Chapter 143 Susan Halas with Advice for Newcomers in the Book Biz

I’ve sung the praises of the Bibliophile email list in the past. If you’re not already on the list, it is a good place to read the range of opinions of booksellers and book collectors on a variety of topics. Just the other day bookseller Susan Halas had a post on this list which I think is a good read. She has granted me permission to reprint it in its entirety. I hope you find it useful, too. I am always appreciative when other booksellers share their perspective. Thanks, Susan, for sharing the benefit of your experience!

Message: 1
Date: Mon, 17 Mar 2008 05:58:07 -1000
From: “Susan Halas”
Subject: [b] info Advice to Newcomers in Book Biz (long repost)
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Aloha Bibs,

This is a LONG re post. Some of you have read some or all of it before. I have requests for re-post so here it is again.

For what its worth, this some basic advice learned from my parents who were both dealers for more than 50 years and who made a pretty good living in the pre internet antiquarian, scholarly and out of print book trade.

For the record I am now 64 years old and have been working in the book biz since I could sit upright and hold a pencil which is just about the time my folks started their shop.

Much of what I know about books I learned from my Dad, MJ (Jock) Netzorg who was a noted antiquarian specialist, historian and collector and co-owner of the Cellar Book Shop in Detroit, Michigan. I learned it by going with him on his buying expeditions from the time I was a little girl in the 1940s until he died in 1996. I also learned it from my Mom who was concerned about things like invoices, packing, going to the post office, issuing catalogs and dealing with customers and libraries

My mother, the equally great Petra F. (Pete) Netzorg, was in charge of making sure at least half of what my Dad bought went out the door for money on a regular basis. My mother handled the sales, but my father wrote the blurbs and set the price.

My father was a wonderful teacher, he had a tremendous memory, he’d spent his life in the dark moldy basements of places like Goodwill Industries in the days when they just piled the books to the ceiling, and he never met a distressed but worthy tome he didn’t like. Lucky for me (and by extension my fellow bibs) that everything he said has turned out to not only be true, but profitable.

So for some of you who are starting out, or didn’t have the living incarnation of all book biz knowledge sitting next to you at dinner on a
regular basis, here are some of the things he told me, that have served me well.

1. What you pay for something has nothing to do with what it is worth. Zero, Nada, Zip! THIS IS THE MAIN RULE. Engrave it on your brain.

Over the past years I’ve seen a lot of posts expressing indignation that someone would ask top dollar for merchandise acquired for pennies.
But my Dad’s first rule was there is absolutely no relationship between the two. Once it’s yours, YOU assign the value. The more you know the more you see the more you touch the more likely it is you’ll find bargains.

2. TOUCH IT — It’s easy to fool your eyes, but it’s hard to fool your fingers. In the centuries of printing, papermaking and binding there have been many attractive reproductions and facsimiles. It’s hard to spot them visually, but you can almost always tell by touch. The difference between a wood pulp and a rag paper is obvious to yourfingers, same with letterpress vs. offset. So feel it, touch it, smell it — all these are better indicators of how old something is than what it looks like.

3 If it was considered beautiful once, it will be considered beautiful again.

This means taste goes in cycles, so while for the longest time you couldn’t give away Elbert Hubbard’s Roycroft material or people took
their Mission style furniture to the dump Guess what, both of these are back, and many other genres fit this model..

Next time you see odd stuff and you can not understand why on earth anyone would have ever wanted them, look again and think if maybe a few years from now this era will be in vogue again. The more horrible it looks, the more likely it will come back.

4. Invest in the 19th century.

My dad thought the 19th century was the great undervalued under rated era. So much happened, so much was invented, discovered and explored especially by Americans; but during the 20th century most of the snootier dealers thought the 19th century, especially the LATE 19th century was junk.

There is an awful lot of junk there, to be sure, but there is also some spectacular and wonderful stuff. I buy the 19th century and early 20th
century any chance I get and I don’t much care about condition.

5. Which brings us to the corollary – If it’s NON FICTION — condition doesn’t count — what counts is — Is it all there or mostly all there?

My dad was an expert in buying good books in bad condition, sometimes falling apart, sometimes without covers, sometimes scribbled or stained or water damaged or wormed, and in the fullness of time those defects became a lot less important–especially if the books had wonderful maps or plates or pioneering science, anthropology, or exploration, all highlights of the late 19th century.

