Thursday, December 30, 2010

The Year in Review at Ten Pound Island

I notice all the denizens of the blogosphere, as well as newspapers, radio and TV stations, are writing up their lists of “Notable Events of 2010,” so I thought I’d do the same for Ten Pound Island Book Co.

The year got off to a bang on January 8 (a week late, now that I think of it) with the big “Papermania” show in Hartford Connecticut. It was cold. Other than that I don’t remember what happened. I think I bought some books. I know downtown Hartford was more desperate than ever. The McDonald’s on Asylum St. shut down for lack of business. Have you ever heard of an urban McDonald’s closing? Asylum Street, no less.

This was followed sooner than I wanted by a trip to New York City to scout the Mancuso show and then, the next week, a trip to Boxboro, Mass. to scout the paper show there. Other than that I don’t remember what happened. It was cold. I think I bought some books.

By early February my wife and I were on the road in California doing, first, the huge San Francisco show, and then, the next week, the Los Angles ABAA show at the Century Hiatt Regency in LA, where the beers cost $11. San Francisco was okay. LA was a terrible show. People were dying in the aisles.

Other than that I don’t remember much, except waking up one night in an off-brand motel in Camarillo,while scouting my way down the coast from SF to LA, to the dreadful realization that this was not working any more. All the old shops were closed. The greatest of the booksellers were dead or dying. In three days on the road I’d bought just two books. Not working any more

I knew some radical changes would have to be made, and mother nature was there to help me. On the night of February 25th, a giant tree blew down on our gallery/shop, completely destroying it.

We moved all our books into storage pods, and I went off to do the Washington DC Book Fair, followed by the St. Petersburg Book Fair. It got warmer as I headed south, but that did me little good. I was stuck in my motel room in St. Petersburg for two days with a vicious stomach flu, hallucinating twisted versions of The New Business Model I knew I must create. Lean and mean, baby. I lost 12 pounds in two days.

Back home, full of resolve, I did what needed to be done. I canceled my UPS daily pickup contract - saving, by my estimate, upwards of $400 per year. Somewhat later, I rashly made a public vow to pull the plug on printed catalogs, to go totally digital. I also resolved to stop doing high end expensive book fairs at which I sell books to people who would have bought them anyway.

Then I went off and did the high end expensive New York book fair, and spent a lot of time selling books to people I could have sold them to anyway. Basta!

More work on the New Business Model, then off to teach a class at the week-long Colorado Antiquarian Book Seminar, aimed at instructing eager students how to become antiquarian book dealers. The title of my lecture was “Don’t Do It!” The Book Seminar people considered this advice so useful they published it in pamphlet form.

Terry Belanger
, another of the instructors at the book seminar observed that my talk documented precisely how, in the course of thirty-five years, I had attempted every method of selling old books – from flea markets to the internet – and failed at them all.

I even failed at my resolution to stop issuing printed catalogs, with hard copy Maritime List 193, entitled, “I Know, I Know…” a lovely glossy catalog documenting our “Olson in Print” exhibition, and another featuring the wonderful group of Clipper Ship Sailing Cards we’d recently acquired.

In June I began the discipline of writing these weekly blog entries for “Bookman’s Log.” So anyone sufficiently interested could go back into the archives and keep track of my wanderings from June until now.

The one thing the blog won’t tell you is about the beautiful new building my wife Anne Marie and I planned to build as a replacement for the old, destroyed, gallery and shop. She and her buddy Cynthia Roth ran Flatrocks Gallery in that space, and I sold books about local history from the adjoining Ten Pound Annex. We hoped to resume those functions on the first floor and build living and work spaces above. If all went well we were going to retire up there, just like old fashioned shop keepers.

Everyone in the neighborhood loved the idea except for the fellow who lived behind our gallery. He owned the tree that destroyed our building, but apparently didn’t feel too guilty about it, because he showed up at the Zoning Board meeting last month to oppose our plans. He owns a huge 2 ½ acre lot behind our gallery, but he claimed that our proposed building would ruin his privacy, or his vista, or something. He spent about 20 minutes lecturing the Zoning Board about why they should reject our plans. The Zoning Board responded by unanimously approving our proposal. As he was stalking out of the hearing room our defeated neighbor told me, “This isn’t over yet. Looks like I’ll be spending my retirement fund fighting you in court.” Holy smokes!

