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NEWS: Amazon Buys Brian Cassidy. Bookseller

FOR IMMEDIATE RELEASE

SEATTLE & WASHINGTON DC–(BUSINESS WIRE)–April 1st, 2013–Amazon.com, Inc. (NASDAQ:AMZN), today announced that, subject to closing conditions, it has reached an agreement to acquire Brian Cassidy, Bookseller currently of Washington D.C. Brian Cassidy, Bookseller is a white, middle-aged caucasian male: 40 years old, five feet ten inches tall, and weighs approximately 165 pounds.

“As a tiny one-man bookselling operation, Brian Cassidy, Bookseller brings remarkably slow data entry and research skills, a nearly fruitless interest in the obscure and unusual, as well as a unique ability to procrastinate and waste time. Our customers worldwide will benefit,” said Russell Grandinetti, vice president of books for Amazon.com.

“I am excited to join the Amazon family,” said Cassidy on Monday, “where their worldwide reach, exceptional distribution, competitive pricing, and broad offerings will continue to render traditional bookselling obsolete.”

Added Cassidy: “I’m just glad I got a piece of the action before it was too late.”

Following the acquisition, the worldwide headquarters of Brian Cassidy, Bookseller will continue to be located in Silver Spring, MD – right down the street from the Greyhound bus station and nestled beside the United Towing impound lot.

The acquisition is subject to customary closing conditions, including regulatory approvals, and is expected to close before the end of the fourth quarter of 2013. Mr. Cassidy giddily described the purchase price as “in the low four figures.”

About Amazon.com

Amazon.com, Inc. (NASDAQ:AMZN), a Fortune 500 company based in Seattle, opened on the World Wide Web in July 1995 and today offers Earth’s Biggest Selection. Amazon.com, Inc., seeks to be Earth’s most customer-centric company, where customers can find and discover anything they might want to buy online, and endeavors to offer its customers the lowest possible prices. Amazon.com and other sellers offer millions of unique new, refurbished and used items in categories such as books, movies, music & games, digital downloads, electronics & computers, home & garden, toys, kids & baby, grocery, apparel, shoes & jewelry, health & beauty, sports & outdoors, and tools, auto & industrial.

Amazon Web Services provides Amazon’s developer customers with access to in-the-cloud infrastructure services based on Amazon’s own back-end technology platform, which developers can use to enable virtually any type of business. Examples of the services offered by Amazon Web Services are Amazon Elastic Compute Cloud (Amazon EC2), Amazon Simple Storage Service (Amazon S3), Amazon SimpleDB, Amazon Simple Queue Service (Amazon SQS), Amazon Flexible Payments Service (Amazon FPS), and Amazon Mechanical Turk.

Amazon and its affiliates operate websites, including www.amazon.com, www.amazon.co.uk, www.amazon.de, www.amazon.co.jp, www.amazon.fr,www.amazon.ca, and the Joyo Amazon websites at www.joyo.cn and www.amazon.cn.
As used herein, “Amazon.com,” “we,” “our” and similar terms include Amazon.com, Inc., and its subsidiaries, unless the context indicates otherwise.

Amazon Forward-Looking Statements

This announcement contains forward-looking statements within the meaning of Section 27A of the Securities Act of 1933 and Section 21E of the Securities Exchange Act of 1934. Actual results may differ significantly from management’s expectations. These forward-looking statements involve risks and uncertainties that include, among others, risks related to competition, management of growth, new products, services and technologies, potential fluctuations in operating results, international expansion, outcomes of legal proceedings and claims, fulfillment center optimization, seasonality, commercial agreements, acquisitions and strategic transactions, foreign exchange rates, system interruption, significant amount ofindebtedness, inventory, government regulation and taxation, payments and fraud. More information about factors that potentially could affect Amazon.com’s financial results is included in Amazon.com’s filings with the Securities and Exchange Commission, including its Annual Report on Form10-K for the year ended December 31, 2007, and subsequent filings.

CONTACT: Amazon.com Media Hotline, 206-266-7180.

Field of Booksellers

This time in 2006, I had been a book dealer for only two years. I had come to bookselling, not exactly by accident (I had been worked in bookstores off and on for the better part of ten years), but rather as a way to fill some time while I stayed at home with my then-four-year-old daughter. The business (such as it was) was very much a part-time venture. I had about 1000 books that I’d managed to scare up from library fundraisers, thrift stores, Craigslist, and garage and estate sales. I kept them in banker’s boxes crammed into several closets around the house. I didn’t really know any other booksellers and had little in way of a reference library. I sold only online. Most of my books were either modern firsts or university press titles, and every day or so one or two sold via ABE or Amazon. I dutifully packed up in salvaged boxes or homemade ad-hoc packages. I made a little spending money, no more really.

I knew about the rare book trade. I had attended a couple of book fairs. I had read the Goldstone’s trilogy. I had a small handful of books that could be considered “valuable” (a jacketless first of THE GREAT GATSBY, an advance edition – the earliest circulated – of Delillo’s UNDERWORLD), but I’d more or less blundered my way into these. I did manage to squirrel away several unusual books for what I hoped might someday be a catalogue. But I didn’t know how to get from where I was to where, for example, Royal Books or Ken Lopez were (to pick two dealers whose catalogues I admired). In short, I was fumbling around, trying to figure out the bookselling business on my own. I thought I might want to make this a full-time job. But I had no idea how to do that.

One year later that all had changed. I owned my own bookstore. I issued my first catalogue and was planning my second. I exhibited at my first bookfair. I sold to my first library and sold my first four-figure book. I knew other dealers. Lots of them. And sold books to them regularly. I even owned books in partnership with other dealers. I attended fewer book sales and purchased more from my colleagues and from the public. In short, I was a bookseller. And had the sign outside my shop and the income (more or less, usually less, but still much more than I had been making) to prove it.

What happened in that intervening year? Five words: The Colorado Antiquarian Book Seminar.

The Seminar has a long and storied history. Since it’s inception, hundreds upon hundreds of booksellers have attended — many subsequently going on to be prominent members of the trade (with some even returning as part of the faculty). And if you’re a bookseller, you’ve probably heard of it. Either from their ads in Firsts or Fine Books and Collections. Or from the ABE or Amazon forums. Or maybe from others who have written about their experiences there.