There’s always been quite a bit of discussion about BREAKING books, so here for the record is his take on things. My dad wasn’t big on breaking, but he did think there was a difference between ripping the plates out of a book or magazine and taking it apart carefully and saving it in sections so it could be useful to a wide variety people with a variety of tastes and interests. So while you might not want a whole bound volume of Appletons or Harpers or the Bookman, or National Geo. you might very well want that one page with the ad for Darwin’s Origin of the Species, or the color plates by Maxfield Parrish, or the short story by Joseph Conrad, or the picture article of the Pan American Clipper on it’s first trans Pacific flight .

He also was one of several of the prior generation who pointed out to me that the invention of “binding” was a relatively recent development.
This was amply confirmed later in my life when I got more deeply into 18th century prints and maps and learned that for the longest time many important works were issued as loose sheets. Especially those with plates and maps.

That’s because people with enough money to buy these usually expensive works had their own ideas about how they should be put together. Some of them followed the printers instructions on placement of the plates and maps, but some of them didn’t and kept them loose to hang in the old baronial digs or bind (or not bind) as the fancy suited them.

So before you wring your hands over the evil book breakers just remember that most of the older good stuff really started life unbound — text and plates were printed on separate presses by different methods and onlycame together at the binders and only because it was cheaper to make one volume than to bind the text and box the plates (the really right way to do it according to the truly snooty end of the antiquarian trade).

Now — when we come to the second half of the 19th century — you are often doing the book a favor by taking it apart, because by the mid-late 19th century the paper used in making books changed from rag based to wood pulp based and the wood pulp paper is so heavily acidic that it often ate (or is right this second eating) through the pictures and everything else it touches, also the printing ink was/is so thick and black that it frequently offsets onto everythng it touches, that’s when the whole sheet isn’t crumbling in your hand.

And while I wouldn’t advise taking stuff apart in each and every case, there are definitely some instances you are doing yourself, the book and the collecting public a favor by taking it carefully apart. Please notice the word CAREFULLY.

Please hold the flames on this view, I know some of you think differently — this is my own and my dad’s opinion. and trust me, after nearly 30 years in my own business that’s the way it is.

6. Always look for value, especially check the EPHEMERA pile at fairs, at shops, at 2nd hand stores, on line, check the junk.

OK, some of you aren’t sure what ephemera is. Ephemera is misc. odd bits of paper, scraps like labels, pamphlets, broadsheets, handout, ads, news letters, all those little scraps of stuff. Most book dealers have a box or many boxes stashed somewhere because they don’t know what it is and they wish someone else would take it away.

That stuff that the other person doesn’t want, is often a gold mine for somebody else. Here’s an example. When I was back in Detroit a few
years ago I only got a little time to shop so I treated myself to the big Lansing book show, where I bought one small baggie of ephemera. Total weight less than 2 oz and I got change from a $10 bill.

The bag was stuffed with antique ephemera consisting of about a hundred cartoons by Thomas Nast, and other illustrators of the period all
carefully clipped from Harper’s of the 1880’s. They were all original issue, in great shape and most signed in the plate Th. Nast. The dealer I
bought it from was glad to see it go. He’d had it for a long time.

It was one of my most rewarding acquisitions. It included Nast caricatures of Oscar Wilde and other literary figures of the day as they looked to Nast — the quintessential irreverent American.

It was gold mine of stereotypes — Asians, Indians, Blacks, Immigrants, Mormons, as viewed in the 19th century.There was also a ton of NYC politics and law, as well as Jumbo the Elephant — a Nast favorite that later became the symbol of the Republican party, and there were even a few Nast drawings of Santa Claus another Nast contribution to the popular genre.

The hard part was not what it cost, the real challenge was to catalog take the pix and describe it well, and of course to decide what it was/is worth. I’ve spent many many hours on that little bag. I learned a lot.

I like the 19th century even more because of the time spent on researching those cartoons. I got my money back the first time I posted to this list and many times more since then. So, by me ephemera is good, it’s scarcer than books, usually worth more, doesn’t take up much space and can often be purchased for a low price.

See Rule #1 — what you pay is no indicator of what it’s worth

7. Know your printing processes, inks and papers.

It is impossible to know everything there is to know about books and prints and maps and photos, but you can easily get a pretty solid grip on the different printing processes: relief, intaglio (engraving, etching, drypoint), stone litho, photo mechanical, real photo with emulsion, offset, and now computer or digital generated print and images.

