Monday, April 14, 2014

What Happened Next?

Wonderful, whimsical new show at Flatrocks Gallery this month. It's called "Tall Tales,"

and curators Anne Marie and Cynthia are billing it as a collection of visual narratives with a surrealist bent. Stories are the connective tissue of the human race. At the heart of every event is a human element that leads to three of the most exciting words in any language: What happened next? If you answer that question you are a storyteller. Works in a variety of media by seven local artists on display at Flatrocks Gallery explore the answers.
So there I was tending bar at the gallerey's opening Saturday night (patrons can expect a splash of attitude with their booze), and after the initial rush died down I found myself in conversation with a youngish, stylish couple named Sarah and Rick. They were from Boston, hadn't been here before, and were interested in Flatrocks Gallery – how long had it been in operation, who were the clients, who owned the place, and what sort of business was it? A few minutes of that sort of thing got us to the fact that they were in the art business too – sort of. They ran an Internet site called The Curator's Eye, the purpose of which, as near as I could make out from what they were saying, was to help clients connect with dealers, and dealers with clients. According to Sarah, they offer a large database of wealthy prospective buyers which dealers can sort and filter to find the most likely client for each individual piece they are selling.

That was when I realized these were the people who had been soliciting my business for months, following up on their initial mildly annoying cold call (some dame with a plummy English accent), with weekly emails touting their service. And, though Sarah and Rick were friendly enough, they did NOT tone down the Curator's Eye evangelism. They were motivated salespersons. And, as much as I kept insisting that I was just a merchant who had customers, Rick kept wanting to talk about "clients." I confess I got a little feisty. "Who has clients?" I asked. "Whores and lawyers, that's who!" No, he insisted, a "customer" bought something once and then departed forever. A "client" was a repeat "customer." The revolutionary approach offered by Curator's Eye was to create clients, not customers. To which I replied, "Duhh..."

I pointed out to them that most people had more goods than customers and that, in a sense, my situation was the reverse. I have plenty of customers. I need inventory. "Funny," they said, "That's just what Eric Waschke of Wayfarer's Bookshop told us." I've known Eric for years, and that sounded exactly like something he'd say. The fact that they hadn't heard this from more people suggested to me that they were talking to the wrong people.

Next day I poked around their website for a while, and saw the usual blah blah – "passionate" this, "unparalleled" that, with "highly qualified" dealers hawking the expected "magnificent collection of notable objects." The only interesting thing about them was that they were one of the few, among nearly a dozen competing services, who even acknowledged that old books and manuscripts existed. Give them credit for innovative niche sniffing.

But how do they make their money? They don't charge commission on sales. They brag about placing hundreds of thousands of ads, so they must have overhead. Who's paying for it?

I wrote Rick, asking him about this, and asking him to tell me a little about himself and their operation, for a blog piece (this one) I was writing. I got this reply:

I wish I could help with some blog writing, but writing/editorial is not really our strong suit. We're really a technology company (and I'm really a techie/quant analyst). We focus mainly on advertising... The main reason for that strategy, even with book marketing, is that there is a LOT of content out there on the internet, and a lot of good content, and we don't think that we can really compete with the big guys (eg. NYT, New Yorker, etc). So instead of writing content that competes, we just buy ad space from them and advertise next to their great content. Actually, we can get 7,000 views of one of our ads for about $30-50. We think that is not too bad, especially when considering all of the time it takes to keep up a blog with new posts each month (and time is money...). So, in the end it actually becomes more efficient for our book dealers if we do it this way -- we can get to orders of magnitude more people than if we tried to create our own editorial. We would love to get a mention on your blog though... Maybe just post the video? Just an idea... and very time efficient!

Were we even conversing in the same language?

So, questions abound. Is Sarah and Rick's brainchild just a data collecting operation, seeking to compile, then sell, a list of high powered art buyers? Are they all smoke and mirrors, burning through their startup capital and hoping to gain long term market share as Amazon did? Is their idea meeting with success? Manhattan Rare Book Company and Claudia Strauss-Schulson of David Schulson Autographs provide testimonials on the CE website – of a sort. All they actually say is that Curator's Eye has brought new contacts. Nothing about sales.

