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Or, how I stumbled across an almost-forgotten author. Recently at an auction, we purchased a box ofbooks – there were one or two titles that were familiar, so we took a chance and bid $50 for the box, desperately hoping we weren’t overpaying.
Brought the box back to the shop and started rooting through with a mixture of anticipation and dread (oh my goodness, is that a first edition Steinbeck? Drat, no…. Uh oh, what is this piece of junk – is that mold I see?). An exercise that is often disappointing but always interesting.
Then I spotted it, hiding away at the bottom of the box, its rather drab covers seeming to say “oh, please, no need to worry about me….just let me continue to rest here in my quiet little corner”. But I knew a Civil War-era binding when I saw one, and plucked the hesitant little creature out into the daylight.
Hmmm……Wayside Flowers, by Carrie Carlton….published in Milwaukee in 1862. Well, there was some Wow factor – so it’s actually early Civil War. Published by Strickland and Co., “Booksellers and Stationers” – a fairly common arrangement in those days.
I then peer inside – OK, it’s poetry. The text pages are some of the cleanest I’ve seen forbooks of this era, with no foxing. Of course, it’s mid-19th century poetry – so I like it – but will anyone else? In other words, is this booksaleable?
And, who is this Carrie Carlton, anyway?
She’s not in the BAL. A search on Abe only turns up one title by her, Inglenook, a Story for Children. And that piqued my interest – so I go into bloodhound mode, and start searching for traces of her online.
Meet Carrie Carlton, a pretty, black-eyed woman, sweet and confiding, full of good humor… and clever with the pen. When her husband died, leaving her with three children to support, she was necessarily forced to yoke her talents together to draw her in her humble cart along the rough way. The five dollars a week she received from the Mercury News barely sufficed to stand between her and extreme want; but when extra writing came in to add to the amount she forgot the necessaries of life and indulged in the luxuries. Other kinds of employment she sought, but at writing only was she a success, as she lacked the business instinct.
Personally Carrie Carlton always made friends, as she was possessed of a loveable, grateful disposition. Her “Wayside Flowers” is a collection of promising verse, issued in 1862.
The one book I’d found online by Carrie, Inglenook, is a bright story of early California life for children; and it was her last work. Her many privations were finally too much for her delicate constitution, and in 1868 she succumbed. Friends laid her away tenderly, and remembering the brightness of her mind amid all her trials, they erected a stone to her memory in the Masonic Cemetery of San Francisco, and placed upon it this inscription: “Topsy Turvy”, May 1, 1868. CALLED HOME. Aged 32 years.
(The above story on Carrie Carlton is reprinted from The Story of the Files: A Review of Californian Writers and Literature, by Ella Sterling Cummins, San Francisco, World’s Fair Commission of California, 1893.)
Through this story I feel as though I’ve met, over a span of 150 years, a young woman I would have liked to have met and known, one whose voice – still, small, and quiet though it is – can still be heard today.
A used bookstore is likely the only place this could have happened. Here we collect together the works by those who have gone before us, who have lived, breathed, and walked this earth, many of whom have, through trials and challenges, gained wisdom and insights it would be foolish for us to ignore.
Some became household names. Others, like our Ms. Carlton, were known in their day but are now known only by a few, if any.
But their words, their stories, live on in theirbooks. And in a hidden nook of our shop, a volume such as Wayside Flowers will arrive on wings of serendipity, and if you spend some time with us searching into those nooks, you too could unexpectedly meet someone from the past whose voice will touch your heart.
eReader vs. the”real book”
Science is starting to weigh in with surprising results
Every day we have visitors come into the shop asking us some version of “will books survive”? There is a wide-spread urban legend running around that “books are dead” and many people think “everyone reads books online today”. Or even “no one wants books any more”.
I beg to differ.
Yes, I love books. Yes, I’m a bookseller. But I still beg to differ.
