Young Dealers / Old Books - An Ideal Career, or: How to become a rare bookseller
By Ashley Wildes
Once upon a time I found out that I was related to Oscar Wilde. To most ten years olds this wouldn’t mean very much, or anything at all. If you had told any of my fifth grade friends that I was related to a legendary Irish wit, indeed maybe the only wit that ever mattered, who also happened to be a homosexual, they would have snickered like children do when they have a preconceived notion that a word is funny. Most of them probably had no idea what wit meant, let alone what it meant to be witty. They wouldn’t have realized the significance and hope that such a relationship gave me.
Hope was important in grade school. I figured up until this point that I was part of the most boring, average family from which one could descend. We didn’t have scandals, we didn’t have royalty. We were just another middle class family in a small town in New Jersey. How tragic, I thought; nothing exciting will ever happen.
Somewhere along the line my mother got into a genealogy fad, as if it would make a significant difference in our lives if we found out that we were virtually wiped out in the potato famine, or that my great grandmother was straight off the boat from Wales. I had little expectation that her experiment would uncover anything of interest. How wrong I was!
Reading off branches of our family tree to my two younger siblings and my father at dinner one night she revealed, to my utter delight and amazement, that several great uncles down the line was Oscar Fingal O’Flahertie Wills Wilde. There it was – dreams, hopes, ambition, scandal, and art, all wrapped up into one name. I knew then everything would be ok.
Years later, after pursuing my degree in creative writing and classical guitar (also known as a bachelors in starving artist), I found myself inured to the glamorous life of truck driving. Yes, that’s right – I spent my days delivering auto parts to some of the classiest mechanics in the South Jersey area. It was a dream come true.
One particularly terrible morning, after one of my colleagues told me that reading was “dumb,” I met my friend Tim for bagel sandwiches and lamented the loss of a decent career. I felt doomed to a life of parts servitude. Spending my working life with men with awful tribal tattoos from tribes they were not and never will be a part of, chatting me up while watching me struggle to hold rotors and open a door simultaneously. Doomed to people insisting that I must watch The Hangover and berating me for reading during my down time. This crappy job was a low point indeed and was the source of much complaining during this lunch. And then my cell phone rang.
I will save my “how I know Matt” story for another time, but suffice it to say he is a family friend I’ve known most of my life and after that phone call he climbed up the “Ashley’s favorite people” chart to number one, like a pop gem on Billboard. What was so special about this phone call, you must be asking yourself? He mentioned there was an opening where he worked. A silver lining! It was Oscar Wilde-style hope all over again.
Our conversation went like this:
Matt: “Hey, are you still looking for a job?”
Me: “Are you offering me one?”
Matt: “Possibly, when can you come in for an interview?”
Me: “How’s right now?”
The interview wasn’t “right now,” but it wasn’t too far off. My mother was full of helpful advice most of which centered on disguising my pink hair from my prospective employers. I would have shaved my head if it meant I could have a “big people job.” In fact I had come up with a list of all the things I would have done for a new job, including selling my firstborn, eating a cake of razor blades, and donate an organ, to name a few.
I have a tendency to babble incessantly when nervous. In a crisis situation, my life story suddenly starts spilling over my teeth. In a short period of time the poor individual on the other side of the conversation knows my first dog’s name, my mother’s birthday, and how many times I’ve been to England. All the while my brain is going, “Shut up, shut up, please!” I would be an awful double agent (or single agent for that matter). That being said, I assumed I blew my interview.
So when Dan called me and told me I had the job I was flabbergasted to say the least. Then I realized I had no idea what cataloging rare books actually meant. Who knew if I was even good at it? Of course this was a passing thought and like a clumsy Godzilla I pushed forward, crushing Tokyo in my wake.
Four months after my initial training from Heidi, I’m still making my way through the ins and outs of cataloging. What edition is this? Near fine or very good? When I mentioned the rating scale to my mom she answered with, “If I heard something was good I would not think it was trash,” but she would be wrong. I’ve learned to really get behind the treasure hunt; thrilled to find first editions that happen to have their dustwrapper in decent shape, the eternal heartache of the “book club edition.” Most of all I’ve learned to respect the medium through which great writers, such as Wilde, have presented their art to the world. Guess I have found myself back in the family business.
Ashley Wildes works as a cataloguer for Between the Cover Rare Books. Her article was published on the Between the Covers Blog and is presented here by permission of the author.