There was only one thing to do. 

Figuring I needed goods rather than customers, I mean clients, I signed up as a collector. Then I went to look at the books and manuscripts in my field. Nada. So I tried to sign up as a dealer, thinking that perhaps I could put some of my rare stuff on their website. Maybe, if I looked at the site after drinks and dinner and drinks, I'd find the material attractive and purchase it.

Or maybe not. For some reason, my attempt to sign up as a dealer did not go through. Could it be that Curator's Eye does not want people playing both ends?

Of all the abounding questions, though, here's the biggest one. Is Curator's Eye the future – not only for art people but for book dealers as well? The Internet is crawling with product, and there are few "qualified buyers" these days who don't know how to turn on a computer. Will the Curator's Eye dating service model be the Next Big Thing in our business? What will happen next?

As Anne Marie and Cynthia say, "If you can answer that question, you are a story teller."
Anne Marie and Cynthia. Real curators. Real eyes

Stay tuned...

(Yup, you counted right. This is our 200th blog entry.)

Monday, April 7, 2014

Promoter Predicts Catastrophe in 2015

Promoter Sandy Smith delivers the bad news
One of the most anticipated features of the New York International Antiquarian Book Fair is free lunch for dealers at setup on Thursday. Indeed, in a city where even "free" costs an arm and a leg, Thursday afternoon's catered meal attracts booksellers from across America and Europe. Turkey, roast beef, veggie wraps... Hell, they even have bottled water!

But not this year.
At approximately 11:30 am, as dealers – particularly those on European time – began making growling noises, a sign appeared outside the show office announcing that lunch had been cancelled.

Asked about the reason for the cancellation, show promoter Sandy Smith said, "There was a major traffic jam on the BQE. You can look it up. The sandwiches never made it here." As far as plans for a make-up lunch were concerned, Smith quipped. "Ain't happening. Get used to it. Won't happen next year, either." Is Smith predicting another "major traffic jam" on the BQE in 2015? Sure sounds that way. And where did all those sandwiches wind up? An avalanche of turkey wraps on the Tillary St. Exit? Dog ate my lunch? Stay tuned.

This is just the latest example of the ways in which economic imperatives impact this convenient but creaky venue. New York is where the money is, babycakes. And more and more dealers want to be here.
Feeding frenzy at Caliban Books, shortly before lunch was NOT served
ABAA book fair czar Don Heald and his staff have been working hard to accomodate them all, but at the end of the day compromises must be made. New, smaller sized booths were recently introduced, which made it possible for a greater number of dealers to have space to themselves. Still, some dealers were forced to share booth spaces (this is done by lottery, not seniority or favoritism), and a few dealers were wait-listed.

Physical hardships have increased. The dining area at the back of the hall is a third of its former size.
The tables are always filled, and weary fair goers circle the area like drivers looking for parking spots. Aisle widths have been reduced to the point where there is no room for chairs. Wheelchairs, god forbid, occasion traffic jams that rival the now-legenday sandwich smash on the BQE. And with so many booths reduced in size or shared, sit-down space conflicts with customer browsing room. As is the case everywhere else on this island, real estate is at a premium. Net result? For the AARP subset of the ABAA, four days of book fair have turned into Hard Time. Not a whine, simply an observation.

Happily, these difficulties have been offset by two major improvements. As of a few years ago the Thursday night charity event, formerly an evening strictly reserved for the see-and-be-seen crowd (no sales to those folks!) has been replaced by a regular preview night in which customers are allowed to come into the fair and purchase our books. And, equally wonderfully, Sandy Smith and Heald's book fair committee were able to wangle an extra room this year from the Armory people for use as a dealer's lounge. A quiet, gently lit cave with coffee urns, long tables, and soft chairs. More than a few winks were stolen in these environs.
Finally! A place to sit down.
As if to compensate for the ever-increasing expense and physical difficulty of this event, the material on display this year was better than I've ever seen it.

Books, maps, and manuscripts were dazzling. And, not to put too fine a point on it, the bucks were flowing. No one I spoke to had a ruinous fair, and even the people with only "so so" results were talking sums well into five figures. So, for almost all exhibitors at the big show, it was "mission accomplished."

