Cataloging a Boring Collection

Like everyone, some days are better for me than others.  As a tangent to that, some collections we acquire are better than others.  We recently acquired a fabulous collection of sporting books, primarily hunting and fishing.  This type of collection is a real boon.  Specialty non-fiction is our best-selling stock and the life-blood of an internet bookseller.  We dabble in textbooks, of course, where the quick profits can be had a few times a year, but super specific and esoteric knowledge collected into small print-runs by tiny specialty publishers are where we tend to make bank.

In general, these collections are really interesting to catalog.  I loved cataloging the Easton Estate collection.  Robert Easton was a Hollywood dialect coach and actor who specialized in accents.  He collected books in English written in dialect and he collected books about language and linguistics.  His collection was fascinating, especially since I’m an amateur linguist and lover of wordplay (my personal reading tendencies are for books about linguistics and I tend to listen to podcasts about linguistics while I work).  I quite enjoyed the challenge of cataloging the collection of Dr. Michel Philappart, who began collecting books as a child in WWII Belgium and who had quite a few extremely valuable and rare works in his collection, mainly in French.  For example, a true first edition of Les Misérables by Victor Hugo and several very important medical texts were among his collection.  I remember the Kehoe collection of aphorisms and quotes fondly, too, and there have been several interesting collections from smaller estates that were interesting just for their novelty.

The current collection I’m working on, however, interests me not one bit.  I’ve tried, but paging through the books I’m more apt to grimace in disgust than to dig through the internet for more information about the topic.  Yes, it is the aforementioned collection of sporting books.  They range in topic from African big game hunting, to venison cookbooks, to training turkey hunting dogs, to making fishing lures, to bow-hunting, birding, grouse, bear, bucks… I’m not one to disparage anyone for their hobbies, since I have a few doozies of my own, but I just do not understand the appeal.  Going outside?  Without internet?  Where there are bugs and… nature?!  Not for me!  So, cataloging this collection has been a bit of a bore, and has also left me with a disinclination to take pictures of the books to fill up our Instagram account.  While these might be great sellers for us (we’ve been selling them almost as fast as we’ve been able to list them online), I’ll be happy to go back to digging through our backlog of antiquarian medical texts, or French philosophy, or architecture.  Or basically anything.  While all books are interesting to SOMEONE, I think I’ll pass on the hunting and fishing stories.

The value of an association copy.

As a seller of older books, I can’t help but come across remnants of the lives of the people who’ve owned the books before.  From ticket stubs, to photographs, to inscriptions, the ephemera of a life that has touched a book can also add value to a book.  One of the collections of books we acquired once belonged to a Hollywood publicist named Barrett Kiesling.  Kiesling had been the publicity director of MGM Studios and worked with many of the great names in the movie industry, most notably Cecil B. DeMille, who mentioned Kiesling in his autobiography.  An avid book collector and autograph hound, Kiesling used his contacts in the industry to amass a vast collection of signed books, many of which have the letters between the collector and the author tucked into them.  That evidence of a connection to another person is what people love about autographed copies.

Recently, I came across the biography of Jackie Gleason, a noted comedian.  An inscription in the book from the author was addressed to John.  The signature of the author made the book worth something but, in general, an inscription addressed to a specific person lowers the value of a signed copy.  Collectors usually want a flat-signed book with no inscription, or at most a generic inscription.  However, tucked into the back of the book was a letter from a Hollywood agent, addressed to their client, one John Candy, and dated shortly before Candy was to be in a documentary about one of his comedic inspirations, Gleason.  That implies a tangible connection between author, subject of the book, and owner of the book.  I held in my hands a book that had once been held and read by someone famous.  As a bookseller, my only option was to price up the copy, of course!

One of the coolest association copies I’ve ever encountered was a 5-volume set by P. & T. Corneille.  The set was unremarkable; 48mo, damaged leather, a not very important work… but the bookplates!  Each of the five books had the armorial bookplate of François Claude Amour, marquis de Bouillé, a royal supporter during the French Revolution and the only person mentioned by name in the the French national anthem.  How cool!  I imagine the marquis escaping France after failing to smuggle out the royal family with this set of books packed among his meager belongings, first to Prussia and then on to England.  But the marquis is only the start of the story, because volume 1 of the set also contained the bookplate of Countess Bernardine Murphy Donahue.  She was the adopted daughter of oil tycoon Daniel Murphy and his wife, Antoinette.  While on vacation to Europe to adopt a son, they were leaving an orphanage in Italy when she tugged at Antoinette’s dress. Believing it was a sign from God, the Murphys adopted her. Bernardine was a collector of rare and antiquarian books, as well as a generous patron of charities and the Roman Catholic Church.  Pope John XXIII made Bernardine a papal countess in 1960.  I’ve held in my hands a connection to both of those remarkable people.  You could, too, by the way… that set hasn’t sold yet.

Getting Started

Let me tell you… getting started selling stuff on your own website is a lot more complicated than the pitch-men make it out to be.

The concept of Easy Street Rare Books came from my recent attendance at CABS, the yearly Colorado Antiquarian Book Seminar this last July.  Some of the other booksellers there ran their websites through Bibliopolis and had nothing but good things to say about them as a web developer and hosting company specialized in the book trade.  The functionality of our website is all them and I think they did a good job.

There are a lot of obstacles to overcome, though.  For example, we use an inventory management system called Monsoon to catalogue our books and we didn’t want to switch to the tools that Bibliopolis provides, since that would require re-indexing over half .  Monsoon is for general inventory, not just books, so there are is a lot of extraneous information in their files.  It took a bit to figure out how to configure our uploads to the website so they didn’t come out looking like a long stream of nonesense.

Another issue was working on a gateway between our bank and the website to be able to accept credit cards, which necessitated adding another company into the mix in to securely transfer the funds when people (hopefully!!!) start buying books.  I am not at all savvy in the worlds of either technology or banking and trying to figure out everything I had to do to make this happen about made my head spin.

Finally, promoting the website to actually get people in here buying stuff is going to be my hardest challenge, I think.  I’m getting the managers of our four store locations to promote us on their Facebook pages, but our brick-and-mortar stores are all discount and modern books, so I’m worried there won’t be enough crossover interest in the antiquarian market.  I’ve also made an Istagram page and a Twitter account… but no followers yet.  Also, we’ll see how this blog does!

Wish me luck!