Monday, June 27, 2011

Footloose Whalemen and Other Matters

Whaling Journal Kept by George Smith, 1847-1851. Details below.

In case I didn’t explain myself sufficiently in my prior entry, I spent last week not on a restaurant tour, but at a conference of Rare Book and Manuscript Librarians in Baton Rouge, LA. For the past few years the conference (held in a different city each year) has included a day-long meet and greet event called the Dealer’s Showcase, in which ABAA booksellers get to hang out with the nation’s most active institutional librarians. And that’s what I did last Tuesday from 9:30 AM to 7:30 PM, having left Gloucester Friday, scouting, driving and eating my way south, until Monday.

Colleagues Adam Davis and Kate Schaefer of Division Leap Books meditate on the mysteries of the proto-punk narrative, while Cynthia Gibson (a spiritual relation only) and Rob Rulon-Miller, representing Rulon-Miller books, study hard to make themselves better booksellers and more caring human beings.

This year’s event was certainly worth the investment of driving time, road dollars and mental energy. I met some new librarians, had a few excellent conversations with librarians and booksellers, and even sold a couple of items. The river was lovely, the companionship wonderful, and the food superb.

Here, Heidi Congalton of Between the Covers and Kevin Johnson of Royal books are having a little chat. The librarians only came in numbers toward the end of the day, so we booksellers spent a lot of time having little chats. The big windows in the back ran all across the room, giving us a wonderful view of the Mississippi. Great storm about 3 PM!

All in all the event was a success. Only one troubling thought followed me on the long drive home.

The day after the Dealer’s Showcase, on Wednesday morning, I gave a talk to about 200 librarians. My topic was “Archives in the 21st Century: One Dealer’s Perspective” and the talk consisted of stories about various archives I’ve had experience with. My idea was to demonstrate anecdotally the many new pressures on archival material in the 21st century market. My major conclusions were that the Internet now draws more material out of hiding than ever before – including by theft – and that auction houses, whose rise strangely mirrors the decline of “bricks and mortar” book shops, tend to disintegrate rather than aggregate archives. The punch line was, “My friends, I’m here to tell you that auction houses are not our friends.” This was all well received.

Then followed a Q&A session. At one point someone asked me about pricing procedures involved in offering archives to institutions. I gave my answer, then turned to my co-speaker, Lee Hampton, of the Amistad Research Center at Tulane, and asked him what the procedure was like on his end, at Tulane. He brought the house down by replying, “We never buy anything. We rely on donations.”

He then launched into an interesting discourse on the methods he employed to sway potential donors. Surveying the room as he spoke, I got the sense that a significant minority of the audience – perhaps 20% - agreed with his “donations only” stance. This, of course, implies that booksellers are essentially parasites who have inserted themselves into the donor/recipient relationship.

Mr. Hampton’s statement bemused me because I’m pretty certain it’s untrue. Amistad buys things from book dealers. Beyond that rather quirky wrinkle, its implications are troubling.

Does the Amistad Research Center have its holdings insured? If so, how could the insurance appraiser ascertain fair market value if he was forced to work in a world where nothing ever got sold, if everything was donated, if there were no “comps”- records of prior sales of similar items? If a donor needs a tax writeoff, how could he evaluate his donation except in comparison with sales of similar material?

Certainly, donations are important to any institution. I understand and respect that. But by theoretically excising the book trade from his sources of supply Mr. Hampton does serious damage to what Michael Suarez refers to as the “ecology of the book trade” – a broad concept that includes institutions and collectors as well as dealers. As we all know by now, to eliminate any bit of an integral ecology – even “parasitical” book dealers – only damages the whole.

Mind you, the vast majority of those librarians in attendance “get it” about the book trade. They see our place in the greater scheme of things.

Colleague Ian Kahn of Lux Mentis Books attended the conference and, though he didn’t participate in the Dealer’s Showcase, paid to distribute his advertising material to the attending librarians. Part of what Lux Mentis had on offer was “Collection Development.” On its face, this seemed like a reach to me. I mean, the guy has been in business for about a quarter of the time I have been, and I still don’t offer “Collection Development.” What does he know?

But as I considered the matter on the ride home (long, yes) I realized such services can be a genuine “value added” part of an institution’s relationship with a dealer. Very few of us have enough knowledge to sit on high and dictate which books an institution or collector should acquire. But most of us in the ABAA have the skills to work with an institution in order to bring a broader perspective to collection development. This is what Ian offers. And it’s an important aspect of what book dealers can bring to the table.

Mr. Hampton is very good at what he does, but he’s cutting himself short by cutting us out.

OK, off my hobby horse and onto the whale.

Manuscript WHALING JOURNAL KEPT BY GEORGE SMITH, ABOARD SEVERAL WHALESHIPS, PACIFIC OCEAN, 1847-1851. Folio. Unpaginated (About 220 pages of manuscript entries). What makes this journal unusual is that, over a period of four years, Smith jumped from ship to ship while remaining in the Pacific ocean - most of the time “on the line” and west coast of South America - and recorded each of his whaling experiences in the journal. There does not appear to be a connection between any of the ships (they were all whalers), as they were not owned by the same people, nor were they from the same ports. The journal starts aboard the ship China off Paita in August 1847. Smith changes ships in August 1848 when he transfers to the Nantucket. “Wedns. the 2... Changed staichons with Timothy H. Fisher on Board the Nantucket of Nantucket Cap Gardner...” He stays aboard the Nantucket for one year then transfers to the ship Lafayette. In July 1850 he transfers to the ship Callao were he stays until April 1851, then finishes with a brief but superbly illustrated turn aboard the Superior. (He signed on for a $34 cash advance - almost certainly as a mate.) This journal contains some excellent descriptive passages, dozens of whale stamps, a very unusual stamp of a full-rigged ship, and manuscript illustrations including recognition views and a sketch of a stove boat. It begins with a list of more than fifty vessels spoken up to 1848. Smith also kept track of his expenses, and of oil stowed aboard the Superior. He evidently swallowed the anchor and went to work ashore as a teamster or laborer. Twenty pages at the back of the book document his jobs and pay in 1853 and 1854. We know that whalemen frequently jumped ship for other vessels. However, continuous accounts such as this one are rare. $10,000


  1. Greg: Excellent post about the Fair and the current relationship and potential one with Libraries. "Rely only on donations" is a reality with a number of institutions here in Canada as well. Thank you for sharing.

  2. Great post, and Ian really does have a cool angle there, doesn't he!