Meanwhile, downtown, the Flamingos were holding their annual soiree in the Altman Building on 18th Street.
This year they combined their so-called Shadow Show with a Fine Press Book Fair downstairs in the same venue.
It was a brilliant idea simply because the Fine Press Fair brought out a whole new crowd – and when I say crowd I mean crowd. An estimated 300 book lovers were lined up around the block on opening night, and even at 8 am Sunday morning when the show reopened, there were quite a few book lovers prowling the downstairs event. For understandable financial reasons, the folks at Flamingo Eventz have always been weak on advertizing. The addition of the Fine Press Fair was a creative solution of sorts. It helped get the word out, and bring people in.

Increasingly, "synergy" is becoming a watchword in our trade. Auctions now cluster around book fairs (by my count there were eight of them this year), and books themselves morph into art objects. Promoters find new ways to combine events even as institutions and collectors break down traditional boundaries. Our trade still faces myriad problems. But recently, for the first time in a long time, there's excitement in the air.
Yes, it's a book. Unfortunately, this fellow faces problems of his own.

Sunday, March 30, 2014

Decisions, Decisions

This is always a rough week for me. The New York International Antiquarian Book Fair is hauling into view (April 2-6), and there are decisions to be made. What stays? What goes? It's the biggest fair on the circuit and it has the greatest upside in terms of profit potential and meeting new customers. It's also the most expensive of the American fairs, and big city livin' is a real drain on the pocket book.
It would make sense to set aside my best stock for an event such as this, but I'm not a hoarder by nature, and the demands of cash flow must be honored.

So, when good material comes in I think, "This would look great in New York." Then I think of somebody to quote it to, and if it truly is as good as I think it is, they buy it, and I get a hole in my showcase where I'd imagined that item might fit. (Payment may or may not arrive within 30 days.)
Then I have to decide which of the remaining new items are interesting enough to take to the show, and how much I should lard that material with older things from my stock – wonderful items that, for some reason have not yet sold. We all know that booksellers have second sight when it comes to fresh stock. Even if they've never seen my books before, seasoned dealers will always go straight for the fresh material. It's uncanny. So the more old stock I bring, the less the dealers will be involved. But am I doing this show for dealers?

Good question! My sales to dealers account for about a third of my annual gross. Their trade is not to be taken lightly. But at an event like this, I want the heavy hitters in the retail trade and the well funded librarians to see the best of my top notch material, regardless of how "fresh" it may be. I should just start from the top down and bring my 100 (or whatever the number might be) best items.
And where will we dine, and with whom? And what about parking? And will I find enough to buy on the floor during setup – yes, there are books to be bought at the New York show – and will they be the right books? And will I be able to pay for them, let alone sell them later?

Much nocturnal tossing and turning ensures. About the only thing I don't have to worry about is my wardrobe – a source of anxiety for some, I'm sure. I've been wearing the same set of bookfair clothes for a decade. Yes, they're getting ratty and moth eaten, but so am I.

Anyway, here's a no-brainer for New York – one less decision I have to make:
Manuscript. Sea Journal of Samuel Goodhue, Aboard the Ship Sumatra, Salem to Canton, 1830-1831. Watercolor illustrations. Sq. 8vo. About 150 pages of manuscript entries. This journal was kept by Samuel Goodhue of Salem, an officer aboard the Ship Sumatra, commanded by old China Trade hand Captain Charles Roundy. The Sumatra made regular, and extrememly profitable, (Putnam, "Salem Vessels", pp. 113-114) runs to Canton during this period. The year before she had delivered William Low, his wife, and his niece Harriett to China, where Low was to manage the powerful American trading firm Russell & Co. Harriett Low kept a journal of her stay in China,
and she recorded her passage in the Sumatra under Captain Roundy (the journal was subsequently published in 2002 as "Lights and Shadows of a Macao Life"). She mentions the arrival of the Sumatra in 1830, visits the ship and entertains Captain Roundy, who offers to take her back to Salem with him (Low vol. 1, p. 213). However, she never writes about what the ship was actually doing in China. Samuel Goodhue's journal clears that question up in a single entry. “Feb 4 - This day discharged all our opium on board of the Bark Lintin.”
Robert Bennet Forbes, whose arrival in China is noted in this journal, had just taken command of the opium receiving ship Lintin and the Sumatra was supplying it. Eighteen pages are devoted to their stay at Lintin and their activities there. Another twelve pages narrate their journey upriver to Canton. Vessels and captains are named and "receiving ships" are identified. The journal is well written and quite detailed about the journey out and back, as well as a side trip to Manilla and stays at Lintin, Canton, and Macao. It mentions current events and details of life there, such as the murder of an English captain in Canton, and it details their trading activities (rice from Manilla for tea in Canton). It also features water color views of Trinidad, Java Head, St. Barbe, several island groups in the Indian Ocean, a whale, two views of the ship, and a funereal set piece commemorating the death of a shipmate. A rare and important journal from an interesting period in the American China Trade, rich in detail and historic significance. Bound in quarter calf over marbled boards, rebacked with hinges renewed. Text and illustrations in very good condition.$20,000

