Thoughts on the Colorado Book Seminar

By Neil Williams

It’s a complicated business getting from Victoria, British Columbia to Colorado Springs. In my case it involved getting a bus to the ferry, a cruise though B.C.’s beautiful Gulf Islands, a quick trip to my sister’s house where after what seemed like 15 minutes I was up at four to catch 7 AM flight to Denver and be introduced to the joys of Homeland Security. Then on to Denver International , an inland airport with a puzzling nautical design, which I finally decided must have something to do with covered wagons, and finally via shuttle bus to Colorado Springs and the monastic joys of the CC Inn, a Spartan but serviceable facility converted from a cinderblock motel.

I was actually dropped off elsewhere on the campus in 95 degree heat and an advancing state of dehydration. Wandering off to the nearest building complex I found a group of people on a green lawn, asked them if they know of the CC Inn and found they were all from out of town and didn’t know either but someone was located who had some local knowledge who told me to go back the way I had come and look for a gas station. The way I had come was now up hill and I started to trudge back up towards the road dragging my bags behind me, feeling increasingly ill. To my enormous relief one of the group came up behind me and asked if they could give me a lift. You betcha, I said, and finding out they were a group of Obama campaign workers,  promised my vote if he ever wanted to run for King of Canada.

The course opened that evening with a reception, in the course of which every single faculty member and attendee stood up and said a few words about themselves and I realized for the first time what a broad range of people came to the seminars and from what diverse backgrounds.

The keynote speaker that night was Hannes Blum. President and CEO of ABEbooks. His talk was greeted with particular interest because of the announcement the week previous of ABE’s acquisition by Amazon. Hannes is a slender, smiling (no doubt caused by the gazillions he had just made with the Amazon deal) with a slight German accent.  His carefully prepared and scripted presentation almost immediately dissolved into unscripted chaos with the catastrophic failure of the Powerpoint projector and the immediate transition to a question and answer session, the gist of which was Hannes assuring the room that the universe was unfolding as it should and the outlook remained positive, even rosy, for online sellers Doubts were expressed, sometimes vigorously but Hannes, earned what I assume to be his very substantial keep and assured the group that our futures were safe with the new Abeazon (a term I first heard from Dan Gregory). Time will tell I suppose and I, for one, remain firmly in the doubter’s camp.

And so, finally the real seminar commences on Monday morning . Now it is a truth universally acknowledged that men of a certain age (say mine) having done certain things for a certain time tend to think they know most everything worth knowing about the subject. If I had had this belief it was doomed to be shattered into unrecognizable fragments by the end of the first morning. That morning like all the mornings commenced at 8:30 AM precisely and till after 5 with a couple of coffee breaks and a lunch hour (or less), all regulated by a cow bell, ignored at one’s peril. The food in the college cafeteria, by the way, was plentiful, varied and remarkably good. And remarkably cheap too. Five stars.

Probably time for a few words about the faculty, a group notable for their diversity of interests and united by their passion for the trade and commitment to high professional standards. There were 4, count ‘em 4, ex-presidents of the ABAA, including Tom Congalton of Between the Covers, an amiable bear of a man who knows as much about literary first editons as anyone in the world and two legends of the trade – the straight-talking (sometimes remarkably straight-talking) Michael Ginsberg and the courtly Edwin Glaser internationally respected for his dealings in Science, Medicine, Technology and related fields who has been a faculty member since the seminar’s founding in 1979 and last but not least Robert Rulon-Miller, the Director of the School and and an expert in dictionaries and etymology.

Other active dealers on the faculty included Mary Francis Ciletti, proprietor of Hooked on Books, a local store that I thought was a model of what a community based bookstore should be; Dan Gregory, also of Between the Covers who specializes in the application of technology to bookselling and who has presentation and powerpoint skills the equal of anything I have ever seen (and who can do uncannily accurate impressions of Hannes Blum and Terry Belanger); Lois Harvey, owner of several bookstores in the Denver area and active in many bookseller organizations; Kevin Johnson of Royal Books in Baltimore who has built a very successful business in a relatively short time with a single-minded focus on his customers;  David Margolis and Jean Moss of Margolis and Moss in Santa Fe, ephemera specialists, an an engaging couple with a specialty of which I know almost nothing but which now, thanks to them, know nearly enough to be mildly dangerous;  and Chris Volk of Volk & Liams, well known to on-line sellers for her incisive and thoughtful postings on various lists and forums and the only faculty member I had previously met.

Other disciplines were represented on the faculty as well. Terry Belanger, the Director of the Rare Books School at the University of Virginia is a wonderfully erudite and engaging speaker with an intimate almost sly presentation style. He was one of the main reasons I wanted to attend and he did not disappoint.

Dan De Simone brought a unique perspective to the course. Twenty fiver years in the trade, he was appointed Curator of the Rosenwald Collection in the Library of Congress in 2000. This range of experience combined with his analytical skills  and straightforward and concise presentation style made his session on selling to libraries one of the most informative and immediately useful sessions in the course.

