30 January 2011

Qualities needed by Booksellers

As a jobbing bookseller I am sometimes asked what it takes to succeed in this trade. Success in book selling is elusive, these days merely to survive is to succeed. However I have jotted down some qualities that may be needed by a used book seller/ dealer. To have all of them would lead to canonisation but it is crucial to have a few.

Memory-- ideally a Funes-like memory (Borges) for every book ever seen, useful for determining rarity and especially for discarding the common and worthless. The Web has made this quality less essential but without it the seller can waste much time checking out useless and quotidian dogs. It is also helpful to have seen a lot of books, sellers should start young...

Mathematical skills-- the ability to do quick sums in the head is almost essential. Without it you need other qualities in abundance (or a trust fund.)

Intuition / Perceptiveness /Clairvoyance - the ability to sum people up, especially sellers of collections. Useful for sorting out time-wasters, those on fishing expeditions and persons with unreasonable levels of expectation. Qualities sometimes possessed in large doses by booksellers with no great knowledge of books themselves, and leading to great financial success. Such booksellers are sometimes also able to 'divine' that certain books are of great value.The fictional antique dealer Lovejoy (a 'divvy') had this quality and it is by no means imaginary.

Knowledege. A vast. but necessarily shallow, knowledge of almost everything + the ability to spell and use correct grammar less they be persecuted by Lynne Truss and her cohorts (now a sizeable army).

Tech Skills. Techno knowledge, or at least a cheap and willing friend who is an unashamed geek. Typing skills are also pretty useful but few can spare Mavis Beacon the 30 hours it takes to acquire real speed.

Patience, stoicism, the ability to endure extended periods of great hardship and tedium (and also sudden good fortune).

Physical hardiness, strength in the arms, indefatigability, a good walking speed...

A Buddha-like implacability-- a bookseller will have many reversals of fortune, gluts and busts, ones that got away, disdained colleagues who suddenly hit the jackpot etc., Also he or she must never get carried away at auctions or start buying books indiscriminately after a coup.

Sobriety-- some resistance to the temptations of good living, the tendency of bookinistas to celebrate every victory and medicate every reversal...

Chastity-- the ability to resist the blandishments of customers of either sex attracted to the quaintness and sheer coolness of bookselling.

Loyalty--the ability to be nice to customers who were once great spenders but are now either broke or have got everything they need (you might even get their books one day).

Generosity - the most valuable quality a bookseller can have. Generous with his or her knowledge (often to the point of boredom) and time, a generous buyer and a generous pricer. More money can be made by buying well and pricing low as opposed to the common practice of paying very little and charging a lot. The latter bookseller can sometimes prosper (but is never liked, his name usually spoken with a vile curse) but more often he becomes so broke that he has to get a real job. It is no coincidence that the most generous man on the planet is also the wealthiest. Step forward Bill Gates, philanthropist (and book collector.)

Humility-a rare quality -no longer necessary, except in the unlikely case of incredible financial success.

28 January 2011

Books by Murderers 4

Theodore Kaczynski ( b.1942 )

Theodore Kaczynski. The Unabomber Manifesto : Industrial Society and its Future. Berkeley, Jolly Roger Press,1995. $25.

A child genius with an IQ of 167, Chicagoan ‘ Ted ‘ Kaczynski entered Harvard at 16 and breezed to a brilliant degree in maths. He subsequently earned his Ph. D by solving a problem so difficult that even his professor was floored by it. After an unhappy two years as a maths professor at Berkeley he dropped out of academia and took to the hills of Montana, where he built himself a tiny log cabin in the forest outside Lincoln. Here he lived alone and was regarded merely as a harmless eccentric until, following a long bombing campaign that left three dead and 23 injured, he was identified as the ‘Unabomber’, captured, convicted and in 1996 sentenced to life with no chance of parole. While at large Dr Kaczynski had divided his time between addressing mail bombs to despised figures, mainly in the IT community, and writing quasi-anarchistic tracts against industrialisation and the rise of technology, and it is these writings that form the core of his published works today.

Up to a point, the career of Kaczynski eerily mirrors that of William Sidis ( see earlier blog ), even down to the symptoms of autism which Kaczynski seems to have shown from an early age. Like many on the autistic spectrum, Kaczynski takes his obsession with one or more issues of a particular kind to an extreme. In his albeit deranged view, a campaign of violence against legitimate targets should necessarily be backed up by reasoned polemic. Today, if we reject the violence, we shouldn’t automatically reject the arguments, and reading his work, particularly some of his perceptive ideas on ‘ leftism ‘ and ‘ oversocialization’, one cannot help but be impressed.
In the States Dr Kaczynski is taken seriously as a thinker -and his writings are freely available on ABE, Amazon etc.,

George M. Zinkhan ( 1952 – 2009)

Richard Watson, Leyland Pitt, George Zinkhan and Pierre Berthon. Electronic Commerce. Harcourt College Publications, 1999. $1
George Zinkhan. Advertising Research. American Marketing Association, 2000. $20.
Eric Arnould, Linda Price and George M Zinkhan. Consumers. McGraw-Hill Series in Marketing ,2001. $45 – $395.

