by Chris Lowenstein

#115, 3 March 2008

Becoming an Antiquarian Bookseller

Part II: Scouting and Finding Saleable Books

Accidental Antiquarian Series

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I recently exhibited at the San Francisco Antiquarian Book, Print, and Paper Fair. It's a large fair with over 200 booksellers showing off and selling their best books and ephemera. Someone new to book collecting and bookselling might wonder where these sellers find their inventory - most of it varied, interesting, and in great condition. Though the ability to market and sell your books is key to succeeding as an antiquarian bookseller, perhaps more important is the ability to find good books - scratch that.

Good books are everywhere. What's most important is honing your ability to recognize and acquire the best books in the best condition at the best price. This is an infinitely more challenging task, and one of the most exciting parts of the job of an antiquarian bookseller.

A new bookseller might ask, "How do you know when you've found a saleable book?" The simplicity of the question belies the complexity of its answer. Author, illustrator, title, subject, edition, condition, binding - all these things and less have attracted me to the books I've acquired and later sold. Sometimes I buy a book because it's the first edition by a well-known author. Sometimes I buy a book because it is the first written account of a significant historical event, or because it offers a different perspective than most of the other accounts of an historical event. Perhaps it's a much-loved illustrator or a beautiful binding that attracts me, content notwithstanding. Perhaps it's a book completely outside of my field of specialty, but it's in fine condition.

Just as it's difficult to pin down the definitive characteristics of an antiquarian bookseller, it's difficult to pin down what kind of book is best for an antiquarian bookseller to sell. Like true beauty - or, dare I say - pornography, I just know a saleable book when I see it, and, based on my knowledge of a particular author, genre, or subject, its value is sometimes in the eye of the beholder. Perhaps the best strategy a new bookseller can take is to learn what knowledge we need to recognize books that we can sell.

As I wandered the booths of the fair in San Francisco, I realized that if people are going to buy books from me instead of one of the other 200 sellers there, I had to do several things: offer books no one else was offering, offer books in the best possible condition, and offer books at a fair price.

First, I specialize in a field not already dominated by a dozen other booksellers, and I know my specialties. I currently specialize in illustrated and unusual books by Dante Alighieri and in books written by or about American women in the 19th century, most of them pioneers. I chose my specialties primarily because these are subjects I love, and, as a former high school English teacher, also studied and taught. I have better luck selling what I know, and I expect to know more the more that I sell. I have taken the time to educate myself about the best books in my field. Who wrote them? What are their titles? What do they look like? Could I recognize one if it were found on the bottom of a heap of other books in a box?

I also invest in bibliographies relevant to my areas of specialty. I read those repeatedly and also read other dealer catalogues on the subjects to improve my knowledge of what's out there. That way, when I go "out there," I know a bit about what I seek - titles, authors, editions, etc. Additionally, I learn what characteristics will help me identify a book in the field previously unknown to me - names of significant people who wrote about Dante, artists who illustrated the Dante, or titles of books about places where pioneers settled, to give a few examples.

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Questions or comments?
Contact the editor, Craig Stark

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