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The Accidental Antiquarian

An Interview with Kevin Johnson of Royal Books

by Chris Lowenstein

#154, 4 April 2011

Kevin Johnson, proprietor of Royal Books, became a bookseller in 1997 and specializes in Modern Literature, Cinema, Art, and Photography. In 2007, Oak Knoll Press published his first book, The Dark Page, a full-color guide to the first edition sources for American film noir of the 1940s, followed in 2009 by The Dark Page II, a second volume covering 1950-1965. Kevin has been a member of the ABAA since 2002 and is on the faculty of the Colorado Antiquarian Book Seminar.

BOOKTHINK: How did you get started in the business of selling antiquarian books?

Like a lot of booksellers, I came into the book business sideways. I worked for the government until 1996, but had always been a bookworm and a pop culture hound. One day I found out about first editions, and that was it. The virus was awakened. One year later I took a sabbatical from my job, and a year after that I resigned to sell books full time.

BOOKTHINK: Why is it important for booksellers to attend the Colorado Antiquarian Book Seminar? What can an experienced bookseller gain from the seminar, and what does it have to offer to those new to the trade?

Interestingly, this question has a big relationship to the first question. Seeing what I have seen at the seminar the past 4-5 years, I realize that had I attended I would have saved years - literally, years - of trial and error during the early days of my business. But like a lot of booksellers, I thought I was just too busy for it. It's very much like hearing a knocking sound from your car engine and thinking, "Oh well, it's still running. I've got things to do and I don't have time to get it fixed." Very understandable, but unwise.

To sell used and rare books professionally today, you have to know all the things a bookseller needed to know in the 1980s. But in addition to that there is a huge new layer of technology - and the implications of that technology on the trade - that a successful bookseller really needs to understand and take advantage of in order to be successful. That's the goal of the seminar: to give a bookseller, librarian, or even a collector the basic tools needed to succeed, and to make fewer mistakes along the way. Our faculty consists of a broad range of book professionals, from librarians to rare booksellers, who have a great amount of collective experience, and a desire to raise the bar for booksellers starting out. And more than that, what I'm the most proud of is that everyone on the faculty cares deeply about the seminar. It's a labor of love.

BOOKTHINK: How are the standards different for an antiquarian bookseller than a traditional "penny seller" who operates on volume? In addition to attending the Seminar, what are the best things someone who wants to be an antiquarian bookseller can do to learn these standards?

The standards of professionalism, in my mind, are exactly the same, and are not always intuitive, nor are they easily discoverable to someone starting out. There's certainly no "Dummy" book you can buy to find out what those standards are. The mechanics of running a volume-based business and a rare book business have things in common, but they also differ in significant ways. I like to say that it has a lot to do with how you spend your day. The way a volume seller spends his or her day has a lot to do with information management. A rare bookseller, on the other hand, spends the day on the phone, or maybe writing one very long description, or creating a deluxe paper catalog.

While the seminar's focus is most certainly on rare bookselling, the basic technology tools needed to run either kind of business are covered in some detail. We're not perfect, and there are some aspects of volume selling - eBay, for example - that are not covered in much depth. But on the other hand, there are plenty of eBay seminars one could attend, and only one seminar like ours. So we try to focus on the areas where we have the most to offer, and that can't be found elsewhere.

Thinking about attending the Colorado Antiquarian Book Seminar? Not only is the seminar inexpensive - literally just a little over $1000, which is far less than any other seminar I can think of would cost - there are also nearly a dozen scholarships available this year, all at our website.

Outside the seminar, you can only learn by doing, and by asking a lot of questions. Be humble, not presumptive. Find a bookseller you really like (and who likes you back) and become a protégé. And for goodness sake, go to book fairs, and exhibit at book fairs; they are an education unto themselves.

BOOKTHINK: What do you see in the future for bookselling? How can booksellers best prepare themselves to be successful in a changing market?

I had a bookseller yell at me one time for telling him I had told a customer that I thought a book was going to appreciate in value. He said, "You don't know that! You don't know what's going to happen!" At the time I was taken aback, but over time I've come to understand the wisdom in his reaction. So, with that in mind, I have no idea, of course, what's going to become of bookselling in the future. But I can say that my business has survived the recession rather well, and that I'm having no problem selling first editions. I still have to work 7 days a week, but it's a privileged line of work as far as I'm concerned.

In my heart of hearts, I think there will always be people who love books, and that there will always be a place in the world for booksellers. People love tactile things, and the digital world may be many things, but it is not tactile. I think the world is currently infatuated with technology, and while technology is obviously not going to go away, I think it will recede into the background of day-to-day living in ways that may surprise all of us. Books aren't going anywhere, any more than tables and chairs.

Questions or comments?
Contact the editor, Craig Stark

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