Professor of marketing George Zinkhan seems to have belonged to the category of little men who suddenly lose their marbles —as in ‘ I’m mad as hell and I’m not to take it any more ‘, out of the film ‘Network’, or more recently such rabid UK killers on the run as Derek ‘Birdy’ Bird and Raoul Moat. However, unlike Dr Zinkhan, neither of the two Englishmen published books. However, it is unlikely that any of his academic works might suggest why a seemingly mild mannered college professor would suddenly slaughter his wife and two others at a nice party put on for the local theatre group in Athens, Georgia on 25 April 2009, although his alleged poetry, which the American Marketing Association published on its website, reveals a disturbed mind with a potential for violence. Zinkhan also wins a different kind of notoriety for the truly bizarre circumstances of his own suicide while on the run. Apparently, within a week of the murders he dug a grave for himself in woodland, lay down in it and pulled a pallet covered with dirt and debris over the hole. He then shot himself in the head.
Incidentally, there’s nothing on any of this extraordinary behaviour in the entries for the professor’s books on ABE. Missed a trick there—those booksellers. [R.M. Healey]

Dr Zinkhan's suicide was certainly a belt and braces job, I have heard theories that Lord Lucan may have left this world in the same manner. Thanks Robin for a gripping series and a potential new collecting area. Quite restricted, especially if you stick to those who wrote books before they became killers. A friend who collects books by deaf writers has amassed an enormous collection. The problem is that if a writer lives long enough there is a good chance he will become deaf. Deaf murderers might restrict a collection too much however.

I recall buying a box of jacketed novels and looking without success for some sort of persistent theme. A customer who saw me pricing them noticed that every single jacket had a woman on it wearing earrings. Who knows what evil lurks in the hearts of men? The Shadow knows!

23 January 2011

Overheard in the Bookshop

The things they say...

1) Second- hand booksellers

If the hilarious Book Worm Droppings is any indication, the astonishing things that are overheard in second-hand bookshops must rival, if exceed, anything that the TV scriptwriters of the much missed Black Books came up with. Perhaps the book inspired them. Who knows ? In any case, for sheer laugh out loud hilarity the compilation that bookseller and publisher Shaun Tyas brought out in 1988 using material from his own encounters with customers and fellow dealers, as well as examples sent to him by booksellers throughout the world, has become a minor classic of its kind and well worthy of standing alongside the better known Bizarre Books.

In this first blog I will be including some extracts from Droppings that focus primarily on the remarks of booksellers, but first here are a few of the ruder remarks I have had to endure over a long career as a collector. They are in no particular chronological or thematic order .

‘ I’ve heard that there’s a good public library just up the road ‘
Said to me sometime in the late eighties by the irascible wife of a well-known book dealer in Selly Oak, Birmingham, recently retired. I had been perusing for ten minutes or so some of the more choice volumes in the shop, including William Hone’s very scarce History of Lotteries. Taken aback, I could only reply that ‘ Unfortunately, those library books aren’t for sale ‘ before I exited the shop in a flustered state. I’ve never been back.

‘ You can’t afford that ‘
Delivered within a few minutes of my arrival. I had been carefully examining an impressive stock of quality antiquarian books presided over by a bustling, pompous little man in his sixties (I was just twenty) in Moseley village, Birmingham. Admittedly, my hair was long and I didn’t dress like the sort of man who might have the money to buy a first of Fielding’s Pamela, or whatever it was. The shop closed not long afterwards.

‘ Please don’t put them back in the wrong order ‘.
Or words to that effect. I wasn’t aware that the distinctly unprepossessing antiquarian volumes listing badly to the left on a shelf were in any meaningful order and said as much. Nevertheless, the shop owner fussed and flapped around, while I meekly left his interesting and pleasantly serendipitous North London store vowing never to return. I wrote him a facetious letter not long afterwards accusing him of obsessive behaviour and he replied almost immediately with some sort of explanation, which I still feel was suspiciously far too long at six pages , although thankfully it wasn’t written in green ink.

And here are some dealers’ remarks from Bookworm Droppings (1988)

I’m sorry, Sir, but without a title or an author I’m going to have difficulty finding it...

