Posted By DMB

“Every bookshop is a condensed version of the world.”
                                Jorge Carrion, Bookshops. A Reader’s History

When a used bookstore has the kind of sale I had in our recent downsizing, where everything must go, it will work pretty much like this: after weeding the books one must keep, the sale starts at 50% off retail, sometimes now with the way things are, 60%. After an interval of a couple of weeks or a month, depending on deadlines, the discount rises: 60% to 70% to 80% to 90% over whatever period one has. Then the slush will be packed up and donated to the Sally Ann or some charity sale. Maybe even the university sales if one is pressed for time or just lazy; or, if one doesn’t recognize those sales as the natural predators of the book trade, as I do. The university sales get all their books free – it’s a good cause, think donors – and they are housed and the sale is run in free premises paid for by the taxpayers – including any bookseller who makes enough to pay taxes. They are managed and run by alumni volunteers and university library staff, all funded by the taxpayer and the figures we hear floating through the grapevine here tell us they are taking in between $75,000 and $150,000 each, every year. Multiply that by four or five and you’ll get some idea what the University sucks from the livelihood of the booktrade here every year. Then you needn`t wonder where all the used bookstores have gone. Steve Temple the most bitter of the whining booksellers, would probably say something like this: “Not money from the livelihood of the trade, but food from the mouths of the bookseller’s children.” For years Temple would rant “One day Toronto will have no bookstores and it will serve them right!” he would bitterly prophesize. Turns out Temple called it right. Now there’s hardly any used bookstores left in Toronto, proving Temple’s perceived whining was in fact prescient.

I, of course, am no longer, nor have I been for almost fifteen years, a used bookstore. I am a big fancy antiquarian dealer with expensive books in an isolated office. There’s nothing wrong or sinful about this, it’s just that I always only wanted to be a bookseller. I wanted a store that had all those lovely old rare books but also those cheap $5 and $10 books which are equally lovely inside. Books every civilized store needs to carry, but which simple economics won’t let me any longer sell. Ironies abound: success stole my dream of the perfect used bookstore; my insistence on staying in the central downtown meant my shelves couldn’t afford to hold the books they were built for.  Shelves I taught myself to build in spite of no technical skills, built well too. Lovely shelves, made for the books they bore with such dignity. Later, I bought old valuable glass-doored 18th and 19th century cabinets and filled them with valuable treasures, but it was always the 4’ x 8’ stained #2 pine ones I stopped to caress. And re-stained the nicks and scratches. For they were the ones which told the story.

The bitterness you sense here is real, but my bitterness is not the chagrin of the downtrodden who has been exploited and robbed of his proper share of the pie, mine is based on the knowledge, honed over fifty years, of just how important bookstores are to any culture that pretends to be civilized. And now the used bookshops are mostly gone as you will find out when you try and dispose of your unwanted books. Be prepared to give them away; but you will be ill-prepared for the worst part. Which will be finding someone who will even take them, even for free.

The university sales are, of course, despite my accusations, not the only culprits: soaring rents, no slums – the traditional place in all North American cities for used bookstores – and several other contributing factors have all caused the demise of what one famous writer describes as the cultural measure of any civilized country – its used bookshops. This writer stated that the degree of civilization of any country could be measured by the number of used bookshops it could sustain. I’ve always loved that quote, it sustains me.  

My latest move (surely this time, my last!) was only across the hall, since we had to relinquish one of our two large suites, so we could pay more for the remaining one. But it turned into the worst of all my six moves, a horror show. This was because it necessitated getting rid of half my stock, an excruciatingly painful situation for a man who has spent fifty years believing that in buying books he was buying security, his pension. Not to mention also saving civilization, as the writer said.

Before the sale, I pictured in my mind the crowds of impecunious young readers streaming in to enhance their young libraries with carefully chosen really important books from a fifty year, carefully curated, stock; along with the smarter of the half-dozen young dealers who I keep an eye on, mentoring, lecturing, passing it on as I can – who should, as I had done in the early days, begged and borrowed whatever money they could to grasp one of the rare opportunities to quickly enhance their lifelong stocks with something significant – that they wouldn’t otherwise have been financially able to absorb in a lump.

