Antiquarian booksellers must learn to do thorough research. Good research skills give you the ability to turn up some new or little-noticed fact about a book you are selling, and they are key. If you want to be an antiquarian bookseller, learn about the resources for research - bibliographies and reference books. Learn how to cite your resources properly in a book description. Rare Book School offers many courses that can help in this area.
Among the courses offered this summer are "Descriptive Bibliography," "Book Illustration Processes to 1900," and "The Book in the West."
I've attended a David Gregor seminar and the Colorado Antiquarian Book Seminar and recommend both very highly. I plan to attend the University of Virginia Rare Book School this summer, and, if I can gain admission, the UCLA Rare Book School as well.
Closer to home, you can easily expand your horizons by getting to know other booksellers. Those of us who sell only on the internet can sometimes feel as though we are working in a vacuum, and meeting other booksellers can alleviate that feeling, as well as give you a sounding board for your bookselling ideas. Once you make a good friend, you can talk about prices, compare your condition standards, etc. You might even get to know another bookseller well enough to share a booth and exhibit at a book fair or to purchase a very expensive book together. Having colleagues who can assist in fields outside your own specialty and whom you can sometimes assist is a priceless asset.
Though they are often crowded and don't often yield many antiquarian finds, go to your local library sale. Frequent attendance will help you learn to distinguish edition and condition - things you can't learn by spending time in an antiquarian shop, because all of the books there are only very good or better condition. At every library sale buy at least one book on the speculation that it may be valuable. Don't use your scanner, and pay attention to what instincts lead you to choose that book. Is it a beautiful binding or lack thereof? A famous author or illustrator? Take your speculative purchase home and research it. If you purchase a mistake - a book whose value does not lie in its financial return - you likely haven't spent too much money because you purchased it at a library sale.
Another way to expand your knowledge of antiquarian books is to study the catalogues of other antiquarian booksellers. These can help you to get a sense of the market, and more importantly, demonstrate what fine researchers and scholars many antiquarian booksellers are. Auction catalogues are useful to study as well. Many booksellers and auction houses will even send their catalogue right through the computer as a .pdf file. Services like Americana Exchange and American Book Prices Current can give you the results of auctions so you can see if a particular book sells above or below its estimate.
Illustrated catalogues are particularly good for getting a handle on evaluating condition. The next time you see an illustrated catalogue, try reading the descriptions and comparing the images of the books with the condition notes. You'll get a sense of how much evaluation of condition varies among different sellers but also of how much it does not. There are certain standards that go into deciding something is Fine vs. Very Good and Very Good vs. Good or Fair. Familiarizing yourself with those standards is one of the best ways to help yourself learn to choose better books.
Finally, go to book fairs, either as a spectator or as an exhibitor. See what other sellers are offering, in what condition and at what prices. Talk to the other booksellers. Get to know your market and who are the top specialists in particular subjects. Book fairs are also great places to scout books. A book fair is like having 50 or more antiquarian shops in one location at the same time. It's one stop shopping!
Being an antiquarian bookseller takes a great deal of work, but, if you like research and learn to use your resources in a professional manner, it can yield great returns. You need to be willing to rely on your experience, increase your education, and expand your contacts in the bookselling world. If you can do so, you will be well on your way to becoming an antiquarian bookseller.
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