I’ve even written previously about my time there. But looking those words over now, written in the immediate after-glow of attending, I realize I did not emphasize just how transformative that week in the Rockies was. But now I can more clearly see just how influential an event CABS was in my career. I arrived in Colorado thinking I wanted to be a bookseller, but still harboring dreams of becoming a writer or maybe of returning to teaching. I came hoping I might even become a rare book dealer, but had no idea how to do so and only slightly more of an idea what that even meant.

When I left a week later, however, I knew I wanted to be a bookseller. Those seven days among other dealers — eating and drinking with them, sitting beside them in class, exploring the bookshops of Colorado Springs with them — crystalized that desire. I’d never laughed so hard, talked so much, felt as at ease as I did among my classmates and the faculty. It remains one of the best weeks of my life. I wanted to be part of that community.

More importantly, after a week of classes (long, intense classes) I thought I knew how to do that. No more recycled boxes. Look for new selling opportunities (fairs, catalogues, etc.). Cultivate my own customers. Invest in a good reference library. Scout more creatively. And so (so) much more. It was a week, in fact, not only of knowledge but of inspiration – inspiration to be a better bookseller and ideas for dozens and dozens of ways to become one.

I’ve previously written that attending CABS easily saved me several years of trying to learn things on my own. And while in one sense this is true, I wonder if something more profound might be truer: that without CABS I might not be in business at all. I doubt I would have been satisfied continuing to sell five and ten dollar books, and doubt even more I ever could have made any kind of living doing that (not unless I was willing to live someplace with a lot more closets). I certainly wouldn’t have had the confidence to buy a bookstore without the seminar. Or to know what to do with a catalogue once it was printed, even assuming I finished one. And being, like many booksellers, predisposed to shyness and independence, I doubt I would have found a foot in the door to meeting other dealers that CABS provided. It is probably not too much to say that CABS provided me the vocation I am now pursuing.

And I’ve seen it do something similar for many other booksellers I now know: Chris Lowenstein of Book Hunter’s Holiday, Howard Prouty of Readink, Jonathan Smalter of Yesterday’s Muse, and Amir Naghib of Captain Ahab’s Rare Books — to name but a few. The seminar has graduated dozens of booksellers a year for more than three decades.

Is all of this a pitch for CABS? Yup. (And here is where I insert the disclaimer that I am in no way connected to the seminar, except as a graduate). But this isn’t an advertisement so much as a appeal. The first part of the appeal is — as it should be — purely based on self-interest, yours in fact. If you’re a part-time seller struggling to go full-time, if you’re a full-time seller making only a part-time income, if you know you want to handle more interesting books but don’t know how or where to buy them, if you want to become part of the bookselling community (where one has colleagues and not competitors) and step away from the the elbowing and dog-eat-dog attitudes of library and estate sales, if you want to learn how to scout customers the way you scout books, if you’ve thought about doing a book fair or issuing a catalogue but don’t know where to start, if you’ve considered opening a bookstore, if you want to understand what a good reference library can do, or if you want to know what you don’t even know you don’t know, I urge you to attend. You’ll be able to to pick the brains of some of the best booksellers in the business. You’ll make more money, handle more interesting books, and have a better and more exciting time doing it.

Now I understand going is not quite that simple. Booksellers to whom I recommend the seminar often say that they can’t afford to attend. Or can’t attend without a scholarship. And I sympathize. But while there are many scholarships available, I am intentionally writing this after the deadline for many of these awards. The seminar can’t depend solely on scholarship attendees. And in my opinion, “afford” is the wrong way to think about the expense involved. Which is not to say that attending can’t be a hardship. Depending on where you’re coming from, the seminar can cost upwards of $2000, including tuition, travel, and time away. But as the marketing cliche goes, you can’t afford not to.

Having attended, I can tell you honestly that I can think of no better investment you can make in your business — not more books, not a new website, not reference books, not new equipment — than attending the seminar. Think of it this way: in order to make that investment pay for itself, you need only sell perhaps fifty more dollars of books a week for a year, something that if you don’t return with multiple ways of achieving (multiple times over) you weren’t paying attention. Or, to put it the way it was put to me on my first days at CABS: if you can’t make your expenses back just selling to the people in this room, then you’re probably in the wrong business. Indeed, I have sold tens of thousands of dollars worth of books to dealers I met in that seminar room. And bought at least that much again from the same. So I urge to you find both the time and money to attend (I for example, sold the aforementioned Gatsby in order to finance my attendance). It is well worth it, in a very literal sense.

But this appeal is not based solely on self-interest. I assume that if you’ve read this far, you believe in the future of the book and by extension the future of the book trade. And I’ve come to believe that the future of the trade does not depend on “reaching” young people or cheerleading for the printed word. It is not about new ways of marketing or trying to somehow instill a love of books in the public at large. No, I’m increasingly certain that the future of the book trade (and of the book itself) depends on us – the trade. Build it and they will come. Build a trade that people can trust. Populate it with a wide variety of dealers, each bringing their unique approach to bookselling, and each attracting their own customer base. But all of them acting professionally and knowledgeably. Do this, and the future of the trade is secure.

And this is what CABS provides and has provided for more than thirty years: knowledge and a profound sense of professionalism and collegiality. It’s been called “bootcamp for booksellers,” and it is certainly that. But it is also “the Johnny Appleseed of the book trade,” sowing future booksellers, cultivating the trade for future generations. Register and be a part.

RIP: John McWhinnie

I did not know John McWhinnie well, really even at all. Aside from the business we transacted, regularly but by no means frequently (and almost always him buying from me), I don’t think we ever uttered a personal word to each other, let alone had a personal conversation. I did not know if he was married or if he had kids (yes and no, respectively). Did not know his age (almost 44). Did not know how he came to the rare book business (like many dealers via academia). But sadly I do know these things now, because John McWhinnie died a little more than two weeks ago in a tragic snorkeling accident off the coast of the British Virgin Isles. And though I did not find out about his death until several days later, third hand and via a bookseller listserv, I still cannot help but feel a profound sadness at the loss.

