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Seller's diary 9/21/12

Another week, another trash-out 9/21/12

     Maybe "trash-out" is too strong a term for my book-buying operation, but sometimes it seems like I pay people for the privilege of removing junk from their houses.

    This time the owner had it all neatly boxed for me, about 200 books that nobody had even looked at for 50 years, or so it seemed. They were dusty, crummy, but at least not moldy, which indicated they were stored in the attic, not the basement.

     Fortunately the trash pickup people in my town have given us a huge bin for recycling, and they'll take old hardcover books if we remove the covers. Removing the covers usually involves the use of a serious cutting tool of some sort, but these books were so fragile that you could get the covers off with your gloved hands.

    Of course, I don't do this work out of the goodness of my heart.  There was some worthy stuff mixed in with all that trash.

    Exhibit A was an 1872 edition of Henry Stanley's "How I Found Livingstone," complete with all plates, maps and an albumen photo print of Stanley that by itself was worth what I paid for the entire lot of junk. That book sold in a heartbeat, and so at least I was no longer in the red on this collection.

    Another sale put me ahead of the game.

    I kept 15 to 20 of the 200 books, but those remaining among my stock are mostly question marks.  I'll know in 6-12 months whether this trash buy was worthwhile. 

    The fact is, most books' value is unknowable until they sell.  You have the well-known works that are easily appraised, like the Stanley book, and then you have all the rest.  I'm guessing my 1904 tourist guidebook to Algeria and Tunisia will fetch $50, maybe within a year, maybe never.

    In the meantime, I've got another trash-out to do.

Seller's diary 9/4/12

Stocking up 9/4/12

   This blog went quiet for a month because of a buying binge that brought in about a half-ton of new stock and a ton of work. No time for writing that doesn't have a direct effect on sales.

    Said buying binge was partly the result of a print ad telling readers I will go to their homes and buy their books.  The response was varied, interesting and I hope profitable.

    My ideal transaction is with the person who is looking to get rid of books accumulated over many years -- good books, bad books, ugly books.  I make my offer, and if it's accepted, clear them all away.  The seller gets a little cash and declutters the home without lifting a finger. I have to hope I can sell the good books for a little more cash. Some of the others will go directly to a recycling center, others will end up at the nonprofit library bookstore where I work, and where we sell used books for $1.

    I offer 30 cents on the dollar for the good stuff, which is a lot for a dealer to pay.  Try getting that much at a bookstore that has a buying program. And they don't come to you, you haul your books in to them.

    I don't mind paying a lot, if the stock is good.  Often the stock is no good, and those books stay parked in the attic, cellar or wherever they've been collecting dust. No matter what happens, I explain why I'm bidding what I'm bidding, or why I don't want the books at any price, and the owners seem to understand.  If nothing else, they get a free estimate on the worth of their books.  It's a little like Antiques Roadshow in your living room.

   The down side is that other dealers keep trying to sell me their books at retail prices, even though I have told them I pay only 30 cents on the dollar. Saddest of all are the dealers who are sitting on stock that is unlikely to sell at any price, and certainly not at the prices they've set.

    I walk away from these people as quickly as possible, thinking their heirs are going to have a lot of work schlepping those books to the dump.  

Seller's diary 8/4/12

Summer school 8/4/12

    Trivia and insight gathered in a week at Rare Book School, off campus and on, randomized and anonymized:

    -- The people selling books from folding tables on the streets of New York are not the down-and-outers I had imagined them to be. They are serious booksellers, operating legally, making a decent living off one-dollar to twenty-dollar items. Come to think of it, putting a few hundred dollars in untraceable cash into your pocket every day makes you anything but poor. 

    -- Don't skip past the Acknowledgements section when you are deciding whether to buy a new and unknown reference book.  If the author acknowledges people who have died as the book was being written, chances are good that book was a long time in the researching and writing, thus increasing the odds that it is good.  Conversely, if the only help the author received was from a couple family members, be afraid.

    -- The Horse and Hound pub in Charlottesville has a creative and technically flawless chef.

    -- A lot of thought has gone into the type faces on the trash cans at Yale.
    -- A week of intensively reviewing reference books can make you punchy.

    -- There are a lot more reference sources than I was aware of.  For instance, I sell antiquarian travel books by women and had no idea a low-cost book called "Wayward Women" by Jane Robinson would make an excellent reference for those books. I've been ignoring it for years, but no more.

