Category Archives: Antiquarian Books

“And Death Shall Have No Dominion” – a Look at Welsh Poet Dylan Thomas

Dylan Thomas is one of Wales’ best known writers. As a poet he expressed himself and his talent at a young age, and though he died much too young, he was amazingly able to create a large amount of work in a relatively short time. On this day 69 years ago, Thomas passed away in New York City. In honor of his life and work we wished to do a short blog detailing this amazing writer and the influence he had on so many.

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Dylan Marlais Thomas was born on October 27th, 1914, in Swansea, Wales. His mother was a seamstress, his father – an English literature teacher at the local school. It was through his father that Thomas first found a love for the rhythm of poetry – as his dad would recite Shakespeare, Yeats, and Poe to the young Dylan at length. His father also took charge of educating Dylan in the Welsh language, which he understood and spoke, despite writing exclusively in the English language and not Welsh. At a young age (young enough to put the rest of us to shame, truly), Dylan discovered a talent for poetry. At the age of 11 his first poem was published in his grammar school newspaper, and by the time he left school he carried out duties as editor of said paper.

When he was 16, Thomas left school and became a reporter for the South Wales Daily Post, where he worked for roughly a year and a half. During that time and the following few years where he worked as a freelance journalist, Thomas wrote somewhere around 200 poems, his most prolific period of writing coincided with these young years and a depth of feeling at such a formative age. It was during these years that some of his most well-known works were published – including the poems “And death shall have no dominion”, “Before I Knocked” and “The Force that Through the Green Fuse Drives the Flower”. In 1934 his poem “Light breaks where no sun shines” was published in London’s The Listener – catching the attention of several important London literary celebrities, including T.S. Eliot. Eliot and Stephen Spender and Geoffrey Grigson were instrumental in helping Thomas publish his first book of poetry in 1934, called (rather simply) 18 Poems. The book was an immediate success, meeting with critical success, winning awards and thrusting Thomas into the London literary scene with a vengeance.

For a long while, it was as if Thomas could do no wrong. A year after his first volume of poetry was published he contributed his famous poem “The Hand that Signed the Paper” to an issue of New Verse. Another year later (1936) his second volume of poetry was published (similarly titled to his first – Twenty-five Poems) and also met with critical success. In 1938 Thomas won the Oscar Blumenthal Prize for Poetry. Many of his poems published in these volumes and in poetry journals were written before Thomas ever moved to London, back in Wales in his prolific period. Personally, I believe that this back-log of work to choose from (while all of it remaining relevant and popular) allowed Thomas to develop the heavy drinking habits he struggled with all his life.

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Much of his following years look quite like this – critical success, volumes and single poems published. His only less successful years happened to coincide with WWII, and many critics have attributed this to the general population’s distraction with more important matters. Thomas was always interested in the theatrical and even recorded for the BBC, and wrote scripts and screenplays. His work, while the early poems perhaps have a touch more idealism than some of the later, remained popular. He was heralded as a lingering-on member of the Romantics, in a time where other popular works clamped hard on realism and political realms. The Poetry Foundation lists some of Thomas’s work’s key themes, that include “the unity of time, the similarity between creative and destructive forces in the universe, and the correspondence of all living things.” Of one of Thomas’ most famous works “And death shall have no dominion”, critic Clark Emery noted how it was “published in a time when notes of affirmation—philosophical, political, or otherwise—did not resound among intelligent liberal humanists, [and thus] it answered an emotional need. … It affirmed without sentimentalizing; it expressed a faith without theologizing.” (Poetry Foundation). This is true of much of Thomas’ work. It touched an emotional place in his readers, and continues to do so today.

Thomas seemed to become a highly individual figure of the time. He was seen as somewhat wild – with his Welsh accent and beautiful story-telling capabilities. His drinking, the sexual imagery in his work, his ability to captivate. He had something that other poets of the time, especially in London, did not – he did not care about beautiful society or being part of a group of famous literary figures. He and his wife Caitlin moved between London and Wales for many, many years, realizing that London held more work, while Wales held love and safety for them and their children. Thomas was invited abroad to the continent, and then also to tour in the United States four times. It was on this last tour in New York at the age of 39 that he collapsed after a night of heavy drinking, and was unfortunately sent home to be buried in Wales by his family. But the love of his work endures even to this day, his poems no less beautiful, and no less relevant today, than they were seventy years ago.

