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The Empirical Bookman

Prelude to Apprenticeship: A Walk in the Rubble

by Jaime Frontero

#100, 6 August 2007

Well hello there. Let's have some fun, shall we: Maybe learn a thing or two? Can we stand back from the lists, the prices, the cataloging and the timing of sales to an author's health (or that of his subject) - and approach our trade from a deeper point of view?

Sure we can. And there will be T-Shirts for the winner.

So. Where are you at with bookselling? Are you happy there? Any room for improvement?

Do you haunt the dollar racks and bargain shelves at the used bookstores in your area, hoping to find something you remember somebody buying once before for more than a buck?

Do you troll for common-as-dirt signed books by local authors, knowing if you put them on the internet they will be less common and therefore more desirable in those markets where they are scarcer? Do you look for James Lee Burke in Louisiana? Vince Flynn or Neil Gaiman in Minnesota? Thomas Pynchon in New York (hey, good luck with that...)?

Do you have a cell phone and/or internet gadget that lets you look up ISBNs or titles on the spot - and have you come to understand that the sheer density of paper in the average bookstore is quite effective at blocking radio signals?

Have you ever tried to corner the market on a desirable but to your mind under-valued, collectable book? Did you get out from under them, or did you wind up with a bunch of over-priced "winners" in a saturated market?

It can be a pain, can't it? But some days - the ones you remember best - it pays pretty well.

There is no substitute for the smell, the heft, the beauty, and the tactile impression of a good book. The better it is, the more lasting the sensory impression. The more valuable your find, the more air is sucked into your lungs at your good fortune. And - eventually - you come to realize what the successful bookseller knows: It's the thrill of the kill. The hunt itself is the goal. The virtues to which hunters of game devote their lives - integrity, clarity of vision, harmonization of thought and action, and focus - are those which make for success in our field as well. Personal success. Satisfaction with one's life.

And the life of a Bookman - a complex (and non-gender specific) term into which we will delve more deeply in some later dispatch from this expedition - has always had its own rewards. What strange bits of knowledge, human experience and pieces of the earth we all accumulate along the way. It's a shame that money isn't guaranteed to be one of them.

Money is a wonderful thing, but there are very few successful careers in any field based on nothing but accumulating the stuff. And even fewer that might be considered rewarding in any meaningful way. It is as easy - and as contrary to the nature of the bookseller - to spend one's days in front of a computer, memorizing sorted lists pulled from ABE of every Signet paperback between 1950 and 1959 with an asking price of over $50.00, as it is to mount a machine gun on the back of a jeep and go four-wheeling through Botswana looking for springbok. What a bore.

So - to train for the hunt, to move on to bigger game, and to succeed ... that will be the thesis I am charged with developing, in as many articles as our esteemed editor, Mr. Stark, cares to solicit.

But in fairness, two important bits of bad news are the buried lede:

Firstly, there are very few successful booksellers who have not served an apprenticeship under the watchful and contemptuous eye of an elder in the trade. I am no exception. But as our business inexorably moves to the internet, I see it clearly developing in the direction of the self-taught, as well. So, my tech background, my sales background, and my experience on the internet - all offer themselves to the challenge of trying to explain the heart of bookselling as I see it; but without a smile, a handshake, or a raised eyebrow to be seen anywhere.

On the internet you have no voice; there are only eyes to see your wares. Remember that: It is as relevant to my dilemma as it is to yours.

Secondly, there are also very few successful booksellers who have not made some significant part of their "knowledge bones" in a used bookstore. Again, I am no exception. Read this one more time: There is no substitute for the smell, the heft, the beauty, and the tactile impression of a good book. Then likewise remember this: There is equally no substitute for the daily, unending, and almost unendurable bombardment of lousy books. Lousy books are important. We'll get to that.

So, after 56 years, with all but 8 of them spent pushing books one way or another, I may have something valuable to say. The kinds of booksellers that exist are varied. And I'll make no attempt here to label those true gods of the step-stool and catalog, in whose company I like to think I may one day be deserving enough to crack a joke. But I will put one of those labels on myself in anticipation, or in hubris if you like: I am an Empirical Bookman, and I go with what works.

At the least, I believe I understand the goal we all share. And that endpoint - that goal - is how I also choose to end this introduction.

This is the goal:

[see here]

They say there are only two kinds of people in the world. There are those who don't get Opera immediately, the first time they hear it. They never will. And then there are those who sob almost uncontrollably the first time they attend. Mostly, they don't even speak the language. But they just get it.

I am one of the former, alas. I've always thought the lack may have interfered somewhat with my comprehension of that child of men who loved Opera above all else; and the most perfect American we've ever known, who they created - Bugs Bunny. But as much as I do understand our Bugs - cock-sure, abrasive, creative in adversity and laughing in the midst of battle - I see in him a reflection of the successful Bookman.

Today's test: Which of the men in the above picture is the Bookman? It's almost a gimme. But Part Two of this question may be a bit more difficult: Why? Why is that man a Bookman, and how do you know it? Oh, did I say something about T-Shirts? Well yes - the first person who correctly answers both parts of my question wins a Book Think T-Shirt! Holy Cats! It just doesn't get much better than that.

[EDITORíS NOTE: Please email with your answers.]

Questions or comments?
Contact the editor, Craig Stark

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