    -- Here are some free online sources:

        For old Baedeker guides: http://www.bdkr.com/index.php

        For the Modern Library series: http://www.modernlib.com/

        For antiquarian wine and beverage books (alas, in German, but so are many of the books): http://www.geschichte-des-weines.de/

        For old print processes (unequaled for old photos): http://graphicsatlas.org/

        First century of Mormonism: http://lib.byu.edu/digital/mormon_bib/

        I'm sure there are many more free sources I don't know about.  Please send your links.

Seller's diary 7/20/12

The Virginia of book lovers 7/20/12

    The first time I told an old friend I would be attending Rare Book School, he was baffled, as if it were a joke he didn't get.

     I had to explain that yes, there is such an institution, and yes, I was admitted and would be going.  It's at the University of Virginia in Charlottesville.  There are rare book schools in London and at UCLA, but the UVa outfit is deeper and broader than either of those other two, and the Virginia faculty is unrivaled.

    That first course had little to do with books.  It was focused on the processes early photographers used to make their prints, obsolete technology for sure, but enormously useful to know about if you collect or sell old prints.  After that I became much more aggressive and confident in the buying and selling of photos. The course opened up a world in which the more I learned, the more I could learn. So the investment paid off, and not just in dollars.

    I got to spend time with knowledgeable if not eminent professionals in the book ecosystem: dealers, librarians, curators, archivists, collectors; a kind of assemblage that simply doesn't exist in my natural habitat.

    The courses at Rare Book School are intensive, university-level affairs that pack a semester of class time into a week. For me it's like being served a gallon of fine, unblended Scotch.  God and the bartender know I want to drink it all, but it's too much to absorb.  Fortunately the students take home much more than they realize.

    This summer I'm in a class about the researching of old old books. Dealing mostly in modern photobooks, I haven't needed to know much about the old brown ones, but more and more I am acquiring collections that include all kinds of pre-20th-century stuff, well-known and obscure, photo-related and not.  It would be great to know what it all is.

   The week's tuition, the travel expenses, the hotel, the dining out -- it's an expense many booksellers can't afford.  This business is tough, and if you're worried about paying next month's rent, you might consider it foolish to drop a few thousand dollars in Virginia this summer. I would argue that the struggling booksellers are precisely the people who need Rare Book School the most, but that line of argument never works, so just pass the Scotch.

Seller's diary 7/11/12

Far from the mainstream 7/11/12

     A friend's vacation photos included a picture of a picture hanging at a Munich museum.  The museum piece showed a kitchen freezer with its door open so you could see the contents. That's all.

    For my friend, it was ludicrous to hang this image in a museum, or even take the picture to begin with.

    For me it was a striking use of color and form and a comment on the way many people live.

     I suspect her reaction would be closest to most people's, and that is an indication of how far photographic art has moved away from the everyday photo viewer.  Photo art sometimes seems like a conversation among elite players.

    It's unfortunate, but what's the alternative? Do we want our artists to be more like Ansel Adams?

    No, with the ever-widening use of cameras, we've got plenty of pretty pictures already, and millions of people taking more of them. In fact, those pretty pictures can be pretty boring.

     It would be great if more people would get educated, and really, it's not so hard to understand why Aaron Siskind's pictures of rocks are more interesting than other people's pictures of rocks. Or why Lee Friedlander would print a picture of the back of a head.

     Who has time to learn about art photography?  Just about anybody with a digital camera who wants to do more than take a few shots at family gatherings or on vacation trips. 

     A good place to start learning is any book about the history of photography.  They're cheap, typically opinionated, but well illustrated and they usually agree about who the important photographers were and what they were trying to do.

     I just finished Jonathan Green's 'American Photography,' a thorough treatment that left off before the beginning of the digital era.  It's still a worthwhile book, because images are images, no matter how you make them.

     So, put down your camera for awhile, pick up a book, and your photography will get more interesting. Maybe some day we will see the contents of your freezer on a museum wall.

Seller's diary 6/27/12

Daisy's light (6/27/12)
    Like Daisy Buchanan, Daisy K. Baum was a creature the 1920s. Unlike the Gatsby character, Daisy K. was real.  I know this because I have her photos, and cousins, they are something special.

    I bought them in an auction lot, one of three albums put together by Daisy. I bypassed the other two because they consisted mainly of portraits, and I'm interested more in landscapes, outdoors scenes, and people doing things. Judging by the album I bought, Daisy did things, got outdoors, appreciated the landscape.