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The Whale – and How it Shapes Lives All Over America

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A few years ago we published a blog detailing Herman Melville’s life. This week we thought we’d revisit his most famous work in a bit more detail, and come up with five in-depth reasons about Moby Dick, why it is one of the most widespread works taught in American schools today, and why it matters. “Book! You lie there; the fact is, you books must know your places. You’ll do to give us the bare words and facts, but we come in to supply the thoughts.” And on we go!

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1. Several scholars argue that the opening sentence of Moby Dick “Call me Ishmael” is the best known line in classic American literature. It starts off a long tale of adventure and revenge, focusing on a crazed whaling boat captain and his enduring grievance against the giant white sperm whale that took off his leg. While this book is, as stated, one of the most well-known works in America today, it was considered a flop at the time of its publication. Melville wrote it at the tender age of 32 in 1851, and over the next fifty years of his life it sold only 3,215 copies, making him a whopping $1,260 over those decades. It was only after the centennial of his birth in 1919 that a slow resurgence of interest in Melville’s work began, and by the 1960′s Moby Dick was being regularly taught in schools.

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“I try all things, I achieve what I can.” – Herman Melville, Moby Dick

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2. Melville masterfully created characters that could inspire, despite their outward, stereotypical appearances. The moral compass of humanity in Moby Dick is the cannibal Queequeg. He is courageous, stoic and self-sacrificing, a good friend to the novel’s narrator, and his virtuous nature is a stark contrast to the vengeful and fanatical Captain Ahab aboard the Pequod (the whaling ship). In this way, Melville dictates to his audience that appearances are not always what they seem. After all, “Better to sleep with a sober cannibal than a drunk Christian.”

 

3. Another reason why the story is so revered is Melville’s ability to use these characters to make social commentary on society at large. As Jamie Gass wrote, “A full decade before the Civil War’s carnage, only a highly unconventional writer of profound depth could craft a poetic novel using an enlightened cannibal to devour America’s racial, nativist, and religious stereotypes.” By placing Queequeg as the savior in the story, Melville highlights to students today how being fearful of someone different than us isn’t necessarily justified. Just because people are different doesn’t mean they are inherently bad – and we should not stereotype each other without giving ourselves a chance to see the human beneath the surface, as Ishmael does Queequeg. Some have even likened the Pequod to Melville’s America, with its treatment of minorities on the ship. In this way, Melville used his characters to comment on America’s shameful treatment of African Americans and other minorities, and continues to this day to remind us to look beyond the surface. As Melville writes, “See how elastic our prejudices grow when once love comes to bend them.”

 

4. The life lessons throughout the story rival those in famous religious works. Not only are their cautionary lessons on the limits of vengeance inside, but there are studies of the issues of man vs. nature (is it our job to conquer nature, or simply be its stewards? I’ll give you one guess), sexual orientation, the dangers of following a charismatic madman, and how our unacknowledged biases shape our actions – for better and for worse. One website claims that you couldn’t open to a single page of Moby Dick without finding a lesson being taught…. even when it is lessons on the world of whaling (at times disgusting and horrifying – but nevertheless educational).

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5. Moby Dick is an adventure story, yes. But layered within the adventure “we learn about malevolence, ambition, ego, bravery, friendship. We meditate on the existence of truth. We gather up an understanding that ‘truth’ is rarely captured in a snapshot, that it’s a mosaic of perspectives that don’t always add up neatly.” (Suzy Akin). It can be seen at one time as a religious text, an ancient epic, a Shakespearean drama. It can be interpreted a multitude of different ways. But one thing is for sure – it does teach lessons that could come in handy as students ready themselves for the future, and the “rough seas” that may lie ahead.

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“All my means are sane, my motive and my object mad.” – Herman Melville, Moby Dick

 

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An Up-to-Date Q&A with Our Very Own Vic Zoschak Jr.

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It’s been a while since we checked in with a more personal blog, so we thought that with the end of summer in sight we’d see what our Master and Commander Vic Zoschak has been up to these last couple of years!

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Q: So V, here we are in 2022 – how have you been this past year, how has life been in general?