But why is it so expensive ?
Well, Sir, if you would like to sell us your house at its 1953 price, you could have the book with our compliments…

I expect you remember me !
No, Sir, Who are you ?

That comes to £342 and fifteen pence. Tell you what, forget the fifteen pence.

If you’re not going to buy a book, then get out of my shop!

No, I don’t think we can serve you at the moment, we’re doing a stock-take.

Have you got a copy of the Glastonbury Festival Handbook ?
We don’t stock that sort of thing here , sir.
( a reply from Heffer’s, Cambridge )

It’s the dirty shoes I’m looking at. Do you mind not coming in when it’s raining?

We no longer bother putting the opening times on the door---then it doesn’t matter if we’re not here !

Thanks to Shaun Tyas, compiler of Book-Worm Droppings, which is available, together with its sequel, More Book Worm Droppings, from him at Shaun Tyas/Paul Watkins Publishing , 1, High Street, Donington, Lincolnshire PE11 4TA. Google for more information.


Many thanks indeed Robin. I am reminded of Driffield's preferred answer to the bookshop question 'Are you looking for anything in particular?'. The bicycle- clipped Driff would respond (truthfully) 'I am looking for a £1000 book priced at less than a £100.' Sometimes he would reel out a bunch of weird subjects on which he was currently pursuing books 'Suicide, mourning, scatology, stuttering and golfing apparel...' That usually shut them up.

I recall one customer laboriously taking 6 books out of our window and presenting £5 for about £90 worth of books. He explained that the notice in the window said Books £5 for 6. We explained this referred to the books on the stall outside. Wacky baccy may have been ingested. Another asked if we sold Sunday papers, one lost soul wanted scratch cards...

19 January 2011

Books by Murderers 3

J. J. Jameson ( real name Norman A. Porter Jr ) b. 1939.

J. J. Jameson, Lady Rutherfurd’s Cauliflower, Puddin’head Press 1999 . New edition 2005.

While in jail between 1961 and 1985 for two separate murders (in 1960 and 1961) Porter earned an undergraduate degree at Boston University, started a prison newspaper, published poetry and founded a prison radio station. In 1985, while being held in a pre-release centre he signed himself out for a walk and disappeared. While at large Porter was arrested for theft in 1993, but was not recognised as a fugitive and was set free to pursue his career as a performance poet and MC at poetry jams in the Chicago region. In September 1999 he published a poetry chapbook, Lady Rutherfurd’s Cauliflower, which was generally well received, and in March 2005 he was named Poet of the Month by the prestigious Chicago Poetry magazine.

It was seeing his picture on the Chicago Poetry website that sent a sharp-eyed police officer to compare the prints taken at Porter’s arrest for theft in 1993 with those on a police databank. The poet was arrested, duly convicted of escaping from jail and in October 2005 sentenced to three years imprisonment. However, for showing ‘limited remorse‘ he was denied parole in January 2010 and is still in jail, where presumably he still writes poetry. Porter was the subject of Susan Gray’s biopic Killer Poet (2008).

A critic reviewing Lady Rutherford’s Cauliflower after Porter’s arrest complained of the poet’s necessary evasions, sexual obsessions and the prosaic quality of his poems. It is hard to disagree, though it must be stressed that like the work of other performance poets, it probably works better read out aloud. A second edition of Cauliflower was brought out in 2005 to cash in on Porter’s notoriety. This edition can be found on Amazon for $20 but the 1999 original is hard to find and may be of value.

Roberto Solis (b.1945)

PanchoAguila, Hijacked. Berkeley, Twowindows Press, 1976. $60
Pancho Aguila, 11 Poems, San Jose, Mango Press, 1977. $60
Pancho Aguila, Anti-gravity. Berkeley, Aldebaran Review 1977. $50
Pancho Aguila, Dark Smoke: Poems, San Francisco, Second Coming Press 1977. Inscribed by author $137
Pancho Aguila, The Therapeutist and the 3rd Day Hunger Poem. Berkeley, Autaud’s Elbow, 1978. Folded sheet. $60.
Pancho Aguila, Clash. San Francisco and Berkeley, Poetry for the People 1980. Stapled pamphlet $75.

