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The end of an era?

By Richard Weatherford author of article
Source: O.P. World, July 1998

When I hear people talking about the end of an era, I think they mean the end of the traditional book business and the beginning of the Internet-based book business. However, when I hear that phrase, I automatically reflect on some of the people I have known in the book business who have most affected my life in books.

I think of Arthur H. Phillips, the great Ohio book scout who, for some reason I am not sure of, took me under his wing and taught me the finer points of book scouting, collecting, buying, and selling. He worked the small towns of Ohio for decades, turning up some of the good and great hooks that people like Ernest Wessen of Midland Books sold to the important historical libraries and collections of Midwestern and eastern America.

I think of Joe Dush, an attorney and collector of Ohioana and early Mississippi Valley history and law, who died just this past year. He was a customer of Ernest Wessen for many years, buying many of the good and great titles to flow through Midland Books. His collections of President William Henry Harrison and of Mississippi Valley law were significant, possibly the best in private hands. I learned, on a visit to his home in northern Ohio one day, that he owned the finest copy of the rare "Laws of the Territory of the United States North-West of the Ohio," better known as the Maxwell Code, the first book printed in Ohio and, indeed, in all of the Old Northwest. And he had a physician's kit once owned by a doctor who treated George Washington. He also bought a few things from me, including the finest set of the Pacific Railroad Surveys I have ever owned, bound in contemporary black leather with all plates and maps and text in fine condition.

I think of Robert Hayman, bookseller in the little town of Carey, Ohio, who has spent forty years turning up the elusive historical, strange, wonderful, colorful, and eccentric books, maps, photographs, and ephemera of the Great Lakes and Ohio Valley area. Unfortunately, Bob is not able to turn out his catalogs as he did in the past, but his memory of the early days of scouting is still sharp. I went to school on his catalogs, and few people who got them could resist the many temptations they presented.

I think of Margaret Knox Goggin and Jake Chernofsky and the wonderful faculty of the Antiquarian Book Seminars in Denver where I taught for eight years. I think of the old Shorey's Book Store in Seattle where my father and I looked for books, magazines and other treasures in the 1950s.

And I think of all the other book scouts, booksellers, writers, book binders, collectors, and characters who live in the memories of all the book people who work in the out-of-print and antiquarian book trade.

Now that the trade is changing because of the Internet, are these people and the chance for new generations to have these memories gone forever? No, they aren't! And they are not likely to disappear for some time, if ever.

The o.p. book trade attracts a wonderful assortment of people. Many are well educated but some are not; most are well read, but some only know a narrow area of interest. Some are good business people, and some are not. Most have too many books and not enough money. (Those with too much money are usually collectors, but when they run out of money they frequently become booksellers.) With very few exceptions, most o.p. booksellers are not computer savvy, but they do learn fast. So they are adaptable and agile, but they don't get easily distracted by technology. I know lots of people in the trade who own computers, but I know few who love them. Computers are, after all, just tools.

What is the future of the book business now that the electronic marketplace for books is reaching its potential? Are books a thing of the past? No, because books are a simple, transportable, inexpensive, independent technology. You don't have to plug them in—and they don't run out of batteries. Are good and great booksellers a thing of the past? Anyone can get into the business. That has always been true. But becoming good at bookselling demands knowledge and dedication and information. During the ABAA Boston Book Fair a couple of years ago, owners of Subway Sandwich businesses were also meeting in the hotel. I asked one of these people what was going on. He said they were teaching them to make sandwiches in the morning session. By noon, he said, they would all be experts.

To those who think they can become experts in the o.p. book business by noon, I have a word of caution: around here, noon only happens every ten or fifteen years, and even then it might be cloudy. You might have to wait another five or ten years for another to appear. And in the words of the great Jack Rittenhouse, "For some booksellers, every day is their first day in the business."

The past makes the future manageable. Our traditions and the examples of those who have gone before us help us put the changes we face every day into perspective. The technology of the business is changing, but being an o.p. and antiquarian bookseller still takes knowledge, taste, a commitment to service, and an excellent memory. Scientists don't make machines that can do all that because they don't need to. They already exist. They are called Booksellers.