The faculty was ably rounded off by Angela Scott, a talented bookbinder and conservator from Washington, DC, who was generous and forthright in her presentations, not just demonstrating techniques and styles of binding but offering valuable advice on choosing and working with a bookbinder.

This generosity, common to all the instructors, was apparent from the first day and to me was the defining characteristic of the course. The instructors operate at rarefied levels of the trade and have busy personal and professional lives. Michael Ginsberg’s session on scouting was an eye-opening revelation of the work ethic and discipline that they bring to their business and for a modest honorarium and expenses they were willing to take a week out of their lives and spend what was clearly an enormous amount of time on preparation in order to impart the skills, secrets and standards of the trade to a motley group of experienced and beginning booksellers, librarians and collectors. It’s a marvel and speaks deeply to the traditions of the trade.

The students were a diverse lot as well – if you ignore the fact that except for myself and Daneiela Culen from Canada’s National Library, they were all from the U.S. There were beginning and experienced booksellers, employees of very well known and respected antiquarian firms; a sizable contingent from one of the largest and most successful on-line “mega-sellers”; a number of librarians from both academic and public libraries and at least one representative from that group that makes the whole rickety shebang work, a collector. They were all there to work and learn and for five very full days that is exactly what they did.

I’m not going to go into any detail on every presentation – if you want that you should attend next year’s seminar.  I will say that I learned something useful in every single one and that taken together they will dramatically change the way that I conduct my business. Each attendee, depending on their background, took different and individual lessons home. The sessions were strongly oriented towards the practical – real life lessons based on the instructors’ real life experience and with immediate applicability.

The most important sessions to my own business were, in no particular order:

Terry Belanger’s presentations on Descriptive Bibliography – somehow he accomplished the impossible and made this intimidating topic both interesting and accessible.

Dan Gregory’s session on technology and photography – this is what I thought I knew best but turned out to be the area where I plan to make the most immediate changes.  For example I was delighted to see an example of my book photography method on the very first slide of the photography session. I had just discovered this method in the past year – it involves putting the book flat on a plain surface, taking a photo at a bit of an angle and then rotating the image and I was very pleased with it, considering it a great improvement over previous efforts.  To my considerable dismay I quickly learned the picture was there as an example of what Not to do and had been christened the Monolith by Dan due to its remarkable resemblance to the object of that name in Space Odyssey. Chastened, I learned how to do it right and have already purchased a new camera as a first step.

Dan De Simone’s session on selling to libraries was a revelations. Although I have sold the occasional book to libraries I have never taken any steps to develop this market. This will change.

Rob Rulon-Miller’s presentation on Appraisals and Kevin Johnson’s session on Consignments. These have both started becoming important parts of my own business and I want to develop them. Both presentations provided vital and immediately useful tools to do just that.

Ephemera by Jean Moss and David Margolis. Their simple and moving presentation was an eye-opener for me. Fancy making a living out of bits of paper and cardboard. And that’s all they are until someone like these two find the underlying meaning and beauty in these transient cultural fragments. This topic was what I knew least about going in and certainly the one in which I increased my knowledge the most.

And of course the auction, brilliantly organized and presided over by Michael Ginsberg. I bid on four or five items and got the one I really wanted – a lovely fine press edition of Specimen of an Etymological Dictionary by Kemble published by the Seminar’s Director Rob Rulon-Miller. He felt that I got much too good a deal – I felt this was the fault of the other bidders, not mine as I was willing to keep my hand up till I won it. My bidding partner for the much coveted faculty dinner with the faculty was Suzanne Mantell. Our carefully crafted bidding strategy crashed and burned at near light speed as the bidding started just below our agreed maximum and proceeded rapidly to stratospheric heights without either of us getting a chance to even raise our hands. I hear it was a swell dinner. Auctions are not for sissies.

So what did I learn?  Well, I learned a whole lot of things that will make me a better bookseller and which will grow my business. I learned that every bookseller with any aspirations towards professionalism should attend this seminar. And with the fall of the American dollar there is no longer any obstacle for international sellers. It’s a bargain and a great investment. Fun too. One of the most fascinating lessons was one that gradually unfolded through the week and was one that had no session attached to it.  It was the story of how the higher levels of the trade operate in a network of relationships based on honesty, trust and co-operation making it unlike any other business I know, except perhaps, as a fellow seminarian pointed out, the diamond trade. I’m pretty happy to be a part of it and to feel myself heir to a tradition that goes back to the first peddler of stone tablets in a market somewhere in Assyria.

More information on the seminar can be found at:

http://www.bookseminars.com/

My attendance at the seminar was made possible through the generosity of Biblio.com who awarded me the Don Dario Honorary Scholarship which covered the full tuition. If you have not attended I recommend you apply for this next year.