This photo shows my desk at the Albany bookstore.
Working in a bookstore requires many skills. One of those is the inborn ability to prioritize urgency over neatness. So, our daily routine involves processing 99% of recently-purchased books quickly & efficiently. Popular titles, current textbooks, perennial favorites: these go on the shelves immediately. Lower-priority stuff that’s easy to price also gets processed pretty quickly, as do high-dollar books which are a) interesting, b) potential big money-makers, or c) on a customer’s want list.
What this leaves is . . . problem books. These books tend to have some sort of “thing” that needs to be considered: maybe we should list them online, maybe they need repair, maybe we need to do some research on the author or title, maybe we need to contact a customer in our wants lists, maybe this, maybe that. Problem books are usually worth more than just a few dollars, but seldom expensive enough to motivate me to really get on the ball. And, sometimes, in a tower of books, other stuff gets put there “temporarily”, only to be buried by some other book.
So, today, I decided to clean up this desk. I need to install a new printer, and rather than do gymnastics around the stacks of books, I thought it might be worthwhile to just clear the whole table. Besides, I think the last time it was clean was five or six years ago.
Anyway, I thought this bit of commercial archaeology might be of interest to the curious. We are very much an old-fashioned bookstore, and I imagine that the stuff in these piles is typical of bookstores in the past century or two.
I started from right to left. So, that pile of books adjacent to the computer was the first to go. Might I just note, however, how delicate–yet solid–the architecture of these stacks is? The typical stack of books would have the heaviest and largest on the bottom, but how boring is that? The four piles in this picture show true gonzo book-stacking abilities. Notice the paperbacks at the bottom of the second pile from the left. (This next picture is the same pile, which still is standing when the adjacent piles are no longer there!) They aren’t even entirely on that red book beneath them, yet they support a bunch of octavos in the middle, interspersed with a few random large floppy things, and topped off by two quarto automotive repair manuals at the top! Amazing! Only a bookseller with years of experience could achieve such a masterful display of inverted engineering.
In justaposition to–and highlighting this–anti-establishment stack design, the pile on the far right of this picture had more of a standard structure, with paperbacks at the top of what appear to be mostly octavos. One of the paperbacks was A Specter is Haunting Texas which had this neat signature of sci-fi great Fritz Leiber. I must have set it aside on purpose, though I was surprised to discover it today. This, however, is a good example of a problem. We sells lots of signed paperbacks for the same price as unsigned copies: half cover. In this case, however, we would normally price the book at $1.50. However, Leiber’s signature is worth more to me than a buck and a half, so I should price it higher. But should I put it online? And, if I do, where should I shelve it? It might get lost in the paperback shelving, which would suck for someone ordering it–I hate it when we can find a book we know we have. But if I keep it in the back, or the basement, or in storage, then a regular customer couldn’t stumble on to it, and isn’t that part of the joy of browsing at a bookstore? Or…oh, okay, I’ll be right with you, I’ll just throw this book on this stack here…
Next book discovered has this great authorial inscription: “My dear friend, may the near future find you the worthy possessor of a good wife, is the earnest wish of yours, sincerely.” What the heck kind of wish is that? Was this guy on the prowl for a woman? Did he already have a prospect and hadn’t worked up the nerve to ask her? Was he just a total loser? What was his relationship to the author–had he asked her to marry him (and been rejected)?? I just love this kind of stuff, and anyone who tells me that an ebook is all they need is missing part of the fun of books: they each have their own unique history. Well, if this author had been more famous or influential, this might have some real interesting value, but as it is….it’s just a quirky book someone will find in the store someday, and be intrigued by it as I was. Maybe they’ll have the time to do a bit of research into the author’s life.
Also in this stack were a few $2-$5 vintage paperbacks. We have two really good buyers for these, and I had probably set them aside to show them some time. So, I transferred a few of these over to the Corvallis store, where one of those customers shops, and lo & behold the other customer happened to come in today! He bought three of the books. Good timing!
Here’s an odd one. I vaguely remember buying this book last year because the customer thought it was worth quite a bit. John Steinbeck’s Of Mice and Men is certainly one of the great American 20th century novels. However, this is a later printing, the DJ is pretty dulled, it just doesn’t really grab you. The good news is that I can’t remember how much I paid for it. Why is that good news? Because now I can comfortably price it according to condition (about half the “internet price”), and not have to worry about what I paid for it. It’s quite possible that in order to appease the customer I paid more than I should have. However, I have learned that I have a much greater chance of selling books when they are priced & on the shelf than when they are buried in a stack on the desk for a year. Getting something for it is better than nothing. (Especially since I already have a copy at home.)
Well, maybe it was there for a reason, but in no way should my checkbook have been buried in here! I wondered where that thing went!! (I like how the next book down has the “pagan orgy ends in murder” blurb….there must be some hidden meaning there, but I’m not entirely sure what it could be.)