   It holds about 250 pictures taken in 1924 and 1925, amid the then-posh resorts of the Adirondack Mountains. These photos were obviously not all taken by Daisy, because she is in some of them. So are her friends.  They were young, rich, gorgeous, and they knew how to dress and have a good time. In short, they were centerpieces of the Roaring Twenties.

    Daisy and her people loved winter sports, so she left us photos of international competitions at Lake Placid, which were quite a bit different from what we are used to.  Not only were the contests less formal and controlled, but some of the events were just ... downright peculiar. 

    In a couple photos, you see a skater leaping over four barrels lashed together on their sides, with a person lying on the barrels.  Who can guess why this sort of thing is no longer done?

    Another photo shows people playing tennis on ice skates. The court was about twice as large as a conventional tennis court.

    Most of Daisy's pictures are a bit less peculiar to the modern viewer.

    At times Daisy got journalistic, shooting fires and other newsy scenes, and she was pretty good at that. Her photos taken during a solar eclipse captured the eeriness of that event perfectly.

    It's easy to see that Daisy K. Baum was totally engaged with her world. I guess she wasn't much like Daisy Buchanan after all.

Seller's diary 6/18/12

  Heavy traffic 6/18/12

   The celebrated fashion photographer Irving Penn, dead two years, has his share of devotees. One of them has established a sort of shrine to Penn on Facebook.  He or she recently put a link on that shrine to my listing for Penn's book 'Flowers,' and what happened next perfectly illustrates the strengths and weaknesses of Facebook as a commercial venue.

  The metrics on that 'Flowers' listing shot to the sky, with hundreds of people suddenly examining a listing that had previously attracted only a few shoppers a month.  I started to wonder what the traffic limits were on my store.

    The heavy flow continued for a few days, then died back to its usual trickle.  Nobody bought the book.  Nobody even made a lowball offer.

    I thought maybe the book was priced too high, but no, it's exactly right, not dirt cheap but slightly less expensive than other high-quality copies.

    There's no doubt that Irving Penn sells, and there's no doubt that this book will sell.  What's doubtful is Facebook's viability as a commercial tool.

    Yes, it has many millions of enthusiastic users.  They'd love to share their photos with you, tell you what they can remember about the party they attended last night, and boast about their new baby.  They are not on Facebook to buy stuff.

     Just as well; we are already overwhelmed with opportunities to buy and sell. Facebook is a social medium, not a commercial medium.

     I am not the first business person to notice the disconnect between Facebook and commerce.  Still, some sellers continue to invest time in that site, and they are making sales.  Facebook happens to suit their style, and if they could be making even more sales investing their time elsewhere, well, it wouldn't be as much fun. 

    Most of us can't afford that kind of indulgence though.  We have to use our precious time where it's most effective.     

    That points to an opportunity for some 19-year-old genius: Give us a site that is social and also commercial, a place where sellers and buyers can shoot the breeze and discuss their mutual interests in a casual, easygoing way.  Posting your son's graduation pictures would be a faux pas, posting your vintage photo collection would be brilliant.  Then people like me could figure out how to enhance your collection.  As a customer, you'd be able to de-friend any cheeseball who wasted your time with inappropriate sales pitches.

    This could work.  Come on, Harvard undergraduates, please create such a site.

Seller's diary 6/11/12

A boredom antidote 6/11/12

   Another golden rule for collectibles dealers is that if you're not buying, you're not selling.  I guess it means you won't have anything exciting to present to your customers if you're not getting new stuff in all the time.

    I can see the sense in that rule, but I wish someone would tell me what to do when everything offered to me is too boring to buy. That's what I was up against last week -- until Juergen Teller came to town.

    Say what you will about Teller, and people certainly have their complaints about his work, he's not boring.  He's one of those bad-boy fashion photographers who excel at getting attention.  Fashion advertisers pay plenty for that.

      He broke into the top ranks of postmodern art photography with a commission to photograph some Venezuelan beauty queens, which became the book "Tracht" in 2001. He went at the job in such a way that the beauties all had a vaguely creepy cast to them, as if Diane Arbus had come back from the dead for one last photo shoot, this time in color.

    The book marked the arrival of an international star, and Teller continues to be in demand.  Last week he showed up with a pile of new and old books to sign for buyers. There were more buyers than there were books.  I got some of the last few copies.

