In a few days I’ll be heading out to Colorado Springs for my fifth tour of duty on the faculty of the Colorado Antiquarian Book Seminar. Hard as it is for me to believe that five years have passed since my first visit to CABS, as a guest lecturer in 2010, harder still must it be for those who were involved with it from the start — wonderful dealers like Ed Glaser and Mike Ginsberg — to realize that CABS has now been a continuously-running institution for almost forty years. In the interim enormous changes have taken place in the book trade, and some pretty big ones have taken place within the seminar, too. But one thing certainly hasn’t changed, and that is the Seminar’s central mission of providing booksellers, collectors, and librarians of all levels of experience with the most in-depth, intensive introduction to the antiquarian book trade that is currently available.
I wrote passionately about my belief in the seminar on my own blog a couple of years ago. I still believe, as I did then, that this week in Colorado is among the best and most exciting things I do in the world of books. The opportunity to open new dealers’ eyes to the enormous and ever-expanding range of possibilities this business has to offer is hugely gratifying, and each year I leave the seminar feeling better-informed, re-energized and re-committed to my own business. I also leave tired: it’s the most exhausting week of my year, harder even than New York Book Fair week (and that's saying something!), which is why I’m writing this blog post now instead of two weeks from now. Two weeks from now, if all goes well, I’ll be napping.
But CABS has never been without its critics. We’ve been accused, variously, of offering false encouragement — of failing to disclose to our seminarians just what a tough, unforgiving business this can be. We’ve been accused of turning out graduates with ambition out of proportion to their level of experience. We’ve even been accused of overpopulating an already overcrowded field and making things more difficult for already established dealers. Each of these criticisms has merits on its face — which is to say, I can imagine scenarios in which any of them might be true.
But they’re not true (you probably knew I was going to say that), and as these criticisms invariably come from people who have had no direct experience with CABS, they tend to get my protective hackles up. So I’m going to devote this blogpost to a brief, point-by-point defense of this institution, for almost forty years the only one of its kind in the world*, and hopefully along the way I’ll succeed in transmitting some of my passion for it to you. Lest you think I’m slaying paper tigers here, please take me at my word when I say that each of these attacks has been leveled in my presence, with minor variations, by fellow dealers at the highest levels of the trade, not once but often. Often enough, certainly, that I feel the misperceptions are general enough to deserve being addressed.
But before I get started, you know what else would be great? What would be great would be for some CABS graduates of years past — and there are a lot of them now, a surprisingly large number of them ABAA members — to weigh in, themselves, on these same points in the “Comments” section below. I’m confident their comments will do a better job of communicating the passion I’m talking about, and putting to rest the misgivings of some others in the trade, than all the testimony my own (admittedly self-interested) pen can muster.
So here, roughly in order of frequency (lowest to highest) are the three most common criticisms of CABS I encounter, with my rejoinders to each:
1. What business do we have encouraging would-be booksellers to think they can succeed, when more booksellers than ever are going out of business, victims of digitization, internet dilution, and a public which is increasingly disengaged from the physical book?
This profoundly doomish-and-gloomish perspective is, perhaps surprisingly, not strictly the province of old-timers in the trade. It’s widely shared among dealers both large and small who’ve watched their bread-and-butter business — the good, out-of-print, medium-rare book, which used to be the foundation of the antiquarian book trade — evaporate over the course of the past decade. Books which once were eminently salable in the $20-$200 range have become dead inventory for many of us, as their continued abundance on the internet has eroded the perception of scarcity, and with it any sense of urgency on the part of buyers.
Which is precisely the point, isn’t it? It would certainly be disingenuous for us to give the impression that bookselling is as easy, or as straightforward, as it was thirty years ago. It isn’t: now, more than ever, dealers entering the trade need to think freshly about what constitutes a viable inventory and how to go about acquiring the “right” kinds of books; how to add value to those books through research and good description; how to carve out an individual identity in the trade, and how to find good customers for the kinds of books they want to sell.
And that, in a nutshell, is what we teach at CABS, starting with the first sentence of the first lecture seminarians hear (spoiler alert, 2014 attendees!): I’m working harder now than I ever have, and making less money than I did 30 years ago. Many of the skills we teach, such as working with special collections libraries, cataloguing archives and other non-traditional materials, web marketing, photography — these simply weren’t in the repertoire of the average book dealer, even five or ten years ago (and still are not in the repertoire of the vast majority of freelance database listers, the ones whose listings comprise the overwhelming mass of books for sale on the major booksearch engines). Our entire message can be summed up in the statement: “It’s probably harder to succeed as a bookseller than at any time in the history of the trade, so if you’re going to do it you’ll need to know more, and work harder, than you ever imagined you would.”
