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BookThink Special Report
The Colorado Antiquarian Book Seminar

Booksellers' Boot Camp

by Karen Bergsagel

#106, 22 October 2007

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.

Tuesday was devoted to sessions on bibliographic descriptions (given by Terry Belanger, who else?) and how to catalog a book. Since everyone does it a bit differently, we were treated to several points of view. This segued into our each being presented with a book from Rob's shelves and told to catalog it. This was very exciting for me; learning to catalog properly was one of the main skills that I wanted to acquire, and here I had a dozen instructors, each one ready to help me with my uncertainties.

Then Dan Gregory was back again to stress the importance of images, both online and in print catalogs, to sell books. You've probably seen his work in Fine Books & Collections magazine; it was great to see his actual techniques for photographing and scanning, and to realize that good results are achievable with reasonable effort. (Be sure to check out his 3-D rotating book images at How cool is that? And no, this was not a technique that he covered.) We were allowed to eat dinner before Angela and Dan DeSimone presented a 2-hour evening tutorial on conservation and preservation, again with ample examples to aid our learning.

Wednesday morning, Dan DeSimone taught us about the library market, which he knows intimately from both sides of the counter since he went to the LOC after 25 years as a dealer in the rare book trade. Ed Glaser has been on the faculty for 29 years, and he shared his secret formula for pricing books. Don't get your hopes up - although he did write a mathematical equation, complete with constants, variables, and operations on the whiteboard, it was a tongue-in-cheek reminder that pricing is art, not science. That's the secret, and the formula for success is experience and practice.

Which we were about to have.

It was now our turn to evaluate and price our assigned books. My insecurities were resurfacing. How was I supposed to know what price to put on this book? How foolish was I going to look when I read my catalog entry and defended my price to other seminarians? After consulting the available reference books and online sources, we sat down at roundtables of about 8-10, each with a faculty member. I happened to be with Mike Ginsberg, and my insecurities vanished. Like all members of the faculty, he seems to have an uncanny ability to recall what it was like to be new and clueless, and we were soon involved in an animated and wide-ranging discussion of "our" books and how we thought that they should be priced. At the end, we were able to consult Rob's catalog slips to see what a bona-fide ABAA dealer thought of their worth, and I emerged from the session feeling a bit more confident.

Next, Chris Volk gave us a quiz on first edition identification - a table of 10 books which we could grade on a scale of 1-5, from "I'm sure that this is a first" to "I'm sure that this is not a first." This was fun, but disconcerting: All of the reference books we needed were there, but I was again reminded of just how much there is to know, and how little of it I know - so much for my earlier elation. Luckily, she included with our notes a handy little pocket cheat sheet to first editions.

She also discussed online bookselling and available resources in some detail, and I am proud to report that she cited BookThink several times as an excellent resource.

After dinner it was a field trip to Hooked on Books where owner Mary Francis Ciletti gave an "open shop" tutorial.

Thursday morning the week's specialist dealer, Kevin Johnson of Royal Books told us the delightful story of his transformation from IT specialist at the CIA to antiquarian book dealer in a Baltimore row house, which set the stage for an in-depth look at how he runs his business, from sourcing to listing to selling. I am still absorbing all of the information that he shared.

Mike Ginsberg followed with a discussion of auctions, and then, in the seminar tradition, we had a real auction, with Mike as our auctioneer. Items donated by the faculty are auctioned off and the proceeds donated to the local libraries that support the Seminar with their resources. This was fun - but you had to be there! Items ranged from a gourmet dinner for two with the faculty to a custom clamshell box to a signed limited edition of Kevin Johnson's soon to be published The Dark Page, a guide to the first editions that inspired American film noir of the 1940s to reference guides. Something for everyone.

After lunch, Chris Volk continued to guide us through online bookselling, but this time from the buying side, and more than one war story was shared - not only the heartbreaks of the mis-described or badly shipped and how to avoid them but also the triumphs of successful arbitrage. BookHunt got a solid plug from me.