Sunday, March 23, 2014


In 1996 I got a call from colleague Owen Kubik who runs an eponymous  book business in the Midwest. He told me he had an interesting manuscript, but that he needed some assistance figuring out what it was and selling it. I was able to help him do both.

It turned out to be the journal of a young navy office who went out to capture the perpetrator of one of the bloodiest mutinies in American maritime history. I sold the journal for good money to a museum, and everyone was happy.

A few years later, my first book had just come out and I was casting about, without any luck, for a new writing project. Then one day it hit me. The manuscript I'd sold five years earlier provided new, and exciting, information about a fascinating and gruesome event. That would be my next book.

My agent liked the idea, so I wrote up a crackerjack proposal and sold the project to Little, Brown for a handsome six figure advance (those were the days). The money gave me the leisure and the latitude to engage in the most engrossing and enjoyable research project of my life.

I traveled through archives in Washington DC, Nantucket, and Edgartown tracing the histories of the whale ship Globe and the navy ship, the Dolphin, that chased it. I traveled through the Midwest tracking down the source of the mysterious journal and learning about the life of the navy officer who wrote it. Then, to top everything off, my photographer son and I went out to Mili Atoll,
a flyspeck in the middle of the Pacific Ocean, to research the mutiny on the whaleship Globe.

An ancient twin engine prop plane flew us from Majuro in the Marshall Islands to a long strip of grass on Mili Atoll's biggest islet. The door opened and oven-like heat poured in. A crowd of strange looking people waited to greet us. The pilot told us he'd be back in a week, and took off.
No one on the island spoke English. But the kids all played basketball, and they all knew how to say, "Michael Jordan."
It was the most exotic week I've ever spent, and one of the most fun. The ultimate father-son adventure. In some respects the atoll was just as the mutineers must have found it. 

 And yet it bore terrible scars from the devastation of World War II.
Carcass of a Japanese "Betty" bomber
In the end I got my story and wrote my book.
It came out to good reviews, then came out again in jazzy paperback form, and then sank beneath the waves like the Pequod at the end of Moby Dick. It's been out of print for years.

Then, just last month, my agent asked me if I wanted to turn it into an e-book. I said, "Sure!" so we dug up the text and had it formatted as an Amazon Kindle product. Even got a new cover. It'll be available by next month. Yours for only $3.99.
The wonders of Amazon!

Here's a very cool item that came in recently. You will not be seeing it on Amazon anytime soon.
Contents of a "dead man's chest"
Navigating the East Indian & Chinese Seas

"Log Kept on Board Brig Industry by Jacob Stone Master - Began November the 20 - 1803. Departure from Cape Ann... Jacob Stone." Folio, unpaginated. About 200 pages of manuscript entries. Sewn signatures bound in sailcloth, with remains of old leather carrying pouch titled "Log Book of Capt. Jacob Stone 1803" in gold.

