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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.

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