I met John in person for the first time in San Francisco almost five years ago at my first ABAA book fair. It was Sunday, the last day. And I noticed a man walking down my aisle heading I presumed toward the exit. He seemed to be in a hurry; the fair was nearly over. I noticed him because he was a) young and b) stylishly dressed, two characteristics that often stand out at book fairs, where the demographics tend to skew older and…frumpier. He breezed past my booth, but getting a few steps beyond stopped suddenly. He turned and looked past me into one of my cases, then stepped closer.

“I’ll take that,” he said quietly but firmly, pointing to a copy of Just Another Asshole – an important journal from the early 80′s NYC No Wave scene. All weekend the issue had elicited only bemused or bewildered remarks, so I was secretly pleased not only that someone was buying it, but even more that someone recognized it.

“Dealer discount?” the man asked, handing me his card. “John McWhinnie at Glenn Horowitz, Booksellers” the card read.

“Of course,” I told him. I think we shook hands. I remember he was in a hurry. He paid in cash and seemed indifferent to the necessity of an invoice.

After that, I saw him at fairs more, especially once I moved to the east coast. And all of our interactions were variations on our first meeting. Suddenly John would appear in my booth, quietly but intensely examining the items on the shelves, in the cases, flipping through boxes of pamphlets. He might say hello, but usually not. Few if any pleasantries. Indeed, I often had the impression that John never remembered who I was, such was his focus and reserve. It was only after he’d selected one or two things — an issue of Ed Sanders’ FUCK YOU, a flier announcing a Vietnam-era protest — and I was writing him up, that he might ask “How’ve you been?” And I can’t deny that it pleased me that he knew who I was.

It pleased me because among book dealers of my generation (I’m 39) — and let’s define “my generation” as the often described “Gen-X,” or more specifically as those from about 35-45 — John was almost unquestionably the best. I can think of no one else who possessed both John’s unique combination of talents (the intellect, the knowledge, the curiosity, the vision, the aesthetic eye, the determination, the ambition, the taste…) AND the platform and resources to be able to use these talents to their fullest. John sold books of an astonishing variety — from Beat literature to noise rock to obscure art movements — and sold them to everyone from the New York Glitterati to major artists. But he also sold original art and photography. He tracked down rarities. He mounted exhibitions. He published books. And did all of these with a style and flair that in some ways disguised as much as revealed his deep intelligence (“scary smart,” as a colleague described him to me last week). His booth at this year’s NY Art Book Fair was a revelation. Expansive and dramatic, it was equal parts museum display, installation art, gallery exhibit, and theatrical production, combining (as the title of his blog described) the cool, the cooler, and the NFW (read: “no f***ing way). Among dealers our age, no one came close to matching his abilities and accomplishments. And even among dealers of any age, only a handful were in his league.

It may seem strange to speak of generations when it comes to bookselling – or at least perhaps to think that it has anything fundamental to do with the job. It has always been true, after all, that new members of the trade recognize and create new markets. Peter Howard was widely credited with creating much if not most of what we now think of as the modern firsts market. And before him, for example, Rostenberg and Stern were among the earliest dealers to promote women’s contributions to literature, history, and the arts. And more recently, a dealer like Harper Levine (whose gallery was next door to John’s in Long Island) has done much to foster the photobook market. This is nothing new, and certainly John was part of this tradition. As someone said of him in one of the many obituaries that have come out since his death, “He was usually two years ahead of everyone else.” But more than this, I think there is something different among serious rare book dealers of Generation X – something that separates them (us) from previous generations of young dealers.

When I look at many of my contemporaries in the book trade, what we seem to share is a particular approach to bookselling, one that combines a certain skepticism of specialization with a curatorial instinct. It is an approach that in my experience is not nearly as prevalent in quite the same way among older colleagues. As McWhinnie himself said in an excellent and revealing interview: “But in reality I feel like I am a curator that happens to surround himself with the material I would love to own myself. I like to present items in a context that makes them dialogue with other objects in unexpected ways.”

I’ve often wondered why this is, why among those of us who were children in the 1970′s and who came of age in the 1980′s, why the curatorial would seem to be the approach embraced by many of the newer and up-and-coming booksellers. And I think it has something to do with this: we were the last generation whose childhoods were not fundamentally different than our parents. Historically, of course, there were changes. But our technological and material circumstances were very similar. The differences between my childhood and my father’s though real were not wide. We both grew up in households with a black and white television and three channels, a world where phones were anchored to the wall and long distance calls were expensive. A world where computers filled entire rooms, movies had to be seen in theaters (or caught months or years later on TV), and correspondence was written by hand. In short, it was a world of cultural scarcity, whose choices were limited in no small part by where one lived.

But beginning in the early 1980′s, all of this began to change, and quickly. Cable television, microwave ovens, home computers, video games, VCRs, car and cell phones, chain stores, the internet – by the early 1990′s the cultural and technological landscape looked radically different. The transition from a traditional print culture to an electronic one had begun. And what is unique about my generation is that our youth straddled these two periods: of scarcity and abundance, page and screen. We remember a time not terribly different from that of our parents’, even – television aside – not terribly different than our grandparents’. But we were also young enough to embrace and understand the technological changes that began as we entered our adolescence and young adulthood.

We spent our formative years with one foot in each of these worlds. And this, I think, gave us a unique perspective: one that recalls with some fondness and nostalgia the simplicity of our childhoods while simultaneously recognizing and appreciating the changes that came after. It is this combination that leads to the curatorial instinct, a desire — among the myriad choices that present themselves – to winnow, to select, and to appreciate. And here’s the thing about a curatorial approach: it is unique to each practitioner, dependent on their peculiar and individual interests, knowledge, curiosity, and intelligence.

There is a popular conception (even among many booksellers) that the job of a rare book dealer involves simply waiting for books to come to you: you price them and put them for sale in a shop, or describe them and upload them to the internet. Then the seller merely sits back and waits for someone to come along and buy their books. In other words, it can appear from the outside to be a rather passive endeavor. But the truth is that the best dealers seek out material. And when they find it seek to describe and market it in a way that others have not. And attempt to find customers for it rather than wait for customers to find the material. It is — at its best — a decidedly active pursuit, and as such one can be better or worse at it. Better at uncovering new material. Smarter at recognizing new opportunities. More creative at fostering new markets and customers.

