The anatomy of a melancholy trade.

Friend and colleague Lorne Bair has just published an essay on becoming and on being an antiquarian bookseller, with some apt bourbon-fueled ruminations on why we enter the trade:

In the end, everyone I know who does this job well does it because they would be less happy doing anything else. . . . Perhaps not coincidentally, most of the booksellers I know share a somewhat melancholic disposition, so that the notion of a ‘less happy’ bookseller is a melancholy notion indeed, and it might perhaps be fair to say that the trade is the only thing keeping some folks from suicide. You may not take comfort in such a notion, but I do: I like booksellers, almost all of them, and anything that keeps them around awhile seems good to me.

At a dinner during the recent Boston Book Fair, I sat across from a board-certified genius who posed Lorne’s very question to the booksellers at our end of the table–Why are we antiquarian booksellers?

Never averse after a cocktail to enlighten a genius on a thing or two, I advanced my pet theory that failed poets (and perhaps the occasional successful one) fall naturally into the book trade.  Another poet seated across the table from me gave his qualified agreement. Arthur Freeman (a legendary bookseller and himself no mean poet) has elsewhere remarked that the qualities of writing verse and its need for semi-intuitive jumps and analogies suit a bookseller’s task well; indeed,  like a poet, the bookseller must with grace make preposterous claims upon the critical heart of a customer. (Also, as with many who incline toward the muse, we often lack the focus to become academics, the grim resolve to become Titans of Industry, and the ability to take orders that augurs success in large companies or military organizations.)

When I started in the trade in 1991 as a young idiot working for John Crichton at the Brick Row Book Shop in San Francisco, I had not yet failed at poetry or at bookselling or at much else of note. (I am now wistful for the simpler and perhaps solipsistic worries of twenty-two before my heart took hostages of wife and child and my failures at 3:00 AM seem on occasion legion.)

But how much has the book trade changed since I first came stumbling through Crichton’s door? On my first day on the job John had me looking up titles in the National Union Catalog; the particularly hot-shot booksellers of Manhattan and Los Angeles insisted on conducting business through the lightning expediency of fax machine; we had one high-powered customer who might on occasion phone us from the car. (And a $75 book might still fetch $75, rather than the Internet-deflated price of $5-$10.)

(As a brief aside, I will note that some mechanics will never change: once I answered the phone at the Brick Row and The Customer was calling on one of those new-fangled car phones from a freeway somewhere in Los Angeles and I told The Customer that the boss was on another line and asked politely if The Customer might call back later; I was later gently reminded by the boss that The Customer’s business essentially paid the rent on my room in a shared flat in San Francisco and that perhaps I should patch the customer through to John the next time we got a call, my native strains of egalitarianism be damned. I soon learned that a bookseller’s ability to discriminate significance and importance should not extend solely to his stock.)

The mechanical changes in the trade and the woes of finding the right way forward in this era of instantly-available texts and books have been argued over at length in the places where booksellers gather to sup or to click at their keyboard in a lonely room and if I had a facile answer to the challenges facing the trade I would be an entirely different bookseller indeed; but behind all this confusion, the basic model of the trade remains, even if we are forced to find novel means to make it so; or as Lorne has it in his Molly Bloom conclusion to his meditation,

I can only imagine one way forward: more books. And then, more books after that and, for dessert, more books. More books. More books. More books.

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