I had already decided which ones I would offer better deals to, offer shelves to cheap, quietly and privately offer extended credit to (contrary to the usual convention of cash and carry). In other words, I was to curate the dissolution of my beloved stock as carefully as I had cultivated it as I built it. Always, in the back o my mind, I remembered the terrible things I had heard about Peter Howard’s Serendipity Books after he died. With two daughters neither of whom knew or cared about books, his stock had been decimated, dumped. Some rescued by old friends and colleagues to continue some scheme or plan. It was through some of these friends that I heard some of the horrible stories; I’m sure there are lots of others of which I’m unaware. But what happened was that the greatest, most important stock of modern literature in America (probably the world) went up in smoke. Peter had said things before he died. He understood and accepted that this was how the trade works; the books, as long as they go back into the flow (“You must enter the stream,” says Jim Harrison) will survive, even flourish for the next wave of canny scouts, but still…

I also agree with that view as the true basis of the collecting philosophy, but it still pains one to notice on your shelf some ludicrously obscure item and find yourself thinking every time, “Who will recognize what that really is?”

But in the end, you have to believe that some will. The world doesn’t stop with us. 

 
Posted By DMB

It mostly didn’t work like that. The world has changed, and I got a taste of how extreme the changes in what I thought I knew all about have affected my world.

First, the passionate young collectors didn’t pour in because they no longer exist in my experience. This to my mind is the crucial and most disturbing aspect of the disappearance of the city’s used bookstores. For without used bookstores how do young natural collectors learn they are collectors? It is in used bookstores where, by buying general used books for reading, that beginners start to educate themselves to build a significant library. All collectors begin there too. Without those natural schools the young have no territory to learn. And no guides to lead them, for that is the social function of the missing used booksellers.

What I did get were the usual bargain hunters who only ever came to my yearly sales and now only asked why the books were only 50% off when at the last sale they had been 70% off. These people never mattered to the trade, so this was neither unexpected or bothersome. But the missing young dealers who should have been there to enhance their own futures, that did bother me. Three or four showed up, bought a few books and left.

Some of my regulars came and during all this we sold several quite large sections of various genre sections to a few institutions. We sold our entire children’s section to an institutional client, a sale which was necessary and happy in that it was one of our oldest and best clients, but painful in that children’s books has become my favorite area and one in which I have been buying heavily for quite a while. With the major discount it meant that I lost not only my entire favorite section but sold a large percentage of it at what I had probably paid for it (now you can see why booksellers have a reputation as incessant whiners, nothing pleases them). But at least it was one of our favorite institutions who is delighted with their coup and will continue to pursue the subject so in the end everyone will benefit.

But the sale didn’t improve with the increased discount scale; it degenerated. I had several older regulars who were in most days, smart collectors who plucked out real sleepers at 70, 80, and finally 90% off. At 90% off I started buying my own books my disillusionment and despair now severe.

At one point I got so irritated at the lack of perception by my customers, especially the young dealers that I started rating the books I bought myself. It went like this – at 90% off retail. I retained:

$250.00 books = 28 at $25.00 each
$200.00 ‘’        36 at $20.00
$150.00 ‘’        62 at $15.00
$100.00 or less = 293 at $10.00 or less each.

These figures differ from the October 13, 2017 blog because before I made my final decision I again looked at my books carefully and added books I had ignored the first time. Of course, with the increases maybe I’m just admitting I also have lost the “scout’s eye” on which all real booksellers depend.

Where were any people with the eye? I kept all those books, all books I had pulled off the shelf not knowing their prices but because their aspect meant I would have checked them in any store. I was left disillusioned, not just at the public but at the young dealers.

I’ve been amassing more evidence ever since, the details I now see that I overlooked earlier, ten times as depressing as they had been. I now see that the state of the trade is so much worse than I had imagined. Just by studying the missing stores I had concluded things, but I now see that the trade is even changed from the days when I started. Since Debra is now mostly in charge perhaps my increasing disillusionment is not so relevant, but as I see more and more of the newer and younger dealers who ignore or simply aren’t aware of what I always thought was central to all book collecting and dealing, I came to realize that not only will my business in the near future be very different to what I built over 50 years, it’s only relevance to me will soon be the name. In spite of the fact that it will be run by someone who I trained for 30 years.

So, I can only guess at how other businesses will be affected.

I shall have much more to say later on these subjects for the implication seems to expand daily.