I have long felt that, as human beings, we are a tactile race. Sensory input is a how we import information, it’s how we process, how we learn. Who doesn’t remember the smell of bread baking, the sound of Mozart (or Taylor Swift), the touch of a kitten’s fur, the taste of a fine cabernet, or the incredible beauty of a sunset?
Very importantly, it seems, it’s also how we remember. A 2014 study found that reading in print helps with comprehension. It seems that “our brains were not designed for reading, but have adapted and created new circuits to understand letters and texts. The brain reads by constructing a mental representation of the text based on the placement of the page in the book and the word on the page. The tactile experience of a book aids this process, from the thickness of the pages in your hands as you progress through the story to the placement of a word on the page.” (Quotes from the article.) Apparently eReaders do not duplicate this experience, and thus our comprehension and retention is poorer via the eReaders.
Does that mean we should all ditch our Kindles or iPads or Nooks? Not at all. As someone who used to travel to earn her living, I get the usefulness of an eReader. It’s convenient, it’s easy, it’s fast to download.
But perhaps, just perhaps, it’s time to make some wise choices about our vehicle for reading, as well as our reading material.
Besides – arrange some classic authors on your shelf and invite your friends over, and they are bound to be impressed (wow, you’ve read Proust!). Not so easy to show off with an eReader, is it?
For the complete article referred to above, see: http://mic.com/articles/99408/science-has-great-news-for-people-who-read-actual-books
Jim laughingly read the fortune from the newly-cracked cookie. “Good books are friends who are always ready to talk to us.”
We’d just grabbed a quick bite at the new Chinese place around the corner, having locked up the store after our first evening discussion group. Jim (formerly known as James M. Dourgarian, ABAA), had shared with the group the story of his journey into the world of book-collecting, and from there into the world of book-selling. He’d developed a passion for John Steinbeck’s works in high school, and the rest, as they say, is history.
We took a quick journey through Steinbeck’s works, discussing along the way the major influencers on him and answering the questions posed in our invitation. (There was one trick question – Steinbeck ATTENDED Stanford, but never graduated – he left early to pursue his writing career.) The Q&A session at the end was lively and brought up interesting facets about Steinbeck – that his works have not only been banned, but have even been burned. That the FBI and the IRS kept files on him, and watched him for years hoping for a misstep. That, although fully sympathetic to the oppressed, he was not, in fact, a communist but a patriot who eventually was “allowed” to be a war correspondent during WWII.
Jim succeeded in not only teaching us all about John Steinbeck, but made him more human in the telling.
Regarding collecting, his words of advice, learned from years of being a collector, were: “Buy the best copy you can afford. Condition is critical, books I bought for $250 years ago (which was a lot of money at the time) are worth ten times that today. BUT – don’t buy books as an investment. Buy books because you LOVE them, because they sing to you – because they are your friends when you return home at night and look at them sitting in the bookshelves”.
Which brings us back to that fortune-cookie…
Why do we buy books? The pretty jacket or binding? The famous author? The catchy opening line? The internal need to answer questions, either simple or life-changing? A way to pass time? Because it’s signed? Because they fill up those empty shelves, and really, what ELSE would we put there?
My personal opinion (which may be worth only the paper this is printed on) is that, as human beings, most of our decisions are complex and based on a multiplicity of factors, some of which we may not even be consciously aware of. I believe there are likely to be as many reasons to buy books as there are books.
We all need to answer the question for ourselves. It has been fascinating to talk with the various people that have visited our shop: we’ve had doctors, musicians, artists, moms and dads, students, bankers. While the singular motivation is different for all, the common element seems to be the thrill of discovery: either a new fact or writing about a well-loved author or subject, or a brand new, totally heretofore unknown work that knocks one’s socks off!
Dave Kellett so aptly phrased as “Nothing can do what a book can do. (It) lifts you out of your life…to a whole new world, (to a) whole new perspective. A book is like a dream you’re borrowing from a friend.”
