Searching For Books In Days Of Yore.

Back in April, when I launched this blog, I was pleased that my first post managed to elicit a nice comment. One particular point made by this commenter has been banging around in my head ever since.  On the suject of want lists, he wrote:

Electronic book-collecting tools are all focused on “dealer push” — a vendor essentially saying, “Here’s what I  have. Are you interested.” The tools aggregate and push this information. We know that many large booksellers do not have the time or inclination to post all of their inventories. It would be nice to go back to the old days of  “pull” — posting want lists in magazines to let dealers and fellow collectors know what we are interested in and looking for. It’s a service I would readily pay for within the context of a strong collector community like ViaLibri.

It was an interesting suggestion, even without the hint of additional revenue.  It made me wonder. I am always surprised at how easy it is to forget the ”old days” of antiquarian bookselling, before the internet changed everything. It was a time when weekly printed periodicals like The Clique, Bookdealer and AB Bookman were the primary tools of book searching;  or, more precisely, the only tools for book searching.

For those too young or forgetful to rememeber, it worked like this: First you made a list of the books you wanted.  Unless you were  a bookseller yourself,  you then had to find someone who was and give them your list.  They would type it up [another call to nostalgia] along with all the other lists they had been given and then mail it to one of the aforementioned magazines where it would appear, along with numerous other similar lists, every week, ink on paper, in endless printed columns of ”Books Wanted.”  At that point thousands of hopeful booksellers around the world, many of them list-makers themselves, would begin reading through the pages, line after line, column after column, searching hopefully for any wanted book they might happen to have for sale.

After that the “quoting” would begin. Items to be quoted would first need to be hunted for and located on whatever shelf they had been assigned to or misplaced on.   Then descriptions had to be prepared.    Postcards, paper slips, even letters would be written, usually by hand, describing, as succinctly as possible, the essential details of the book on offer – and little more.  The amount of time required to write all these descriptions placed a great premium on abbreviation.  As a result, a compact, almost stenographic language of book description evolved in response.   (It had, I would grant, antecedents in the jargon of printed catalogues) Notations such as a.e.g, ARC, ALS, FE, bce, f.f.e., v.g. and, most notorious of all, w.a.f, all became part of the compressed specialist language of booksellers and initiated collectors.  But even these shortcuts only reduced  by a small fraction the work at hand.  And it was not a stimulating activity by any measure.

But tedious labor was not the only investment made in quoting books for sale.  Ignoring the cost of postage (which for some might not be an insignificant expense) the bookseller also invested opportunity cost with every book he offered for sale.  This came from the fact that quoting a book nearly always meant removing it from available stock and putting it on reserve.  In the days of snail mail this usually involved three weeks or even a month.  (Sometimes the actual customer at the other end also needed to be contacted by post, so a month could easily pass before a sale could be confirmed). To quote a book and then be unable to provide it was a breach of faith that few colleagues would easily forgive or forget.  So the decision to quote an item to a distant hypothetical customer might also mean foregoing its equally possible sale to a customer who might actually walk through the door after the book had been withdrawn on quote.  The more desirable and uncommon the book, the greater the risk and cost in putting it on reserve.

The quoters, however, were not the ones who took the greatest risk.  That would be found on the other side of the potential transaction: the booksellers who made the lists in the first place.  These, you see, were not free.  They were paid advertising, pure and simple.  You were charged by the line, or the page, and it was not cheap.  Every book listed was a separate wager that a copy might be found and sold.  Many booksellers were only willing to take this gamble on the behalf of their regular customers.  The others who were willing to offer a “search service” to the general public did so as a calculated risk.   For most of these, the ordinary out-of-print book was their bread and butter.  The more common it was the better.  On one hand, a customer looking for Fanny Farmer’s Cook Book was as good as money in the bank. On the other hand, a PHD student with a list of the 18th century epistolary novels not already available from nearby libraries was an almost certain financial loss.

A few booksellers would try to shift their risk by charging their customers for each book they wanted before they had found it.    This was, however, unusual.  The typical customer readily perceived a potential scam in this approach and usually went elsewhere.   The “free” booksearch service was always the norm.

In spite of the risk, many who provided this service appeared to be quite successful and regularly advertised multiple pages of wants.  Some even advertised their free services in places like the New York Times and the TLS.  The economics of this have always been intriguing to skeptics like myself.  It is a losing game to advertise for uncollected books that are unlikely be found.  If you had the experience to already know what was available, and what was not, the temptation to ignore requests for the latter might be difficult to resist. The only alternative would be to have the customer for Fanny Farmer subsidize the cost of searching for the other items that were unlikely to be found.  This was the usual approach, but it could make the out-of-print cookbooks and knitting manuals very expensive.  And often they were, at least when you resorted to a search service to find them.   But the buyers rarely complained.  They generally understood that the marketplace for old books was hopelessly disorderly and inefficient.  Whenever it did manage to yield, on request, a long sought-after item the reaction on the part of the customer was almost always a mixture of gratitude and surprise.