And so, when a bookseller like John McWhinnie dies, what dies with him is not simply a colleague or business. The tragedy is that what also dies are all the books that he would have sold that will now remain unsold, all the writers who will remain unappreciated, all the artists unrecognized, all the new customers who will remain undeveloped. And I mean this in a very literal sense. It is not simply that John will not be selling these books or photographs or paintings. I mean that in too many cases they will remain unsold, period, because John will not there to recognize them, to appreciate them, and to put them in their full and proper context.

I can’t help contrasting John’s death with another recent death: that of Peter Howard. I knew Peter better than I did John. I’d been to Peter’s house, met his wife, eaten dinner and socialized with him. And his death was unquestionably a loss to the book community. But Peter Howard had accomplished what he had set out to do: to build one of the best (if not the best) used and rare bookstores in the world. And after his death, those books (by some counts almost a million) will return to the bookselling ecosystem. So while the loss of Serendipity Books is a real one, it is also true that although Peter will not be selling these books, someone else will. Not in the same way or with the same skill or ablomb perhaps, but they will be sold. And although Serendipity no longer exists, it did once, and for many years. It had its impact and influence.

The same, however, cannot be said of John McWhinnie. Yes, whatever stock he currently has in his galleries with eventually find new homes. And dealers like myself will continue to take inspiration from his business example. But what I mourn since hearing of his death are the books and other cultural artifacts that will now languish without John’s keen eye to spot them and save them from neglect. For the book world, this is the true loss. And like all losses, in many ways we will never know its true extent. Peter Howard’s death and the closing of Serendipity was a loss of bookselling’s past; John’s death, a loss to its future.

Bookselling, like writing, often fosters the impression that given the right opportunity anyone can do it. And even among its practitioners, there often remains a subtle but stubborn belief that there is something inherently unfair about the success of others in the field, that luck rather than skill carries the day. It’s a belief that lends itself to petty jealousies. I would occasionally hear grumblings about John among some of my colleagues; a snide comment, a rolled eye that seemed to say, “Well of course he does well. He’s in New York.” Or: “Of course, look who he knows.” Or: “Of course, if I had that kind of capital…”

But again, like in writing, these attitudes are largely bullshit. Talent will out. And John had talent. That much was obvious, even to someone like me who, as I say, did not really know him.

His memorial was last Thursday. I heard it was very moving. Many people spoke. Norah Jones performed a song. And I found myself thinking about one of the last things John wrote to me. In our final email exchange he ended an inquiry about an item he was interested in with this question:

“You buy anything recently that is killer?”

And something about that question incapsulates for me John’s entire approach to bookselling: the “killer.” The cool and the cooler. The “no fucking way.” Few if any did it better. And no one did it the same. And that to me says everything you can about a bookseller, everything you would want to say: no one else could have done what they did. And so while I can’t miss John, not having known him, I can, do, and will miss the bookman he was. And even more, the bookman he would have been.

Announcing: Newsletter #1 and Sale List #1

In a fit of shelf-clearing ambition, we here at Brian Cassidy, Bookseller have finally completed two longed-planned projects: a sale catalogue and our first e-newsletter. First the catalogue. Entitled An Inconsistently Formatted Sale List of Signed Books & Letters, Comprised Mainly of Literature, With Enough Poetry, Americana & Other Assorted Genres to Alleviate Boredom, it is available in electronic form only and consists of 113 signed items from stock, all of them 50% off. Highlights include:

  • Letters from William Stafford, Joe Brainard, and Sean O’Casey
  • Associations from Ted Berrigan, Robert Indiana, Philip Levine and others
  • Unusual items from David McCullough, Janet Leigh, and James Purdy
  • Art, americana, children’s books, poetry and more.

From $5 to $500 dollars, there’s something for every budget. To download the catalogue in PDF format, click or copy the following link:

http://www.briancassidy.net/salecatalogue.pdf

Or you may also browse the catalogue on our website. NOTE: Prices do not reflect the 50% discount. Please mention the sale catalogue when ordering.

We have also completed and sent our first email newsletter, which we plan to continue issuing more or less once a month. It will include catalogue updates such as this one, recent arrivals, news, links, etc. If you don’t already and would like to receive these newsletters, you can sign up on our CONTACT US page.

First Efforts: Yet More Mistakes

My first catalogue had only forty items in it, but was still two years in the making. Most of that time was used gathering the material. But a sizable portion, perhaps six months, was spent in the writing, research, and design of the catalogue itself. First catalogues are intimidating things, as you are introducing yourself to the bookselling world: your fellow dealers, serious collectors, institutions and librarians. All the more intimidating is that you are doing this in something that announces that it’s your first effort, thereby – to my mind at least – inviting even closer scrutiny. So you truly want to present the best image of yourself that you can.

My debut had one key item that for me was the catalogue’s jewel: a letter from William S. Burroughs to Allen Ginsberg, together with an original typescript of an essay by Burroughs. It was to be easily the rarest, most important, and most expensive item in the catalogue (let’s ignore for the moment that I grossly over-priced the item, a mistake of another kind and for another time). It would not be too much to say that, for me, the Burroughs piece was the catalogue’s raison d’être.

I spent weeks researching, and days writing the catalogue description. When it was done, the copy ran four columns over two pages, more than 1200 words. I not only described the piece and explained its rarity, but sought to put it into the wider context of both Burroughs’ career and the Beat movement at large. (The complete description can be read here.) I worked hard on the entire catalogue, but I toiled on that description.

When the catalogue was finished, I had my wife proofread it (I’m a terrible speller and often miss typos). I also sent to several friends in the book trade. Soon, the catalogue was off to the printer.

I was thrilled when the finished product arrived. It was not a lavish production by any means. It was entirely back-and-white. I’d designed it myself. The cover wasn’t even of a heavier stock than the rest of the pages. But I was proud of how it came out. It had a rough edge to it, not unlike much of the mimeo material described inside.

That evening, my wife, daughter, and I spread the catalogues out on our living room and made a mailing assembly line. I stuffed and sealed the envelopes, my wife addressed them, and my daughter put on the postage. It was exhilarating watching the manila envelopes pile up, about to make their way into the world.