We’re into our 4th year of Covid Ms P, and I guess you could say I’ve adapted to that reality.  Last summer, I completely closed the shop to the public, and have been ‘on-line’ only ever since, and to be honest, that’s worked out ok.

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Q: How has “regular life” played a part in your business over the past many months? The last time we checked in was at the heart of the pandemic. Have you noticed any notable changes since?

I avoided Covid for the first 3 years, but here, early in the 4th, I did catch it a couple weeks back… a variant, I think, for I’m fully vaxxed & boosted.  Let’s just say it was not a fun couple of days.  But that aside, in response to the on-going pandemic, last summer, I changed my work routine, adopting a semi-retired approach to my work life, only going into the shop 4-5 hours a day, freeing up some personal time to spend with the dogs, catch a few more Giants games, read a few more books…  I must say, I find this newer, more relaxed lifestyle quite enjoyable!

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Q: You recently celebrated 25 years on Webster Street in sunny Alameda, California. How have you seen Alameda and your location change over the past two and a half decades, as one of the longest running and most-established businesses on the island?

Time does fly, does it not!?!  Seems like just yesterday I opened the door at 1503 Webster, but that was actually July 15, 1997.  When I opened the shop, the west end of Alameda had just experienced a devastating blow to the local businesses… by that I mean the Navy had closed NAS Alameda in April of that year.  All of a sudden a large consumer base was gone.  As a result, lots of vacant store fronts existed on Webster, so a new business opening on Webster was a big event, in this case, the Mayor, the Vice-Mayor & the head of the Alameda Chamber of Commerce all came for my ‘ribbon-cutting’.   The West end was a long time in coming back, but now, 25 years later, Webster is the main mercantile street in Alameda’s west end.  It’s quite vibrant actually, with lots of restaurants & other interesting businesses.  But that said, despite the current vibrancy, the street did not, and will not, support a specialized antiquarian book store like mine…  were it not for my on-line / mail-order sales component, I would have had to close the doors long ago.

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Q: Now that the book world is back to hosting in-person book fairs, how have you seen the changes brought about by the past couple of years influence the book world of today? Which changes are for the better? And on that note, do you find any for the worse?

This one is difficult for me to answer, for as part of my semi-retired approach to business, I’ve decided to omit book fairs from my current business paradigm [except for the local, one-day Sacramento show].  I find it exhausting to be a one-man exhibitor, gone for 5-6 days….  pack the books, drive to the event, set up the booth, man it [solo] for 3-4 days, pack out, drive back to Alameda, unpack all the boxes & reshelve the books.  Too much work for this 70 year old…  an example of the old leisure vs income dichotomy, with me falling down on the leisure side of the equation.

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Q: What would you say your bookselling high and low were, in recent months? This could be an event or a meeting of sorts, or perhaps a notable sale?

I think most booksellers will agree that their favorite book is the one that just sold.  But to answer your specific question, two recent sales do come to mind…  I helped one of my customers find & acquire a very nice copy of Dickens’ Christmas Carol, and one of my institutional customers ordered an 1866 broadside published out of San Francisco, Freedom’s Footsteps.  This latter quite rare, with only a couple copies known to exist.

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Q: What do you have on the horizon of interest for yourself and/or for Tavistock Books? 

Well, the ILAB Congress is next month, being held in Oxford, England.  I’ll be attending, and we’re concluding the trip with some time in London, and then Paris.  So that definitely that trip is of interest!

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Q: For a fun last question – what is your favorite item to come across your desk in the last few months? Let’s see it!

Oh my, that’s a challenge to name just one!   Well, let’s see…  as you know, like many of the local booksellers, I tend to scout the monthly Alameda Point Flea Market.  Not too long ago, I purchased a book that mimics the great William Blake, Ode to Sea-Sickness, by William Muir.  Quite scarce.  I think it’s pretty cool, and it will be offered in my stand at the next Biblio Live VBF.  Here’s an image of the title page.

Vic's Ode to Seasickness!

Vic’s Ode to Sea-sickness!