So, here is a toast to great masters such as John Steinbeck, to all that he has given to the world and by extension all he has given to each one of us. And at the same time, it’s a toast to you all who have visited the shop, for your excitement, your curiosity, and your spirit of adventure.
“I have come home at last! This is my real country! I belong here. This is the land I have been looking for all my life, though I never knew it till now…Come further up, come further in!” (C.S. Lewis, The Last Battle)
I’m pleased to announce that the first month at Swan’s Fine Books has gone exceedingly well. Not in terms of sheer dollars (although as we all know, the rent must be paid) but rather in the truly important ways – in the delight on the faces of customers when they walk in the door, in watching them take a book from the shelf and sink into a chair, losing themselves in the tale, in having countless visitors saying “THANK YOU for opening! We needed a bookstore here in Walnut Creek!” And from a purely selfish perspective, in the happiness I’m feeling every morning upon awakening, knowing I have a day in front of me filled with all manner of book-related delights. I have come home.
And what delightful companions I have! A few days past, three young people came in and browsed – perhaps 19 or 20 years old. They searched through the entire store, the young man clearly deeply pondering several potential purchases. He eventually made his decision, and brought up to the desk a 2-volume set of Proust and Ulysses. I was so very impressed – given the fact that I have yet to even attempt Joyce – and told him so. If ANYONE says that young people are no longer interested in reading – please tell them that is an urban myth, and not at all true.
Speaking of Ulysses, if I may digress for a moment….just this morning I found this fascinating article by Nigel Beale on how the book arrived in the United States:
The first copies of James Joyce’s Ulysses to enter the U.S. came via Windsor, Ontario. The books were printed in Paris and mailed by Ernest Hemingway to a friend in Windsor who worked for the Curtis Publishing in Detroit.
The friend, a reporter named Barney Braverman whom Hemingway had met during his days either in Toronto or Chicago (found references citing both), commuted from Detroit to Windsor each day on the ferry. Braverman apparently lived on Chatham Street in a house kitty-corner to the back of what is today The Windsor Star building. Once the smuggling plan was devised, 40 copies of the novel, published by Sylvia Beach owner of the Shakespeare & Co. bookstore, were sent over from Paris…” For the entire article, see: http://literarytourist.com/2013/06/first-copies-of-joyces-ulysses-smuggled-into-u-s-via-windsor-ontario/?goback=%2Egde_108740_member_246524232
How devious we book-lovers can be when need dictates. And kudos to Ernest for his part in bringing Joyce to the U.S.!
I also have been fortunate to meet, via the internet, new friends both here in U.S. and abroad. This past week I sold a T.S. Eliot (signed) book to a professor from the University of Kansas. Come to find out, he’s recently published a book on Alexander Pope – which, being a HUGE fan of Pope’s, I turned around and promptly purchased. And just this morning I sold a first edition Sylvia Plath to a fellow bookseller in London. The internet, reviled as it sometimes is (and in certain circumstances deservedly so) has enabled me to connect with those literally around the globe, which never would have been possible prior to George Stibitz, Steve Jobs and Bill Gates.
Each day has been different, each day has been filled with the joy of working with books, the joy of being surrounded by others who also love books. Many of the days have also had some challenges, but we’re tackling those as they come and hopefully with a smile.
And so, friends far and wide – let’s raise our collective glasses and offer a resounding cheer for bookstores, booksellers, and the joy they each bring to their communities!
Fans far and wide, please accept my deepest, most sincere, heart-felt apologies. I had the very BEST of intentions of writing my final pre-opening post one week before Swan’s Fine Books opened its doors, and clearly fell down on the job. Let the side down, old chap, and all of that.
