What’s it like around Between the Covers on a typical day? How does this complicated engine function? Who cares (aside from me and my fellow cogs in this Rube Goldbergian machine)? You didn’t ask, but I’ll tell you anyway. Essentially we: 1) obtain books, 2) ready and offer them for sale, 3) sell them (hopefully), and then 4) deliver them to their respective purchasers. At least, that’s the idea.
When I started the business about 25 years ago, pretty much every step in this process was performed by me. I would scout out likely books, research and re-price them (hopefully for more than I had paid for them, but not always!), catalog them, compose a catalog, mail out that catalog, take orders, and then wrap and ship the books, unless I could prevail on my long-suffering wife Heidi to do so.
Little has changed except in scale and in who is now performing each of these tasks.
I personally still largely buy or otherwise obtain all of our books, although an alert cataloguer like Matt Histand, while researching comparable copies of a book that we are trying to price online, might notice an oversight in another dealer’s assessment of a book, or a mistake in the pricing of an important and interesting book and recommend that it’s purchased. Similarly, Dave Stewart, who works with collectors on their wants, might recommend that we purchase an appropriate copy of something that a client has specifically assigned us to find.
We are daily offered individual volumes of collectible books, as well as whole collections. While we will frequently entertain the purchase of such things, we tend to be pretty careful in our acquisitions if they duplicate or triplicate or quadruplicate… well you get the picture … inventory that we already have. And with approximately 240,000 books currently catalogued and online (and perhaps 100,000 currently unprocessed), it is pretty easy to duplicate what we have.
I am most likely to buy my books in one of two ways. The first of these is buying books one at a time from other dealers when I can examine them personally at a book fair or their shop. These often tend to be high-value books, books that might range from a few thousand dollars and occasionally into the six figures. In these cases, attention to detail is required – too bad I tend not to pay too much attention to detail! Happily, I seem to have an instinct to avoid the unsaleable book (not – might be the reply of the 240,000 books that haven’t sold – yet).
The other method is purchasing books in very large quantities, often 10,000 volumes or more at one time. The sheer quantity of good material in this kind of library tends to make the purchase a good bet from a financial point of view – certainly in a library of such size, some of the material will not duplicate what we already have, and the economies of purchasing books in these numbers makes it less onerous to take in the duplicates.
An example: three years ago a prestigious private library put out to bid a spectacular collection that had been left to them but duplicated their holdings. We joined with another dealer to buy the library, and had recouped our investment and made a modest profit within a month of purchasing the library.
Another example: two years ago an auction house with a huge backlog of unsold books that was eating up most of their storage space approached us about buying up the inventory. They estimated 15,000-20,000 books. I estimated more. We rapidly reached an agreement. My mover (and fellow bookseller) the estimable and resourceful Joe Maynard of Brooklyn estimated it would be two large cargo truckloads of books. Twelve truckloads later, we had taken in approximately 75,000 books, perhaps 45,000 of which have now been cataloged, with the rest awaiting the attention of our eager, or at least semi-tolerant young staff of catalogers.
So that’s where the raw material comes from. In my next blog, I’ll tell you how we ready and offer these little gems for sale.