Posted By DMB

We are at the point of clearing out the last of the relinquished space and I feel the need to add to what I said in the recently posted “Lament”. My “lament”, which elicited numerous replies of sympathy from old clients and even some sales and visits, was perhaps misunderstood by some.

It was not really a whine that I was not selling enough books and making enough money, it was really a lament for something much different. And, in fact, today’s events have proven it. I have just sold a very large lot of books and feel even worse than I did before the lament was issued. What bothered me was that no one seemed to care that what I was offering at 90% off were very good books not used books or university sales detritus. A couple of the young dealers did come but there are so few now who have stores that I really expected little from the trade.

What finally occurs during all sales is the dealer looks at his books and begins to question both his own taste, even his experience. Has the world changed so much that nobody wants books that aren’t rare and expensive? I found myself disillusioned and deeply depressed that no one is even interested.

But then I had a call from my old friend Mordy Bubis of Benjamin Books in Ottawa. He wanted to see the books. He came in and we made a deal. Mordy took away 500 books. But it became bizarre. First, I was delighted and had my spirits restored to see Mordy at work. A real bookseller, my sort of bookseller. While he went through the stock quickly and efficiently I spent the whole period whining that he was robbing me but I was in fact pleased to see that every book he took was a good one. He gave me back my equilibrium. And if I was robbed, I can at least say that I was robbed by a real bookseller. With every book he chose I found myself thinking, “I knew that was an important book and he does too. He’s robbing me, but at least he knows what he’s doing. He vindicates me as he pillages my stock.

They stopped being unsalable dross that I might have to consider donating to those dreaded university sales who have done so much in their unthinking, indifferent greed – subsidized robbery in fact – to decimate the Toronto booktrade – once again becoming good desirable books going to someone who knew how good they are, and who therefore deserves to get every penny of profit he will take from them. There are at least two booksellers who still know a good book when they see one.

So, I find myself with the silly contradiction of bemoaning the loss of wonderful books while at the same time I am pleased that another knowledgeable dealer vindicated me by taking them. So, at the end I was both depressed and vindicated, a rather weird emotional state. The sale then went to $5 a book or less. But after Mordy it was back to the odd stranger ignoring most and quite unaware of what they were looking at. My depression returned and I stopped it all. End of sale.

I called two young dealers, both of whom had scouted the sale throughout and acted like young dealers should act, and told them to come in and help themselves to whatever they wanted for free. And now I’m giving the balance, again for free, to another deserving bookseller. During this period, I looked myself and pulled a few bags of books I couldn’t bring myself to give away, with some interesting results. I kept track. I found and retained: $200.00 books – 13; 150.00 books – 27; $75 to $150 books – some 325. I ignored all the rest, priced from $35 to $65.

I am now writing an essay on the death of bookscouting in the trade. Ignorance of what they are looking at is acceptable in the public perhaps, but amongst booksellers? Once again, I find myself happy I’m the age I am so I won’t need to see much more of this sad spectacle of indifference and ignorance.

 

 
Posted By DMB

I have just been happily surprised by the visit of an old acquaintance, in fact a woman I worked with 40 some years ago when she was at the National Library of Canada, and she and I built a beautiful working relationship which resulted in the Nat Lib having the greatest collection of Canadian editions in the world. It was after she left that the huge sordid mess occurred which I recount in my memoir. It is always nice to meet again with people who go that far back in my so-called career, especially now when so many of these contacts are with the families of my old clients, who too often have passed on.

Indeed, by happenstance I have recently bought two lots of books, one from the widow of an old client who died some 20 years ago. So, the books I repurchased were ones I’d sold her husband some 25 years ago. As always, they brought back lots of memories – and considerable surprise at how much some of them had risen in value. I was at her place for 3 hours although my actual work – choosing, assessing, working out an offer – only took 20 minutes. The rest we spent reminiscing about her husband and people we knew in common from those times.