We are now one week AFTER the opening, and in an effort to make amends, am offering this post regarding the store opening, thanks to my many wonderful mentors, and some stray thoughts…
First, allow me to bring you all up to speed. The four thousand books alluded to in my last post turned out to be 5,000 books – yikes! But what lovely books they are! I was fortunate enough to meet a friend who was ready to downsize his considerable library; that library is now living in Swan’s Fine Books, and I’m eternally grateful to have it. My personal favorite? The full set (12 hefty volumes) of the “Thousand Nights and a Night” – yes, the Arabian Nights. Translated by Sir R.F. Burton, printed in 1896, bound in three-quarter leather, TEG, gilt lettering on spine bright, marbled end-papers. Overall a VG set, and the first illustrated edition. Egads!! Thoughts of sneaking this marvelous set out of the store in the dead of night home into my personal library race through my head….and then I remind myself, no, you are a book SELLER, not a book COLLECTOR. Am I the only bookseller who struggles with this? Is there an ABAA-sponsored 12-step program I can sign up for?
I digress. With but two weeks to go and five thousand books to shelf, there were moments I thought we’d never make it. But to make a long story short and cut to the chase – we did. With much help from Jeff (whom you know) and one of my wonderful mentors, Jim D., the shelving all got done and even most of the sections were alphabetized before opening day! I won’t lie, there are still sections that need some fine-tuning – but we at least felt comfortable opening the store.
The credit card terminal arrived – and it worked! The bags and tissue I’d ordered were all here, the desk purchased from Craig’s list fit the space as though it had been custom-made, the display cases were even more gorgeous than I’d thought they would be. Wine was purchased, and the night before opening day rolled around.
At 10:00 that morning, May 1, Swan’s Fine Books officially opened its doors. We waited with baited breath – now that we’ve built it, would anyone come?
Well, come they did. Day 1 was a resounding success; friends, family, “real customers” all flocked the shop, and they all loved it! Hooray!!
I’m pleased to report that, while sales have not been stellar, they have been steady. Thus far (1 week into this adventure), there have been sales each and every day. More importantly, we’ve had lots of folks in saying “I’ll be back with my ____ (fill in the blank – husband/wife/aunt/friends)”. I’m working far harder than ever before (coming from one who is not known to be a slacker), and loving each and every moment.
This dream could not have become a reality without my mentors, whom I’m mentioned briefly in passing. I withhold their last names here as I’ve not gotten their permission to give them, but they deserve recognition and more thanks than I can ever give. There is Jim D., a foremost expert on Steinbeck and ABAA member, who, after asking me if I was crazy upon learning I wanted to open a bookstore, gave freely and willingly hours and hours and hours of advice and guidance. Not to mention leading me to some fabulous collections to purchase. There is Steve B., an expert on Jack London and current bookstore owner (also an ABAA member), who again gave hours and hours and hours of advice. There are Jackie and Harvey S., both booksellers (of different stores at different times), who again gave unstintingly of advice gleaned over many, many years of book scouting and book selling.
Now that my doors are open, do I have any advice for those considering such a bold move? Since I have at this point neither the experience nor wisdom to presume to offer “advice”, I will only offer some passing thoughts:
• Find a good mentor, listen, take notes, listen some more. Take his/her advice to heart, they have experience and knowledge it will take you years to learn. Be grateful.
• To reiterate some advice we gleaned from this very site when we started planning, take on as big of a space as you possibly can. We had originally planned to lease a 600-sf store, decided on a 1200-sf store, and I could easily use twice that space. Everyone who walks in your door will have a unique interest, and without enough inventory, they will not find anything even close to what they want.
• Again, to reiterate advice from this very site, signage, signage, signage. Swan’s Fine Books is not directly on the main street, we are around the side of the building. So in addition to the large monument sign, we have two sandwich boards and a banner – four signs total, and we still are missing a way to capture attention from across the street. Am considering one of those air-filled gorillas one sees in used car lots. (Just kidding.)
• Allow yourself more than 4 weeks to get your store set up. We did it – but just barely, and 6 weeks (or even 8) would have been far better. To paint, install shelving, move in the books, categorize (let’s not even talk about pricing), and get your operations for purchases set up – it all takes time.