At the age of 24 Solis held up an armoured car and shot a security guard in the back. For this murder he spent 24 years in Folsom Prison, where he led the Writer’s Programme and published at least four volumes of poetry and some pamphlets under the pseudonym Pancho Aguila. In 1992 Solis was released on parole and began calling himself Julius Sauve. In 1993 he and his girlfriend, one Heather Tallchief (pic left), robbed an armoured car in Las Vegas of $3m and the couple went on to live as Bonny and Clyde style fugitives. In 2005, after 10 years on the run Tallchief surrendered and was subsequently sentenced to 5 years in jail, but Solis remains on the Most Wanted list. He has probably mellowed by now, so if you ever meet him buy him a drink and he might sign some of his books for you. Judging from the prices they fetch, it might be worth the risk !! [R.M. Healey]

Thanks Robin. The penultimate of a killer series (I'm fired). Heather Tallchief was something of a beauty (if you can look good in a mug shot surely you're a star) , -- in the Wiki entry on Solis it mentions 'Tallchief drove off with an armoured vehicle containing $2.5 million..' - there might be a movie there. Last murderers to be dealt with will be the Unabomber Theodore Kaczynski and Professor George M. Zinkhan - 'a little man who lost his marbles.'

12 January 2011

Neil Gaiman. Duran Duran 1984


Current Selling Prices
$1000/£650 (hardback) $60/£40 (paperback)


Neil Gaiman's first book. Not common as a paperback but decidedly rare in hardback and dust jacket. The book itself is a small quarto art book size glossy job, slightly trashy in appearance falling into the sleeper category of 'a book that looks like nothing.' Gaiman refers to it as his 'dark secret' and would probably like to see it obliterated and consigned to pulp oblivion. The publisher Proteus went bust shortly after releasing it. In hardback it is probably his most valuable book and he looks a decent enough guy to sign a copy if one was proffered. See pic below of him and his new bride Dresden Dolls singer Amanda Palmer - they were married Jan 2 this year in Berserkley, California with Michael Chabon and Lemony Snicket in attendance. Snicket (real name Daniel Handler) played accordion as the duo walked down the aisle. 100 years ago it would have been James Branch Cabell, Baron Corvo, H.G. Wells (possibly with his teenage lover Rebecca West) and Edward Elgar on the harmonium.

If you pop Neil Gaiman into the ABE search system and ask for highest price the only Gaiman book worth more is Spares: The Special Edition with contributions by him and Michael Marshal Smith and Alan Clark - limited to 52 lettered copies in a wooden box is priced at at an unwieldy $1600. A special of McSweeney's Mammoth Treasury of Thrilling Tales from 2003 signed twice by all 12 contributors who include Micheal Crichton, Elmore Leonard, Michael Chabon, Aimee Bender, Dave Eggers, Harlan Ellison and Laurie R. King commands a hopeful $2000. Signing twice is a newish practice and may become de rigueur in multi author signings... The Duran Duran book comes in at $1500 in hardback, although it can be had for $100 or less in paperback. The man charging $1500 is a reasonably sober citizen and not one of the usual 'dream on' over-pricers (Books Tell You Why, Bookbarn, Bad Books of Idaho etc.,) so this price may be just possible to achieve with discount, time to pay, swaps etc.,. Game on, Gaiman. Gaiman (pronounced Guyman?) is likely to get more famous, richer and more exalted so this book may be one to lay down. The only problem is that it is not a work of fantasy. Conceivably the book could also be bought by a fan of the 'fab five'...

03 January 2011

Books published by murderers 2

Richard Dadd ( 1817 - 1886 )

S. C. Hall (ed), The Book of British Ballads. London Jeremiah Howe 1842. $318

In 1841 Dadd was still a student at the Royal Academy when S. C. Hall invited him to illustrate the text for ‘Robin Goodfellow ‘ for his forthcoming Book of Ballads. Two years after its publication Dadd was incarcerated in Bedlam for the frenzied murder of his father in 1843. The 1841 oil painting by Dadd of Puck sitting on a toadstool was later reproduced as a steel engraving by Lizars and as such became instantly popular when it was published in various editions of Shakespeare. Such is the trendiness of Dadd today that a plate removed from one such edition was estimated at a ridiculous £80 - £120 in the 2009 sale of the remaining stock of art dealer Peter Nahum. Much cheaper ‘ Pucks ‘ can be found if you search hard enough.