Many, many books were bought and sold in this fashion. It was a system that lasted a bit more than a century.  It helped sustain many struggling booksellers whose shops were otherwise too remote from regular customers to support a living wage.   It provided to the inexperienced novitiates of the antiquarian book trade a weekly lesson book on the mysterious marketplace they hoped to enter.  It became, in many respects, the universal binding agent in the large and otherwise disconnected world of second-hand bookselling.

And then, almost over night, it was gone.

(To be continued…)

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3 Responses to Searching For Books In Days Of Yore.

  1. Wayne Somers says:

    I began as a full-time bookseller in 1971, and I quoted the AB in a less-than-assiduous fashion for several years, while also selling scholarly books by catalogue. My memories of that period are slightly different from yours in a couple respects. First, I don’t think many of the quoters had shops, and a lot were bookdealers only in the sense that they were quoters. They picked up books at garage sales, thrift shops, etc., or by selling off their personal libraries, and they often sold books very cheaply. Many of them had only a few hundred fairly ordinary books, shelved in their cellar or garage. If you bought from their offerings, the book would often arrive in very makeshift wrapping. I recall one purchase arriving in a cut-down Wheaties box.
    In theory, only dealers could place ads in the AB, but I don’t recall editor Sol Malkin making any attempt to verify one’s status. Of course, many entirely legitimate dealers also quoted, but it was a common complaint among the “little people” that the big guys would buy from quotes, but wouldn’t quote themselves. This was talked of as if it were a lapse in their civic duty, but of course the reason they didn’t quote was that it was not a very profitable use of time. My impression was that many of these “little people” had no idea whether they were making any money or not, and didn’t care. It was a spare time or retirement occupation, and they enjoyed it.
    The AB (or AB Bookman’s Weekly) was, as I recall, originally an offshoot of Publisher’s Weekly. It was not the first such publication in the US; it was preceded by “Want List”, which was published by the the people who published United States Book Auction Records, S.R. Shapiro and Anthony Gran, both of whom subsequently became book dealers. I was much later a friend of Tony Gran’s (“El Cascajero, the Old Spanish Book Mine”). Tony blamed the demise of the two publications on the perfidy of his former partner, Shapiro. How fairly, I don’t know.
    One other small addendum to your account. Libraries were allowed to advertise wants in the AB. And anyone was allowed to list books for sale.
    Paul Minet once made the point in one of his columns that quoting was a good way to learn the book business. The labor of typing all those postcards made one strongly aware of what was salable and for how much. After you had quoted the same book several times, you were not likely to buy that book again. Very different from the internet sites where you can list a book and forget it.
    And finally, a major contribution of the AB was the news and articles it published, which did a great deal to hold the book trade together and inculcate a certain – albeit rather low – level of professionalism. Its demise, followed by that of the ABAA’s printed newsletter, and the entirely unsurprising apparent demise of its electronic successor (as well as that of the often superior IOBA newsletter) leaves a gap that will have serious longterm consequences. Blogs and “forums” alone can’t fill the gap, because they have to be sought out. Virtually everybody in the book trade subscribed to the AB, which meant that a physical object arrived on one’s desk every week, so the front matter tended to get at least looked at briefly – but often read rather thoroughly.

    • Jim Hinck says:

      I started eight years later than you, but my experiences are basically the same. And I think I even remember receiving quotes from you, and possibly even buying one or two. My own recollection was that there were a lot of shop-keeping booksellers who quoted, but I can’t say whether they were in the majority or not. If you count as shop keepers all the book barns and home-based dealers with signs in their yards then I’m pretty sure it was a majority. We took several cross-country book hunting trips in the late eighties and early nineties and I remember how surprised I was by how many of the book shops we ran across had been regular quoters over the years. Often they were in out-of-the-way places in the middle of the country. Some had very nice books, but just no other way to reach the customers for them.

      We did also get occasional quotes from “big guys,” although usually for things that were outside their specialty or easy for them to replace. It made no sense for them to quote their best stuff and withdraw it from sale while they waited for a reply. They needed to have those things on the shelf when potential new customers walked in the door.

      And thanks for reminding me of Tony Gran, who was a quoting machine second to none.

      And I agree fully with regard to the value of the front matter in AB. It is a real loss that we don’t have that any more and nothing has come along yet to replace it. It is a vacuum which I hope will eventually be filled. The main obstacle is that it costs money to pay writers to produce that material. You paid to subscribe to AB, so there was money available for Sol or Jake to pay writers (which I assume they did, at least sometimes), or at least to give them incentive to write their own articles to attract readers who might not otherwise subscribe. And with that to create an audience to sell to advertisers, which was what really mattered. It is similar to the situation with newspapers. People paid for them when they were printed, but they expect to get content on the internet for free. If booksellers ever started buying advertising on book-related websites in a manner similar to the way they purchased ads on AB, or in the collector magazines (which have followed the same path) then you would see more good book-related content on the internet than you ever saw in the days of ink and paper. But that hasn’t happened yet, and I will not hold our breath waiting for it.

  2. Peter Gran says:

    I am Tony Gran’s oldest son (i.e. Mortimer Anthony Gran referenced above in the blog) and am wondering now -Dad being deceased-what materials I could find around which would help to make more sense of his life as a book seller in what seemed to us like a very improbable venture.
    Peter Gran

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