• Budget more than you think you should for advertising. I’m just beginning this, and haven’t yet decided where exactly to put my advertising dollars. But I realize that, no matter how lovely my store may appear and how tempting my books may be, if people don’t know I’m here, they can’t come visit and buy.
Many thanks to Bruce at bookshopblog.com for allowing me to post my experiences this past month – and many thanks to all of the well-wishers who have read these posts and reached out with their support; you’ve kept me going through the challenging times!
Happy bookselling, all!
It was the best of times, it was the worst of times. Sound familiar?
Have you ever heard the old saying, if you want to make God laugh, tell him your plans? I’d worked hard to draw up a wonderful timeline of everything that needed to be done to open the store, as planned, on May 1. Oh, it was a thing of beauty: a lovely outline, with all sorts and manner of indents, radio buttons, and highlighting. Everything neatly laid out with a day, time, name, desired outcome. I knew that if I only followed THE PLAN, the month of April would be smooth sailing and May 1 would arrive without a hitch.
Well, God is laughing. I awoke the morning after my last blog posting to discover my computer had crashed. Big-time crashed, the black screen of death. The only message, in white DOS letters, was “cannot access the drive”. Uh-oh. Panic, heart-racing, sheer, all-consuming fear and dread. All of my book inventory. All of the email addresses I’d carefully pulled together to send the store announcement. The Plan. THE PLAN!! All gone. Thoughts of reverting to green ledger paper, the abacus, and quill pens race through my mind. For a short while, it seemed as though my only options were – none. Despair. What to do, what to do. Would Swan’s Fine Books founder before it even got off the ground?
At the same time, Jeff (my erstwhile business companion and boyfriend) had been going through the Mad Max Library (see last week’s posting for background), book by book by book – over 1,000 of them. And wonder of wonders, joy of man’s desire, exhilaration beyond belief – we are now the proud owners of…..a first edition Charles Dickens! No, wait, look here – another first Charles Dickens!! And here a first British edition of Mark Twain (which, having been published several days prior to the American edition, has a solid claim to being the TRUE first edition). Firsts of George Orwell and Upton Sinclair and T.E. Lawrence surround us. And the Rubaiyats…..many versions, some in custom bindings, absolutely lovely to behold. What treasures, what wonderful treasures to have for Swan’s Fine Books upcoming Grand Opening!!
That was then, this is now. Today, Sunday, we sit in the store with our 46 bookcases slowly filling as we price the “Mad Max” library. I write this on a new computer (hoping to learn Windows 8 in record time). The world’s absolute best data recovery people recovered all of my data, every last bit. We have soldiered through the bad times and once again the sun is shining and the birds are singing. However – I think I’ll not write about challenges being opportunities for a while, I think I may perhaps have tempted fate.
Two more weeks to go. Four thousand more books arriving tomorrow.
It’s dark outside, the wind is howling, the oncoming headlights are blinding. I feel like a character out of Mad Max or Blade Runner. I’m wrestling my big rig (all right, it’s really only a 10-foot U-Haul, but to me it FEELS like a big rig) and trying not to think about the one ton (literally) of books I’m hauling from Seattle to San Francisco.
Once again, I wonder – how did I end up here?
It all seemed so innocuous in the beginning. One book for sale on E-Bay (which no one in the book world REALLY takes seriously) and my boyfriend/business advisor, whom you met last week, put in a low bid. We won the book and immediately felt guilty about it (capitalist pigs that we are). How could we possibly buy a book worth so much for so little? We waited to see what the merchant would do…and another book was posted. Once again, we put in a low bid. Once again…..you can see where this is going. We called the merchant. What a NICE man. Yes, he’s been collecting for years. Yes, it’s time to downsize. It breaks his heart (I’m now sobbing in the background, I FEEL his pain).
We talk, I fly up to Seattle to view his library, and make an offer on the lot. He accepts, we break open the champagne. The easy part is over – which brings me back to Mad Max.
