30 October 2008

This is not a library...

'Bookselling is easy', someone said 'you buy a book for a dollar and sell it for two.' That's pretty much it --although it is a better idea to sell it for three dollars. In my experience books are very easy to buy but money is usually scarce, so it is difficult to understand why booksellers make it so hard for customers to buy books from them. Money is what we want, money to buy more books. However when a bookseller is not shooting himself in the foot, he is usually punching himself in the face.

In the comments on the last post several people mentioned the much hated bookshop on Love Street in San Francisco, where customers are routinely demeaned by petulant staff - a typical scene being a young woman who found about a dozen books she wanted to buy and as she made her way through the shelves to find a few more, she was informed by an assistant - 'this is not a library'. She put the books down and left the shop forever (after.)

Dylan Moran said of his great curmudgeonly creation, the bookseller of 'Black Books'- "There is a guy in a Dublin bookshop who provided the image of Bernard Black. He looks like he’s swallowed a cup of sour milk and peed himself at the same time. He has this green bilious expression, years of displeasure have shaped his face. In fact he looks like every other second hand bookshop owner I’ve seen. It seems to go with the job - being miserable....He’s still there now seething in his ash-smudged cockpit, daring somebody to buy a book".

Booksellers are always looking for the right way of getting it wrong -to 'fail better.' Here are some useful guidelines.

1. Price your books so high that they will not sell.
2. Make sure the price is high enough that the customer will not only not buy the book but also never come back to your shop.
3. Make sure your shop looks as if is closed so that no one comes in. Poor or sparse lighting can help.
4. Make sure the door is hard to open.
5. Post a lot of imperious notices around the shop 'No Mobile Phones' 'Thieves will be prosecuted' 'No returns' 'All sales Final' etc.,
6. Greet the customer with a glower, a scowl or a look of deep mistrust. If you are feeling generous a frosty 'Good Morning! will suffice.
7. Ask them exactly what they want and if you do not have it be sure they leave before they can look round.
8. If they don't buy anything follow them with your eyes to the door and plant an imaginary dagger between their shoulder blades and bid them a joyless and sneering goodbye.
9. Refuse all offers on books with utter contempt and only give a discount (10% absolute maximum) when explicitly requested by long established booksellers who are listed in every guide book and who are spending at least £100.
10. Calculate the discount to the nearest penny even if the amount is many hundred of pounds. Thus £112 becomes £100. 80.
11. If you take credit cards charge an extra 5% to cover expenses.
12. Always close exactly on time no matter how many customers are in the shop or how much they are buying.
13. If a customer puts a book aside give them 24 hours to decide but put the book out 24 hours later to the minute.
14. If another dealer buys an expensive book have a searching enquiry as to what went wrong; if it was priced by a member of staff fire them immediately.
14. If someone dares to phone you offering you a collection of rare books treat them with great suspicion, if any titles are mentioned dismiss them as common and undesirable. If they insist ask them to bring the books to the shop. If they intimate that the books are of very high quality, but they want nothing or very little for them, pick them up in your shooting brake on your way home.

23 October 2008

Yet more Bastards with Bookshops

One must not forget the Birmingham dealer, who on being asked for a discount for books would tear them in half in front of the customer. What particularly irked him was the phrase 'What can you do on this?' A red mist would descend and he would reply 'I'll show you what I can do on this...' and tore up the book. One imagines that this was selective, possibly only books under £20. Not a wise business stratagem but probably quite satisfying...

Then there was the dealer who suddenly put up his stock from an average of £10 a book to £200 a book. Sales slowed down, customers got annoyed, fights broke out but business did not totally come to a halt. Every time a customer bought a book his fiendish plan was justified. Before long he was totally and utterly broke. In this business greed is the enemy of profit. This was 20 years ago. Now in the great 200 million strong bookshop in the sky (ABE) £10 books are routinely priced at £200 and if they are ex library or in unacceptable condition, quite a bit more.

Also unforgotten is the great Eric Barton and his shop in Richmond, a sort of bookselling John Fothergill who would chuck people out of his shop if he didn't like the cut of their gib. A bastard's bastard; his speciality was 18th century cricket books. When, some time in the 1970s, the writer and bookseller Iain Sinclair walked from Islington to Richmond with a rucksack on his back for his book buys, the destination of his pilgrimage was this shop. At the end of his great walk, when he entered the hallowed shop, Barton, spying the bulging rucksack, shouted at him - 'Not another bloody tourist!'

