Wednesday, 11 February 2009

When new books come

Blogging has been a bit on the back burner just lately: my life generally is just about copable with until I buy a collection of new books. Most booksellers I know have piles of books here and there: they may have been bought well into last year, but the time to deal with them just isn't there. I imagine most booksellers' families (those that work from home, at any rate) are used to the sudden decrease in living space once the bookseller in the family has been buying.




I do try and keep the piles within bounds, but it is nearly impossible, particularly when it is, as it is now, stocktaking time, and piles of books are washing hither and thither.

Anyway, I thought it might be interesting to someone out there to see what I actually do with my days so here is a blow by blow description of the minutiae that overwhelm me when I've been buying. Actually it isn't quite a blow by blow description because that would be quite unbelievably dull, so here are the edited highlights of a bookseller's day. And if this seems boring to you, imagine what the bits I've left out might be like.

Something I'm asked all the time is where I get my books. Most of them come from people who contact me because they want to sell their collections, or their duplicates, or things they've decided they don't want to collect anymore. I very rarely buy from auctions (though it has been known), though I do buy bulk lots from ebay every now and then. I occasionally go bookhunting - I love going bookhunting but time very seldom allows, alas. The odd thing comes from charity shops and the even odder one from bootsales, but the vast majority of my stock comes from private individuals.

Not every enquiry results in my buying books. Most of the people who sell to me are very clued up and understand how the business works. A little knowledge, though, is not always helpful. I get some lists of books from sellers who have carefully looked up their books on Abe and Amazon, and want me to pay them the prices listed on Abe or Amazon. If I do that, I don't actually make a profit: I make a thumping loss, so I then have to explain (tactfully, as they might change their minds) that I don't pay retail prices; retail prices are arrived at after you've added in overheads and a profit margin, and that therefore I pay anywhere from 25% - 50% of retail price for books, depending on rarity. There are also some books I don't buy at all because they will not sell.


The more poignant ones are the people who have heard somewhere that Monica Edwards, say, is terribly collectable and rare. They have a beloved copy of Wish for a Pony they have cherished since childhood, and would I like to buy it? Almost without exception, this is the Children's Press edition; very common and sadly worth not a lot.

If after all that, I make an offer and the seller accepts, Husband or I then either sally forth to drive and get them, or arrange for them to be posted (in an economical way - I did have one client who once posted every single book separately and by Special Delivery. I certainly learned from that one.)

Once I get to where the books are, I then like to check them, which is interesting if you're doing the check in a windswept motorway service station carpark. Again, I've learned it does pay to check, after a book I've been salivating over from the description turns out to be a tatty ex library copy with chunks missing. Thankfully this is very rare, and my faith in human nature is usually boosted by the people I buy from, not the reverse!

After the receipt and cheque books have been flourished, off I go, car bulging with cardboard boxes (I keep a stock of empty cardboard fruit boxes for buying expeditions).

Once the books and I are home, they then have to be entered on the stock list, together with what I have paid for each one. I do a quick pricing then, and a very quick condition check. Once the books are on the stock list, I then go over them more carefully. With say, Peter Beckford's Letters on Hunting, this means checking which edition I have (the Hodder 1911) and what plates etc it should have. Each plate then needs checking, and the book checking for condition. Unfortunately it takes just as long to check a cheap book has its 20 plates as an expensive one, but it still needs to be done. The upside, though, is that you do get to look at the plates in the first place, and some of them are corkers. The ones in Peter Beckford are by G D Armour, and I drooled over them (not literally, prospective buyers - I keep the drool purely figurative).

Books are then separated off into those that need attention and those that don't: generally I do not go in for much restoration, preferring to sell a book as is, but I will clean books, re-attach paperback spines, straighten out bumped corners and put dustjackets in protective covers. I have got quite quick at this over the years, but it is still a task that can take the best part of a day, and it's not the most thrilling thing I get to do in my life, particularly if Radio 4 is obliging with one of its more obscure and gloomy plays.

If a book smells musty, I will treat it to my special absorbent granules if the book is worth a reasonable amount - otherwise it goes for re-cycling. If there's any sign of mould, the book will go into the freezer for a month to kill the mould, but I do try very hard not to buy any books with mould (usually I can pick up the smell and reject straightaway). Mould can spread to the rest of your books, and dealing with it, is, in my experience often temporary as even if the mould is killed the smell can re-emerge later.

Once the books are as titivated as they are going to get, they will get a final pricing check, and then I photograph them all - a backbreaker. I do this in stages.

The next stage is to catalogue the books. I always do this in a specific order: author, book title, publisher, year and edition, and then condition grades and a description. One thing I particularly loathe on some bookselling sites is the generic description: "good book" - how do they know? Have they read every book they have? Are they all good? Which argues, if nothing else, a certain lack of objectivity. Or, possibly even worse, "may have inscriptions, markings, creases." Or, presumably, may not, but the seller can't be bothered to check as they are simply interested in shifting units as cheaply as possible: a proper check is a lengthy business, and if you can shift books at 1p a throw on Amazon, and make your money on the postage charge, what's the point? None, I would think, as from their ratings, people are perfectly happy to take the risk.

This has had a knock on effect on what I stock, as I like to do a proper description for everything, but doing it costs money. In many cases, I now simply don't stock the books, as I can't justify the time spent versus what I can ask, so I have less and less children's paperbacks, though I am trying a price-slashing experiment on paperbacks in the coming catalogue. We'll see.