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OTD in 1535, Thomas More is Executed by Henry VIII

On this day, 487 years ago, a king was on a rampage. He was condemning non-believers. Not those who didn’t believe in God or religion, but those who didn’t believe in his divorce and therefore the new religion that he was shaping in order to get one. That’s right, King Henry VIII was in the middle of his divorce from Queen Katherine of Aragon and it was not a good time for those who opposed this nullification and the king’s appointment as Head of the Church of England. One such man was Thomas More, Chancellor of England, humanitarian, lawyer, writer, and statesman. As author of Utopia, More had a definitive idea in mind of the perfect society – let’s delve into what this was, and what his execution meant for England.

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Thomas More was born on the 7th of February, 1478, the second of six children to a well-regarded lawyer. More received a classical education, and was a page to the Archbishop of Canterbury, who recommended him for a University education – prompting More to attend Oxford in 1492. He left after only two years, but those short years were more than enough time for More to become proficient in both Latin and Greek, as well as instruct himself in the fine etiquette of society. He began his legal education in London instead, at his father’s insistence.

It would be worth noting that by this time More had a significant interest in the spiritual realm. According to one of his friends at school he was seriously considering leaving his burgeoning legal profession to spend his life as a monk. Despite ultimately deciding that he would live his life as a layman, he kept up some of the more rigorous practices of the church, occasionally using self-flagellation as a cleansing tool, and wearing a rough hair shirt as a symbol of repentance. Although some aspects of his life might have looked severe to an onlooker, More himself was thought of as a warm, good natured (if stoic) person. He was a loving father, and had four children of his own, adopted another daughter upon his second marriage to a widow, and took two other children further under his wing. He gave all of his children (the girls as well as the boys) extremely detailed tuition, his extremely intelligent daughters and his pride in their accomplishments setting a new standard for female education throughout the country. More spent as much time with his family as his lifestyle could allow – for in 1504 he was elected to Parliament and in the short years that followed experienced a great rise in his value and influence to the nation. In 1516 he published his famed work Utopia in Latin, a work that wouldn’t be translated into English until almost twenty years after his death. Utopia depicted a perfect society – a place of total harmony, without the need for lawyers, with education to all sexes alike and religious tolerance. The work itself is actually hailed as the start of dystopian literature, a popular genre still today. By 1521 More was a close confidant and personal adviser to King Henry VIII.

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Thomas More as painted by Hans Holbein the Younger

More’s support of the Catholic church led to his position as a staunch Anti-Protestant advocate. He and Henry VIII together led extreme responses to Martin Luther’s publications, burning the books and those that openly supported the German “heretic”. More enjoyed over a decade of his position in the royal household, until it all came crashing down. In 1530, More refused to sign a letter signed by other members of the English aristocracy, begging the Pope to annul Henry and Catherine’s marriage. More then refused to sign the Oath of Supremacy, giving Henry just cause to reign higher than the Pope in the matter of his marriage. Despite More’s personal beliefs, he did not openly condemn the King’s actions, or refuse to acknowledge his divine rights as King. This balancing act was the only thing that kept More safe for as long as he was. He resigned from his position as Chancellor in May of 1532, realizing that he couldn’t show support for actions he did not believe in, nor could he condemn them. He (gentlemanly, sending his regrets) refused to attend the coronation of Anne Boleyn in 1533, and in 1534 when he was asked to trial to swear his allegiance to the Act of Succession, More continued to refuse to take the Oath of Supremacy, acknowledging the Church of England over papal rule and Queen Anne’s offspring as rightful heirs to the English throne. Balancing act now over, this was unfortunately the act of treason his enemies (Thomas Cromwell, for one) had been waiting for – and the court appointed to try Thomas More took only 15 minutes to condemn him to death.

We know the rest of the story, but what did his death mean for the world? Well, for one, the imprisonment of Cardinal Wolsey and then the imprisonment and execution of Thomas More did much to unsettle the country. Both men had been great friends and confidants of the King, and their deaths are occasionally credited with instilling a fear in the English aristocracy. Thomas More in particular, was an innocent man. Unlike Wolsey, More was never accused of financial shadiness, nor did he have a false sense of his own importance or worth. He was a man of relatively simple pleasures, and his only crime was sticking to his beliefs, which, until Henry VIII settled on divorcing his wife, were shared by the King as well. More has since been martyred in the Catholic church for remaining true to his faith, even in the face of certain death. If you ask us, the execution of Thomas More is one of the saddest in history.

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“The beginning is always today” – Happy Birthday to Mary Wollstonecraft!