The most memorable book for me was a wonderful Ruskin in a nice binding which had been part of a huge Ruskin collection I’d purchased from Franklin Gilliam, the proprietor of the famous Brick Row Book Shop, on my first visit to San Francisco about 45 years ago.

So, I was reminded of transactions with 2 old friends, her husband, and Franklin who is one of the legendary American booksellers of the 20th century, admired and respected by every dealer who ever met him. Franklin came often to Toronto and I have lots of anecdotes about him I shall one day publish. He loved the Flatiron Building at Wellington and Church and said he would move here if he could have an office there. His friends here would have loved that.

The second lot I bought was from a woman whose father had owned them. I didn’t remember the name but opening books I found my price and codes from 45 years ago. He’s paid $7.50 for For Whom the Bell Tolls and $22.50 (a very obsolete price category) for Tender is the Night. Turns out he was the founder of the Family Health Clinic where my G.P. is and which I attend weekly. His picture is in the offices and I shall go next visit to see if I recognize the face.

So goes book collecting, from one generation to the next. And so will continue bookselling in spite of the laments and whining. 

 
Posted By DMB

We are surprised at the small attendance we’ve had for our sale, a full room of books now at 80% off the retail prices. This is another melancholy feature of the current electronic revolution that bookstores and other businesses have had to adjust to for the last 10 or 20 years.

With almost no used bookstores left the younger dealers are overloaded with used books and feel no compulsion to buy even at 80% off. In the old days when dealers had a half-price sale every year the first day would be entirely dealers who would buy hundreds of books to enhance their stocks. Now, nobody seems to care and we find ourselves with lots of very good books, which we feel we are giving away at 80% discount. But the world ignores them.

Earlier this week a regular collector bought a $450.00 letter by Bret Harte for $90.00 and a couple of days before we sold a nice set of the 29 volume 11th edition of the Britannica for $100.00, the same price we all sold it for 45 years ago.

Doesn’t anyone want good books?

In another few weeks we will up the discount to 90% which to me is next to free. And these are not used books, this is a carefully weeded stock built up over many years. It’s very depressing for me since I thought enough of these same books to originally pay more than the current selling prices for them. Another of the reasons, I guess, that used booksellers die broke.    

 
Posted By DMB

On June 15, 1967, I bought my first two books as a bookseller, later selling one on the Ward’s Island ferry, completing my first, and probably most successful day as a bookseller.

My account of that first day excerpted from my memoir The Pope’s Bookbinder (Biblioasis, 2013), can be found on our website at http://www.davidmasonbooks.com/fiftyyearsbookselling.php

 

 
Posted By DMB

Another common misconception that I have heard many times over the years is the erroneous regular accusation that booksellers raise prices on their books before a bookfair. My own regular response to this canard is as follows. You live in this city, you frequent the bookshops, you very probably have seen books in various shops that you covet. Maybe you have coveted them for a long time, but have resisted due to price – or other reasons. Imagine this: you visit a booth at a fair, see a book which you know was recently priced at 1/3 or ½ of its price at the fair; or afterwards, the next time you are in that shop, you see the same book back at half or a third the price you saw at the fair. My questions are these: would you then continue to frequent a bookshop when you had this clear evidence that the dealer was a sleazebag or a gouging crook? And further, would you not refuse to even attend any bookfair ever again, assuming, reasonably, that all the dealers were also doing that and all were sleazy crooks as well? Would you not more probably conclude that the entire trade is made up of rogues and scoundrels, and desist from bookcollecting entirely? I expect I would. One would have to conclude that any person who did believe all these things would indeed be a fool – at least if they did not immediately dismiss all used and rare bookshops.

I could go on with quite a few more examples of common assumptions which, if true, would also be compelling proof that these same booksellers universally believe that you and all their other customers, are stupid. And, since there is a finite pool of potential collectors in any society, if any of those things true, we dealers would be effectively committing business suicide. Yet every bookseller receives many hints these things are common assumptions. Perhaps it is a justified assumption since we live in a society where we all are afraid to call a plumber or an electrician or take our car in for repairs. And where the 6 O’clock news broadcast tells us daily about innocent citizens cheated on their roofing or their furnace.