Tom Congalton, proprietor of Between the Covers Rare Books moderated a roundtable discussion, with participants asking questions of the faculty. Much of the discussion centered on scouting, and this was, of the whole week, the only even slightly acrimonious session. You may recall that I mentioned that a number of FOL folks were present? Well, they were there to learn how they can maximize their own profits from bookselling. The idea of FOL volunteers checking their inventory and pricing it appropriately is very threatening to many booksellers who have long relied on such sources at dirt-cheap prices. (I should know - I'm one of them!)

Well, my advice is: Be prepared - look for a symbiotic relationship with FOLs, find other sources, and learn more about books. This is the Information Age, and ISBN bookselling will not be a game of incomplete information for much longer. Soon, both sides will know the value of a given book. Yes, all of the FOLs represented were planning on acquiring scanners. In general, I think that booksellers will need to get used to paying more for stock. The standard trade rule of thumb, according to Mike Ginsburg, is that the selling price of a book is split 3 ways: 1/3 acquisition cost, 1/3 overhead, 1/3 profit.

After dinner, there was a downtown bookstore tour. A bus looped half-hourly from the seminar to two downtown bookstores - Books for You and Clausen Books. Seminarians, never ones to miss opportunities to buy books, staggered off the bus with fully-laden bags, of course.

Friday morning, Mike discussed scouting, sharing his tips and techniques, and Tom did a Book Show show-and-tell. We finished up with a session on appraisals with Rob and Mike, and then Brad Wahlberg, CPA, discussed taxes and accounting. Sadly, his idea of "keeping the books" just did not seem to be what bibliophiles mean by "keeping the books." I confess to succumbing to a touch of what Terry Belanger calls "MEGO" Syndrome (My Eyes Glaze Over), and I wrote a note to myself: "Keep accountant."

A farewell lunch, and then, at 2:00 pm, the Colorado Antiquarian Book Seminar 2007 was officially over. I was wiped but wired, and since I was spending the night and flying out on Friday, I decided on a bit of modest scouting at a nearby Salvation Army. My $20 haul was a signed Terry Brooks first, a second printing of Mastering the Art of French Cooking, and half-a-dozen books on obscure ethnic knitting techniques - the kind of books that might just as well have dollar signs for titles. Life is good in Colorado Springs.

I've been home now for over a month and had time to reflect and to begin to assimilate some of what I learned. And what did I learn? Skills and knowledge, definitely, but more importantly a deeper understanding of the antiquarian book world, and with that, a vision of what a book dealer can be - of who I could be. I now realize that I could issue a catalog, buy a collection, quote to a library, exhibit at a book fair, have a web site, write a book .... Yes, me - I could do these real bookseller things.

For a look at another 2007 seminarian who has jumped right in at the deep end (putting me completely to shame!), I highly recommend reading Chris Lowenstein's blog.

I have been challenged and also affirmed. After ABS I believe that I do have a fundamental book sense. I don't yet know exactly where the lessons of ABS will take me, but I know that I will have colleagues along the way and the support to achieve anything that I am willing to work for. Chris Volk's ABS List daily sustains and extends the network that the Seminar develops.

For an online bookseller, this is a bit of a shock. I am more used to thinking of competitors than colleagues and mentors. I don't know how to write this without sounding trite, but the faculty members are genuinely dedicated to the success of new booksellers, and they repeatedly assured us that this is a tradition of long standing in the trade. It was very clear that they devote themselves to the Seminar because they are paying forward the support and collegiality that they have experienced, and I cannot begin to do justice to their gracious generosity. When I hear the inner echo of Mike Ginsburg's voice speaking of "the trade," I get goose bumps and feel that I belong to a tribe.

Perhaps the most important thing that I learned about the tribe of booksellers is that they work very, very hard for their success, but it is very, very difficult to spot this because they always seem to be having such a very, very good time. If I ever start to feel that the hard work outweighs the satisfaction, it will be time to join another tribe.

