Saturday, August 12, 2006

Part I - Our First Lists and Catalogs

This is a picture of our farm house on the Rockville Road, Near Glen Rock, PA

In our earliest years at the farm books started accumulating at a startling rate.

We soon realized that just quoting through AB would not move enough stock. We had to start sending out LISTS. To call them CATALOGS was a presumption that we did not assume until they started to contain 500 books, and more.

The first step was to begin a card file of the books we then had for sale - mostly Americana (mainly priced under $ 20.00, and often under $ 5.00). The lists would then be created from the card file.At a local auction we bought a very old A.B. Dick mimeograph machine, that used paper stencils which had to be cut with a typewriter. The process was something like this.

(1.) Typing out the list one page at a time, on a special coated paper stencil; using a manual or electric typewriter (or writing by hand). [In the beginning, Belle's ancient portable typewriter, that was sometimes used for quoting, was our only way to cut the stencils].
(2.) Covering the mistakes with a special correction fluid, which had a noxious odor.
(3.) Waiting for the correction fluid on the stencil to dry.
(4.) Carefully aligning the stencil in the typewriter to correct the typos.
(5.) Placing the stencil in the mimeograph machine.
(6.) Clamping the stencil into place without creases or tears.
(7.) Placing the special paper to be copied onto, into the feed-bin
(8.) Fill the machine with a thick-ish black ink, that tended to get into unwanted places.
(9.) Find a good place to run the machine and neatly stack the copies.
(10.) Cranking the machine (usually by hand - over and over and over and over) .
(11). Repeat the process when you screwed something up.

It was a labor intensive task that tested ones patience.

The whole thing came out a bit of a mess... but we sent the first list out anyway, to be joined by about a dozen brothers and sisters of different lengths and qualities.

Lo and behold, we sold quite a few books.

In those days there were a lot of mimeographed lists that were avidly read. Those from the original Whitlock Farm Booksellers were especially valued, but there were many other excellent booksellers that issued lists using this cheap technology.

A friend of ours had an old IBM Executive Model 41 Typewriter that he no longer used and, as the price was right (free), I tried it for the stencils. The Executive had proportional spacing, with each letter getting a different space according to its width [Mm takes up more space than Ii]. It even had a split spacebar for spacing of two or three "microspaces". It was a great machine, once you learned the tricks. It was a real leap forward for us.

The old Dick mimeograph machine was getting more troublesome and annoying. We replaced it with a Gestetner duplicator, which was a more modern and efficient mimeograph. A great feature was that it could print on a better grade of paper. But it was still hand cranked, and it took forever to complete a list of any length and quantity. Overall, the Gestetner was really no great improvement, but the better type quality began to show us new possibilities.

AMERICA ! Ca: 1975. This was the second or third catalog we produced by offset.

Late in 1974 we learned about a small printer that would produce 8 x 11" catalogs for us, by offset, from camera ready copy, at fair prices. We could use the IBM for the text body and employ press or transfer type (cut-out or rub-off letters printed on clear acetate sheets) to hand set headlines and display details. Later we worked in illustrations and more complex presentations.
The mimeograph machine went to the attic... and was henceforth used only for a few particularly suitable projects.

[To Be Continued]

Friday, August 11, 2006

Part II - Computers Come to Bookselling

Tandy TRS 80 Model 1

The folks that printed our first offset catalogs had just begun using a computer in their business. One night we got a demonstration of their Tandy TRS 80 Model 1. We were impressed.

Previously, we saw homebrew computers as being in the realm of the hobbyist, and neither of us were very much hobbyists of any sort. The first Apples and Commodores and Altairs seemed a bit useless to us. But that night with the Tandy sent us out looking at computers.

Heathkit - Built from a Kit

The Heathkit (which seemed to be one of the best and most powerful of this early crop of computers) was sold in kit form (for around $ 1800.00). Our Erector set days were well long gone and we just could not imagine putting together a computer from a kit. It sure did seem like an expensive hobby to us.

Osborne 1 - "Portable" Computer

It was probably the opportunity to play with the clunky Osborne 1 (the first portable computer) that made us finally decide that we NEEDED a computer.

We tried asking booksellers for recommendations. Virtually no one in the trade had a business computer yet. Dick Weatherford (later the founder of Interloc / Alibris) was the exception. He had already bought a computer !! He, of course, agreed that computers would be a great asset to bookselling. He made some suggestions about what computer to buy (the Osborne among them). We demurred.

In 1982 Dick indicated that he had found a great computer that would be perfect for us.

