The making of catalogs is on my mind tonight. I just put my own nineteenth catalog to bed — it left for the printer’s an hour ago, a massive thing by my standards; over a hundred pages, just shy of two hundred-fifty items, all pictured. Research and cataloguing aside, lots of work goes into a catalog like that. The last two weeks at Lorne Bair Rare Books have been spent frantically photographing, photo-editing, laying-out, and proofreading. None of which I would describe as traditional “booksellerly” vocations — in fact, I’m not sure a single new book has gotten catalogued around here in the interval — but there we are. The New Antiquarian (if I may be so bold) finds himself going to great lengths these days to sell a book.
Not that there’s anything “new” about rare book catalogs! For a few hundred years they were the standard medium through which antiquarian books were distributed. But then (you’ve heard this one before) came the internet. Not everyone stopped printing catalogs when on-line bookselling came to prominence, but many did. Those of us who continued putting them out were looked on with a bit of suspicion by some of our more progressive colleagues, as though we weren’t quite getting with the program. Now, it seems, there’s a bit of a resurgence in printed catalogs — I’m seeing more of them lately, many from dealers new to the scene. Clearly there’s something up.
I’m not certain exactly how many of my colleagues issue printed catalogues, but I’m certain the numbers are still way down from fifteen or twenty years ago. That’s a shame on a number of levels (some of which I’ll talk about below) but it’s also understandable: printed catalogs are an expensive pain to produce, and inessential now (some would argue) since the Internet provides a more efficient means of putting books in front of millions of customers, practically free of cost. And yet some few of us continue to churn out catalogs, of varying degrees of elaborateness and quality, two, three, four or more times a year. Even simple catalogs are time-consuming and expensive to produce and mail. And they reach, at best, a few hundred customers at a time. Why do we do it?
Scoffers will say that printed catalogs are the last great vanity publishing project, a last refuge for failed poets, proselytizers, and would-be novelists who drifted into the book business because, upon realizing they’d never publish a book of their own, decided that selling someone else’s books was the next best thing. And into the antiquarian book business in particular because the new book business just wasn’t exotic enough to satisfy their vanity. Where I’m concerned, at least, the scoffers would be right on all counts, though I’ll leave it to others to decide whether I was ever a good enough poet, proselytizer, or novelist to call myself a proper failure at any of them.
Yet vanity, though she may lead us into the finest of mansions in our minds, does nothing to pay the rent. There’s got to be more to it than that, and there is.
The decline of the printed rare book catalog has accompanied the decline of the open bookshop — both of these phenomena of course attributable to the simultaneous ascendancy of the internet. What this twin killing has deprived us of is the opportunity to browse — and browsing, I would argue, has long been integral to the way booksellers learn their craft and collectors discover their calling. One of the great things about the universe of books, one of the things that I think leads many of us to dwell here, is this ever-existing potential for discovery: on a bookshelf (or in a catalog) one never knows what’s around the corner. It’s an endless game of chance encounters and felicitous juxtapositions.
The internet on the other hand, though endless, is uniquely unsuited to this kind of discovery: the juxtapositions are often anything but felicitous, and the encounters are not chance but rather random. In the morass of data that comprise the web, one must know what one is looking for or else be doomed, like the crew of a death ship, to endless wandering. So while the internet is terrific at reinforcing all the things we already know, it’s really weak at facilitating discovery and helping us expand our horizons (unless we like our horizons made up of cute cat videos and hacked celebrity cell-phone pics — in which case we’ve truly entered a new Golden Age).
So, catalogs (and bookshops) do something the internet simply can’t: they provide a way of presenting and explaining material that no one previously had any idea existed or knew they wanted. For me—a bookseller who specializes in material few collectors have ever seen or heard of before—this aspect of discovery is extremely important. And my revenues bear this out: catalog sales accounted for about 50 percent of my business last year. The internet accounted for less than 10 percent. No one, or practically no one, it seems, knows I exist in the e-verse.
There may be fewer catalogs these days, but the ones I see are pretty good looking, especially compared to (most of) those of yesteryear. They’re more visual, certainly — it’s as rare to see an un-illustrated catalog these days as it was to see one with pictures back in the mid-nineties, when I got into this business—and, by and large, they’ve become a good deal wordier than the catalogs of the not-so-distant past. To be honest, looking at some of those old booksellers’ catalogs, even those issued by my most illustrious forbears, I’m not entirely sure this is such a bad thing. Here, for instance, is the entire exegesis provided by the legendary Edward Eberstadt for a rare 1865 Dakota Territorial imprint, offered in 1964 for the princely sum of $250:
Allen 26. Report on the progress of the Sioux War in Dakota and Montana; immigration into the Territory; wagon road through Dakota to Virginia City; road to Fort Conner on Powder River; proposal for a railroad to the gold fields of Idaho; Pacific railroad to California. 8vo, printed wrappers.
Now, the great Eberstadt handled more good books in a year than I will in a lifetime of bookselling, and his catalogs continue to be highly regarded for their bibliographical rigor and for the amazing rarities they contain. Still, $250 in 1964 dollars translates to something over $3,000 in 2014 dollars, and while in fairness I’m not sure how much really needs to be said to sell an 1865 government report with a Yankton imprint, I am quite sure that, were I offering the same item today in one of my catalogs, and asking a few thousand dollars for it, I would need to lavish more than a minimal paragraph (sans any condition description, you notice) to get it sold. And, of course, there’d be a picture. Maybe even two.
In addition to being wordier, today’s catalogs strike me as on the whole more imaginative. They have to be — there’s no established canon of rarity any more. In 1964 a Dakota territorial imprint could sell itself. These days, it seems most of the people (and institutions) who wanted to own examples of Dakota territorial printing already own them. The search for new and novel rarities — things no one’s thought of collecting before — grows ever more inventive. I find this pursuit delightful, reflective of the amazing variety of imagination and expertise on display in the rare book profession. In the past couple of years catalogs have crossed my desk offering punk flyers from Cleveland; nineteenth-century sexual advice literature; an entire catalog of mistakes; prison narratives (okay, full disclosure - that one was mine!), and a host of other accumulations of printed items which once would have been thought too minor to bother with but which, transformed by research, presentation, and context, demand to be seen in a different light.
Which, in the end, is why I think we’re experiencing this little renaissance in the printed book catalog these past few years. The established rarities, the ones everyone knows about — what my brilliant friend Nina Musinsky would call “the common rare book” — these are the sorts of books for which the internet would be the ideal medium, if anyone wanted them any more. But more and more, collectors are seeking out the obscure, the sublime, the unique — and for these things the internet is practically useless.
The obscure, the sublime, the unique: thank goodness such things such still exist, and that there are still people looking for them. And hallelujah, I say, for the catalog. May its renaissance usher in a whole new millennium of bookselling…just like the old one.