OK, I exaggerate. But I did have the character-building experience of flying back up to Seattle on Tuesday, loading 50 boxes of books (remember, one ton?) onto the 10-foot U-Haul, and making the drive back down to San Francisco, arriving back home 11:30 at night on Wednesday. All in 2 days, round-trip. Both exhilarated and exhausted.
In the week since my last post, in addition to playing Big Mama, the store has been painted and walls have magically moved. The bookcases for Swan’s Fine Books arrive on Monday (43 of them, if memory serves). SHELVING IS ABOUT TO COMMENCE. My head swirls with ideas for categories. Horse-racing…. hmmm…..Animals or Sports? Memoirs of Ulysses S. Grant….Biography, Military, or U.S. History? Merge Faith and Philosophy? Dare I have one section for all the Performing Arts, or must I keep the dancers separate from the film stars? And those lovely, lovely Dores….Art? Poetry? Literature?
This too shall pass, I realize. I’m only one week into the world of the self-employed, and am finding, with the help of my boyfriend and the many WONDERFUL mentors I’ve met (of whom I will speak more next week), that the old truism really is true: every challenge is an opportunity. The shelving will get done. The signs will look great. The credit card terminal will arrive on time. And it will work. Hopefully. I’m finding reserves within myself that I never dreamed existed, and along the way am meeting so many new friends that are already serving as inspirations. And amongst all of this, I get to work, every day, with BOOKS.
Life at Swan’s Fine Books truly is good. 10-4, Big Mama signing off.
While brodarting at 5:30 am this morning, already well into my second cup of coffee, I found myself thinking – what HAVE I gotten myself into?
I’m a rational person. I’ve always played it safe, taken minimal risks, paid my bills on time, put some money aside. Raised in New England I’ve absorbed the puritanical notion that fun must be bad, hard work is its own reward, and you shouldn’t expect to enjoy work, after all, then it wouldn’t be work, right?
My last day at my paying job – in a career I’ve had for 30 years – is tomorrow. I’m taking the plunge and have signed a lease to open a collectible bookstore, Swan’s Fine Books. I alternate between ecstasy and stark, bone-chilling dread. What was I thinking?
How will I ever categorize and shelve 6,500 books in the next four weeks, by opening day on May 1? Oops, wait. I can’t even start for two weeks, for my 43 bookcases won’t be delivered until the second week of April. OK – so, how will I categorize and shelve 6,500 books in two weeks, once the bookcases arrive?
And who ever decided that credits and debits need to match? And why is a bank deposit referred to as a debit? Accounting was clearly created by Satan. How will I ever run a business if I can’t get simple credits and debits straight in my mind?
Six months ago, my boyfriend and I were buying used books as a lark and Swan’s Fine Books was a dream. I’ve been passionate about old books since I was a small child, and he surprised me on my birthday with a 1751 set of Alexander Pope. Holding Volume 5 in my hands, I turned to him and, in almost hushed tones, said “do you realize that these were printed before the Revolutionary War?”. He became as hooked as I am.
We admit it. We have a passion for the books themselves. We talk about “saving” them, and “finding the right owner”. (Admit it, you’ve done the same thing.) We’re addicted to the thrill of finding treasures at estate sales. We’re live for the arcane discussions we have with fellow book-sellers about first edition points. We’re purchasing bibliographies at an alarming rate.
And I’ve never been happier. In every independent bookshop we visit, we see customers browsing; more and more articles are talking about the “resurgence of the indies”. I firmly believe I can tackle debits and credits, learn the first edition points, and get those books shelved. I believe that there are many others out there who love books – for the world we enter when caught up in reading the printed words, as well as the amazing experience of literally holding history in our hands – and often being lovely works of art as well, one has all three at the same time.
Wish me well, fellow book-lovers. And proffer any suggestions you may have for categorizing at Swan’s Fine Books. Quickly.