What happens behind the counter?
In this article I will be talking about some aspects of the fine art of book selling trade that some readers might not be aware of. I started working with books at an early age (considering the average age of a bookseller is >40), 19 to be exact. My father was one of the best in this trade, if not the most prominent bookseller on the Balkan peninsula in his lifetime. Along with the job, his legacy for me was a passion for books. It’s quite hard to explain how it is to love books if you are not a booklover.
I was born surrounded by books of various eras and content. During my early adolescence I was indifferent about them but as soon as I matured a bit I understood the cultural value books possess. To collect books is not like collecting stamps, engravings, ephemera or anything else actually. When it comes to books, some people start as history enthusiasts, others are in love with literature or philosophy (like myself), some are just patriots trying to conserve their cultural heritage while there are also compulsive collectors. Don’t get me wrong, any reason to start collecting is good. I just want to say that to be a collector of books it takes something more. At the beginning, when my father started introducing me to books, I had a trouble understanding that passion, as I felt like it was a trade oriented job. As I got more and more in the business I understood that the “selling” component in the “bookselling” job description is only secondary to the word “book”. To sell a book, you must know something about it. Not only for estimate purposes but regarding the historical context. When I started out I was stunned, mostly by how knowledgeable were the buyers that came to the shop.
He could talk for a whole hour with every client about what was in the field of interest and somehow managed to match or top their knowledge. I was thinking, well, my father is in the book trade for more than 30 years, of course he knows so much. Then I understood that that knowledge didn’t come out of thin air, and that it was actually a product of thorough research. I didn’t have a clue that Gray’s Anatomy was one of the most influential books in the field of medicine. I didn’t know that the Jesuit order had almost a million converted in China in the 18th century, nor that Konstantin Tsiolkovsky was the father of rocket science. I didn’t know what the black wave of cinema was. In any case, I had no clue about these things (and many more) before I got into bookselling. I believed that my academic education in the field of philosophy was enough as general education. I can talk about ancient Greek drama, Machiavelli’s statesmanship, infinitesimal calculus, Early Christian Gnosticism, Turing tests, evolution theory, poetry and many other topics. I thought that I had it all covered. But, to be honest, I would never do research about any of the topics mentioned before these if it wasn’t job related. The product of this research for book descriptions and catalog crafting made me a more knowledgeable man overall. I still don’t know what will I learn next and what is awaiting further on.
To get to my point, I want to talk about the booklover that’s on the other side of the counter. In the beginning I was frightened by the fact that almost everybody who came to the shop and asked for a book is actually way more into the given topic than I am. During the course of years I learned not to be ashamed and not to fear what I don’t know. I understood that I was young and that I needed to learn as much as I could on as more topics as I could. There is always someone that knows something that you don’t. Today I am still surprised as to how much people that come asking for books know. To be a booklover you must be knowledgeable and have a sense of responsibility. If you buy a very rare 1.st edition of Hegel’s Science of Logic, you will not only know the book inside and out but you will also know the historical context of the time when the book was written, the author’s relationship with other authors from the period, the difference between the 1st and the 2nd edition and so on. It takes to know a lot and to have a true passion in order to be a booklover. A bookseller knows and understands that better than the buyer can imagine. Besides the fact that a bookseller sells pieces of culture and history to others, he also understands the buyer.
Well, in short, why is bookselling the best job one can get, in my opinion? Well, first of all is the fact that I’m learning something new every day as I do my research for books. It is quite a hard job, looking for information, digging through endless pages of reference books and articles on the internet. Especially when you have no clue as of the topic. I believe that’s half of the satisfaction. The other half is the role of custodian that one has. When I buy a book from someone who does not appreciate it or just views it as a pieces of “inventory” or “merchandise” it comes into my care. When it does, I do my best to find it a new home. I believe that all the books in my possession are just passing through and that I have the privilege of getting to know them before they depart for their new destination. When they do I feel like they are in the best possible place. If someone is willing to pay for the books that does mean that the person in question really cares for them. As they change hands they get to a place where all the historicity they carry behind themselves is appreciated to its full extent. I am happy because of that, I truly am as I believe that any other bookseller would be happy. You just feel how a piece of history fits into a place where it is supposed to be, in the hand of someone what shares the same care and passion as a bookseller does. It’s truly a remarkable sensation that only a few are privileged to feel.