There was also the very posh shop run by well connected chinless wonders who got great books from their chum's in country houses--they would ban people who bought too many books, especially those who boasted about it and also dealers who had not been to the right schools. Lastly the bookshop in Metroland run by a British Nazi who sat with his jackboots up on the desk reading the 'Daily Sport' or 'Stormtrooper' and discouraged any punter who wasn't a bald or booted skinhead. B'stards all of them...

21 October 2008

Velvet Underground / Band Names from Books

Michael Leigh. THE VELVET UNDERGROUND. Macfadden Books, New York, 1963.

Current Selling Prices
$40-$80 /£30-£40

The legend is that Andy Warhol found this lurid paperback on the streets of New York (in the gutter) and named the great rock band after it. It is not especially scarce as the net has now revealed; 10 years ago you could get $100 for a nice first, now you shouldn't have to pay half that. The book is prurient sexploitation trash about the kinky underside of American life--the text on the cover reads 'Here is an incredible book. It will shock and amaze you...as a documentary on the sexual corruption of our age, it is a must for every thinking adult.' There is a follow up book from 1968 'The Velvet Underground Revisited'. It is more scarce than the original but worth no more. The book was also republished in 1967 in the United Kingdom under the confusing title 'Bizarre Sex Underground.' Wikipedia appears to give the definitive story:
'...Lou Reed and Sterling Morrison's friend, filmmaker Tony Conrad, found a copy lying in the street. Morrison has reported the group liked the name, considering it evocative of "underground cinema," and fitting, due to Reed's already having written "Venus In Furs", inspired by Leopold von Sacher-Masoch's book of the same name, dealing with sadomasochism.'

What other bands took their names from books? AEROSMITH is said to come from one of its members having read or possessed Sinclair Lewis's 1925 novel 'Arrowsmith'. The name of Ted Nugent's band AMBOY DUKES is taken from the title of a 1940's book about street gangs by Irving Shulman. THE BLACK CROWES - was originally named after 'Johnny Crow's Garden' by Leslie Brooke a children's book published first in 1903. DIVINE COMEDY comes from Dante's great work (the group STYX's name is also Dante inspired).

THE DOORS comes from Huxley's book 'The Doors of Perception' which comes from William Blake '(If the doors of perception were cleansed everything would appear to man as it is...') GENESIS comes from a book in the Bible. It is said there are some kids who think it's the other way round. MOTT THE HOOPLE comes from a 1966 novel of the same name by Willard Manus (about a circus freak--the book was re-issued with an inappropriate rock and roll cover.) THE SOFT MACHINE is from William Burrough's 1961 novel. Burroughs also inspired the name STEELY DAN-- a giant steam-powered dildo in 'Naked Lunch'. STEPPENWOLF took their name from Herman Hesse's backpacker classic. SUPERTRAMP comes from the excellent 'Autobiography of A Supertramp' by W.H. Davies, a writing tramp rescued from obscurity by George Bernard Shaw. The metal group URIAH HEEP comes from the nasty piece of work of that name in 'David Copperfield' by Charles Dickens.

There are a bunch of bands whose names were inspired by Tolkien, the only one that comes to mind right now is MARILLION from his least good book 'THE SILMARILLION' (known in publishing circles as 'The SellaMillion.') A rather forgotten 60s band was called H. P. LOVECRAFT and his non existent book The Necronomicon inspired various metal bands I am told...

16 October 2008

Gilt by Association

Association copies can be very valuable. Our Burgess book mentioned in the last post made a decent but unsensational $220 (I had bought it off a catalogue in 2001 at $55). The kind of association copy that you really want is a book that went through my hands (rather too rapidly) in 1999. It was a copy of a decent late 19th Century Machiavelli's 'The Prince' presented by Churchill to Lord Beaverbrook the newspaper magnate, a sort of Rupert Murdoch of his day. The book had a few annotations and marginal linings by WSC and also possibly later by Lord B. It was interesting that both men found the book of practical value, although the inscription was fairly lighthearted as I recall--along the lines of 'here's how to rule your domain...' I sold it to a dealer for circa £5K. He quickly sold it to a Churchill punter--one of the less bright variety, as he had to have the significance of the association explained to him, having never heard of the great Florentine philosopher.