The worst thing about cataloguing is the intriguing things you spot along the way. Why does Goldschmidt view the single-handed groom as a pathetic figure?  Is the book going to suggest one should never employ just one groom, but a whole bunch? Presumably one would never actually help the groom oneself, enlightening his bitter day with your company. I make a mental note to extract Lt Col S G Goldschmidt's Skilled Horsemanship from the pile at some point and find out.

Then there is the obscure pony novel you come across for the first time: Veronica Heath's Ponies In The Heather is obviously something completely different from Frances Murray's Ponies on the Heather, which I also have, in the same collection. How? Why? Who wrote it first? Is Veronica Heath's Come Pony Trekking With Me the title I was told about years ago: a complete scream, but not because the author meant it to be? (It is.) More mental notes get made.

Alas, mental notes is all some of these things are destined to be. Much as I would like to delve into the minutiae of Peter Beckford's instructions on feeding hounds (although I know the practical application to my own life is zero, Peter Beckford being a writer from the dim age before the Labrador was even thought of I still want to know) I must move on, move on, move on.

Another thing that is very often said to me is "How can you bear to sell so many lovely books? Don't you want to keep them?" Of course I want to keep them. If I had my way, Peter Beckford would be sitting on my shelves now, and he would be joined by the splendid 32 colour plated volume of W H Ogilvie's sporting verse, the rather nice Snaffles, and those obscure Veronica Heaths I don't have but want to read - only for the purposes of research of course - and the wartime story Lion's Crouch by Alice Molony with its lovely portrait of an heroic dog....


But I don't. I don't. I do find having to pay the bills concentrates the mind wonderfully, and coming from a good Anglican background as I do, a little (alright, a lot) of denial I think does the soul good. My soul does have to put up with a small amount of acquisition though. Ooone book that will not be appearing in the catalogue is Lucy Rees' Wild Pony.

If Ethel Nokes' That Ass Neddy, with Stanley Lloyd doing a splendid job on the illustrations, doesn't appear in the catalogue, you'll know I succumbed to that too.

9 comments:

Alison said...

Loved reading this entry as I've always wondered how you go about your day - I'm so nosey!!! I've only ever sold books (ebay) in a small way and in fact haven't done a lot of that for a few years - mostly my problem is I tend to buy more than I sell so in the end I took on some small village admin jobs instead - not half as interesting but at least I can still work from home!! Mind you I still get given carrier bags full of paperbacks from well meaning friends - and like you said paperbacks dont really sell (well not the rubbish lot I get given) so they end up just taking up space in our already cramped home! Alison ps: I LOVED to see more photo's of your books - I am imagining bookshelves stuffed full of them, boxes overflowing with goodies .... goodness I'll have to stop or I'll be on ebay looking up wholesale bargains before I know it!

Frances said...

No wonder you're not going to have much time for blogging! I'm so glad you posted about your bookseller day it was actually fascinating - and very hard work! Gorgeous books, lovely pictures, I need to find my pony books and read them all again! I bought a French one to help me learn the language, but it's really not the same.

I hope you managed to clear a grass patch for your girls. If you get five have a look at Lucky's new little hen friends over at mine - they arrived today!

Good luck with the cataloguing.

callmemadam said...

How could you even think this might be a boring post? I really enjoyed it and seeing your first photograph I was itching to go through those boxes.

I haven't had time to sell books for quite a while but I do actally enjoy pimping up the books and writing the (accurate) descriptions. You are so right about some sellers: I would never buy from the 'may have...' brigade.

Juxtabook said...

Your hall looks just like mine! It is amazing how long processing a batch of books takes. I think the one think people don't imagine when they think of an idyllic life bookselling, is just how time consuming it all is - still wouldn't swap it for another job though.

Jane Badger said...

Thanks Ali - we do have bookshelves absolutely everywhere. And boxes. And piles!
Frances - I do like Lucky's friends. I did manage to clear some grass for the girls, thanks, and they are gradually reclaiming their paddock!
CMM - thank you! I think it's a pity that the "may have" business model succeeds, but it's one of those sad facts of life.

JB - yes, isn't it amazing how much time it all takes? Cataloguing a big expensive book with lots of plates can take me half an hour, and you don't get enough of those to the day!

farmlanebooks said...

I sell books as well, so was interested to compare your day to mine!

The problem is that you just manage to clear the main living areas from boxes of books, then get another batch, so there always seems to be books everywhere!

I wouldn't swap it for any other job though - I love tripping up over boxes of books!

Jane Badger said...

Farmlanebooks - you're so right. I may have a few blissful weeks when the books are at manageable levels, but it never lasts. I do love getting new books in - there's always that joy of discovering something you never knew existed (and of course wondering how some things came into existence at all.)

Bovey Belle said...

I loved reading about your average day. I'm afraid temptation would lead me astray and I would be EXTREMELY tempted to keep all sorts of books I should be selling. We went to Hay on Tuesday (fatal), but I did actually leave an early pre-Victorian horse book I very much wanted on the shelf. It was £35 and I'd already bought three Mary Webbs and a Sabine Baring-Gould by that time. It won't sell quickly. If it's still there around my birthday in April, I may go back and haggle . . .

Jane Badger said...

Bovey Belle - that was noble! I hope the book's still there. I haven't read much pre-Victorian stuff (Gervase Markham I think is it) but I find the whole subject of historical horsecare fascinating.