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Searching For Books In Days Of Yore

Searching For Books In Days Of Yore

By Jim Hinck

Back in April, when I launched this blog, I was pleased that my first post managed to elicit a nice comment. One particular point made by this commenter has been banging around in my head ever since.  On the suject of want lists, he wrote:

Electronic book-collecting tools are all focused on “dealer push” — a vendor essentially saying, “Here’s what I  have. Are you interested.” The tools aggregate and push this information. We know that many large booksellers do not have the time or inclination to post all of their inventories. It would be nice to go back to the old days of  “pull” — posting want lists in magazines to let dealers and fellow collectors know what we are interested in and looking for. It’s a service I would readily pay for within the context of a strong collector community like ViaLibri.

It was an interesting suggestion, even without the hint of additional revenue.  It made me wonder. I am always surprised at how easy it is to forget the ”old days” of antiquarian bookselling, before the internet changed everything. It was a time when weekly printed periodicals like The Clique, Bookdealer and AB Bookman were the primary tools of book searching; or, more precisely, the only tools for book searching.

For those too young or forgetful to remember, it worked like this: First you made a list of the books you wanted.  Unless you were a bookseller yourself,  you then had to find someone who was and give them your list.  They would type it up [another call to nostalgia] along with all the other lists they had been given and then mail it to one of the aforementioned magazines where it would appear, along with numerous other similar lists, every week, ink on paper, in endless printed columns of ”Books Wanted.”  At that point thousands of hopeful booksellers around the world, many of them list-makers themselves, would begin reading through the pages, line after line, column after column, searching hopefully for any wanted book they might happen to have for sale.

After that the “quoting” would begin. Items to be quoted would first need to be hunted for and located on whatever shelf they had been assigned to or misplaced on.  Then descriptions had to be prepared.   Postcards, paper slips, even letters would be written, usually by hand, describing, as succinctly as possible, the essential details of the book on offer - and little more.  The amount of time required to write all these descriptions placed a great premium on abbreviation.  As a result, a compact, almost stenographic language of book description evolved in response.  (It had, I would grant, antecedents in the jargon of printed catalogues) Notations such as a.e.g, ARC, ALS, FE, bce, f.f.e., v.g. and, most notorious of all, w.a.f, all became part of the compressed specialist language of booksellers and initiated collectors.  But even these shortcuts only reduced  by a small fraction the work at hand.  And it was not a stimulating activity by any measure.

But tedious labor was not the only investment made in quoting books for sale.  Ignoring the cost of postage (which for some might not be an insignificant expense) the bookseller also invested opportunity cost with every book he offered for sale.  This came from the fact that quoting a book nearly always meant removing it from available stock and putting it on reserve.  In the days of snail mail this usually involved three weeks or even a month.  (Sometimes the actual customer at the other end also needed to be contacted by post, so a month could easily pass before a sale could be confirmed). To quote a book and then be unable to provide it was a breach of faith that few colleagues would easily forgive or forget.  So the decision to quote an item to a distant hypothetical customer might also mean foregoing its equally possible sale to a customer who might actually walk through the door after the book had been withdrawn on quote.  The more desirable and uncommon the book, the greater the risk and cost in putting it on reserve.

The quoters, however, were not the ones who took the greatest risk.  That would be found on the other side of the potential transaction: the booksellers who made the lists in the first place.  These, you see, were not free.  They were paid advertising, pure and simple.  You were charged by the line, or the page, and it was not cheap.  Every book listed was a separate wager that a copy might be found and sold.  Many booksellers were only willing to take this gamble on the behalf of their regular customers.  The others who were willing to offer a “search service” to the general public did so as a calculated risk.   For most of these, the ordinary out-of-print book was their bread and butter.  The more common it was the better.  On one hand, a customer looking for Fanny Farmer’s Cook Book was as good as money in the bank. On the other hand, a PHD student with a list of the 18th century epistolary novels not already available from nearby libraries was an almost certain financial loss.

A few booksellers would try to shift their risk by charging their customers for each book they wanted before they had found it. This was, however, unusual.  The typical customer readily perceived a potential scam in this approach and usually went elsewhere.   The “free” booksearch service was always the norm.

In spite of the risk, many who provided this service appeared to be quite successful and regularly advertised multiple pages of wants.  Some even advertised their free services in places like the New York Times and the TLS.  The economics of this have always been intriguing to skeptics like myself.  It is a losing game to advertise for uncollected books that are unlikely be found.  If you had the experience to already know what was available, and what was not, the temptation to ignore requests for the latter might be difficult to resist. The only alternative would be to have the customer for Fanny Farmer subsidize the cost of searching for the other items that were unlikely to be found.  This was the usual approach, but it could make the out-of-print cookbooks and knitting manuals very expensive.  And often they were, at least when you resorted to a search service to find them.   But the buyers rarely complained.  They generally understood that the marketplace for old books was hopelessly disorderly and inefficient.  Whenever it did manage to yield, on request, a long sought-after item the reaction on the part of the customer was almost always a mixture of gratitude and surprise.

Many, many books were bought and sold in this fashion. It was a system that lasted a bit more than a century.  It helped sustain many struggling booksellers whose shops were otherwise too remote from regular customers to support a living wage.   It provided to the inexperienced novitiates of the antiquarian book trade a weekly lesson book on the mysterious marketplace they hoped to enter.  It became, in many respects, the universal binding agent in the large and otherwise disconnected world of second-hand bookselling.

And then, almost over night, it was gone.

To be continued…

(Posted on vialibrian, presented here by permission of the author.)

Published since 10 Oct 2013