Soon we took a break. I flopped onto the couch and flipped through the catalogue, admiring it. When I came to the Burroughs item I reread the description, still pleased with how it came out. Then I reached the final paragraph. The “sell.” It was intended to describe the rarity of important primary Burroughs material. It read:

Burroughs manuscript and typescript examples have long been uncommon in the marketplace. And with Burroughs’ archives now at the New York Public Library (and Arizona), increasingly scarce.

I read it again. I stared at it in disbelief. I groaned. Here’s what it should have read, emphasis mine:

Burroughs manuscript and typescript examples have long been uncommon in the marketplace. And with Burroughs’ archives now at the New York Public Library (and Ohio), increasingly scarce.

Arizona??? What? I felt dizzy. As soon as I read it I knew it was wrong, so I couldn’t fathom how it ever got in there in the first place. I tried to remain calm. I told myself I could probably count on my hands and toes the number of people who would even notice the error. But unfortunately these were the same dozen or so most likely to buy it.

I scrambled to think of a solution. Errata slip? Paste-in? Hand correct? None of them seemed acceptable. I wanted my first catalogue to be perfect. I could think of only one acceptable resolution: reprint. The only problem was I couldn’t afford another entire run. It would simply cost too much. I felt sick.

That night I barely slept.

But by the next morning, I’d struck upon a kind of solution. I would print as many corrected copies as I could. These would go to those on my mailing list upon whom I couldn’t afford to make a bad first impression. The remaining copies would go to dealers, friends, colleagues, and customers who either would be unlikely to notice the mistake, or who I could count on to be understanding and sympathetic if they did. It was not ideal, but no available solution was.

The catalogue was ultimately a success. I received lots of positive feedback, none of it pointing out my error (though of course that doesn’t mean it wasn’t noticed). But if you’re reading this and have my first catalogue, might want to check to see if you have the “first state” or not. And if you do, please accept my apologies for feeling like you didn’t warrant a “corrected edition.”

Postscript: I’ve since gotten several catalogues with errata slips. Should a similar situation arise again, an errata is undoubtedly how I will handle it.

Taking a Gamble: On Being Wrong III

Persian polo manuscript?Here’s something that has hung on the wall of every office I’ve had for the past five years (that four offices, in case you’re counting). It’s a single sheet; text and image on one side, text alone on the other. I have two more much like it. But I don’t keep them up because I am interested in polo or Middle Eastern art. Or even because I like the images. They serve as a reminder.

Years ago I was at at a local charity store. It was not exactly a thrift store (though everything in it had been donated). It felt more like a moderately high end consignment shop. Not a place that catered to fine antiques but not a junk shop either. I went regularly as they typically had a large selection of books available and I usually found at least one or two worth picking up. Occasionally I even emerged with something great.

Every six months or so, the store would advertise a week-long “seasonal sale.” What was odd about their “sales,” however, was that rather than use the event to mark down or clear out old items, the shop instead used it to introduce new merchandise. The management would horde donations in the back room, then bring them all out at once for the “opening.” The store would close early to prepare and seemed to fancy the event a society gathering. Hors d’oeuvres were served. A piano player was hired. And it worked. People lined up outside the door beginning more than an hour before the event.

Because they would bring out so many books at the same time, I tried to make it to each of these events. Though they were crowded, most book dealers in the area were unaware of the shop. So there was little of the rude craziness one finds at similar sales. Early birds dashed for the jewelry and clothes. I typically had the book section to myself.

This particular night I noticed something very different about the books. My stomach tightened. From the top of each volume a slip of paper poked out from the pages. Opening one, I saw it was what I feared: a printout of search results for similar books on ABE. I flipped to the first page and looked at the marked price. What the week before would have been a two dollar book was now priced $20. The other books were the same. ABE printout, dramatically increased price.

The slip was meant to say, “Look how reasonable our prices are compared to what’s online.” What it actually said however was, “We have no idea what we’re doing.” Because like so many places try this tactic, the shop management did so in a misinformed way. They printed lists from highest price to lowest and stopped after one page (thereby leaving off the cheapest copies). They ignored condition (and often edition). In other words, their points of comparison were all misaligned or unrealistic. And now, sadly, so were their prices.

Disappointed, I was about to leave when I saw the polo images. I picked them up. They were unusual. Unique. Visually compelling. I turned them over in my hands. They felt old. Antique. I held the sheets to the light: laid paper.

I didn’t want to leave empty handed, so I took them home. They were twenty dollars each.

I dove into researching them. I took books from the library and scanned through page after page of Google images looking for something similar. But I made little (okay no) progress. After a week or so, I realized I needed help.

Remember when I said at the beginning of this series? Often in error, never in doubt? Me, a Gilbert and Sullivan character? Well, I decided to post a query about the pages to the Exlibris listserve, an email forum to which many of the best and most knowledgeable rare book and special collections librarians subscribe.

“Victory is at hand! “Forward into the breach! Into HISTORY!”

I was treated gently, but it quickly became apparent how over my head I was. The first few responses were tentative. But soon more authoritative answers came in. The language was Persian, Arabic. Then someone pointed out what should have been obvious from the scans: that you could see from the flecking at the edges that the image had been painted over the text. Someone else determined the book was a student notebook from a law course and had nothing to do with polo. The consensus quickly settled around the idea that these were pages created for the tourist market, made earlier in the 20th century by street artists for hapless foreign visitors looking for an authentic-looking memento from their visit to Iran.

In other words, I had paid sixty dollars for the equivalent of souvenir shop posters.

PRECISELY!

Looking at the pages now, I don’t know what I was thinking. Maybe the hand-painting tempted me. Perhaps it was their exoticness. Whatever it was, it wasn’t fingerspitzengefühl[1]. Now they serve as my reminder that while it’s good to try new things as a dealer, a bookseller is not a gambler. We don’t place bets. We make investments. Some pay off (most one hopes), some don’t. These images hang on my wall to help me remember that if from the buyer’s point-of-view the market should never be caveat emptor, from the dealer’s it should never be purely a roll of the dice. Yes, take risks. But have some background, be building off something. One of my mistake was starting from total ignorance.