And the end of my sale. After a depressing couple of weeks at 90% off, rescuing my own very good books, I had to decide how to end it with some 4 or 5 thousand good books remaining. I thought of sending out a last notice announcing free books (I was getting very close to my legal deadline) but it was too depressing. I knew what to expect. All those pure bargain hunters who never considered actually buying a book would stream in when they were free. The last time I’d done that on Queen Street, I’d had colleagues up the street phoning me to complain that people were bringing them my free books to sell them (this after begging free bags from me to carry them). I decided these people were not getting my books. I called a few of the young dealers who had come to the sale and told them to come in for free books. (One young dealer who I called didn’t return my call and missed out entirely. I wonder if he ever wonders why I called him.)

The young dealers arrived and took bags of free books and I felt better they were going to real book people. Then I called an old friend long in the trade who I suspected might be having difficult times in the current situation and gave them the remaining 3,000 to 4,000 books. These were still very good books, it should be understood – for years I’d had no room for dross or cheap used books. Many were modern first editions in the $45.00 to $70.00 range, bound French books, much Canadian literature, now in the doldrums, and modern but interesting general literature – like the pretty leather Collins Classics, leather Everymans, and pretty gift type books, handsome full leather odd volumes from 18th century sets and such things.

I found my instincts were right. After the initial pain at seeing so many very good books go out the door, I found I felt really good. Not only had I saved my books from unworthy people, I had helped some friends. But mostly I had respected the books. And as always, I soon forgot those books and started buying more. For the flow never stops and the surprises and pleasures of the new discoveries never ends. Which is what bookselling has always been and always will be.


NOTE: Please forgive the repetition between this blog and the October 13, 2017 one. I’d like to give a reasonable explanation, but the truth is that I’d forgotten I’d written the previous blog. I never look at my website, it’s true, but still… This from a man who when young considered himself to have the best memory of any bookseller in Canada. To add to that I must explain that the difference between the figures in the two blogs was that I found another stock of previously pulled books which I’d also forgotten. Perhaps it is better that Debra is taking over. You will note I’m sure that the sentiments in both blogs are the same. 

 
Posted By DMB

A friend recently asked me when I would add anything new to my Blog which made me realize that at least one person was looking occasionally. I had forgotten that some people actually read such things; in my enthusiasm for writing whatever I wanted on a blog originally started to inform a few friends and clients about my general state of health, I had abandoned that motive and was having fun spouting my opinions. Obviously, I am a computer illiterate – in fact Norm does everything – I just scribble it and he puts it up. I’d forgotten blogs are to read.

First my absence: I’ve had more health stuff, much of it involving over two months in hospital, a very humbling experience which taught me several unpleasant lessons. I went in for an oxygen flareup but while there they discovered at least three new diseases, one of which necessitated a major operation. This in turn caused me to need to arrange my affairs, the most compelling part of which was that Debra Dearlove and I finally married after a perhaps too short engagement of only thirty years. Naturally Debra will not be changing her name – who would change a name like that – nor will she – as she made plain – obey – in fact that wasn’t even in the ceremony. On top of that she’s taken to informing people that marriage, at least so far, isn’t all that great. Not only am I a dud but she doesn’t recommend honeymoons conducted in a series of hospital rooms with the only views other hospital windows instead of beaches and sea.

But I’m out now and making the comeback. Starting back slowly to do some work and have a life again. My biggest problem right now is functioning under the 2 hours of oxygen limit which my tank provides. Which means that anywhere I go is limited by that time limit which added to travel time constricts me. But I expect to learn the tricks to get around that as well.

The worst, for a bookman, was missing the recent Old Paper Show. I spent all that day sulking and grinding my teeth at the thought of all my books being bought by my competitors, books which rightly should have been mine. But soon I’ll be back out there again teaching those people how to do it properly.

Now back to ranting.

 
Posted By DMB

As of 1 January 2018, David Mason will refer to himself as “semi-retired”. Having completed fifty years solving the problems of the world – at least relating to books – he will attempt to lighten the weight on his shoulders and attempt to enjoy himself pursuing self-indulgence as he can.

What this means is that he will still be in seven days a week, handle still the most unsavory problems, buy many of the books, take the blame for all errors, both of omission and commission, and, of course, still be the scapegoat for everything that certain others here find irritating or distasteful.

So, I shall still be on duty at least for several hours a day and still be accessible to old friends and clients (when it’s allowed). In fact, I’m myself just beginning to wonder what retirement means. The plan is more of the things I like, less of the boring mundane tasks relating to necessity and money.

I may be almost ready for the ice-floes as certain people think but I’m still the best book buyer in the country in my own mind. 

 
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.

 

 

 

 
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