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The Accidental Antiquarian

Ten Recommendations for New Antiquarian Booksellers

by Chris Lowenstein

#130, 6 December 2008

January 2009 will mark the beginning of my third year in business as an antiquarian bookseller. By the standards of most people in the trade, I am still a newcomer, a mere rookie when it comes to the knowledge and experience needed to buy and sell antiquarian books. I have, however, learned a few things in my first two years in business that have consistently served me well. I'll share them in hopes of helping those of you just beginning or even just contemplating antiquarian bookselling as a career.

  1. Learn what you can about antiquarian bookselling before setting up your business. You can read books, magazines, attend book fairs, and enroll in courses like the Colorado Antiquarian Book Market Seminar. But the best thing you can do is to get to know other booksellers. They are the ones on the front lines; they are the ones who can tell you how to learn the trade and which things can only be learned through experience.

  2. In addition to having colleagues from whom you can learn, knowing other booksellers can also provide good business opportunities. Other booksellers who become familiar with your specialties will sometimes offer you books at a favorable price. You'll also be able to learn their specialties and offer books directly to them. Further, you can often partner up with another bookseller at a book fair and split booth rental costs, which saves both of you money. Most recently and perhaps most valuably, I have been able to team up with booksellers with whom I have a close working relationship and purchase expensive, high-end items jointly. The ability to improve the quality of my stock while sharing the liability and the profits with another bookseller makes it easier for me acquire those high-end items that help a bookseller make a name for herself. I couldn't do this if I did not take the time to cultivate relationships with other booksellers.

  3. Invest in reference books. A longtime antiquarian bookseller who I respect very much has an immense reference book library. More than once he has come to my aid by allowing me access to his reference resources and more than once that reference goldmine has yielded a nugget of previously uncatalogued information that adds value to a book I am trying to sell. Early on, I started to save a portion of my bookselling profits for investing in building my own reference library. I've got a long way to go to reach a critical mass of several thousand reference books, but I'm steadily increasing my library each year.

  4. Invest in online sources of reference. It's not inexpensive to subscribe, but having online access to American Book Prices Current and Americana Exchange, both of which provide auction prices realized for books helps greatly in pricing research.

  5. Support and read book-related magazines and online publications such as BookThink, Fine Books and Collections, Firsts, Rare Book Review, and Book Source Monthly. If you are experienced enough and write well enough, contribute to these publications as well. Sometimes a sale comes because someone read your article on a particular type of book in which he is interested.

  6. Invest in continuing your education. Not only will you increase the all-important commodity of knowledge at places like the Colorado Antiquarian Book Market Seminar, the California Rare Book School at UCLA, and Rare Book School at the University of Virginia, you will get to know other booksellers, book collectors, and librarians. Knowing such people is crucial to your ability to make sales.

  7. If you don't know much about the finer points of consignments, appraisals, and housecalls, get to know another bookseller who does and who is willing to answer questions. It's best to learn about these areas of bookselling before you actually have to deal with them so you have an idea of the standard protocol and the ethical issues that sometimes arise.

  8. Life is too short for books in shoddy condition (unless they are exceedingly rare). Only buy books in very good or better condition. There is another rule that goes hand in hand with this one: Always buy books. Static stock that never sells becomes a thorny thicket that will slowly strangle your business. If you have to, cut prices and sell stock that you no longer find useful for your bookselling goals. Look for and take advantage of buying opportunities. Be sure to save some of your profits for just such opportunities.

  9. Don't focus only on the internet for sales. Offer books directly to repeat customers and other dealers. Open a shop if it's prudent to do so. Don't be afraid to offer a few good books through an auction house. Exhibit at book fairs. Issue print catalogues. (Yes, I'm still working on mine.) Diversify, so that you are not reliant on only one area of your business for sales.

  10. Realize that, no matter how long you've been in the trade, there is always more to learn. You will, from time to time, hear other more experienced dealers lament the dearth of "younger" booksellers or tell you that, as a newcomer, you won't possibly be able to learn all that is necessary to become a successful antiquarian bookseller. Despite my innate desire to agree with some of the most respected booksellers out there on such a point, I can't help but think those who feel this way are incorrect in their assessment. I just don't listen when the occasional grumpy bookseller tells me it can't be done. Whatever your career, there is always a lot to learn. Take the bookselling trade seriously and keep learning. This doesn't mean that anyone who wants to can automatically achieve equal status with those have spent a lifetime in the trade. There's much more to being an antiquarian bookseller than creating a website and indiscriminately slapping prices on books. Rather, we newcomers must demonstrate that we are willing to take the time to learn the trade and to keep selling books as we do so. Don't try to be a bookseller. Be a bookseller.

    Questions or comments?
    Contact the editor, Craig Stark

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