So here we are, at the end of another year, deep into the New Business Model, with great finds like the Maury Archive, the papers of Wicked Ned, and that glorious trove of Clipper Ship Sailing Cards behind us. My computer tells me we’ve issued six printed and seven email catalogs, written 495 invoices for more than 1500 books totaling about $635,000. Which seems to have disappeared entirely.

I'll try to weigh in next Monday with a report on Papermania 2011, at which I'll be exhibiting on January 8 and 9. After that I'm shutting it down for a couple of weeks and heading off to Ireland. Adios!

Monday, December 20, 2010

Can Your Kindle Do This?

John Ledyard is a strange and fascinating American original. In 1772 he attended Eleazer Wheelock’s Indian School, which would later become Dartmouth College. Unhappy there, he went off with the Indians. When Spring rolled around he built himself an Indian-style dugout canoe, threw a bearskin around his shoulders, and sailed down the Connecticut River to his people in Hartford. Several adventures later he accompanied Captain Cook on this third voyage and was present when Cook was killed in the Sandwich Islands.

It was during his tour with Cook that Ledyard, in a moment of deep and visionary insight, grasped both the unity of the American continent and the concept of trading northwest American furs for Chinese export goods. He became obsessed with the idea and spent the rest of his life trying to convince someone to invest in his scheme. He charmed the likes of Robert Morris, John Paul Jones, General Lafayette, Thomas Jefferson and Joseph Banks, but never found the backer he needed.

Frustrated, he set off walking across Russia and Siberia, bound the long way for the Arctic Sea, the northwest coast and a hike across the American continent. (Ledyard was Jefferson’s inspiration for the Lewis & Clark expedition.) He almost made it through Siberia, but Catherine the Great, perhaps protective of the Russian fur trade, had him hauled back and kicked out of Russia. He returned to London and agreed to explore the source of the Nile for Joseph Banks. But he got sick in Cairo, overdosed on purgative, ruptured a blood vessel, and died there, aged thirty-five.

His body was never recovered, and his legend as “The American Traveler” probably would have dwindled and vanished - except for one thing. When he got back from his travels with Cook he wrote a book about his adventures, A Journal of Captain Cook's Last Voyage to the Pacific Ocean… Hartford. 1783.

It was the first American travel book. Before its release, Ledyard persuaded the Connecticut legislature to pass a law allowing him exclusive rights to its publication. This was the first copyright law passed in America.

For these reasons alone the book is historically significant. But it is also important as a controversial “alternative” report on Cook’s death, and as a publicity piece for, and prelude to, the American China trade. Despite its crudely set type and rudimentary route map, it radiates charisma. It is scarce in any state, but the very few copies published with the map are truly rare. Ledyard’s Journal has enormous cultural importance.

One day in 1994 I got a call from a gentleman in Los Angeles who wanted to sell his library. I’d only sold him a few books and had no idea of the stature of the collection he’d assembled. I asked him what he had and he named a few classics – Hakluyt, Cook, Vancouver, and books of that ilk. Very impressive! He also mentioned that he had a copy of Ledyard’s Journal. I asked him if it had the map. He said it did. I told him I’d be there in two days.

I was able to purchase that library, and I managed to sell the Ledyard for what I considered an excellent price. (I’d gladly pay twice that to have it back today.) Then I spent the better part of twenty years trying to figure out how write a book about this remarkable character and his oddly compelling life – which ended smack in its middle. Then, just this past summer, I realized how I’d do it.

To prepare for my proposed book I’ve been reading about Ledyard and his life. Somewhere in the course of my studies I learned that Laurence Sterne had been one of Ledyard’s favorite authors. So, when I tired of reading histories and biographies, I went to my shelves in search of Tristram Shandy. I first read Sterne’s book when I was in college and, like John Ledyard (this is probably the only thing I have in common with him) I fell in love with it.

There on a dusty top shelf sat my copy, unopened in decades. It was a tanned and beat-up paperback, printed on cheap stock and set in minuscule type, inscribed in blue ink and dated by its owner, nineteen-year-old Gregory Gibson.