John Carter in his 'ABC for Book Collectors' talks of bogus association copies--ones where the association is made by loosely inserting a letter--this is to be 'actively resisted' by collectors. Also I feel that a bookplate should not be used (by itself) as an association tool. A few years ago there were Hemingway bookplates on the market and a dastardly dealer could, if he were so minded, stick one in a book on, say, big game hunting or in a 1920s guide book to Paris and claim it as 'Hemingway's copy.' I was shown a very nice association last night by a Suffolk dealer/ friend. A signed presentation from John Betjeman to the cartoonist (Carl) Giles:
'The mighty cartoonist Carl Giles is [Summoned by Bells] by his admiring fellow Islingtonian John Betjeman...'
Like all great associations it links two well known people, but with various resonances--both light humourists, Londoners and much loved British eccentrics. Sadly the book is not for sale but its value must be in many hundreds of pounds.

Pic at top is from a 2002 painting by one W. Horvath which is the cover-image of the book "Niccolo Machiavelli - Der Fürst" from RaBaKa-Publishing.

10 October 2008

The Association Copy

We have a classic 'association copy' up on Ebay right now--Guy Burgess's copy of the immortal Algernon Cecil's 1927 offering 'British Foreign Secretaries.' Guy the Spy was at Eton at the time with the world before him, however in a close reading of his annotations to this book one can dimly discern the future traitor--as the poet (AE) observed 'In the lost boyhood of Judas / Christ was betrayed.' As an association copy it is not quite up there with Crowleys' copy of the I Ching (sold by M.Stone to LZ axeman Jimmy Page) or Lord Lucan's copy of 'Mein Kampf' (sold by us in 2002.) What exactly is an association copy? The unstoppable John Carter offers a perfect defintion in his 'ABC for Book Collectors.'
“This term, often scoffed at by laymen, is applied to a copy which once belonged to, or was annotated by, the author; which once belonged to someone connected with the author or someone of interest in his own right; or again, and perhaps most interestingly, belonged to someone peculiarly associated with its contents.'
Lay persons are no longer scoffing at the term and association copies have become a fascinating and lucrative byway of book collecting. The Burgess book is described as follows by our erudite cataloguer Tom Adair.
Algernon Cecil, British Foreign Secretaries, 1807 – 1916: Studies in Personality and Policy (London: G Bell & Sons, 1927)


This remarkable survival is the copy of Algernon Cecil’s 1927 book about British foreign secretaries owned by the infamous Cambridge spy Guy Burgess. The front free endpaper bears the inscription: ‘Guy Burgess / Eton 1929’. Burgess was seventeen or eighteen and preparing to take up his place at Trinity College, Cambridge.

Inconspicuous enough at first glance – a plain, dark blue hardcover without dustwrapper, a little worn about the edges – the book harbours a wealth of fascinating annotations in the hand of the young intellectual. There are many sentences in the book which Burgess has placed a pencil line under or alongside, such as the observation that Canning, foreign secretary during the Napoleonic Wars, ‘[as] he had a difficulty in understanding the value of a code amongst nations, so he had a difficulty in understanding the obligations of code amongst men’. Elsewhere, Burgess notes well the observation that the Earl of Clarendon (1850s foreign secretary) ‘betray[ed] himself by a kind of fatalism rather than a fund of resourcefulness [so that in the end] he proved somehow unable to take control of the situation, with the inevitable result that it took hold of him’. It is indeed remarkable that the vast bulk of Burgess’s annotations involve criticisms if not outright damnations of character.

There are also, at the bottom of some pages, Burgess’s own thoughts where he is moved to agree or disagree with the author. For example, in response to the claim that, in the lead-up to the First World War, ‘The Russian Government … was quite as inconsiderate of the fate of Europe as the German’, Burgess has written, ‘Not the government, only the war office, for the Tsar was entirely pacific, if weak’. And, annoyed by Lord Grey’s sentiment that ‘Le coeur a ses raisons que la raison ne connait point’, Burgess writes, ‘This seems a very poor reason for going to war!’. Not just acuity of mind is evident in these notes, but so too is the hauteur of the intellectual snob: ‘Anything more absurd than this point of view can hardly be imagined,’ he writes at one point.

Four years or less after making these notes Burgess was introduced to Kim Philby and his subsequent career as a spy is well-known. The popular perception of Burgess as a bloated and aging cynic shut up in a Moscow apartment is pitiably at odds with the fresh and precocious six-former so engaged with British history in this book.'

So far although the book has reached its reserve of $149 it has not gone on and has no watchers. Twice that price would be cheering but with most markets in meltdown one takes what one can get....