Okay, here’s a good example of a problem book:
This is a coloring book of selections from Chaucer’s Canterbury Tales, complete with a record of someone reading it in Middle English. Super cool! A great, interactive way to introduce younger readers (in the 1980s) to this classic. The problem with the book is that a simple search on ABE doesn’t find any matches. I remember doing a quick ABE search when I got the book, saw the lack of results, and thought to myself, “Oh, I’ll look it up later, or maybe keep this for the newsletter.” Now, it’s a year later, and so I look it up again: still no results. This time, however, I’m in cleaning mode, so I just slapped a price on it and stuck it on the shelf. Someone will find it & realize that they must own it.
I’m making progress now, and am about halfway through the stacks by the computer! Next item of interest I’m pretty sure I bought in the winter of 2015, less than a year ago. I hesitated on this one because it’s an old book on theology, and it needs repair. Theology is not a hot seller for us unless it’s priced in the $5-$20 range–but a copy of this book sold at auction for $2,000 seven years ago. So, the question is: should I get it repaired? I’m a big believer in restoring books, and regularly send things off to the repair shop. However, I’m hesitant to sink much more money in something that I know will be slow to sell already. I might be able to find a buyer sooner by offering it as-is, at a reduced price. The author Edward Holyoke moved to America in the early 1600s, farmed 500 acres, and was “a man of note in the colony and honored in its councils” (Prophetic Faith of Our Fathers, p. 94). His great-grandson of the same name would be president of Harvard. Early book in English, early book by someone living in America, and was at least important enough to earn a few pages of discussion in one of the standard texts. So, good all around, but just not . . . sexy. I’ve recently found a restorer who will do restoration work in exchange for a commission on the sale. That might be a good way to go for this book, so for now it’s transferred over to the Corvallis store to prepare for shipping.
Boy, oh boy, here’s another one. I’ve had this forever. Bought it in a big collection in Eugene (or maybe Portland), at least five years ago, maybe ten. For a few years, it was sitting in my closet at home, where I have a shelf of books I’m writing up for a catalogue on association copies. Some time last year, I purged a few of those books that just weren’t a good enough fit for the catalogue, so I brought it to the Albany store, where it promptly went on the stack by the computer. The thing with this book is that there are letters that go with it that talk about translating it into English. I like books that come with publication history–even if, in this case, that “history” never happened (no translation was made.) I couldn’t make a 30-second decision on this one today, so…it is now in the back of the Albany store, where I have yet another shelf of problem books! No progress made, I’m afraid, but at least it’s off my desk.
Okay, I actually know where this next one goes: also in the back, but to be saved for an institution that visits once or twice a year. These are three newsletters from a high school chemistry club. They were published in 1943. The one pictured is scientific in nature, but there’s another one that talks about the best way to plant a victory garden. Great stuff, and the library I have in mind is interested in both science and home-front military stuff, so I think this would be a great fit. Personally, I just love the mimeograph look. Many people self-publish novels today via print-on-demand technology, and the main problem I have with it is that they’re trying too hard to mimic a traditionally published book, and therefore I expect editing, formatting, that kind of thing. But if it looks as hokey as a mimeographed & stapled newsletter, then I’ll forgive all sorts of typos, bad grammar, and cheesey artwork. Sort of like how most of us accept bizarre spelling on text messages today. I’ve actually been invited to be part of a fanzine, and I just haven’t had time to do anything about it yet, much to my embarrassment. But when I do, it will just be hacked out, it will look crappy, but the readers of a fanzine would expect nothing more (or less?) Anyway, I was able to put this on my little stack of stuff for the library, and move on down the stacks.
Sometimes people ask us if we auction anything on eBay. The answer is: only stuff we really want to get rid of. I honestly don’t think these pennies from the 1940s would be worth the postage, but I might take them to the gold & silver guys across the street from us; they’ve always been fair to me, and I’m pretty sure they also deal in coins. All I really need is an expert to tell me they’re worth exactly 1 cent each, and I’ll be happy to throw them in the till, then sell the folder for a buck.
Almost done! There were a surprising number of books in these stacks that had already been priced, and were just waiting to be processed. This is just bad organization on my part, as we do actually have places for books that either need to be entered into the database, or that just need to be shelved. And the desk isn’t one of those places. Anyway, this promotional book for Hawaii is super cool, and it is now on the correct “to be entered” bookcase. At $50, this is more likely to sell online to a Hawaii-ophile than to someone randomly walking in the front door of Browsers’.
Well, that’s about it. I’m afraid that we end on a poignant note here, although that’s fitting for this author. Ray Bradbury, one of my all-time favorites (and no stranger to the mimeograph machine himself, by the way) is able to evoke feelings of poignancy like few other writers, especially in the science fiction field. Ever read that one about the astronaut who gets in some kind of accident and falls to Earth, but the last scene is some little kid seeing a “shooting star” (i.e., falling astronaut) and being inspired to become an astronaut himself? I mean seriously, what a tear-jerker! But his language is so pleasurable to read, that you forgive him some of these hokey plots. Anyway, when these two signed books were buried at the bottom of the final stack, Ray Bradbury was still alive…
The desk at last is cleared. Finished at 5:30, so still had half an hour to kill. Our new employee, Abe, asked me what I was going to do with the space, and I told him that I really wanted to move the printer there, but that I would do it next week. He said: “Why don’t you do it right now? I mean, even though I’m new, I think I’ve been here long enough to know that there won’t be all that room on the desk for very long.” Nah. Mañana.