To my considerable surprise, that book turned out to be the key to a time machine. It only took a few lines for Sterne’s quirky voice to come back to me, transporting me to the May days of 1964 when I’d first read him, first held that book, squinted at that type, turned those flimsy pages. The soft air of the campus in springtime came back to me, and the voices of friends, and the faces of girls, and the love affairs, silly adventures, and precious relationships - all the excitement and confusion of those late-teenaged years filled me in a giddy rush, triggered as much by the sight and feel of that tired old paperback as by Sterne’s dotty, brilliant prose.

Thus the force of the book as physical object. Ledyard’s Journal, with the map, got me on a plane to LA and convinced me to put my house in hock one more time. And Tristram Shandy, inscribed by Gibson in 1964 made me nineteen again, for a few moments at least.

Two examples of the power of this obsolete analog information delivery system, whose attributes the Kindle and its descendants will never replace.

Monday, December 13, 2010

All I Want for Xmas is a Droid with Apps

(More about this card below)

I’m old, and have made peace with myself, mostly. I suppose you could call it “set in my ways.” Hence, I feel no need to adjust my wardrobe choices to the dictates of whatever modern fashion might be sweeping the country at the moment. For the past thirty or forty years I’ve worn loose-cut jeans, plain or striped oxford shirts, and well-broken-in jogging shoes. I keep my cell phone in the left pocket of my pants, along with my car keys. No cell pouch. No man bag.

I own a modern primitive cell phone. I bought it a few months ago because my old phone, which was as battle worn as Han Solo’s Millenium Falcon, died…R.I.P. When I went into the Verizon store I told the kid I wanted the simplest model he had, that I didn’t want to do anything on it except make and receive telephone calls. He nodded knowingly and put me into whatever geezer model Verizon was offering at the time.

But even that phone was way more precocious than I wanted it to be. It was like having a sinister bug or a hyperactive child in my pocket. It loves to take pictures of the inside of my jeans and is constantly beeping and chirping when it bumps up against whatever else happens to be in that pocket. When I yank it out and flip it open to try to quiet it, a voice comes out of it and asks me “What would you like to do?” The first few times I shouted back at it, “I’d like you to shut the fuck up.” That didn’t work. The wife of a colleague has a phone like mine with duct tape up and down the sides. The tape covers the holes where the buttons had been. She told me the most fun was digging the buttons out with a strong, sharp needle. It empowered her.

Usually, the phone in my pocket bumps up against my key ring. The key ring contains the key to my car which, like my cell phone, enjoys doing things on its own. Last night I went out on the porch for a smoke and it all came clear to me. My phone was making noises and photographing the inside of my pocket. I reached down to throttle it, and bumped into my car key, which promptly locked, or unlocked my car. At that moment I was able to imagine a day in the not-too-distant future when the book trade has slowed and I spend more time on my porch, saddled with more and more “smart” devices that, just by wiggling my butt in my chair, will be able to lock my car, take a picture of my pocket, start my oil burner, turn on my TV, order some new goods or services from Amazon, speed up my pacemaker, download sports results, and cast my ballot for the winner of Dancing with the Stars.

Future, here I come!

Speaking of the future, here is a wonderful, though long, article about the future of publishing – specifically about Amazon and the future of publishing.

The ways books are marketed and priced will have an enormous impact on the kinds of books that will be produced in the future. Increasingly they will be digital products, but even hard copy books will become more uniform – physically, and in terms of content. My guess is that as books become widgetized powerhouses like Amazon or Google will become their own highly efficient used-book finders and sellers. The inefficient, quirky, used book seller of old will disappear, as will the used book shoppe.

Books that by reason of format, age, use, expense of manufacture, or sheer cussedness of the publisher, escape being widgets will come to be regarded as boutique items. Those who purvey them will be arcane specialists practicing a long-forgotten trade, just like the blacksmiths of today. Back when everybody owned a horse, blacksmiths abounded. Now horses are specialty pets and blacksmiths are specially trained craftspeople. Boutique artisans.