The better you understand the look and feel of each of these processes the better you will be able to judge the approx. issue DATE of issue of the many things that will pass through your hands. The more you TOUCH the more you fingers will be able to spot the difference in what the paper and printed surfaces FEEL like. These are the best indicators of the age and it’s not that hard to get the hang of it.

8 OLD is relative. The USA is a young country. So old for us, is 18th century–200+ years ago. Even 100 years is old. Sometimes 50 years, or 30 years or 10 years is old. This is not the case in other countries, especially European and Asian countries. An 1810 map of America with an American imprint (published in America) is worth a lot more usually than an 1810 American map published in England. That’s because 1810 for American publishing is “old” while it is bare a blink in the eye of time for the English.

And here’s a PS from August 2003.

Prior to the invention of the internet and computers the book biz had a long, glorious and noble tradition that went back some 500 years. So on the book side there’s an awful lot to know. But after the invention of the Internet the book business changed a lot, from a dusty back shop esoteric clique-y group of dealers/specialists, to a front of the bus, cutting edge, fast paced, highly competive LARGE group of solo operators. You already know that.

What you might not know know is it’s a lot easier to learn about books than it is to learn about computers and tech stuff. The most important asset any book biz can have besides knowledge, spirit, high standards and a sense of humor, is TECH SUPPORT. If you don’t know the tech stuff yourself, find someonewho does. You’ve got to keep up on the tech side, even if it doesn’t come naturally.

Not only must you use the new technology, you must be comfortable with it. Just like books, really you don’t (and can’t) know it all on the tech side, but just as having good stuff at good prices was the key to being successful in the pre internet world, the key to 21st century profitablity is understanding and embracing the technology.

PS from December 2004

On when to cut the price and when to raise the price.

My Dad was known to lower the price when the person on the other end of the transaction really wanted/needed and would provide a good home for the book(s) in question. He and my mom would also sometimes lower the price when people bought a group or lot of books, or when the book(s) in question had major defects. They sometimes offered discounts to the trade and they often paid a referral fee if a customer or colleague helped them make a decent sale.

Neither of my parents were big on cutting the price if things didn’t sell. That’s because my dad was pretty good at only bringing in things of value, and their assumption was that eventually that value would find a market. They also didn’t lower the price for people who haggled too much.

A little bit of haggling is good, shows interest and spirit. A lot of haggling is a turn off. Contrary to popular opinion sometimes when things didn’t sell they raised the price, even raised it steeply, and like magic those books went out the door. Don’t ask me why, but that works.

Also on a related subject is the advice given to me long long ago by Mr. Isadore Berkelouw Senior (whose name I’m sure I never spell correctly).

I was about 30 when I first went into business on my own as Prints Pacific, and my mom sent me to see him at his apt. in Santa Monica. Mr. B ran a global book business on several continents which I believe is still going.

I still remember his exact words: DON’T FALL IN LOVE WITH THE MERCHANDISE. By this he meant that some books belong to you, they are your personal collection you intend to keep them (forever or close to forever).

Other books are part of your inventory and you intend to SELL or TRADE them at a PROFIT. The ones that you intend to sell are there to be SOLD. So don’t like them so much that you forget to sell them. Keep that clearly in you mind and you will prosper. Forget it and you will have lots of books but maybe not as much money as you might want.

And a final PS
Some of you in the past have asked permission to forward or post this info
to others, permission granted.

The book trade is a noble & glorious profession, it’s now it’s a larger group. May we all go forth and prosper.

Visit my auctions at ebay user id Ppacific http://tinyurl.com/kbd4

Visit me live on Maui by appointment only.

Susan Halas
Prints Pacific, Ltd.
1939A Vineyard St.
Wailuku, HI, USA 96793
halas@hawaii.rr.com
(808) 244-7777

2 Comments

Filed under A Bookseller's Education, Getting Started, Internet Resources for Booksellers and Book Collectors, Uncategorized

2 responses to “Chapter 143 Susan Halas with Advice for Newcomers in the Book Biz

  1. Pingback: Chapter 157 More Buying Tips for Booksellers from Susan Halas, Part 1 « Book Hunter’s Holiday

  2. Hello Susan,

    I wanted to somehow express my appreciation to your late father for all his help when I used to buy books from the Cellar Book Shop in the 1980s.

    He was the expert on Filipiniana.

    I am very grateful.

    Kathleen J. Burkhalter

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