed, I wasn’t a stranger in the room anymore. Though I wish Mr. Z could have been there, the rest of the evening was most enjoyable. I keep in touch with Brian, Mary and James to this day. I even shared a booth with Mary at a recent book fair.
This August, when I was about to leave for the Colorado Antiquarian Book Market Seminar, Brian, who had attended the year before, gave me some good advice. “Don’t be afraid to be remembered,” he said. “This is a great opportunity to meet other people in the trade, and knowing other people in the trade is crucial.” Meet people. Panic. Gut-check time again: How much do I want to be an antiquarian bookseller? Answer: As much as a collector wants a Gutenberg Bible, even if I look foolish.
I went to Colorado, determined to be outgoing from the start. I even brought a draft of my Dante catalogue to be critiqued, lesser-known editions be damned. I was terrified. However, I had a week so good it was in the realm of a bookseller’s dream come true, and I got to know my fellow seminarians and the faculty, all of whom were without fail friendly and sociable.
Oh, and the bookseller from Bernard Quaritch did, for better or worse, remember me, and sent me the catalogue from that Cambridge Dante exhibition. I was pleasantly surprised to see that I had, on my own, chosen some of the same books that were listed in the catalogue. Maybe I don’t need to be so shy around other booksellers after all.
Do whatever you can to meet your colleagues, and don’t be intimidated unnecessarily by those with more experience and knowledge. Most booksellers are collegial and even friendly. Many are happy to help a new bookseller learn the ins and outs of the trade. I’ll talk about where and how to meet other booksellers tomorrow.