04 October 2008

Marie Corelli, Wormwood, 1890

Current Selling Prices
$1100+ /£600+

Marie Corelli. WORMWOOD: A DRAMA OF PARIS. 3 Vols. Richard Bentley & Son, London, 1890.

I was thinking about Marie Corelli recently because I had a request for stock from someone setting up a bookshop in Nigeria. He wanted biographies of great men -Einstein, Churchill and Bill Gates were mentioned, popular fiction esp Puzo, Dan and Sandra Brown, Sheldon, Nora Roberts, Silhouette books and the great Ludlum. However top of the list and most wanted was Marie Corelli ( ' We would not mind any quantity of books/fiction under Maria Corelli, particularly, “The Sorrows of Satan” '). I wrote back saying I couldn't help much, but advised a buying trip to our shores. Nigeria is a bit of a no-no for the wise entrepreneur.

The interesting thing is that one has always been able to sell Marie Corelli to African readers. I had thought there was something about her writings that appealed to the African soul, but the explanation I heard one day in my shop from a teacher from Lagos is that 100 years ago Ms Corelli's books, bestsellers past their prime in Britain, were dumped on the continent. There is even a fable of a shipwreck full of her books foundering off the Ivory Coast and plundered and distributed very cheaply throughout West Africa and beyond. A sort of 'Whisky Galore' of books. Africans learned to read from her works, it also helped that her message was fundamentally Christian. So it's all about availability; that being said she was popular as an easy and sensational, not to say melodramatic, read - with spiritualist and occult overtones (15 of her books are in Bleiler). In her day she made Rowling size wads of money which she spent on many eccentric causes and whims. Wikipedia has this to say of her:
'Professional critics deplored her books. The Jacqueline Susann of her time, her difficult ego and huge sales inspired some quotable moments of spite. Grant Allen called her, in the pages of The Spectator, "a woman of deplorable talent who imagined that she was a genius, and was accepted as a genius by a public to whose commonplace
sentimentalities and prejudices she gave a glamorous setting;" James Agate represented her as combining "the imagination of a Poe with the style of an Ouida and the mentality of a nursemaid."'
This novel 'Wormwood', possibly her most valuable book, appears first in 3 vols (a 'three decker') and the first state came with red ribbons sewn in at at the sides of the front hinges which have almost always perished or exist only as a remnant. A copy wrapped in brown paper from day one might still have them in pristine condition. The great Victorian fiction collector Robert Lee Wolff wrote "When I was starting out as a collector I once saw for sale a copy of WORMWOOD with the crossed red ribbons on the spines. Most of the copies printed, destined for circulating libraries, were plain. I did not buy it because one of the ribons had been torn. I have never seen one since." Pic of ribboned copy on right.

Although not in Bleiler, and not really her scarcest book 'Wormwood' appears to be her most expensive book. Some of her late books and her ghost stories are more elusive. 'Wormwood' is partly about the absinthe craze, it recounts the degeneration of one Gaston Beauvais, a promising young Parisian man who, betrayed by his fiancée and his best friend, becomes addicted to the pale green liquid. A reader at Amazon opines that the book is ' an important contribution to the literature of fin de siècle decadence' but Marie was not quite in the class of Ducasse, Huysmans or Wilde. On the subject of the divine Oscar, while in Reading Gaol a friendly screw bought him some Corelli to read; having tried to read her he said "Now don't think I have anything against her moral character...but from the way she writes she ought to be in here." Oddly enough the sale of her house contents at Stratford upon Avon in 1943 was rather like the hideous sale of Wilde's belongings in the 1890s at Tite Street - with a jeering auctioneer and prices laughably low.

VALUE? There is one copy on the web at £875 and it has a suggestion of red ribbons. A not unthinkable price. I actually have a customer for this book (a collector of alcohol related material) and would pay £500 at least for a decent 3 vol copy -so please check out attics and steamer trunks etc., The American one volume 1890 edition is worth considerably less, an unpleasant sounding copy of what might be a first (at a mindblowing £425) is described thus 'Good - Collectible/No Jacket - Description: Privately Owned Burgandy Cloth Hardcover, privately owned, no highlighting, no underlining, no extra markings, no written notes and no folded pages. 327 pages, Drop shipping, no problem!...My book sellers group specializes in ACCURATE DESCRIPTIONS.' I guess the guy normally deals in text books. OUTLOOK Pretty good, 3 deckers are always very impressive, usually uncommon and still underpinned with a good body of collectors + absinthe has apparently made something of a comeback with modish young topers.