What bugs booksellers is that no one ever makes these accusations directly to us, so we could defend ourselves. For myself I have a hundred retorts for such things, but have never had a chance to use any of them.

The crooked bookseller? Yes? Well, show me a wealthy one. Why have all the used bookstores disappeared? Why didn’t they buy a building with all that money they stole instead of always renting and getting kicked out, because they couldn’t pay the rents that normal businesses do?

There are lots of what I call stupid bookstore assumptions, so many that I’m compiling another pamphlet to point them out. Stay tuned! 

 
Posted By DMB

As some of our customers know our annual sales for the last 3 years or so have been motivated by our need to drastically reduce our stock by October 2017, at which time we must relinquish half our retail space to our beloved landlord. It is for this reason that we offered our entire stock priced at $150.00 and less at 70% off. The traditional sales in the used and rare trade have always been 50% off, excepting when firms are closing or moving. Final sales have generally started at 50% and finished at 90% off with the detritus being free or shipped to the Goodwill. At 70% off a very high percentage of our stock will be sold at a loss.

We know of no other examples of a carefully built and weeded antiquarian stock such as ours where such draconian discounts have applied during the entire week long sale period. Our system of from $150 to $400 at half price and over $400 at 30% off is the more usual systems used by booksellers.

But more pertinent, and perhaps generally unknown outside the trade, is the fact that when used bookstores have sales they are authentic sales. Every day we see advertisements in the media or in store windows offering fantastic savings “up to 70% off” or whatever. Investigation reveals that those high levels exist for only a small percentage of the stock, in small amounts which are quickly sold. Some businesses buy cheap goods as sale loss leaders, others manufacture cheap (and often shoddy) goods specifically for sales. It is understood that these ploys are simply legitimate business practices. But very few people realize that the sales conducted by used bookstores are, and always have been, true sales: the book that was $100 yesterday is $50 today. But the real significance in used book sales is that the offerings are unique, one of a kind. There are usually no replacements and the book you buy could often be a sleeper – a bargain – at its full price. The reason you get it at half price is that the dealer needs money or space and he is sacrificing his treasures for that reason. There is nothing phony going on.

It seems to also be a common belief outside the trade that many dealers raise their prices before sales. I can only say that in 50 years as a bookseller I have never seen a single case of that. If it were tried one would need 6 months extra work just to prepare.

Now, with 6 months to go we have been offering entire subject sections of our stock for sale as lots, at very desirable prices. So far, we have sold our entire stock of children’s books, very painful for me, since children’s books had become my most pleasurable area and I have been buying heavily in children’s books for several years. This is, of course, another of the many reasons booksellers die broke. I make a large and very necessary sale and immediately begin whining about my terrible loss. But that’s the double-edged sword that booksellers must deal with. We love what we must sell. My father, the banker, had lots to say about that.

However, a lady friend gave me a solution to that problem when I told her I was having difficulty getting rid of clothes I never wore. “It’s an excuse to buy new ones,” she said.

This weekend there is a paper show and I will be buying heavily to replace my beloved children’s books.

 

 
Posted By DMB

The booktrade has lost one of its greats recently, and tributes from all over the world are being published. Barney Rosenthal came from famous bookselling families on both sides. Born in Munich, the family moved to Florence on the rise of the Nazis where his mother’s family, the Olschkis, were as prominent as his father’s family had been in Germany.

The Rosenthals ended up all over the world as booksellers. Barney escaped Mussolini as well in 1938, went to New York, served in the U.S. forces in World War Two, and moved permanently to San Francisco, and then Berkeley, where he has just died at 97 years of age, loved and admired by all who knew him.

