Detail from illustration by Wendy Wees for =The Shell of Sense=.

Why Booksellers are Curmudgeons

The notorious letter from Catalog 20, 1996

by Jessica Amanda Salmonson


When I'm out hunting books for my catalog business, most sellers are delighted to see me, as I'm such an active buyer, a rare enough commodity for many a bookstore. But now & then there's a dealer scared to death I'm going to find a book worth hundreds of dollars that they've misspriced. I recently found a nice kids' book priced $3. At the cash register, a wounded-looking seller asked plaintively, "Have I made a terrible blunder & this is worth a lot of money?" He was relieved to learn, "It might be worth ten dollars to a specialist, but I doubt it." On another occasion, travelling afar, I enthused to a shopkeeper, "I've been looking for this collection for years!" Only 500 copies existed, but despite its rarity, it was not an author so in demand that the book was worth a great deal more than I paid, but the dealer did not interpret me correctly, seeming to have heard, "Boy, did you screw up pricing this one!" He bristled indignantly as he informed me, "It's been on the shelf for ten years, so it can't be worth much."

I do have to find a lot of books for which I can realistically increase the price, & the fact is, an obscure old occult tale is not worth much to a nonspecialist who might have it amidst a general stock forever at any price, high or low. But I've my limits, & I try not to take undue advantage of anyone. I used to make it habitual to mention if a book was particularly valuable so that a store owner could reprice it. But I was rarely thanked; they'd mostly act like I'd insulted their ability to run their own shop. I once found a book in a 10 give-away bin & said, "This is the Irish first by one of the key Dubliners, so you can't sell it for a dime." The disgruntled shopkeeper responded curtly, "That's right, I can't sell it at all." So I trundled home with a ten-cent Lennox Robinson.

I understood the dealer's sensitivity. I once had a book-scout guffawing loudly as he claimed to have gotten a $300 book off me for twenty dollars. More fool he. The dealer who'd listed it expensively (believing wrongly that he had exactly one customer who'd be sucker enough to pay too much for the subject matter) actually sold it to me in a big batch of unsold stock at $5 per book, & lucky to get so much. I didn't bother to say so, as it is the only pleasure some people will ever have, the belief they've just outwitted a squirrel. I'd like to have been there, though, when the braggy scout tried to sell that book to the very dealer who'd unloaded it on me.

Many bookhunters do strive exclusively to find blunders & would never pay even a fifth of a book's value. When I had my walk-in shop, one of the creepier types of customer would look for hours until finding the one item that had not been properly repriced, & demand to have it for the dollar I paid at a yard sale. There are all kinds of nincompoops who frequent used bookshops: individuals purporting to love poetry who have never bought a book of poetry; retired professors who, finding a captive shopkeeper, visit twice weekly to loudly expound two hours at a stretch upon boring topics studied fifty years ago (such professors having bought or read nothing since those days); smiling nitwits who say yours is the best bookstore they've ever been in as they leave empty-handed; garbagy antique mall dealers who pretend they're not dealers as they ask for pop-up books, Sambo, Oz, Burroughs, Wyeth, or the first edition Alcoholics Anonymous, but never buy any of these things if they're more than five dollars; illiterates who have absolutely no books in their homes but who must peer in at the door of every bookshop to ask if you have a copy of the one book their grandma read to them when they were four; thieves who try to sell you things they just snatched from another shopkeeper's stock; pinheads who angrily demand how I can ask $3 for a 1950s paperback that was only 45 new; mumbling crazies who riffle through every book, apparently in search of lost money or messages from God; pitiable buffoons begging you to stock copies of their self-published book (these types never even glance at books on shelves); & an endless parade of dumpster-divers trying to sell you shredded copies of last year's dumbest best sellers.

I laugh every time some starry-eyed naif tells me, "I'll have a used book store someday, with a fireplace & sofa in it," never guessing what hideous beings will hang out all day, probably leaving piss-stains on the sofa. So if some booksellers bristle at me (mistakenly I would like to believe), I realize what monstrous people daily molest their senses, creating yet another unforgiving curmudgeon where once sat someone sweetly naive. And I count my lucky stars that I now deal exclusively with enthusiasts & not with imbeciles!

Copyright 1996 by Jessica Amanda Salmonson


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