The Colorado Antiquarian Book Seminar is an invaluable week-long educational event in August for booksellers, librarians and collectors.
Attendees learn about buying and selling books on the Internet, the auction market for antiquarian books, care and preservation of antiquarian books, pricing and appraisals, and compiling catalogues and online descriptions – and these are just a few of the topics covered during the week.
On September 11, 2001, I called my boss at a bookstore in Olympia, Washington, and told her I wouldn't be coming back. My vacation among the ancient redwoods in Humboldt County, California, would be extended. Permanently.
A week earlier I had pointed my truck toward Northern California, inspired by the late Judi Bari's Timber Wars, a book about Bari's work to preserve California's last remnants of old growth forest as well as the jobs of the loggers. An assassination attempt on Bari's life in 1990 had maimed but failed to kill her, though she died seven years later.
September 11 affected everyone differently. For me, I decided to stop reading about the forest and do something to help protect the 2,000 year-old redwoods I had fallen in love with during my short vacation.
After six months of learning the ropes on the ground, I hoisted myself 130 feet up into an old growth redwood five miles outside Eureka, California, and perched in its branches in an effort to put myself between the chainsaws and just one tree. My feet didn't touch the ground again for a year.
There's not a lot to do 13 stories up but watch the seasons turn, bear witness to the steady work of loggers cutting down trees, and, of course, read. I passed many hours with books like You Can't Be Neutral on a Moving Train by Howard Zinn and Ed Abbey's Monkey Wrench Gang.
Before this time I had spent most of my adult life working in bookstores of all stripes - from small, funky independents to big chain stores, and among new books and used books as well.
Working with books and the smart people who read them made the world seem within reach. It's satisfying to learn what a book has to teach, or to marvel at the effect some books had on a generation. I'll never forget my first encounter with Be Here Now by Ram Dass. It's odd shape, brown pages, and strange price ($13.13) "tripped me out," as Ram might say.
My passion for bookselling goes beyond the books themselves. For me it's the whole package. Booksellers have the rare pleasure of bringing order to a chaotic world: we categorize and organize and alphabetize and then we (or, at least, I) feel better. But life is never as orderly as a well-tended bookshelf.
Ten years after quitting a bookstore for the trees I'm back in the business at Eureka Books, an antiquarian store in Old Town Eureka, California, learning to catalog rare books and identify first editions.
As for the tree, it still stands and is relatively safe now that the company that claimed it went bankrupt. Writing this essay reminded me that I was in the middle of reading Pat Conroy's Prince of Tides when they came to pull me out of the tree. I never got it back, but maybe I should pick it up again.
I just opened a small hole in the wall bookstore selling used, rare, antiquarian, and generally odd or unusual books. It’s called Underground Books, as the space is literally underground, down a few steps on my city’s historic downtown square. I’m just over two months in, and I’m loving it. This has been a lifelong dream of mine and I’m finally living it. For a couple of years I’ve been buying books at yard sales, auctions, library and estate sales, and selling them online. Since I’ve opened an actual “brick and mortar” retail location, people have been crawling out of the woodwork with old and rare books to try to sell me. This has shown me in a short time how little I actually know and that I am wildly ill-prepared for the world of antiquarian books.
I’ve been a book fanatic since I was young, and have a long list of books that have really moved me at different times in my life. The one book I can really point to as having pushed me over the edge to chase my dream of being a full-time bookseller would be Rob Brezsny’s Pronoia is the Antidote to Paranoia: How the Whole World is Conspiring to Shower You with Blessings. The book is a sort of silly tongue-in-cheek self-help/new age guide to living a full life. It delivers many of the same messages typical of the genre, but does so in a brilliantly self-effacing, humorous, “don’t take yourself too seriously” delivery. It is a large coffee table style book that is easy to flip to any page and be delighted, entertained, and challenged in a way that no trite Chicken Soup or Celestine Prophecy drivel will. I just randomly opened to page 102 which is a worksheet/activity called “Hype-ocalypse: rank your favorite doomsday scenarios in order of preference,” which is a list of 30 ways the world is popularly expected to end. The book is filled with activities like this that ask you to stare at the darkness in the world and yourself in humorous ways. But enough of these still eventually can move you to think to yourself “hey, idiot, you’re not here that long, quit wasting your life on crap you don’t care about and go for what you really want, damn the consequences!”
So I opened a bookstore. It’s really an elaborate excuse to sustain my book habit. While Pronoia is the book that convinced me to take the plunge and become a full time bookseller, the type of books I like to collect the most are one such as in AbeBooks’s weird book room. I’ve been blown away by how well weird books as art objects do in the store. I really believe that as a greater percentage of books go to digital/e-reader formats, the more the aesthetic of books as objects will be valued. The copies of How to be Happy, Though Married and How to Survive a Robot Uprising that I got in AbeBooks’s weird book room didn’t last 2 hours on the shelves before getting snatched up by a strange book hound hungry for an out-of-the ordinary title.
So, cheers to chasing dreams and buying weird books! Or as Rob Brezsny says, “may you get what you want, and still want it!”