My other mistake, much like my error with Wyeth and Christina’s World, was that I didn’t look at what I had. At the Colorado Antiquarian Book Seminar one of the first things they discuss with students is when preparing to catalogue a book, examine it carefully and ask yourself “What is it exactly that I have here?” If it seems too obvious a question, it’s not. The question is meant to force you to step back and look at the material as objectively as possible. To actually see what it what it is you have in front of you. My errors reflected my own hopes and expectations, not the items at hand. The answer in both cases had been right there for me to see had I only looked closely.

The story doesn’t quite end there, however. A week later, I received an email from another bookseller:

Hello Brian.

Today I saw your query and nearly fell out of my office chair. For 30-40 years I have owned a framed page that is to my eye from the same manuscript.

Your description was right on. I have 3 horsemen. They are playing polo (or possibly the Afgan version, which I think is called buzkazi). It reminds me of Persian miniatures I have seen, so I thought the language might be Farsi, which uses the Arabic alphabet.

Your query has given me the impetus to do my own research. I realize that I know some people who might be able to read this. If I learn anything I will let you know.

Small world, is it not?

At least I was not alone.

[1]: A German term loosely translated as “finger feel.” A bookseller’s gut, his/her “spidey sense.”

Blinded: On Being Wrong Part II

He was a dealer I didn’t know. His stock – a melange of subjects, dates, and conditions – suggested that he was something of a picker, a bookscout at heart. His stock lacked both focus and discrimination. Disbound 19th century religious tracts sat beside modern firsts piled next to old copies of LIFE magazine. But what he lacked in quality he made up for in salesmanship. The man could talk. Touch a book and he’d tell you something about it. Open one and he’s take it from your hands, look at the price and give you a better one. His was the kind of booth I both loved and hated. Spend half an hour, and it could be just so much crap. Or you could emerged with the find of a fair.

He was short and compact. A little round. Spoke with a vague accent and smelled of smoke. From the neck up he looked like a professor or European intellectual: thinning hair combed neatly back over the head, designer horn-rimmed glasses. But from the shoulders down, he was all huckster. Wrinkle-free slacks, polyester shirt, and black sneakers disguised as dress shoes.

I wandered in and scanned his books. He schmoozed nearby. I touched nothing, careful not to draw his attention, and was almost relieved when I found nothing for me among the heaps.

Then in a table-top suitcase display I saw a scrapbook. There was no catalogued description, only an handwritten index card: “Helen Keller School Scrapbook.” The case was locked and only two pages were visible. I saw a real photo postcard of Helen Keller. I saw an image of Keller surrounded by young women. I saw a graduation program.

“Tell me about this,” I said.

He opened the case and took out the album. “This is an album put together a young woman at a school for the deaf and blind in the midwest where Helen Keller was also a student. It’s her class scrapbook.” He turned the pages and pointed out a few more images of Keller. Then he flipped back to the original page and pointed. “I could sell this image alone for a thousand bucks,” he said.

I took the album from him. He continued to narrate. Snapshots of classes, buildings, activities. The sort of scrap one would expect from a school album, but fascinating as an uncommon view into the education of the disabled in the early part of the 20th century. Significant on its own, but the hook was clearly Keller.

“How much?” I asked.

“Five thousand.”

I nodded. Perhaps too enthusiastically.

“Net.” he added.

Crap.

Net meant no discount, no negotiation. It was more than I was prepared or able to spend. I handed the scrapbook back.

“Let me make a quick phone call,” I said.

Most dealers have a few trusted booksellers with whom they tend to partner on books, books they otherwise couldn’t afford or for which they might not have a ready customer. A few minutes later a friend and colleague was in the booth, standing between me and the dealer. The dealer gave him the same pitch. And the same price. My friend raised an eyebrow and glanced at me.

“Yeah, okay. We’ll take it,” he said.

“I’ll put it under the counter.”

Back at my booth, drafts of the catalogue description began forming in my mind. I made note of special collections where I should offer the album. And I won’t lie, I began imagining prices. Big ones.

But as I imagined, questions began to nag at me. Why (and how) would a blind student make a scrapbook? Maybe for a parent? With a teacher? Maybe it it didn’t belong to a student? Perhaps a sighted faculty member or administrator? And in the pictures, why did Keller seem so much older than the other students?

The questions were only half-formed, but a short while later I returned to the booth. The other dealer smiled and pulled the album from under a tablecloth. He frowned when he understood I hadn’t returned with his check. But he confirmed everything he’d told me before. Student scrapbook. Classmate of Keller. Provenance? From the family.

I nodded and went back to my booth. But still something wasn’t making sense. Not only was Keller older than the students, she also would have already been quite famous at the time the pictures were taken. Indeed, the album bore this out. The images of her were given prominent placement. In them she was often surrounded my many people eager for her attention. Did Keller go to school after the success of her autobiography? That didn’t make a lot of sense to me.

I opened my laptop and fired up Google. Nothing about the school on Keller’s Wikipedia page. Exact phrase searches for Keller’s and the school’s names yielded nothing. But further reading confirmed: the scrapbook dated from after Keller’s autobiography. Something was wrong.

I again brought my questions to the dealer. Again, he stuck to his story, but with obvious and growing frustration. “It’s all online,” he barked. “That’s where I found it. You’re not looking in the right place. No, I don’t remember where.”

Giving him – for the time being at least – the benefit of my now considerable doubt, I sought out my partner. And after some discussions and further Googling, we agreed.

“Maybe he’s right, but ditch it for now,” he said. “And let’s see if we can turn something up tonight when we have more time.”

Back at the dealer’s booth, he was nowhere to be found. I asked his neighbor in the next booth.

“He’s having a smoke,” he said.

“Can you let him know I need to see him?”

Forty-five minutes later I was back. Again, the booth was unmanned.

“Lunch,” the other dealer explained this time.

An hour after that I finally found him.

“You have my check?” he asked.

“Listen,” I said, pulling him aside. “You’re probably right, but I’ve talked to my partner and we still have some questions about the piece. So we’re going to do some more research tonight, but in the meantime you should put the item back out for sale…”

“What!?” he barked.

“We…”

“You call yourself a professional!?” He was yelling now.

“There…”

“I could have sold the book in the meantime!”

“Well I’ve been trying to find you for almost two hours…”

“Get out! You disgust me. Get out of my booth!”

People were looking. I shook my head. As I walked away, I could hear him muttering behind me.