“I do not wish women to have power over men; but over themselves.”

Yes, Queen.

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Mary Wollstonecraft was born on April 27th, 1759, in London. Though later on in her life she would be known for her writings and her advocacy of the social and educational equality of women, she was born somewhat inconsequentially as the second of seven children. Mary grew up in a household with a violent alcoholic father who squandered away all their savings and inheritance before Mary could come of age. She worked as a governess and a lady’s companion in her young life, both of which were formative influences on her views of the role of women in society. Mary also had two significantly influential friendships as a young woman – with Jane Arden and Fanny (Frances) Blood. Arden’s philosophical and academic family greatly impacted Wollstonecraft’s ability to think outside-the-box (so to speak), and her friendship with Fanny gave her purpose and female companionship. As a matter of fact, at one point Mary, her sister Eliza and Fanny opened up a school for girls in Newington Green. Her experiences in the education of young women (and subsequent job as a governess) gave her her greatest ideas on the education of women and how it affects their future in society.

“If women be educated for dependence; that is, to act according to the will of another fallible being, and submit, right or wrong, to power, where are we to stop?”

Unfortunately, Mary’s closest friend Fanny died relatively young, after becoming pregnant while suffering from a weak constitution. A heartbroken Mary used her connections to become a governess to a family of girls in Ireland, and although the girls found her an inspiring instructor, a frustrated Mary decided to give up the position to pursue writing and publishing full-time (a radical notion for a woman, in 1787). In 1788 she began working as a translator for a London publisher, Joseph Johnson, whom she regarded as a father/brother figure, and whom she remained quite close to for the rest of her life. During her first stint working for Johnson she wrote several reviews for his Analytical Review publication, all the while expanding her mind through translating texts and writing her own. Mary seemed happy in London - constantly meeting intellectuals, activists and other interesting figures at meetings and dinners at Johnson’s. Some of these influential individuals included Thomas Paine and William Godwin (the scholar considered the father of modern anarchism – though Mary and Godwin did not originally hit it off). Mary’s free-thinking ways led her to propose to live platonically with a married man she was enamored with (artist Henry Fuseli) and his wife – the astonishment of society at such an idea leading her to decide to move abroad. Well… that and her obvious interest in the French Revolution, as was evidenced in one of her most famous works, A Vindication of the Rights of Woman, published in London in 1790 as a response to Whig MP Edmund Burke’s conservative critique of the events in France. Her publication shot her to activist stardom seemingly overnight (though at the very first it was published anonymously – the second edition published a month after the first pronounced her as the author). Wollstonecraft left for Paris, to witness the Revolution firsthand.

“It is vain to expect virtue from women till they are in some degree independent of men.”

maryw2During her time in France, Mary witnessed the execution of King Louis XIV, even saw some of her friends executed when the Jacobins took power, was refused her requests to leave the country, and lived with American adventurer Gilbert Imlay, with whom she had a passionate affair. (“Which of these things is not like the other?”, you may as well ask!) Though all of her experiences greatly influenced her thoughts and views of humanity, she decided to put her individuality and power to the test by living unmarried with a man, and bearing a child by him, named Fanny after her dearest deceased friend. Wollstonecraft and Imlay remained together long enough to do a bit of traveling, and for Mary to publish two other works - An Historical and Moral View of the Origin and Progress of the French Revolution, and a introspective and personal travelogue, Letters Written During a Short Residence in Sweden, Norway and Denmark. After Imlay left her, Wollstonecraft returned to England to pursue him, and after bouts of suicidal tendencies and depression fell back into Joseph Johnson’s literary circle. Eventually, Mary began striking up a friendship, and then a passionate love affair with William Godwin. Of her work (her travel Letters, in particular) Godwin wrote, “If ever there was a book calculated to make a man in love with its author, this appears to me to be the book. She speaks of her sorrows, in a way that fills us with melancholy, and dissolves us in tenderness, at the same time that she displays a genius which commands all our admiration.” Despite not being proponents of marriage in general, the two wed shortly before Wollstonecraft’s second child was born – her daughter Mary, who would later go on to write Frankenstein as Mary Shelley (to read our blog on the second brilliant female mind in the family, click here). Eleven days after the birth of her second daughter, Mary Wollstonecraft Godwin (as she was then known) passed away due to complications from the birth.