Oh yes - the big question: Was it worth it? Yes, every penny, and every minute. Is it for everyone? No, not if you see yourself primarily as a widget seller, but if you've read this far, then it probably is for you. To me, bookselling today is a lot like sailing. I can't control the elements that affect my boat. I can't change the wind, or the currents, or the coastal geography, but I can choose a seaworthy boat, trim my sails, fly a spinnaker, change my tack, check the weather report, follow the lighthouse beacons, and get to know my fellow sailors when in port. I don't know of a better way to prepare for a long and successful voyage as a book dealer than to attend the ABS. The "book time" and the "face time" that you will enjoy are incomparable. Whatever your final destination port may be, with the experience of the ABS, you are sure to enjoy a memorable journey.

When you go:

  • DON'T be intimidated by the word "Antiquarian"! It does not mean antique. To quote Dan Gregory: "Antiquarian books are valued and purchased as objects, as opposed to used books, which are read and/or referenced." Yes, of course the distinction is very blurred; my point is that you probably haven't been thinking of your more modern books as "antiquarian," but they are.

  • A number of organizations offer full and partial scholarship support; this is the 2007 information: The ABAA Benevolent Fund offered four full tuition scholarships and two partial scholarships at $600 each. The Independent Online Booksellers Association (IOBA) offered one full scholarship of up to $1,195.00 USD, available only to current IOBA members in good standing. The scholarship covers the Seminar fee. The Rocky Mountain Antiquarian Booksellers Association (RMABA) offered two $750 scholarships. Competition is open to residents of Colorado, Montana, Utah, New Mexico, and Wyoming. Alibris offered the Weatherford Scholarship, which is for $2,095.00 and is intended to cover all costs, including transportation and lodging.

  • Arrive early if you can. The schedule is very demanding; if you're tired, you will never catch up. Also, you can take advantage of the opportunity to visit the Rocky Mountain Book & Paper Fair - - which is held in Denver the weekend before the seminar.

  • If you are hoping to sightsee, come early or stay late. There is no downtime during the seminar. The monastic impression conveyed by the term "seminarian" is very apt.

  • I stayed at the Colorado Inn, which is on campus, and about one step above a college dorm. It has wireless internet access. I found it perfectly adequate and very convenient. It comes with a breakfast/lunch package, and the food (provided in the cafeteria in the building where our sessions were held) was very good, with lots of fresh and healthy choices. The only thing my room lacked was a clock.

  • Even if you stay elsewhere, buy the lunch package. A lot of the value of the Seminar is in the informal encounters with faculty and fellow attendees.

  • Bring an umbrella. Late afternoon/early evening rain was a daily occurrence, and explains the lushness of the grass!

  • Pack light (you will only need casual clothes), but bring a big suitcase - or an extra empty one. You will bring home many catalogs, a very thick seminar binder, and probably some books. You may want to plan on mailing books home, so a roll of tape wouldn't be a bad idea. There is even a post office in the seminar building. I shipped home two flat rate Priority boxes stuffed with catalogs generously donated by dealers - one weighed 25 pounds, and the other 27 pounds!

And if you can't go yet, take these simple steps to put into practice some of what I learned:

  • See and handle as many books as you can. Researching books, and reading about books, is necessary, but don't neglect real field experience.

  • Remember that you have colleagues; try to contribute collegiality, both on and offline. Meet as many book dealers as you can. Brian Cassidy's blog has a great guide to the traditional trade etiquette for visiting bookstores.

  • Get out your map and draw a radius of 100 miles with a compass. Within that circle, find everyone and everyplace that is book related. Now go and visit them - shops, libraries, bibliophile groups, dealers, historical societies, universities, churches. There are many possibilities.

  • Finally, strive to improve your own standards and be ethical in all of your actions. Always take the high road.

Questions or comments?
Contact the editor, Craig Stark

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