I still see him every year at the same fair. He avoids my glance and rushes past me. After talking to other dealers I discovered he’s often unpleasant with customers and dealers. But I’ve never returned to his booth. And I never will. But it’s not because he lost his temper. Or even that he insulted me. It’s because when a dealer places a book for sale, the burden is on him or her to properly document it — its edition, condition, history, provenance, importance. And when mistakes are made (as they sometimes are), to accept responsibility for them and make them right. The fatal error my colleague made was not how he treated me. It’s that he hadn’t properly catalogued the book and when challenged couldn’t or wouldn’t support his claims. He may have even been right; or I may have misunderstood. But the book business should never be caveat emptor.

Coincidentally, during that same fair I bought an item from my almost-partner on the Keller scrapbook. It was a thin, fragile little issue of a rare 19th-century serial. Months later when I finally got around to cataloguing it, I realized that it was not a first printing as my colleague had claimed, but rather a fourth – in fact, the later date was clearly printed on the cover. But even in this later state the book was rare. So I decided to keep it. But the next time I saw my friend I took a certain pleasure at ribbing him about his mistake, especially since the correct information had been staring him right in the face.

“Well,” he said slightly embarrassed, “if you can’t sell it you can always return it.” He was joking a bit, but I also knew he meant it.

That’s how the book business is supposed to work.

Often In Error, Never In Doubt: On Making Mistakes

My mother often says about me, whenever I make a mistake: “Often in error, never in doubt.” And she’s right. Like some blundering, clueless military officer straight out of Gilbert and Sullivan, when I make an error I usually do so with the utmost confidence (“PRECISELY!”).

I’ve been thinking about mistakes lately. As I mentioned previously (and as briefly as possible), Michael Stillman at Americana Exchange in his review of my catalogue five, pointed out an error in one of my descriptions for all the (admittedly tiny bookselling) world to see. Here he is calling me on my bullshit:

Item 70 is a copy of Gerard Malanga’s Cristinas World Im(media)cy Poemworks, published in 1970. Malanga is a poet, photographer, and filmmaker who worked with Andy Warhol in the 1960s. This book of poems comes with a long inscription from the author. He notes that it was written near Chadds Ford, Pennsylvania, home to painter Andrew Wyeth. This partly explains the book’s title, similar to that of Wyeth’s most famous painting, though he left the “h” out of Christina. Malanga writes that Cristina was intimate with the Wyeth children, and “Cristina is very much her own person – singular, heady, beautiful. She turns 24 this month.” I am a bit perplexed by this one. Christina Olson, the subject of Wyeth’s painting, was unable to walk, and consequently crawled through the fields surrounding her Maine home, explaining the painting. However, she would have been 77 years old at the time of Malanga’s letter had she not died a few years earlier. Perhaps there was another Cristina associated with Wyeth, or he is simply referring to the painting, then 22 not 24 years old.

Stillman was kind enough to stop there, leaving the impression that it was Malanga who made the error. Unfortunately, if the poet made a mistake, he was not alone. Here is the relevant portion of my catalogue description, which Stillman did not quote:

Collection of poems written to/about the woman who posed for Wyeth’s most enduring painting. She and Malanga were intimate at the time.

PRECISELY!

And while I can appreciate the black humor of inadvertently suggesting necrophilic tendencies on Malanga’s part, I was baffled after reading the review how I made so obvious an error. I’m not exactly a fan of Wyeth, but I thought I was somewhat knowledgeable about the artist and the Wyeth family, at least enough not to miscalculate by decades. I’ve handled many books with the eldest Wyeth’s illustrations, and many others by or about one or another of the exceptionally artistic Wyeth clan. My college roommate was even from Chadds Ford, PA where the family lived. I often visited in the summer. My friend would point out the infamous Helga at the pharmacy. We’d go to the Wyeth Museum.

So where did I go wrong? Well, first, the dealer I bought the piece from, while not making the claims that I did, had written their description in such a way that I inferred it when I read their catalogue. Similarly, Malanga’s wording implies, if not read closely, a larger connection to the painting than exists.

So my mistakes were based on faulty assumptions and superficial readings. The more interesting question is why. And when I consider this question, I have two answers. The first is that I thought of myself as someone who knows a reasonable amount about Wyeth. So though I got timelines confused, the story I created fit together so well that I didn’t think to question it or investigate it further. The second, and more troubling reason, is that the story made the inscription that much more interesting. In other words, if I’m honest, I wanted what I wrote to be true.

And what’s toughest for me about realizing this is that the two qualities dealers need to be good at this profession – knowledge and imagination – are exactly what got me into trouble. I think it’s clear that rare book dealers succeed or fail based on their knowledge. But what is less understood is what a role imagination and creativity play as well. A skilled dealer makes connections where others have not, placing materials in new contexts, envisioning new and different markets. With Cristinas World I was making what I thought was a connection others had missed. I thought I was teasing out a story. I was wrong.

Spend any amount of time with book dealers and they will be happy to tell you stories about their great finds and regale you with the details of their most interesting stock. I certainly do this. But for the next several posts on Biblioblography I’d like to write about the other side of being a bookseller: the mistakes, blunders, and errors, my own as well as those from other dealers I’ve encountered.

Because a dealer who’s not making errors is one who’s not trying new things. But a dealer who can’t admit them is one to avoid.

CBGB’s Long-Lost Sitcom

Here’s something from a nearly forgotten corner of punk rock history. It’s an original 22-page typescript treatment from about 1981 for a half-hour situation comedy centered around legendary punk nightclub CBGB’s.

Let me say that again because even having held it in my hands it’s kind of hard to wrap my mind around: a sitcom set in CBGB’s.

I stumbled across it at the New York Antiquarian Book Fair in April and knew as soon as I saw it that I had to have it. I bought it with my colleague Ian Kahn, but unfortunately (or fortunately depending on how you look at it[1]), it sold before I had a chance to really enjoy it. But like an ornithologist (see footnote below), I wanted to record the sighting of this “rare bird.”