The wonderful, whimsical Clipper Ship Sailing Card at the top of this entry fits in with all our ruminations, because it puts the past right smack up against the future. It shows Franklin and his kite drawing electricity down from the sky. Yet, the owners of the Franklin were so certain of the superiority of the ship that they dared put a locomotive on the same card. (This is one of only two cards I know that bear the image of a locomotive.) Of course, in just a couple of decades railroads would steal the freight business from mariners forever. The Franklin was built by Paul Curtis in East Boston in 1859. This is a variant of the card pictured in Forbes. It has a different captain and the second line of type under the ship’s name is set flush left rather than centered - clearly a mistake that was corrected in later printings of the card. The card measures 4 x 6 1/2 inches and is in immaculate condition. $3500

Sunday, December 5, 2010

The Future is Now

About fifteen years ago Heidi Congalton of Between the Covers Rare Books decided to start a book fair in New Jersey. The demographics for collectors were good, and dealers responded well. It was almost always an exciting event because it was held in January and there was usually snow, ice, sleet, or rain to liven things up. Two big function rooms at the Super Ramada in East Hanover, NJ, filled with dealers and rare books - and the roads coated with black ice. You get the picture.

Still, back in the heyday of book fairs it was a healthy show. Lots of fresh material from dealers one didn’t see every week, and plenty of collegiality, including a big dinner for dealers after the show and a poker game after that. Then, just about the time book fairs got sick and started failing, there was some kind of scheduling conflict at the Ramada, and the Joisey Book Fair disappeared.

It stayed disappeared until a couple of years ago when promoter/book dealers Garry Austin and Dennis Holzman brought it back to life. In December this time, substantially lessening the threat of inclement weather. Back I went, checkbook in hand. And I wasn’t disappointed. I found a couple of good things the first year, and this year yielded (for a few hundred dollars) a book that brought more than $15,000 at the 2007 Streeter Sale.

As if that weren’t lucky enough, I somehow found myself on the good side of an arcane meal-buying rotation and got treated to dinner after the show. Better still, I had the privilege of hanging around with legendary booksellers like Greg Talbot, Tom Congalton (Heidi stayed home, alas), John Thomson, Karen Griffin, and that legend among legends, tireless prowler of the entire continent, genius extractor of unspeakably rare ephemeral items, nonstop raconteur, Peter Luke.

But best of all, I got to meet The Future.

His name is Adam Davis and he’s one of the newer members of the ABAA. He says he deals in “Artists’ Books, Mail Art, Poetry, Punk, The Beats, The Mimeograph Revolution, Vanguard Movements, and Zines.” No, I don’t exactly know what they are either, but his booth had a wonderful energy to it - the tang of side-stapled quires of pulp paper, of garish colors, of strange, arresting images. You can get some sense of the range of his endeavors on the website of his company, Division Leap Books, where categories are listed under a “keyword cloud” and funky, odd and imaginative seem to be the real key words. He works out of New York, no surprise, and exhibits at venues I’d never heard of, selling stuff I’d never imagined could be monetized to customers I’ll never have.

He’s taking material that’s been hanging around the fringes of our society, unnoticed (except by a few academicians) until now – cheap, ephemeral counter-culture magazines, posters, manifestos, poetic broadsides, the flotsam and jetsam of the 20th Century culture wars – and he’s saying, “This stuff is important. It has something to tell us about where we came from and where we’re going. And it’s fun to look at, to play with, to collect. It has value.” Fucking brilliant.

Let’s face it. As exciting as it may be to discover the occasional Streeter item, we’re running out of that kind of stuff. In the ecology of our trade such material is relentlessly being funneled into institutions. All well and good. That’s where rare books belong. But once they’re removed from the market, I can’t sell them and you can’t buy them. End of the game for us.

However, there are still attics bursting with memorabilia from the Sixties, for example, or the Beatnik era, or the gorgeous black days of Punk. And just enough time has passed to make such things objects of historical study as well as collectible icons of times gone by. Adam Davis is all over it. I look at him, and at his booth, and at his website, and I can imagine our trade surviving for another generation.

Perhaps most importantly, not only is our boy giving value to objects never before valued, he is mixing venues, penetrating markets largely unknown to us older booksellers. Much of what he buys and sells, and many of his customers, are part of the contemporary art scene in New York. To return for a moment to the ecology metaphor, Division Leap Books is adding to the gene pool of the ABAA. Thanks to people like him, our organization may yet escape the Feebleness, Bizarre Traits, and Sterility that result from excessive inbreeding.

To be honest, Adam reported few sales at the Jersey book fair. He tells me it’s been a real struggle for him and his wife, working out of their apartment, scuffling to make ends meet. It’s tough getting customers to come up and look at his books, and even Zines cost money to produce. He says his customers are young and dollars are in dangerously short supply.

But hey, nobody said The Future would be easy.