According to the "History of the Marine Society of Newburyport", Stone was a pioneer in the East Indies trade. "Stone made the first entry in the Newburyport Custom House, with a cargo from the East Indies in the brig Industry, March, 1805." This is his log of that historic voyage - to Calcutta (where they arrived July 23, 1804), via Batavia, and back to Newburyport. The log ends on December 26, 1804, in the South Atlantic, 104 days from India. Stone keeps a close record of position, course, sail handling, ships spoken, landmarks, and events on board. Though he does not include port logs in Batavia and Calcutta, he goes into considerable detail about finding anchorages and navigating the Hooghly River. Also of interest is a 41 page manuscript Stone has written at the back of his log - "Remarks from the Instructions on the Navigation of the East Indian & Chinese Seas by Mr. DeApres de Manne Villette." This is probably a transcription or adaptation of Joseph Huddart's 1801 English translation of D'Apres de Mannevillette's "Oriental Navigator." The fact that Stone copied it at such length is evidence of what an important text it was. The log itself begins with an inventory of the effects of "Mr Joseph Cary, Deceased." As was the custom when a man died at sea, his effects were inventoried and then sold to the crew. A detailed and informative document of America's early involvement in the East Indies trade. Writing clear and legible. $4500

Monday, March 17, 2014

Contagion of Pessimistic Resignation

I've been telling people for years that "food is the new religion." I used to get funny looks. Now I get knowing nods. So it was not surprising that this year's thirty-fourth annual conference of the Ephemera Society of America  – "Food & Drink: Field to Table" - was devoted to food. Books, manuscripts, documents, and ephemera of every sort relating to recipies, restaurants... you name it.

Two days worth of presentations on everything from seed catalogs to cocktail ephemera.

And, of course, the Ephemera Show – sixty two of America's finest dealers in paper displaying their wares to hundreds of conference attendees, dealers, librarians, and colletors from all over the country.
Robert Fraker of Savoy Books displays in important piece of political ephemera
And not just food related, either. In fact, after one left the lecture theater the food theme diminished substantially. Lizzie Young of Lizzyoung Bookseller, and Don Lindgren of Rabelais Books gave presentations on Friday 
If food is the new religion, this is church
and had booths in the show on Saturday and Sunday, but for the most part it was paper as usual, with dealers presenting their own specialties, or showing us recently purchased material. And, as usual, there were some fascinating items on display.
The weather was good, the hotel was comfortable, and the show was smoothly managed by John and Tina Bruno of Flamingo Eventz.
Because of the conference and its many attendees, the show has a built in audience. As these events go, it's almost foolproof. 

However, despite all these favorble indicators, there were about a dozen fewer dealers exhibiting here this year thand there were last year. Yes, there was a conflict with the Florida Antiquarian Book Fair in St. Petersburg (I chose to do this one rather than that one), but most of the people who weren't here this year weren't there, either. 

Wonder what that means? 

To those pessimistically inclined it sometimes seems as if we're on the Titanic, listening to the orchestra. We can feel the ship beginning to list, but we have little idea what's coming. 

On the other hand, colleague Garrett Scott opines, "The contagion of pessimistic resignation that has overtaken bookfairs hasn't quite yet reached the Ephemera Society show. We've seen some symptomatic carriers, but they're usually booksellers." I like his attitude.
Ten Pound Island Book Co. had a good show, buying and selling, and almost all the exhibitors I talked to were quite happy with the event. I've said this before, but it's worth repeating. Every once in a while we need to get out and look at something other than books.

Monday, March 10, 2014

Springing Ahead

So we show up Friday morning full of anticipation, excitement, fear & loathing, or whatever we’re disposed to be full of, and schlep our books in, and set our booths up, and try to purchase material at advantage from our colleagues,

Not a Civilian in Sight
and gossip, and go out for lunch, and come back and scout some more, struggling now to stay awake, resisting malign conspiracies of gravity, age, dopamine deficiency, seasonal affect disorder, and rage against the machine, and tidy our booths up with a final primp, and assume our positions for the five o’clock opening and…


Or, almost nothing. The 39th edition of the Washington Antiquarian Book Fair opened with a terrifying whimper. There were three or four customers waiting for the opening bell at the entrances to each of the fair’s three rooms.