The treatment was almost certainly penned by club owner Hilly Kristal, and on the one hand it may be one of the least punk items ever to come out his Bowery establishment. But it’s not quite as ridiculous a concept as it sounds on first hearing. Reading the treatment, it’s likely Kristal had in mind the success of other workplace comedies like TAXI. And I can imagine the pitch in that light: “It’s TAXI with music.” It’s clear Hilly hoped to incorporate performances into the show, with different acts (no doubt recruited from the actual club) appearing each week. And considering this is the same year MTV debuted there is something rather clever and forward-thinking about the idea. Still, it’s enough to make Sid Vicious roll over in his grave.

The typescript contains five 2-3 page plot summaries for proposed episodes. The titles of these explain clearly enough the path this show likely would have followed: “The New Burglar Alarm,” “Susannah Forgets to Pay the Rent,” “CBGB’S Vs. The Second Street Block Association,” “The Runaway,” and “CBGB’s Recovers Stolen Equipment.”

It appears not much ever came of Hilly’s idea. A Billboard Magazine article from the time reports Kristal planned to play himself and that filming was to commence on July 23rd 1981. The first episode was allegedly set to air just a week later on local access cable (“We’re awaiting syndication,” Krystal explains optimistically). Describing (damning with faint praise?) the project as “the first rock ‘n’ roll situation comedy on cable television,” the article goes on:

“There will always be a plot, though a simple plot” says Kristal. “It will be about what happens in the club, or what could happen. For instance, one could show the girl in charge of the day, busy with the sound checks and bands waiting to see me. I come in later. The one thing leads to another. Some of those waiting leave, some have too much to drink, some meet and make love. And then they realize they have been here for 12 hours and they still haven’t seen me. Then there will be subplots.”

Uh-huh.

I found no evidence that any episodes were actually produced or aired. And given Hilly’s meandering synopsis and the program’s rather naive production schedule, this is not terribly surprising. But while it may be easy to make fun of the idea or to dismiss it as an attempt to cash-in on punk’s successes, there is something of punk’s DIY spirit evident here, a certain innocent “just get out there and do it” vibe that is true to punk’s origins[2].

Otherwise my guess is this is one of only a few (and possibly only) remnants of the show. OCLC turns up nothing similar among library holdings and a more detailed search of the major institutional collections of punk rock and the downtown scene failed to yield even a hint of this unusual endeavor. This has been remedied, however. As you read this, the typescript has found itself a perfect home at an appropriate special collections department. For internet posterity, I’ve scanned a selection of pages from the typescript to help give a better sense of what the sitcom might have been like:

And if anyone happens to know anything more about this project, please leave a comment or drop me a line.

KRYSTAL [Kristal], Hilly. C.B.G.B. & O.M.F.U.G.: A Half-Hour Situation Comedy. NYC: n.p., n.d. [ca. 1981]. First Edition. 4to. 22-page original typsescript with title sheet (on CBGB letterhead) in plain orange spring-clamp binder. Some lines deleted with white-out; one variant passage tipped to one page (old text legible beneath). Paperclip impression to first two and last leaves. Rust offsetting form spring-clamp to same. Else fine. If you’re looking for the end of punk, this is it. Original treatment for TV comedy based on the legendary Bowery club that served as the cornerstone of the American punk rock scene. Conceived by Kristal (and apparently penned by him as well), this treatment described the cast of characters and the club, and provides plots for several potential shows (stolen equipment, a runaway, complaints from block association, etc.). Meant to resemble a workplace comedy like TAXI, but with music interludes from bands that made CBGB’s famous (Ramones specifically mentioned in one episode). Though we find no record of any shows having been produced or aired, a 1981 Billboard article describes Hilly’s plans for show which he hoped to begin airing on local cable and then expand to “syndication.” OCLC finds no holdings. Punk is dead. Long live punk. -SOLD-

[1] A colleague I respect has compared dealing rare books to ornithology. Like birds, most of the books you see are rather ordinary and common, but what gets you excited and what keeps you going are the unexpected finds (or sightings), the rarities. Like the bird watcher, the dealer simply notes what they have and moves along. We do not keep what we find; we are not hunters. Collectors are hunters. Dealers catch and release, catch and release. It’s a useful way of thinking about the business.

[2]If there’s a video of this laying about somewhere god I hope someone will upload it to YouTube.

Out of Our Coma: Catching Up

OK, I may have spoken too soon when almost a year ago I said I wasn’t dead yet. Not dead perhaps, but at least in a coma. Well, I have officially awoken from my extended sleep.

So, in order to get the ball re-rolling here at Biblioblography, allow me to bring readers up-to-date with the going-on here at Brian Cassidy, Bookseller.

First, for reasons known only to them, this past September The Washington Post ran a profile of me and my business for their Sunday magazine’s First Person Singular column. The cheesy staged photo and a few small misquotes aside (“In a room full of established book dealers, I’m always the youngest by at least 20 years” … Um, “often” perhaps. But not “always.” And not by 20 years), it was fun to do and I was (largely) pleased with results.

It’s also been a great year for book fairs. For the second year in a row I exhibited at the Baltimore Summer Book and Antiques Fair. And for a second year it was a solid event. I’ll be back again in my regular booth (#908) come August (the 25th-28th to be exact). I also exhibited at our first Boston Antiquarian Book Fair, which was exceptional. As I do elsewhere, I shared a booth with Lux Mentis and a grand time was had by all. Indeed, Ian has a good wrap-up (with images from our booth, including this charming one of yours truly) here. Again, I’ll be back come fall.

And of course, there was the New York Antiquarian Book Fair. Easily our best fair ever on all fronts. As I spent almost all my time there with Ian anyway, I will simply point you again to his excellent summaries here, here, here, and here. Good reading, good pix.

I also finally have a Facebook page. Go ahead and “like” me. No really. Go now. Go. Now. And don’t forget I also tweet.

More recently, I issued our fifth catalogue (which you can also browse on our website). There’s been some nice coverage in the blogosphere and elsewhere online:

Fine Books and Collections
Americana Exchange (who found an embarrassing mistake)
Booktryst I
Booktryst II

And finally, I’d also like to announce that I recently took over the editorship of The Standard, the online newsletter of the Independent Online Booksellers Association. Our first issue in more than two years is just out:

http://www.ioba.org/standard/

So that should bring the handful of readers still with me up to speed. Much more to come though. Book reviews, scouting reports, cool items from stock, and other assorted bookish scribblings and opinings.