The first time I met Barney Rosenthal I was a young beginner with not much more going for me than curiosity and a passion for books. On that first occasion Barney treated me like I was an admired and valued colleague. And on every subsequent time we met he treated me like an old friend. I never met him that I didn’t learn something from him. Those lessons were mainly about how to be a better bookseller and a better person and it’s those lessons I most remember.

I’m quite proud that many years ago I did sell him a book for his famous project on early annotated books. I had acquired a piece of 16th century theology of probably no importance, but it was heavily annotated in the margins. It had been sitting in my office since I didn’t know what to do with it or even where to start. Barney came in on a Toronto visit, mentioned his interest and I pulled it out.  I couldn’t read the annotations, nor the Latin the book was written in, and I hadn’t a clue as to its value. I pulled a price from the air and hoped Barney would find it acceptable; he graciously thanked me and bought it. It was a measure of the regard that I already held Barney in that I hoped it was a sleeper. And, of course, it had to be, for Barney had invented the subject of interest. The mark of the great collector – and the best dealers – is to focus on an area previously ignored and to amass an orderly collection based on that idea. The very focus enhances the value of the collection and hence its components. So, in the way of booksellers, I can shamelessly boast that I helped Barney build his collection.

For many years I have described Barney to people who never met him as a man for whom a modern first edition was a 17th century book. Except for his extensive reference library that would be mostly true.

But how I’ve always preferred to describe him, is simply to say of him that he was the most respected man in the booktrade.

Some years ago, a prominent dealer wrote an anonymous satire on the trade. Every person in the book was a cunning, rapacious scoundrel – except the hero (and the beautiful lady whose love he justly captured). The hero, the only admirable person in the book was widely reported to be based on Barney Rosenthal. Everyone who knew Barney believed it was him and cheered when he won the prize (a book, of course) and the beautiful lady.

The most respected man in the booktrade, indeed.

 
Posted By DMB

My old friend and long-time client Russ Musgrove, who I don’t see much of since he retired from the TTC (yes, those delays in bus service you suffer are probably because he isn’t there anymore), comments that he will be reading Klein’s Travels with Epicurus. He won’t be sorry. I’ve now given away 20+ copies and read it twice myself. I’ve even given copies to some of the doctors who are trying to keep me alive–at least until I can catch up on my backlog of unread books. Those doctors who are too young to need Epicurean wisdom yet, are advised to look on it like they look on preventive medicine.

Russ Musgrove built the greatest Mordecai Richler collection I’ve yet seen, which I brokered the sale of so he could pay for his daughter’s university education. Even though I sold the collections and earned a commission I was upset because I wanted to buy the Richler collection for myself but couldn’t afford it. I often think that Russ might have given his daughter a better education by giving her Richler’s works rather than sending her to university.

It’s curious that of my recent Books of the Month two others have been related to medicine, Siddhartha Mukherjee’s Laws of Medicine and Oliver Sacks’s magnificent autobiography On the Move, which demonstrates conclusively that Sacks, for all his quirks and eccentricities, was a great physician. The Sacks’s book also contains an antiquarian bookseller, the inimitable Eric Korn, Sacks’s oldest friend and a bookseller who many of the visitors to earlier Toronto bookfairs (indeed, most major North American bookfairs) will have encountered. If Sacks was somewhat eccentric, Korn was seriously eccentric, but an extremely knowledgeable bookseller who we all consulted on anything related to Darwin.

Eric travelled to bookfairs with Jeff Towns proprietor of Dylan’s Bookstore in Swansea, Wales, which at one time had the greatest street address in the annals of the booktrade, Salubrious Passage. We other dealers wondered how Jeff managed to deal with Eric–most of the rest of us found Eric extremely stimulating, but in small doses–and often referred to Jeff as Eric’s “minder”. In the obits on Eric’s passing a couple of years ago their professional relationship was described wonderfully–something like what follows: “Jeff made sure Eric got to the cities and countries he was supposed to, and in return Jeff received a liberal education in the Arts and Sciences.” A wonderful description. Eric wrote a column in the TLS for years which was so popular they later made a book of some of the columns–a book which is now extremely difficult to find because no one who owns one, including me, will part with their copy. Eric’s first wife was a Canadian and his second wife a Russian. They would often be seen at bookfairs having marital spats–usually over grammar and syntax–in Russian, a language that Eric seemed to have learned at an advanced age.