   Other than the bizarre (a shot of the inside of an elephant's mouth, another of a human anus), Teller's collections are marked by the merging of his professional photos with his personal photos, so that his whole life is on display in his books. Fashion, schmashion .. I find his landscapes taken near his house in England as interesting as anything else he does.

   I asked him if his wrist was getting tired from the signing of so many books.  Not at all. I understood that when I saw his signature, which is little more than a line of ink.  Ah, well, it's a star-quality line of ink.

Seller's diary 6/4/12

Predicting winners and losers 6/4/12

   Photobooks are expensive to create, the market for them is but a niche, and press runs are typically small.

   Experienced photobook dealers will tell you they never know whether a new book will sell. It's a safe thing to say, and it's true in the sense that nobody can tell what the future holds. Little-known photographers become breakout stars, longtime stars become repetitive and boring.

    The larger truth is that sellers who invest time, shelf space and money in photobooks have gut feelings honed by experience and get pretty good at taking calculated risks.  They learn to read certain signals.

    One of my favorite signals is the buzz at book signings, or lack thereof. 

    When I drove up to Dave Strettell's Dashwood Books last week, it was great to see a party for Paul Graham spilling out the door onto Bond Street in lower Manhattan.  Graham was inside signing copies of "The Present," a new book that completes his trilogy on America.

    The crowd was largely young and enthusiastic. Dave had to limit sales to one per customer, and if you got there much after I did, all 70 copies were gone.  I asked Graham if he could get me more; no, and in fact, he would have to keep closer track his own two copies. I'll talk to his publishers, but I've had no luck with them in the past, for the simple reason that when they are sold out, all they can say is maybe there will be a second edition.

   What makes this book so desirable? It's only subject is mundane, everyday New York street life, but the presentation can send you into Proustian reveries about the passage of time and the ever-shifting nature of the human species.

    Graham's strategy was to take two or three shots of the same scene, only a few seconds apart, technically superb, and to show them as diptychs or triptychs. It worked because Graham chose to shoot in areas of constant activity. Taken together these photos evoke a sense of change you can't imagine without seeing the book. It's that good.

    Here's another positive signal: If my copy stays with me forever, I won't feel like I've made a bad bet.

Seller's diary 5/29/12

Linda McCartney and the elasticity of price 5/28/12

    A widespread rule among booksellers is that the only way you can sell a book is if you have the best, cheapest or only copy. The logic is powerful, but so facile and broad as to be nearly meaningless.

    We sellers can't really know how the buyer will define 'best.'  Once the 'cheapest' copy sells, a more expensive copy takes its place as cheapest.  You could be selling one of 50 copies on the market, but if you are the only seller willing to ship to Brazil, then to the Brazilian buyer, your copy is the best, cheapest and only one available.

    Case in point: 'Linda McCartney's Sixties,' a beautiful photobook that Linda created in the early 1990s.  Because Linda was such an astute and perceptive photographer, because she was so energetic and seemed to have unlimited access to the stars, and because she could write well, this book is a must-have for Sixties collectors. Where Annie Leibovitz was highly stylized, Linda was spontaneous.

    Used copies of 'Linda McCartney's Sixties' start at about $3. I typically price mine between $80 and $120. What's up with that? Or, as an emailer once asked me: 'ARE YOU CRAZY??!!!' He went on to say that he had seen the hardcover first edition for sale at $10 (I guess he was annoyed with himself for not buying it), that he could buy one for $20-$30, and that I would never sell my third printing at the price I was asking.

    I love emails like this because they mean people are interested in what I'm selling.  Of course, I wish they weren't drunk and hadn't just lost another argument with their wives when they sat down to write.

    Anyway, about a month after that, my Linda book sold for $90 to somebody in Australia who also paid expensive international shipping fees. I've sold two more since then, same price range. I'm out of stock just now.

    For sellers, the story behind this book is that it has a worldwide market, buyers want the hardcover, with a dust jacket, in as good a condition as they can get, and price isn't necessarily very important. Your copy doesn't have to be the best, but I wouldn't try to sell the softcover, the book club edition, or any hardcover that wasn't in very good condition. Those are the three-dollar copies.

    Buyers, if you simply want to check out the book and don't care about collectible values, get a three-dollar version. Trolls, next time you see a pristine copy of the Bulfinch hardcover, first edition, offered for $10 at a garage sale, gloat if you must, but buy the book.  I'd like to hear about it in a flaming email.



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