John White Webster ( 1793 – 1850)

John White Webster, A Description of the Island of St Michael 1821 $20 (reprint)
John White Webster, A Manual of Chemistry, on the basis of Professor Brande’s. Boston, 1826. £190+
Andrew Fyfe, Elements of Chemistry , with additions by John White Webster. 1827. $125

In late November 1849 John White Webster, a professor of chemistry at Harvard University , murdered the wealthy University benefactor Dr George Parkman in his laboratory. It seemed that the poorly paid Webster, had serious money problems and owed Parkman over $400. Parkman, anxious for the money, had made an evening appointment with the professor to discuss the debt. When Parkman arrived Webster was ready for him with a large club. After bludgeoning him to death, Webster dissected the body and hid the remains. Days later he was seen trying to dispose of these body parts in a furnace. The police were alerted, the lab was searched and among other remains, Parkman’s false teeth were recovered. As with the similar case below, Webster’s conviction depended on the uniqueness of a piece of evidence, in this case, a pair of choppers which had been custom-made to accommodate Parkman’s odd-shaped jaw. Professor Webster pleaded guilty to murder and was hanged in 1850.
Webster had a degree in medicine and his first book, an account of San Miguel Island in the Azores, was researched while he practised there in 1817- 18. This remains an elusive item. His second work, an otherwise unremarkable chemistry textbook, published when Webster was 33, has, due to its author’s notoriety, become a collector’s item, and at present there is only a single copy on ABE.

Nathan Leopold (1904 – 1971 )

Nathan F. Leopold Jr., Life Plus 99 Years. Doubleday 1958. $25+
N. F. Leopold, Checklist of Birds of Puerto Rico and the Virgin Islands. University of Puerto Rico, 1963. $8 - $80.

In 1924 wealthy Chicago super-brains and disciples of Nietzsche, Nathan Leopold and Richard Loeb, thought they had committed the perfect crime when they murdered the na├»ve schoolboy Bobby Franks just for the thrill of it. But the discovery of Leopold’s spectacles, which had a peculiar hinge, at the scene of the crime quickly led to their arrest and when questioned separately their stories soon fell apart. At the trial the murderers pleaded guilty and their brilliant defence attorney, Clarence Darrow, managed to persuade the judge not to sentence them to capital punishment ( they were legal minors anyway ).Instead they were jailed for life plus 99 years. Loeb was himself murdered by an inmate in 1936, but Leopold proved a model prisoner, even volunteering to be infected with malaria as part of a study. He was released on parole in 1958 and in the same year his autobiography, Life Plus 99 Years, appeared. He emigrated to Puerto Rico not long afterwards, where he became a clinical worker, married, and obtained a master’s degree in social medicine. For many years he made an intense study of local bird-life and in 1963 his Checklist of Birds of Puerto Rico and The Virgin Islands was published. He died aged 66 in 1971.

Leopold’s autobiography is a good read, and there are several reasonably priced copies on ABE. Much rarer is his ornithological monograph—a slim booklet that appeared under the name ‘ N. F. Leopold ‘. It’s something to look out for among those dullish scientific pamphlets one finds on the Natural History shelves of second hand bookshops. Incidentally, what is it with murderers and birds (see below ) ?

Robert Stroud ( 1890 - 1963 )

Stroud’s Digest on the Diseases of Birds
, 1943. £95- £160
Robert Stroud, The Diseases of Canaries, TFH, Jersey City, 1933. $28

‘Birdman of Alcatraz’ Robert Stroud ( in real life much nastier, apparently, than his portrayal on film would suggest )had plenty of time to study the canaries he bred in his cell at Leavenworth Prison, Kansas, while doing life for the murder of a guard there in 1916. In time he became a major authority on bird diseases and in 1933 published Diseases of Canaries. Ten years later, after he had just been transferred to Alcatraz, a much more substantial work, Stroud’s Digest on the Diseases of Birds appeared and his fame grew. He died a celebrity at the age of 73, having spent 54 years in prison.

Stroud’s Digest is now seen as a significant scientific treatise and since its appearance has gone through many editions, most of which sell for a few dollars. The first, however, remains a rarity.

Reginald Kray ( 1933 - 2000 )

Reginald Kray, Thoughts, Philosophy and Poems. Limited edition, 1991. £100.

If crossed, notorious hoodlum Reg Kray might have nailed your head to the floor like that gangster out of Monty Python, but like any good cockney boy he was devoted to his mother, as his alleged poems testify. No doubt Thoughts has become sought after among true crime followers and those gangsters who like to boast that they knew the Krays personally.

[R.M. Healey]

Thanks Robin for deep and fruitful research. Pic at the top is a Richard Dadd 'Come unto These Yellow Sands'. (1842). Upmarket dealers Peter Harrington have a splendid copy of the Kray book (with a signed letter) at a not unthinkable £375 inscribed thus "Dear - Lisa, God Bless, Friend, Reg Kray." The letter reads "You can get my latest book... if you phone Richard Driscoll at this number... I have yet to write a keep fit book." To my knowledge no Kray keep fit book has yet appeared, but it should---I'm thinking of the Elvis line from 'Jailhouse Rock' - '...if you can't find a partner / Use a wooden chair.'