All this self-indulgent silliness is because I have to fill the blog and since my health is pretty good right now I don’t need to waste any space writing about it and I don’t, contrary to all those reports we read, wait ages to see doctors. So, for my American friends I must add, you may think we’re commies but our health system is wonderful.  Especially when you yourself need it.

 
Posted By DMB

The “Book of the Month” for this month is Travels with Epicurus by Daniel Klein (Penguin). A marvelous mediation on old age wherein we learn that Epicurus was not an Epicurean. He believed in simplicity in food and drink. And that what was important was not what you ate but who you ate with. He also believed that old age was not to be avoided – by pretending that seventy was the new fifty, but that it should be embraced as not only an important stage in life but the most important age. For only the old can dismiss all the pointless vanities and stupid ambitions which drove us in our youth. And embrace the important things, which are companionship, conversation over food and drink with friends and simply embracing the beauties of life which are there for all if we only slow down and look. All obvious, even trite – except Klein makes it fascinating, so much so that I read a page and think for half an hour before going on. And finishing it once, and having bought a dozen copies for friends, I’ve started it again.

A word to the wise – from Epicurus, one of the truly wise ones.

 
Posted By DMB

      The Blog has fallen behind, probably because I’m doing so well with my “rare” disease. I’m told it can even be cured, although probably not wholly. I shall probably retain some of my Byronic limp, but I don’t much care anymore because it’s been singularly unsuccessful anyway. Young women holding doors and cars stopping to let me cross the road is more disconcerting than flattering.

      Even if I’m cured of the “rare” disease I still have COPD underneath, so I’m contemplating changing my persona from Byronesque to Laurentian. I shall cough tragically and sigh romantically, implying that consumption is threatening and there’s not much time. If it worked for Keats and Lawrence it might work for me.

     I’m back at work six or seven hours a day and starting to plan both our downsizing and the party we will be having to celebrate fifty years as a bookseller which occurs next June. Perceptive people will note that I didn’t phrase it “fifty years in business”. That is because bookselling isn’t really a business – it’s a pretend business at best. We will have half the space at more rent, the real reason all the used bookstores worldwide have disappeared: high rents in what used to be slums. Only the French – as usual – comprehend the importance of culture in a county and are subsidizing an area of Paris so bookstores will continue to provide access to the records of our civilization. So, we must find a way to reduce our stock by half (not to mention a huge reference library accumulated over fifty years). It’s very painful for me because for all of my so-called career I thought that if I bought good books I could live off them in my old age. Now here I am with wonderful books and no place to keep them. They were to be my pension and now, instead of relaxing I have to deal with major problems. But, in case anyone thinks I feel sorry for myself that would be an error. I’m still having a wonderful time and my major fear is not the problems I have to solve, but that my precious books might go to unworthy people.

     I have, with only Don Stewart of McLeod’s in Vancouver as a rival, the best general antiquarian stock in Canada and no one cares. Governments bail out wealthy corporations to protect jobs and the economy but it would never occur to them that our souls need culture or there’s no point to being wealthy.

     I’ve offered entire sections to some institutions here and offered my entire stock to the Government of China. Since China must be preparing for their takeover of the world by training Chinese students with higher education and the stock of any good antiquarian shop would be a perfect base for any special collections department of a university library, I thought they could be interested in acquiring an entire library.

     Since the Trudeau government seems to have spent a fortune attempting to initiate business opportunities in China for Canadian business, perhaps I’ll call Justin.

 

 

 
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