Morrow Micro Decision I

George Morrow was one of the first engineers to design and market a memory board for the Altair computer, and later he began to design hard disks and computers. With the MD I he produced a machine that was as good as the just introduced IBM, at one-third the price. It was also half the price of a comparable Apple system (Apple III).

It came with: a monochrome monitor; two single sided floppy drives (200 KB each) [There was no hard drive so a lot of floppy swapping was necessary]; total RAM of 64K ! ; plus excellent manuals; phone support (not toll free, but you could talk to George himself); and all the software one could wish for (at the time)...

- CP/M 2.2 operating system
- WordStar word processing from Micropro (we still often use a version of WordStar).
- Microsoft BASIC-80 programming language
- NorthStar compatible BAZIC language from Micro Mike's Inc.
- A spelling checker
- An electronic spreadsheet.
- and Pearl Database Management software

At under $2000.00 in 1982 it was a wonder.

We named her "Miss Morrow".

To Be Continued

Friday, August 04, 2006

Part I
How did you get into the Book Business?

"How did you get into the Book Business?"
Long Story - Medium Length Version

My parents loved going to auctions. There were regular "sales" in the Philadelphia area that we attended, as a family, on Mondays, Thursdays, and Fridays. On most Saturdays we drove out to the Lancaster County Amish country for auctions there. About once a month, in the Summer, we would go to auctions at Point Pleasant, PA, on the Delaware River above New Hope. My brother and I liked this auction best. They had great food for lunch. We could skip stones in the old Delaware Canal. And we could play with local kids along the canal or in the barns of their farms. For city kids these trips were idyllic, and are never to be forgotten. In some future blog I'll write more about those auction days of old.

Well - Aside from the main auction building, there were a few out-buildings at Point Pleasant. One of these was taken over one year (around 1950?) by a bookseller (?). The walls were lined with over-filled bookshelves. As the months passed the floors became covered with books, pamphlets, magazines and printed trash. I can still picture the sight. It was as if he had used a front-end loader to dump the stuff into the building. There was no way not to walk on the scattered mass. Very few people ever went in.

At five years old I went everywhere so the mess on the floor and the tottering shelves held no menace, though I remember some distaste at walking on papers and books. Quite quickly I found something on the floor that I just had to have. I asked the old man there how much it was. Fifty Cents. Oh my! 50 cents for what he treated as trash! I was shocked. I screwed up my courage and asked my dad if I could have fifty cents so that I could buy something from the book man. I was surprised when he gave me two quarters. . . and I'm pretty sure that the book guy was surprised when I held up the quarters in one hand and the pamphlet in the other.
He said, "take good care of that" [Which I thought was rather funny considering its rescue from his trash heap]. I started reading it that very night - and was hooked.

And I did take care of it (sort of).
The picture above is from that very same pamphlet (now lacking the pictorial wraps).
The Philadelphia Record Almanac for 1898.

I was especially enthralled by the advertisements, but every page gave me new insights about the history of the city that I already loved. Looking at it now (after uncountable books have passed through my hands) - I find I'm not quite so impressed. But I do recognize and remember clearly how these couple hundred pages stimulated a love of history and learning that has persisted and grows almost daily.

By the way... after holding on to it for over 55 years my almanac is not worth very much more in the marketplace than I paid for it - but its value as a talisman is beyond calculation.

... To Be Continued ...

Thursday, August 03, 2006

Part II
How did you get into the Book Business?

"How did you get into the Book Business?"
Long Story - Medium Length Version

During my youth in Philadelphia I found that I loved going to book stores.
I had been climbing ladders at Leary's since I was seven, seeking out the oldest and dustiest (and frequently cheapest) books. I don't really remember buying anything. I just liked the look and feel and smell of them. The way the words were impressed upon the pages hundreds of years ago - just waiting for me to find them, and learn from them. I frequently found myself standing on a ladder like the iconic bookworm that they used in various forms as a logo.

I often saw myself in that image.

In the Fall of 1980 I wrote a piece inspired by the image for one of our "ECLECTIC" catalogs:


The Book Collector is by nature and practice a confirmed eclectic.

He strains at the topmost step of an old library ladder
in search of a certain book,
when his mind and eye chance to fall upon another.

The look of the spine alone - gilt, or blind, or bare
stimulates a curiosity that requires instant satisfaction.

"Author, Title, Place and Date" are his at first opening.

Before long, a passage or two fascinates the finder
and he chortles to himself with pleasure or thought.

This dulset adventure suggests another volume,
with an argument or tale
that would be satisfactory and interesting to find.

Another hunt is made,
and then another.
With books in each hand,
under arm, and between knees...
he stands poised upon his uneasy perch
and reads.