“It appears to me impossible that I should cease to exist, or that this active, restless spirit, equally alive to joy and sorrow, should be only organized dust—ready to fly abroad the moment the spring snaps, or the spark goes out, which kept it together. Surely something resides in this heart that is not perishable—and life is more than a dream.”

Wollstonecraft died much too young – and one might now argue that the world as she knew it was too little, too conservative for her rather modern notions. Nevertheless, her legacy lived on – not only did she propose radical notions of educational equality and female power, but she ran in circles that picked up her theories and helped spread the word. Her legacy also lived on in her children, particularly in Mary Shelley – who supported similar ideas of female empowerment and sexual freedom. To this day, the name Mary Wollstonecraft is a household name symbolical of female rights and equality, as she was the epitome of a free-thinker! Happy Birthday to Mary Wollstonecraft!

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A Reference Book Workshop Q & A with our Master-and-Commander Vic Zoschak

As it is fall and us book folk cannot seem to help ourselves when it comes to books and study, we decided to do a little sit down Q&A with Vic Zoschak… leader of Tavistock Books, previous ABAA President, awarder of Rare Book School Scholarships, all-around mentor and teacher of a popular Reference Book Workshop! Due to unforseen circumstances (after all, who could have possibly forseen 2020) we haven’t been able to hold our Reference Book Workshop in a number of years. So this week we decided to answer some important questions for those just beginning in the business of bookselling!

 

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Q: V, you’ve been in the business of bookselling for a few decades now… and you’ve mastered plenty of roles within it! You own your own store, you’ve advised and trained employees, given Rare Book School scholarships, been the President of the ABAA, and offered several years of workshops at Tavistock Books on Use of Reference Books for beginning booksellers… How many years have you been mentoring others, and how did you begin to do so?

Well, Ms P, mentoring isn’t something I consciously sought out, rather opportunities to lend a helping hand came my way…  besides a personal wish to help a given individual, as you know, I’m a long-time advocate for the ABAA, and in many of those beginning booksellers, I saw a potential ABAA member.  As a result, many whom I’ve aided over the years are now ABAA colleagues as well.

As to my workshops, I started those about 2 decades ago…  I think the first was on “First Edition Identification”, and was offered to help new IOBA members in this particular area.  The workshops then morphed into a day long seminar on the use of Reference Books in the Antiquarian Book Trade, where, besides reviewing trade jargon & condition descriptors, I mainly tried to expose newbie booksellers to the standard references they’ll encounter / need in a few basic subject areas: Literature,  Childrens; Americana, with an emphasis on Western Americana & Californiana.

Now that the pandemic is waning, perhaps time to think about hosting another.  We’ll see.

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Q: If we had to pick the most important lesson you could offer an up-n-coming bookseller, which would it be?

Actually two:

-  with a nod to Stephen Covey, “Begin with the end in mind”

  •  in my bookselling experience, there are two key success factors; Who you Know, and What you Know.

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Q: What do you think is the most difficult lesson, or learning experience, that new booksellers go through when they’ve just entered the field? On a side note, what was your toughest lesson learned?

To my mind, one of the hardest lessons for new antiquarian booksellers to grasp is this: there are always more books.  New booksellers will often overpay for something just to “get it”.   That said, there are occasions when you pay what you have to.  A mature bookseller [hopefully] knows the difference between those two situations.

The “toughest lesson” … ?  In thinking about that I recall a situation quite a while back, not too long after opening my shop in 1997 where I offered an individual $200 for a book.  The individual countered with $250.  I declined.  I didn’t have enough experience at the time to know that had I paid the $250, I would have quickly made back that additional $50.  Today, it’s a bit different, in that much more pricing data is available, between viaLibri & RBH, it’s a truly rare book that doesn’t have some sales history.  It’s then in those instances that one’s professional knowledge & experience comes in… is this book rare because no one cares, or is it a desirable book that is rarely seen on the market?

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Q: What do you think or feel about people beginning their bookselling journey today? What are they bringing to the field, what can they work on?

