So for the past eleven months, when I get tired of answering emails, cataloguing books, or talking to collectors or colleagues on the phone, I closet myself away somewhere and start going through the boxes of 75,000 books we bought from an auction house. This process consists of me standing at a large table, and touching every book, trying to separate the good from the bad from the ugly.
I probably pull about 10% of the books for me to deal with personally. These break down into several categories: books that I think are of particular value and require my attention, books that I think are too obscure for anyone else to deal with, books with dirty pictures (no, scratch that, here at Between the Covers, we serve as a model of moral rectitude), or books that I know nothing about, but that my intuition tells me need to be explored further. These books then lay around in disheveled stacks until the indefatigable Kellie boxes them up and puts them somewhere for me to deal with at my leisure.
Occasionally I have pulled out a book that has brightened my whole day (just yesterday I came across a nearly perfect copy of Frank Herbert’s Dune) maybe because it is particularly valuable, maybe just because it is interesting, or maybe because within it lies the information that supplies the answer to some obscure question or point that I’ve been puzzling about for months, or even years.
So what about the other 90%? I examine them, repack them in boxes, stack them, and do my best to forget about them. Then through some magical process of osmosis, they all disappear (although perhaps not as quickly as I’d like). I’d like to think that they ascend as a body into book heaven, but what I think is more likely is that Bill, Ann, and Matt catalogue, price, scan, and shelve them, and they end up being offered for sale online as used, or occasionally uncommon, but not really very rare books.
If I’m doing my job right, when I ask each of them if they are finding anything interesting, they grumble and harrumph and say that it’s just another bunch of books, or in other words, I’ve pulled out all the good stuff. More frequently however, they gleefully point out some obscure and toothsome or rare tome that I have missed altogether, and that they have rescued from both obscurity and my own obtuseness.
From my long-ago nearly forgotten training as a lapsed Catholic (actually I wasn’t trained as a lapsed Catholic, I became one through inclination – poor choice of words on my part), I remember being taught that the pope was infallible in matters of religious doctrine. Shouldn’t that mean that as a former President of the Antiquarian Booksellers’ Association of America, I should be infallible in matters of rare books?
Every year it is revealed to me how little I actually know about rare books, or maybe more accurately, how much more there is to learn. Far too much for only one lifetime.
Sorting books is hard work, but it is fun. Several booksellers have been here and seen the huge number of “virgin” boxes still to be sorted. While I’m sure therein are contained some books that they each would like to buy, none of these dealers has expressed any noticeable envy or begrudged me the ownership of these particular books. However, pretty much every bookseller that has come here has expressed their envy that I will have the fun of going through the boxes. Confrontation of the unknown, as long as it isn’t too hazardous to our health, is what keeps us bumping along around here.
It will be a sad day for me when the last of those 3000 boxes has been sorted. Hopefully by then we’ll be on to a new batch of books!