The hours pass unnoticed.
It is a luxurious and enjoyable time.
A pursuit that fills the mind
with varied knowledge and wisdom.

ec-lec'tic, (Greek: eklektikos, from elegein; to select, pick-out).
Selecting: choosing: not from one model or leader,
but choosing at will from the doctrines, works, philosophies, etc... of others.

"Cicero was of the eclectic sect,
and chose out of each,
such positions as came nearest truth"
- Watts

... To Be Continued ...

Wednesday, August 02, 2006

Part III
How did you get into the Book Business?

The Powelton Village Apartments

"How did you get into the Book Business?"
Long Story - Medium Length Version

Through my teen and college years I tried to visit book stores -
primarily just to get reading material.
The depth and range of my reading was quite enormous.

I was a restless youth and visited 49 of the 50 states before I was 21
(I am still missing Hawaii) .
I traveled primarily by hitchhiking, with a few stints on boats that
followed and transversed the coastal waterways.
So you can understand that most of the books I bought in those
years were paperbacks meant to be read and then passed on ... or tossed.

After college I settled in Philadelphia with my wife Isabel, and got a job with Chiquita Banana. We lived at the Powelton Village Apartments (then a bit of a slum - now a national landmark).
The job did not pay much, but gave me the freedom and time to travel.

One day my journeys led me to one of the great eccentrics of the America book trade
- Mr. Samuel Kleinman.

Sam Kleinman's Schuykill Book Shop (or Book Service) was located near the corner of Lancaster and Belmont Avenues in West Philadelphia, not too far from our apartment. The neighborhood had seen better days (probably the last "better days" were before World War Two). It was a storefront shop, painted dark green. The display widows looked like they had not been changed since those long gone "better days". The books, posters, ephemera, and what nots in the window were broken, faded, stained, and warped. Everything had sort of deteriorated to an almost uniform light blue gray color. The show window itself, probably not having been cleaned within the last decade, seemed to have a similar color.

The wooden door was locked, but through the small, dirty, glass panes I could see piles of books.

I guess I was reminded of Point Pleasant
and my heart skipped a beat. I knocked. I waited.

I waited some more - and as I finally turned to go
I heard some shuffling behind the door.
It opened a crack. An oldish man stuck his head out.
"Shop's closed!" he growled.
"Can't I just step in for a moment?" I asked.
"NO! - Go away!"

I did go away... but returned the next evening when I was greeted with
"What do YOU want??"

After explaining that I'd like to see what he had in his shop, I was subjected to a battery of questions. They were mainly about American history (a specialty of mine) with a smattering of questions about literature. He seemed pleased with my answers. In any case, he opened the door and said "OK - you can go in."

"Go in where?" I wondered. There was a VERY narrow path excavated in quick zig zags through piles of books precariously perched upon one another. I carefully moved along the trail which shortly terminated in a slightly open area, holding a desk completely covered with many cubic feet of papers, catalogs, and correspondence (most of which I later found out was never answered); a large fire proof filing cabinet or safe (of a type and configuration that I have never seen before or since); and enough room for two people to stand... and maybe one more if they were quite skinny. The main illumination was one naked light bulb suspended from the ceiling by a long wire. Beyond this cramped oasis were solid walls of books in stacks and upon shelves. They were massed so solidly that penetration into them would have tested the courage and resilience of the keenest African jungle explorer.

We stood close together in this little space and Sam began a show and tell. Actually, it was a show and ask. Sam would pull out some treasure (sometimes from the nearest piles - at other wonderful times from the safe) and ask me questions about it. I was often right in a general way and he would fill in details of specifics I had missed, or book trade terminology I had not yet learned. This was a scene that was repeated dozen and dozens of times over the next two years.

He found me an apt pupil. And though his method of instruction usually included a lot of yelling, pounding of fists, and fits that seemed almost epileptic - I found him an always informative and strangely patient teacher. And what wonderful things I saw. If I ever write the "full length" version of this tale, I'll try to describe the stuff we handled together. I hope it suffices to say here that, even now after over 36 years as an antiquarian bookseller used to working with the world's treasures, I am blown away by the memory of some of those great things.

Unbeknownst to either of us Sam became my earliest mentor in the book trade.
Indeed, he taught me that there was such a thing as "the trade".
He taught me how to profitably use AB Bookman's Weekly (more about AB in the next posting); and how to begin buying and selling these old books -
"Making value where none was previously observed."

