BookThink Special Report
The Colorado Antiquarian Book Seminar

by Karin Bergsagel

#106, 22 October 2007

Booksellers' Boot Camp

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That there was an annual seminar in Colorado about the antiquarian book market was something which had registered vaguely on my radar. There would be references to the 'ABS' on bookseller lists from time to time, and on one occasion a couple of years ago I had even clicked through to learn that the week's tuition was over $1000. Too much for me, I thought, and quickly backed out of my browser. But the seed had been planted.

To be honest, it wasn't just the cost that had sent me to the back button - I was intimidated by the breadth and depth of ookselling knowledge represented by the luminaries on the faculty. My eyes kept lighting on details like "Past President of the ABAA" or "Director of the Rare Book School at the University of Virginia," and picturing their dimly lit and hushed shops filled with venerable leather bound tomes. I was sure that they didn't want me, the accidental bookseller, lowering their seminar's standards.

Then last summer Chris Volk wrote an excellent piece for the IOBA Standard, "How I Spent My Summer Vacation," which detailed her experiences as a first year faculty member at the 2006 Seminar. I felt that I knew Chris from our exchanges on bookseller lists, and I could imagine discussing books with her - in fact I knew that I would love it. So the seed was being watered, and it had started to root, though I still thought that I was too new and inexperienced to be accepted.

When I took a bit of time to consider my personal situation and where I wanted to take my bookselling, I began to visualize myself at the seminar and realized that I had had it all wrong - rather than being a reason not to go, my inexperience was exactly the reason why I should go, and the sooner the better. I pored over the online information and read passages like this one over and over again: "The Antiquarian Book Seminar is designed for people of all levels of experience, from beginners to those with years of experience who want to hone their skills in this rapidly changing field." And, "If you seek to meet the challenges of book selling in the 21st century, the Antiquarian Book Seminar 2007 will provide an intensive opportunity to meet and network with others of like interest." My nerve suitably steeled, I took a leap of faith, registered, and booked flights.

One of Chris Volk's innovations was to create a mailing list for Seminar faculty and past and present "seminarians," as we were encouraged to think of ourselves. This meant that the seminar began for me even before I arrived in Colorado; we were able to introduce ourselves online, share lodging information, and work out travel details. Alumni seminarians also bring their bookselling questions to this list, and I was able to witness the ongoing level of support and camaraderie shared by past participants.

Finally, it was time to go to Colorado. I traveled all day Sunday to arrive; doing it again, I'd have tried to take an extra day and been less wiped out on Sunday evening for the keynote address/welcome reception.

Registration was smooth and easy; the Seminar Coordinator, Kathy Lindeman, is an old pro and has it all down pat. If you had brought your laptop, it was configured to access the College wireless network; if not, there were computers available for use in the seminar room.

The opening session began at 6 p.m. that Sunday night with a welcome from the Seminar Director, Rob Rulon-Miller. The faculty members were all present and introduced themselves, and then we 60+ seminarians briefly introduced ourselves. This was reassuring; there was a wonderful variety of backgrounds, experiences, and interests. Most seminarians were booksellers, and they represented a wide spectrum from Better World Books to open-shop sellers to small online sellers, and years of experience from none to many. Sally Reed of Friends of Libraries U.S.A. which provides resources to library groups, was there, as were a number of FOL representatives. Collectors and librarians were also represented, and Abebooks sent Maria Hutchison, their account manager for rare and antiquarian booksellers.

As I reflect on my experience, I understand that this beginning round of introductions on a level field, with mutual respect, was significant, and set the tone for the whole week - we were colleagues, albeit in a sort of guild relationship of masters, journeymen and apprentices.

Marty Manley, CEO of Alibris, gave a provocative Keynote Address. His audience being mostly working online booksellers, there was a certain amount of eye-rolling at some of his pronouncements. I blogged about his talk at the time.

The evening concluded with wine, cheese, and dessert, and we were all cautioned to be in our seats at 8:30 promptly the next morning.

This is one of the best things about the seminar: They are very, very serious about and committed to the schedule. If you have attended less well run conferences, you know how welcome this is. Still, there was something very ironic about a group of booksellers actually responding en masse to Michael Ginsberg ringing a cowbell! I had always thought that organizing booksellers would be like herding cats, but Mike has the bookselling gravitas to carry it off.

So - Monday morning, there I was, at my desk and ready to learn. We had been given thick binders full of supporting materials for the sessions to come, and daily replenished with even more printed resources. Flipping through mine, I knew that this would become a personal reference that I would be consulting again and again.

At the front of the room, at two long tables facing us, sat the faculty, looking just as engaged and interested in what was to come as we were, even though many of them have been attending for decades. Although I outline below what we covered in this day's sessions, I cannot convey what really seems to make the seminar special: It is the atmosphere of passion, of high standards, of generous sharing. There is a constant give-and-take as other faculty members chime in with their own observations, experiences, and opinions. There is also ample question time, and since the world of bookselling (at least in some ways) changes so rapidly today, seminarians as well as faulty had knowledge to share. It is a dynamic and demanding atmosphere, asking the best of every participant, and that challenge is met.

One end of the seminar room was devoted to portable bookcases which shelved a generous assortment of Rob Rulon-Miller's inventory for us to practice on - the seminar is wonderfully hands-on. Additionally, there were scores of reference books available.

But first, we needed to learn how to properly handle books. Since they were Rob's books at stake, he led the discussion.

Now that we knew how to touch the books, we could move on to selling them. Rob gave an overview of mail order/online bookselling, including ethics and the traditions of the trade, as well as nuts and bolts like acquiring stock, wrapping and shipping, etc. Lois Harvey of West Side Books in Denver discussed the used and out-of-print bookstore, and the joys and frustrations of owning one. Dan Gregory of Between the Covers Rare Books presented a session on technology for booksellers, covering a lot, but focusing on best practices in database creation and management.

Dan DeSimone, Curator of the Rosenwald Collection of The Library of Congress and Terry Belanger, director of the Rare Book School at the University of Virginia introduced us to the reference works, both on- and offline, that we would need to consult as antiquarian book professionals.

Dan Gregory discussed marketing a book business, including creating catalogs. (And why do you want to market your books? Because, to quote Dan, "The aim of the game is to die with no books left!" Isn't that a sobering thought!) Since Dan believes that bookselling is storytelling, he was very entertaining.

Meanwhile, Angela Scott of Fine Binding & Custom Design in Washington, DC, and the conservation expert on the faculty and Dan DeSimone filled two rooms with examples of the materials and tools used by the bookbinder and the various types of illustrations that we might encounter. Again - hands on learning at its best, seeing and touching the real thing with the guidance of masters.

All of this is a bare bones account of what happened in just ONE DAY - and I haven't even mentioned the morning and afternoon breaks, lunch, or the evening picnic. None of these are downtime, by the way; seminarians use them to network with one another and to talk to faculty, who make themselves extraordinarily available. ("Face-Time with Great Book Experts" might be a less intimidating and more accurate title for the seminar.) It is very important to realize that this is the CABS experience - you will be focused on antiquarian books from sunup to sundown.

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Questions or comments?
Contact the editor, Craig Stark

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