Dear Archives Fine People,
It is almost one year since I had the great good fortune to win one of two ANZAAB scholarships to the Colorado Antiquarian Book Seminar (CABS), which is held each year in Colorado Springs. The year leading up to that trip, and the eleven months since, have been a period of subtle growth for Archives Fine Books. While we maintain our commitment to a ‘bricks and mortar’ shop where city workers, students and travellers can find a decent second-hand paperback and some respite from the hustle and bustle, we have also needed to follow the imperative to survive in a time when books are being dumped on the online market by the truckload and people are less inclined to step outside their neighbourhood, or even their door, to acquire desired items. Our instinct has been to follow our pleasure in learning about the world of collectable antiquarian books and printed works on paper, and to create a website for this new focus. We launched our website two years ago and have used it primarily to promote the collectable books we already had on the shelves. More recently we have been able to proactively seek out and purchase collectable items. Four months ago we achieved our aim of becoming a member of ANZAAB. It seems a timely moment for reflection and for considering future directions.
Reflection: After CABS.
I came home inspired by the collegiality of the American community: the willingness of experienced booksellers to share information and booklore with those less experienced, their readiness to answer questions, their desire to delight and entertain and capacity to be delighted and entertained in return. CABS also attracts the attendance of rare book and special collections librarians from around the country and though it seems obvious with hindsight, it was a revelation to me that antiquarian booksellers and librarians could and should be symbiotically linked in the ecology of old and collectable books. Of course my impressions were formed in the unusually intense ‘hot-house’ conditions of the seminar environment and I had not yet had a similar experience in Australia. I came home wondering when and how Australian antiquarian booksellers congregate for exchange of information and good books.
A few days after returning from the U.S., Hamish and I flew to Melbourne for the Melbourne Rare Book Fair, a three-day event that concludes Melbourne Rare Book week. Here we met the Australian antiquarian book community at its aesthetic and collegial best: Wilson Hall at the University of Melbourne was overflowing with a gorgeous array of collectable works printed in books and on paper. Here we found booksellers variously narrating the story of an unusual or rare item, dazzling young collectors with a wealth of specialist knowledge, and swapping anecdotes with more experienced collectors and other booksellers. It was a heady mix of personalities and printed material. As Hamish and I made our way around the various booths we were warmly greeted and our wish to return in 2016 as exhibitors roundly encouraged.
Australian antiquarian book-seller warmth and collegiality confirmed, I returned home determined to make the acquaintance of more librarians. While I haven’t been able to meet a lot of them in person, in recent months I have had some wonderful exchanges with professional and volunteer librarians from around Australia and overseas, and ‘the librarian’ has risen in my esteem to become one of my favourite kinds of people. For the most part I find them knowledgeable, curious, passionate, articulate, and incredibly helpful.
Generosity in the book world.
Recently I attended my first fair as an exhibiting bookseller, the International League of Antiquarian Booksellers’ (ILAB) second annual “Pop-Up Fair” to celebrate UNESCO World Book and Copyright Day. The aim of of World Book Day is to promote books and awareness of antiquarian book collecting, and to raise funds towards UNESCO literacy programs in the South Sudan where 70% of the adult population and 84% of all women are illiterate. This year it coincided with the Bard’s birthday (William Shakespeare) on April 23.
The day before, on April 22, I packed a suitcase full of books and with just the clothes on my back boarded a flight to Sydney. To say I was terrified would be overstating it, but I was as nervous as a cat on a hot tin roof. Had I chosen the right stock to bring? Would the books survive the flight? Would my antiquated system for accepting credit card payment prove a problem? Should I have printed a glossier catalogue? What if I sold nothing?
I had read and taken heart from other bookseller blogs, especially Kate Mitas, who has written with wry humour about her first book fair experiences with Tavistock Books in the U.S. I knew that the other booksellers were likely to be friendly, and that it was quite possible that I might not sell much, if any, of my stock. And so it came to pass.