He took me to auctions - mainly at Freeman's (America's oldest auction house) - where he was an intense, outspoken, and in later years an entirely batty buyer. He was proud of his physical strength, kept powerful through hoisting thousands upon thousands of books through his "jungles" and up and down narrow stairs to a claustrophobic basement. But he was already getting older and though he presented these as learning opportunities, I realized that he took me along to haul books for him. And he did need help. Sometimes he would buy 90% of the sale. When we got back to the shop a young black boy would meet us and help get the new acquisitions into the basement. I'm sure Sam paid the boy something - but I never got a dime. He knew that I'd gladly trade my labor for the tuition at this "school" of his.

A fellow "professor" at this school was Manny Kean, the proprietor of one of the then largest archives of antique pictorial images in America. Manny looked a bit like a Jewish general Grant. Sam, Manny, and I often had lunch together at a little dive near Sam's shop. Sometimes we'd run into other book men. Edwin Wolf II and Maxwell Whiteman being, along with Sam and Manny, my favorites. The talk was great. The personalities explosive. Each of these men deserves a serious biographical treatment ...
Hopefully some one will write one about Edwin that will include the others.

In later years, I asked Edwin why I was so accepted into this closed circle of powerful but aged book men. He said, "Ron - they all saw you as a book man of the old school. And so you are."
It is one of the finest compliments I have ever received...
And it was Sam who showed me what old-school really meant.

To be Continued...

Tuesday, August 01, 2006

Part IV
How did you get into the Book Business?

Tatamy Book Barn

"How did you get into the Book Business?"
Long Story - Medium Length Version

And the old-school lessons stuck.
A few years ago, in a thank you letter, a client wrote:
"In your own time, sir
you have kept alive traditions
that were dead
before you were born" - "Harold" "A New Leaf" (1971)

Not quite true.
I'm glad to say that many of the best traditions and book men of antiquarian bookselling were still well alive when I entered the business.

An example is Mabel Zahn of Sessler's.

Shortly after I started buying, selling, and trading in my modest way I began to locate some pretty good items. The problem was that, being so new to the trade, I had no market for these more up-scale pieces. Then I met Miss Zahn.

She had been working for Sessler's since about 1905 and, after the death Charles Sessler, managed the rare book room pretty much on her own. Sessler's was (for the first half of the 20th century), along with Rosenbach, Smith, and a few others, at the apex of high-line American bookselling. Miss Zahn saw all the great books, attended all the great sales, and met all the great collectors of that heady era: Folger; Huntington; Newton; Rosenwald; Hoe; Chew; Morgan; Widener; et. al. The list was very long and she kept up good contacts with collectors of taste and means.

Mabel had a wonderful and highly practiced "eye" (for people as well as books). By the time I came on the scene, her back room office at Sessler's did not have as many treasures as it once held... but there was still much to dazzle any bibliophile.

I was running around all over the place, including out of the way stops like the Tatamy Book Barn in Northampton County, PA (picture above); Leonard Lasko's (Mr. 3 L) first little ephemera/junk shop on Pine Street; Bernard Conwell Carlitz's upstairs shop on Chestnut; Klineman's; and hundreds of other long gone book shops. Though I did not know the term at the time - I was becoming a pretty good a book-scout, and Miss Zahn seemed willing to provide a ready market for my best "finds".

We did loads of satisfactory transactions that in addition to books, included maps, prints, and a couple of autographs. She was a tiny woman, and in her later years often seemed frail. But when negotiating over a rare book - her strength and toughness was all I could usually see.

Late in 1970 I brought to her a two volume early 19th century set on Mexico - handsomely illustrated with engravings (many folding) and nicely bound. We dealt with a couple of other minor pieces I had brought along and then turned to the Mexico set. We looked at it together. Finally she said, "Seventy-five dollars." I was expecting twice that much, and said so.

She pulled herself up to full height (maybe a bit over 5 feet) and said, forcefully "So! You don't think I know what I'm talking about." Immediately I said, "Oh no Miss Zahn." "I bow before your knowledge and experience." And saying this I gave a courtly and very sincere bow.

Her voice, stature, and body language changed immediately. She looked like a young girl.
She said in a weak little voice that was trailing off slightly, "Oh me?? No - I know so little. There is so much to know. So very much." I was immediately struck by the truth of her statement. It was not false modesty, but her very breadth of experience that taught her (and me in that split second) that the more we know - the more there is to know.

We agreed to dis-agree about the Mexico set.
I left, and that same day traded it to Carlitz for a special copy of Price's 'On the Nature of Civil Liberty' 1776. The Price book became one of my favorites... but the value I ended up getting for it was paltry compared to the lessons I learned from Miss Zahn.