Good question.  I’m encouraged to see others, younger others, enter this trade I love so much.  I think, no I know, they bring a new perspective to such questions as “What is collectible?”  I’ve been pretty mainstream my career… I mean I specialize in Charles Dickens material, not that he hasn’t remained collectible, he most certainly has, but such collecting hardly breaks new ground.  Other booksellers younger than myself have a different vision, which, as I write this, I think of two of my SoCal colleagues, Brad & Jen Johnson, who, a few years back, put together a “Heavy Metal” archive & sold it to a major institution.  Not something I would have considered.

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Q: Due to Covid and the sheer amount of time and energy needed to offer our Reference Book workshop, until we decide to hold it once more – what is your advice to new booksellers on where they can learn the basics? (Any book recommendations, course recommendations would be welcome!)

My advice…  Invest in yourself, both the “Who you Know & What you know” aspects I mentioned above…  take CABS.  Attend Rare Book School.  Build a reference library [e.g., another bookseller's ABE listing is NOT a valid source for bibliographic information].  Join clubs like the Book Club of California where you can meet like minded souls.

Trust me, investing in yourself is an investment that will, long term, pay dividends.

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The Significance of Don Quixote

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In honor of Miguel de Cervantes’ (assumed) birthday, we wanted to dig a little deeper into this masterpiece of Western literature, to find out why it carries the weight it does in the book world. How can such an early work (the first part having been published in only 1605!) be considered the first modern novel? How can one work be considered social satire, comedy, tragedy and social and ethical commentary all at one time? Let’s find out!

Fairly little is known about Miguel de Cervantes. Remember, he lived at roughly the same time as Shakespeare (who, surprise surprise… we also know fairly little about). We know that he was the second of 7 children, with a father constantly in debt and a mother confident and literate enough to support herself and all of her children while the father was imprisoned for debt from 1553 to 1554. Miguel obviously learned a few things from his mother, as he worked a myriad of jobs as a young man (including being arrested for dueling, having a military commission, being an intelligence agent and as a tax collector) and though he was never an extremely wealthy man, he was not often out of work!

quixoteThroughout this time, Cervantes published a few plays and some poems, none of any great significance, and none that provided a living for the man and his family. By 1605, Cervantes hadn’t been “properly” published in almost 20 years! Nevertheless, he began writing a work he considered a satire – he challenged a “form of literature that had been a favourite for more than a century, explicitly stating his purpose was to undermine ‘vain and empty’ chivalric romances. He wrote about the common man. He used everyday lingo, normal conversation rather than epic speeches – it was considered a great success. Though there was a great amount of time between the two parts of the work, its popularity did not wane. The first part is considered the more popular of the two, with its comedic characterizations and its hilarity, while the second part is considered more introspective and critical, with greater characterization of the individuals in the story.

There are differing opinions on the Don Quixote of the time – it held popularity with the masses, and garnered financial success for Cervantes, but was considered a financial failure in the long haul… we aren’t sure how that works but are willing to trust the experts! The great interest in the work came during a resurgence in popularity during the mid 18th century, when literary editor John Bowle argued that “Cervantes was as significant as any of the Greek and Roman authors then popular”, and proceeded to publish an annotated edition of the work in 1781. Ever since, Don Quixote has been considered a staple of modern literature. Why, you may ask?

Our London 1749 holding of Don Quixote, published into the English by Charles Jarvis and only the 2nd edition of its kind!

Our London 1749 holding of Don Quixote, published into the English by Charles Jarvis and only the 2nd edition of its kind!

Author Edith Grossman published a new English translation of the novel in 2003 and noted how the novel straddles both comedy and tragedy in the same moments… “when I first started reading the Quixote I thought it was the most tragic book in the world, and I would read it and weep… As I grew older… my skin grew thicker… and so when I was working on the translation I was actually sitting at my computer and laughing out loud. This is done as Cervantes did it… by never letting the reader rest. You are never certain that you truly got it. Because as soon as you think you understand something, Cervantes introduces something that contradicts your premise.” And thus is the beauty and genius of the novel… Part I introduces enough comedic elements to amuse and hold your interest in the characterization, with Part II garnering strength and empathy for the characters you’ve come to love, feeling their pains and their moments of humility. Truly a work ahead of its time, today we honor Miguel de Cervantes and his inimitable hero Don Quixote (and the loyal and true Sancho Panza, of course). Happy Birthday (maybe) to Miguel de Cervantes!

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