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Update from the Colorado Antiquarian Book Seminar

My colleague Maria Hutchison is AbeBooks.com’s account manager for our rare and antiquarian booksellers. This week, she is attending the 29th annual Colorado Antiquarian Book Seminar in Colorado Springs. It’s one of the key events in the rare book calendar. Here is her first update…..


The past two days have been completely action packed. There has been almost no time to think about anything other than books. It’s 10:30pm here and my day of classes has just finished. Lots of great ideas are being generated and everyone has been very welcoming…. “Are you the person from Abe? How do I……. ?” (just fill in the blank)

I arrived Sunday night and attended an opening address by Marty Manley, the CEO of Albris. He spent about an hour talking about the state of bookselling online and how Alibris will be evolving over the next several months and what new services they will roll out for their booksellers. Marty does not see the next major growth markets as China or India but instead sees the growth coming from women buyers. He encouraged booksellers to recognize women as a distinct market.

We started Day 1 – Monday with Rob Rulon-Miller (an AbeBooks seller, Rulon-Miller Books) reviewing the basics of book handling, a basic concept but crucial to maintaining the value of the books. Day 1 was for reviewing a lot of bookselling basics; selling on the Internet, selling in a used or out-of-print bookshop, reference tools for the book trade, marketing your book business and technology for the book trade. Dan Gregory from Between the Covers gave two excellent presentations (marketing your book business and technology for the book trade). Dan is engaging and was able to answer just about any question booksellers threw at him. A piece of advice he offered to sellers that seemed to hit a chord with just about everyone was “Your goal should be to die without any books”. Everyone laughed but it illustrated the point that too many sellers hang on to books because they think there may be a better offer around the corner. We ended Monday with two half hour demonstration sessions, the first reviewing the art of book binding with Angela Scott, a conservator and custom bookbinder from Washington, DC. Learning to identify books goes beyond the obvious of author, title and publishing date. Identifying the cover type can bring added history to a book. Determining if it’s goat skin, calf skin, vellum, paper, cloth, linen etc.. all adds to the value and meaning of the book. The second session by Dan DeSimone was about identifying illustration methods in books; copper plates, steel plates, lithographs, relief, intaglio and serigraphs.

It was not easy to identify these books, to my eyes they all seemed to look the same, it was only when we started passing the books around, touching them and really feeling the different covers and looking closely at the illustrations and book plates that you could start to distinguish the difference in materials. It’s been reinforced over and over in the past two days that the only way to truly learn about books is to handle them over and over and over.

Day 2 – Tuesday was a pretty humbling day. We spent most of the morning with Terry Belanger, the Director of the Rare Book School. Terry is a professor at the University of Virginia and lectures on book-related topics. A little aside here… did you know that Laura Bush is a Librarian? What this has meant is that the Institute of Museum and Library Services offers 90 scholarships to the Rare Books School seminars offered throughout the year by the University of Virginia.

Today we discussed bibliographic descriptions and began writing our own book descriptions. The work that goes into writing descriptions is unbelievable. The amount of knowledge and experience needed to accurately describe and price a book cannot be learned in one day. It’s easy to see why antiquarian sellers get so frustrated when they see poor or inaccurate book descriptions on the Internet. Describing a book is not as easy as just writing down what you see in the book – you have to describe what you don’t see. What if there is no publishing date? What if there is no title page? You still need to identify the book and publishing date. It doesn’t really cut it to say “unknown”. This is where the vast collections of reference materials that most established booksellers have come into play. Again, bookseller knowledge and experience come into play here, you have to know which reference book to pick up, and there are hundreds of them! Sometimes you can find the information you need online but often the only place you can find an obscure reference is in a book.

To help us with finding bibliographic information online we worked with Dan DeSimone, Curator of the Rosenwald Collection at the Library of Congress. University libraries are probably one of the best resources booksellers can access in their communities for finding information about books and accessing national databases and bibliographic data. Some of the best advice for the library was “if you can’t find it, ask” Curators and librarians commonly see professors and researchers struggling to find the data they need, instead of just asking, the same goes for booksellers.

Terry also spent time today reviewing book formats, folio, quarto, octavo and duodecimo. We spent an hour folding paper and learning how these book pages are created, not easy and even more difficult to identify these in bound books.

An interesting fact I learned today… often booksellers come across books from the late 19th or early 20th century that have the title page missing. The reason for this is that families that fell on difficult financial times would sell their library but wouldn’t want buyers to know who had owned the book (especially if the family was prominent or well known). They would cut out the title page, which is where their names would have been inscribed.

We ended today with a visit to Hooked on Books (an AbeBooks seller) run by Mary Francis Ciletti. Mary and her husband have run this business for over 25 years and have close to 100,000 books. We just talked about what it was like for them, the pros/cons of running a bricks and mortar store. They love their store but said that if they were to enter bookselling today they would stick with online selling only. The hours are long and they work hard, physically hard from lifting books. What they do like is that their shop connects them to the community and it provides an easy way to acquire books, people come to them with books. A few highlights they mentioned; 80% of sales are to women, they donate large quantities of books to the military overseas (Colorado Springs is a big military town), gift cards are one of the best items they ever developed – it keeps buyers coming back to the store.

Our rare and antiquarian sellers are a remarkable group of people. What we see through AbeBooks is such a small part of what these people do.


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