RARE BOOK GUIDE - THE RUNNERS, THE RIDERS & THE ODDS

16 June 2009

Bookdealer types - the uneducated seller


There is an old story about a Cecil Court bookseller. His son turned up one day and reported that he had failed his A levels and would not be going to university. The father said 'Ah well you'll just have to go into the book trade...' Until recently most booksellers were uneducated men, except at the highest end of the trade and possibly the fringes. Now there is no need for an education especially with the interweb--there you will find all you need to know to sell a book and, more usefully, the price you can get. With experience, guile and indefatigable industry the dealer will fairly soon learn the books that make money and crucially those that don't. John Dunning's bookdealer Janeway hero was a policeman and bruiser and there are several ex-coppers in the trade, not to mention ex-army and ex-gravedigger (not that any of these jobs necessarily exclude being educated.)

These wise dealers tend to stick with the bleeding obvious --Fleming, Rowling, Rackham, Narnia, Mockingbird, Steinbeck and Hem, mountaineering, polar exploration, atlases, sets of Jane, Dickens, fore-edge paintings, colour plates, Sam Beckett & Jimmy Joyce, Churchill etc., It doesn't matter that they know nothing of Dadaism, Oulipo, the School of Night or the Harlem Renaissance--this information will appear at a keystroke. Education, in some ways, will hold the dealer back and he or she can waste valuable time browsing obscure tomes out of whimsy or a misguided thirst for knowledge. An American friend and dealer recently met up with his old Harvard pals (now mostly stinking rich) at a reunion and told them he had become a bookdealer. Their reaction was one of pity, one even remarked 'what went wrong with your life?!'

The dealer instinct is more important than knowledge of books. If you can trade rugs or mirrors or soya beans you can probably trade books. You buy a book for a dollar and sell it for $2 (or preferably $5). You need a laptop, a pencil and a rubber (eraser--preferably pink) and you're away. The writer Javier Marias encountered a dealer in Buenos Aires -
'... a type... whom I though had disappeared from the face of the earth, except, perhaps, from England, where everything seems to persist in its original or Dickensian state. I mean the type of book dealer who knows absolutely nothing about what he stocks and sells, and therefore doesn't usually mark his books with prices, but decides how much to charge on the spot after hearing the prospective buyer's query, and particularly the tone in which it is made. Such a dealer is guided less by the binding, the print run, the date of edition or the author than the interest betrayed in the customer's way of looking at and handling a particular volume...

For these men, we buyers must, I suppose, be an open book; our reaction tells them much more about the tome in our hands than the tome could have told them when it was resting on its shelf a minute before. They know nothing about their wares but they do know how to drill into the human psyche; they've learned to interpret the slight trembling of fingers that go to the spine of a book, the momentary blinking of someone who can't believe his eyes are seeing the title they've sought for years; they know how to perceive the speed with which you seize this long-wanted but unfindable book, as if - and although you're alone in the bookshop - you were afraid the swifter glove of another hunter might appear precisely at that moment and snatch it from you. In the presence of one of these disciples of Sherlock Holmes, you feel as closely observed as an inmate in a prison yard who knows the guard is scrutinizing his every movement and gesture. In the presence of such a book dealer you must rediscover, in self-defense and in defense of your wallet, the art of dissimulation: you must control your emotion, your impatience, your agitation and your joy, making, instead, a show of disinterest in or even disdain for the thing you most covet; you must count to ten before taking down from the shelf the volume your eyes have fastened on in disbelief and greed...'

The smart way around such a dealer is, of course, to make a pile of irrelevant books around your desired treasure, thus drawing attention away from it. If the bastard then looks up every book you are, however, stuffed...
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