They made beelines for the booths of friends, where they remained for the rest of the night, or they wandered distractedly, like flies caught inside the storm window. What is it that people are doing when they come in your booth and then walk away without having looked at anything? In years past, the line of eager attendees would fill the lobby and snake down the mezzanine stairs. That was not the case Friday night. You have no idea how exhausting not selling books can be.

Perhaps there was a problem with the $14 admission charge. For this princely sum visitors were treated to sliced fruit and ham & cheese rollups.

Another $7 if they wanted to wash these offerings down with an alcoholic beverage. Yes, this is nominally a charity event for the Concord Hill School. So where were the Concord Hill parents? And why weren't they demonstrating their support by purchasing rare maritime books and documents such as those on display at the booth of Ten Pound Island Book Company? One gets the sense that participation from the school has diminished. I wonder what their advertizing budget was for this year's show?

In the past, this fair's opening night was an opportunity to see and be seen – to meet your fellow bibliophiles or librarian colleagues, and to rub elbows with people who have enthusiasms, or afflictions, similar to your own. Some of these stalwarts showed up on Friday. But it is, to be honest, a graying crowd. On Saturday one person told me, “I used to come every opening night, but I got tired.”

Which brings us to Saturday. The people came out! The aisles were crowded!

And it didn't take long before the compacted body heat magnified the effects of hot air being emitted in the “Shenandoah Suite” and the “Dogwood Room,” and things began to warm up. Way too warm. Lizzie Young, purveyor of “Books for Foodies” had a look of panic about her as she roamed the Shenandoah Suite looking in vain for a window that opened. I was afraid she might get overdone. Burned, even.

Yes, the folks came out. Mostly just folks. $25 - $250 folks.
So dealers with books of general interest in that price range did pretty well. The rest of us sat around with our more expensive stock, watching it not sell. Or sell slowly.

But we are not complaining. No, we're not. Fair manager Beth Campbell had matters well in hand as far as logistics were concerned. Load in and load out – always tricky operations in this second floor venue (hold that elevator!)
  - went as smoothly as could be expected. Security, as always, was excellent.
And we got free drink tickets.

We were thankful for them, and we're thankful we've got any book fairs at all to go to, and that a few old people still stagger out to visit us at these events, and that our colleagues bring their tired stock for us to buy, and that Saturday night we got to spring ahead instead of having to fall back.
Manuscript. “THAMES’S LOG BOOK” DECEMBER 1796 - JUNE 1798.” 4to, unpaginated. About 450 pp. manuscript entries. HMS Thames was a 32 gun frigate launched in 1758. In 1797 Captain William Lukin had orders to sail with a convoy to the West Indies, but before he could depart he and his ship were caught up in the Spithead Mutiny. The Thames was one of sixteen ships-of-the line anchored off Portsmouth whose crews - angered at having earlier petitions ignored - refused to sail. Lukin was credited with handling events well at Spithead, and the Thames was one of the first ships ready for sea. All of the events pertaining to the mutiny and the Thames are recorded in detail in this log. “At 11 turned the hands up and made known to them the dispute that lately happened at Spithead charging them the perils thereto attending.” A lengthy entry on May 15 documents the crew taking charge of the ship “agreeable to orders received from the delegates... without orders from the Captain or any of the officers who were only Cyphers.” Amid some confusion, the officers were sent ashore and the ship was left in command of “the Gunner.” The entry for June 26 notes “continually riots & disturbance... occasioned by a number of disaffected people.” The next day, “still a number of mutineers who were continually endeavoring to stir up the rest of the ship’s company to mutiny.” The convoy (of more than 50 ships) reached the West Indies early in August. Upon their arrival the Thames set immediately to work patrolling for enemy vessels. On August 3, “strangers” were sighted - these proved to be “the Squadron under Adm. Bligh.” They fought “brigands” in coastal waters, boarded and searched dozens of ships, seized a few, accompanied prize ships, and transferred prisoners and supplies. A marvelous historical document, rich in detail, and containing eyewitness accounts of events surrounding the Spithead Mutiny. Written in a clear and legible hand. Pages clean. Bound in full reverse calf with cover label. A few signatures pulled. $5500

Next week – Report from Paper Heaven. The Ephemera Society's Annual show.