I’m back, even though it’s not yet Monday and I am still coughing and coughing. I wanted to do just one more post about fingerspitzengefuhl (if you can stand it), and I’ve got it written, so I’m just going to post it a little bit ahead of schedule. Thank you again to readers who shared their stories of good book finds last week.
Late last week I received an email comment from Scott Brown, Editor of Fine Books and Collections, in which he said that while a good book find is a good book find, fingerspitzengefuhl often adds to the value of that find. An antiquarian bookseller researches the book, decides what it is worth, and then convinces her buyer of that fact. To some, this might seem obvious, but the internet has allowed some booksellers to feel they can bypass that research part. Many booksellers find a book they think is good, purchase it for, say $1, then go home and look up the price of the same title on Amazon, ABE, or Ebay. To them, fingerspitzengefuhl is finding a book for $1 and finding out that it sells on Amazon for $50. They then list the book at $50. That’s ok, but they could be selling themselves short.
Sometimes — and this is what I really enjoy about bookselling — further research allows an antiquarian bookseller to determine that a book is worth more than what other booksellers online are asking for it. The challenge here is finding the information that others offering the same book don’t have and then convincing your customers that it’s worth it. Here’s what Mr. Brown had to say:
I’ve enjoyed reading the tales of fingerspitzengefuhl on your blog. Good finds are tremendous fun to make and even more fun to recount. The examples of fingerspitzengefuhl given on Book Hunter’s Holiday, however, may miss the point Rostenberg and Stern were making about their fingertip feeling for books. There is a certain amount of scorn expressed for people who use scanners to check book values, yet those same people suggest that good fingerspitzengefuhl is buying a book for a dollar and then finding out that it’s going for $50 online. If you are
going to determine values by the prices on the book search websites, why not use a scanner? Buying for $1 without a scanner and selling on Amazon or eBay for $50 is simply getting lucky, sort of like winning the lottery. It’s fun, but it is not what R and S meant by fingerspitzengefuhl. R and S got a feeling in their fingertips, determined that an obscure pamphlet was central to understanding some historical event, decided it was worth $250, and then sold it for that amount. They weren’t in the habit of asking other people how much a book should be worth. They decided how much it was worth.
Most people who call themselves booksellers today are really book listers: Enter a book in a database and then list it online. Bookselling, as practiced by R and S and most other successful dealers, is about finding the right customer for the right book and then convincing her that she can’t live without it. It’s not about waiting for someone to hit Buy It Now. The way to tell if you’re a book lister is to imagine that the Internet disappeared. Could you still sell books? If not, you’re a lister. Booksellers have networks of customers they sell to again and again. The Internet facilitates that, but in the end, it’s just another tool for a bookseller, much like the phone, the fax machine, or the post office. For book listers, the Internet is everything.
I don’t think there’s anything wrong with being a book lister. I buy books from them all the time and as a group they offer a tremendous service to people looking for specific used books. But if you’re going to be in the book listing business, by all means get a handheld device and buy books using every tool available to you. It’s guaranteed to improve your odds in the book hunting lottery.
My two cents. Keep up the good work!
P. Scott Brown, Editor
Fine Books & Collections magazine
PO Box 106
Eureka, CA 95502
When I use Mr. Brown’s criteria, I consider myself a bookseller (as opposed to a book lister). I sell at book fairs, I (plan to) do print catalogues, and I currently only offer books for sale only on my own website. For what it’s worth, I don’t use a handheld scanner at book sales because most of the books I purchase are pre-ISBN and, for me, the fun of buying cheaply at a library sale is not knowing for certain when I purchase a book whether it will turn out to be significant or valuable. This way, I learn to hone my instincts and I also learn better from my mistakes. Does my failure to use a scanning device mean I’ve missed books along the way or made purchasing mistakes? Sometimes, probably. More often than not, I do just fine selecting books for resale without it, and my method works for my current business and financial needs. I wouldn’t rule out using such a device, but haven’t found that it works for my current needs. I also buy a lot of books from the type of sellers that Mr. Brown calls book listers. There are a lot of types of books and the necessity for a lot of types of sellers. The key is figuring out which type you’d like to be — book lister or bookseller — and taking steps to get there.
You saw here that my willingness to go an extra mile in research led to my discovering that the book I found was much more uncommon than I had previously thought. Had I not gone that extra mile, I would simply have used this nice book as shelf decoration (it’s pretty) and then sold it at a much lower price. To recap an earlier post:
The ability to determine whether a book is a good one or not is probably best summed up by two spectacular veteran booksellers, now deceased — Leona Rostenberg and Madeleine Stern. In their memoir, Old Books, Rare Friends, they write:
“As far as we know, the word Finger-Spitzengefuhl never made it to a dictionary. It was originally Herbert Reichner [another bookseller to whom Rostenberg was an apprentice] who passed it on to us. A tingling of the fingertips becomes an electrical current of suspense, excitement, recognition. In an artificially controlled voice, one of us calls to the other, ‘Look! This may be something.’ And two heads look down upon the title page of a discovery. Sometimes the Finger-Spitzengefuhl occurs on the spot as we scan the shelves of a foreign dealer. Sometimes it takes place only after the purchase has been made and we study our finds. Whenever or wherever it occurs, it is an experience that makes the rare book business a hymn to joy.”
Thanks to Scott Brown for making me stop and think more carefully about the meaning of fingerspitzengefuhl and whether I want to be a book lister or a bookseller. I hope his comments do the same for you, too.