The other booksellers were wonderfully supportive. I won’t be able to mention every kindness, but I sold my first book to Paul Fein of Cornstalk Books before the fair even opened, and every time I felt I bit lost and alone he, or one of the others, seemed to materialise for a chat. Jörn Harbeck gave me some straight advice on choice and condition of my stock and Michael Treloar took some time to look over the Ted Colson photographs I had been in conversation with him about via email. His advice was generous and also to the point. Jonathon Dickson of Douglas Stewart Fine Books shared ideas about building relationships with institutions, affirming our recent efforts in that direction. He also took an interest in the ‘thumb bible’ I had brought, and suggested a line of enquiry to determine its provenance. Kay Craddock and Jonathan Burdon, who organise Rare Book Week in Melbourne and the Rare Book Fair that concludes it, were also very welcoming and kind and invited any questions I might have about that event, which Hamish and I will attend at the end of July. And it was wonderful to see Sally Burdon of the Asia Book Room again, who I first met in Colorado at CABS.
On the flipside to all the comraderie and warmth, it turns out that I hadn’t really brought the right stock. In my excitement over acquiring some collectable Queensland material, I failed to consider that collectors in Sydney would prefer to acquire local and New South Wales material. I did have the sense to throw in something about the Blue Mountains (one of the most looked at items on my table) and a 1930s tourist guide to Sydney and its surrounds. This was the cheapest item on my table and was snapped up by a local collector who did indeed find my antiquated system of accepting his card to be irritating. That same outdated system cost me the sale that would have pushed me from ‘nearly broke even’ into ‘made a tiny profit’. Lesson learnt: Make it easy for someone to purchase the beautiful book they have just fallen in love with.
I enjoy a good conversation and I had a several that day, one of the longest with a young girl who had come to the library for other reasons, seen the sign for our fair, and wandered in not knowing what to expect. She was so full of curiosity and questions and I sensed she would go home and look at the books on her own shelves with fresh eyes. The most exciting conversation of the day, however, took place when a small woman with a walking cane entered with some difficulty and asked if she might lean on my table for a moment. It just so happens she placed her hands either side of the open photo album of Ted Colson’s crossing the Simpson Desert in 1936. When her eyes fell on the album she suddenly threw her head up and looked me straight in the eye. I began to explain what they were but she seemed already to know. There is only one woman I could think of who would know this material instantly and within a minute she confirmed that she was indeed Valmai Hankel, retired rare books librarian at the State Library of South Australia. With great enthusiasm she sat with me for half an hour, poring over the photographs and telling me about the Ted Colson book she is writing, and how she and her husband followed Ted’s journey through the Simpson, albeit in a four wheel drive and not on camel back.
Bricks and mortar.
While I have been building the antiquarian side of the business Hamish has had his focus squarely on the daily survival of 40 Charlotte Street, Brisbane. We love being in a big old heritage-listed building, and while we wish we could afford to replace the threadbare carpet and upgrade our electrical system (the lights in the back room blow almost every week), the reality is that our continued existence in the city is pretty precarious. Hamish has spent the past 18 months going through every one of the 350,000 titles available with a pencil and eraser adjusting the prices downwards (he’s still going). We receive many compliments both on our pricing and our orderliness – each section alphabetical by author’s surname – especially from people who knew the shop before little order was imposed at all, and pricing was of a speculative pre-internet order. We are happy to be challenged on general stock prices and will always do better if we can.
While second-hand book stores continue to close in and around Brisbane, and booksellers move to online environments or simply retire, we are actively seeking strategies that will enable us to survive and thrive in the city. We’re not going to open a coffee shop in the book-store – there is an excellent coffee shop and bar downstairs run by an ethical and sustainability oriented crew. Nor are we planning to start selling calendars, cards and coffee-mugs. The world is full enough of meaningless commodities. What we will do is acknowledge our regulars and offer them our heartfelt thanks for their continuing patronage. Quite simply, we depend on you. We hope you continue to find the time to come in and browse and, when you find the right book, to buy. I suspect things will feel precipitous for some time to come, especially given the shifting sands of the book trade in the 2010’s, but we’ll keep hanging on if you keep coming in. We’ll also keep you posted about how we’re going and what we’re planning next, including our trip to Melbourne for the Rare Book Fair. Expect an update in a couple of weeks. And in the meantime, drop in, say hi, tell us about your bookish passions or about that book you’ve been trying to lay your hands on for the past fifteen years. Pop your name on our mailing list for regular curated shortlists, or for our larger bi-annual catalogue (also available in hardcopy). You can also email us and ask to be put on the mailing list (email@example.com). You might want to take advantage of our evaluation service, or buy a gift voucher for your favourite bibliophile. In short, times are tough. We hope to keep serving the book lovers of Brisbane. We hope you continue to love coming into the store.
Dawn & Hamish.