2. CABS grads are too ambitious. They seem to think their attendance at a one-week seminar confers instant credibility, and they emerge with unrealistic expectations as to their advancement in the trade.
If this is true, here is the sense in which it is true: CABS attendees are a self-selecting group, differentiated from many of their bookselling brothers and sisters in one really profound way: they’re people who’ve proven their willingness to spend a significant amount of money, and a week out of their careers, in an effort to become better booksellers. So it’s an ambitious lot to start with. Provide such individuals with a portfolio of new tools and techniques, and the almost fanatical enthusiasm that comes from this week of talking shop with forty or fifty similarly devoted colleagues, and naturally they’re going to emerge wanting to put as much of this newfound knowledge and enthusiasm into practice as they can, as quickly as possible. I fail to see how this can be a bad thing.
My first thought, after sitting through CABS as a faculty member for the first time five years ago, was that if I had attended this seminar myself back in 1996, when I opened my first shop, I could have shaved five years off my learning curve in the trade. As it was it took years of stubbornly repeating mistakes to finally have my many rather vain preconceptions of what the antiquarian book trade “was like” beaten out of me. In the meanwhile I’m sure I alienated customers, failed to recognize good material when it came to me (I’m thinking in particular of a certain Confederate recruiting broadside…oh, if I could only get that opportunity back), and cost myself and others, and the trade in general, many dollars in lost opportunities. And those losses no doubt correlated, sadly, to even more tragic losses in the realms of collection, preservation, and research of rare materials.
All that being said, one of the tenets we go to great lengths to teach at CABS is that bookselling is a long game. There are no shortcuts, and there is no substitute for the cultivation, over years not weeks or months, of lasting relationships with colleagues and customers alike. Reputations in this business take a long time to build. In my experience, most of our graduates have gotten that message loud and clear.
3. There are too many booksellers already, not too few. What possible reason could you have for bringing new dealers into an already overcrowded field?
Believe it or not, this is the criticism I’ve heard most often leveled at CABS. It strikes me as so misguided as to be laughable, except that it’s presented not with laughter, but with real indignation, by dealers who genuinely feel their livelihoods are being threatened by new dealers entering the trade, competing for a finite pool of customers and a diminishing universe of desirable stock.
Assuming the premise is correct — that there are too many booksellers — let it be noted that it’s not CABS that’s creating them! Last I looked (and it was a long time ago) there were something like 150,000 “third-party” resellers of books on Amazon. How many of these “booksellers” are familiar with even the most elemental aspects of antiquarian book description? How many are capable of making judgments about any book not issued with an ISBN? How many potential customers have been discouraged from ever making another on-line book purchase after receiving in the mail one of these sellers’ mis-described (or un-described, or mis-packaged) listings? How many really good, really important books have made their way to the pulp mill only because these sellers couldn’t find a bar code to scan? I assume my readers will recognize these as rhetorical questions.
So yes, perhaps there are too many booksellers in the world, but don’t blame CABS. The very premise of CABS is to ensure that, each year, at least a few of the new dealers entering the profession (and a few who’ve already been at it awhile) enter it with no less than a basic understanding of the trade’s traditions and ethics, acceptable standards of bibliographical and conditional description, the principles of good research, and at least a general perception of what makes one book more interesting than another. Who else is doing this work, providing this kind of education? Apprenticeship, in a shop or with a specialist dealer, once was the route to such learning — but how many dealers these days are taking on apprentices; how many really good open shops are left? The answer is precious few, which means that the work of CABS is more important than ever. Without young dealers like the ones coming out of Colorado Springs every August, the trade will ultimately die. When all printed matter is reduced to a generic commodity — and isn’t that the ultimate goal of the e-commerce behemoths and their robot army of barcode scanners? — there will be no need for real booksellers, any more than there will be a need for real books.
So to you who are inclined to criticize, I say: come visit, and see what we do. CABS, whatever else you may think of it, is one place where you can be sure the genuine will always be given precedence over the generic, and where no one leaves without a fundamental appreciation of that precedence.
*I’m honored to have been asked, along with Rob Rulon-Miller (who will be delivering the keynote address) to be one of the guest lecturers at the inaugural edition of YABS, the York Antiquarian Book Seminar, which is to take place this September 15-17 at the Bar Convent, York, prior to the York Antiquarian Book Fair. YABS, the brainchild of ABA member (and CABS alumnus) Anthony Smithson, is modeled closely on its American counterpart and features a stellar faculty including many of the leading antiquarian booksellers in Great Britain. So CABS can no longer lay claim to being the ‘only’ — just the ‘oldest’ — and now to being the proud progenitor of a most auspicious offspring!