Baltimore Book Company calls it a day
As one door opens another closes. Chris Bready the cataloguer-book auctioneer of Towson, Maryland, one of the last of the old-style book auctioneers, conducted his final sale of Baltimore Book Auctions on January 17th. He professes no regrets. “I’ve had a very good time.”
He began his career in 1980 writing descriptions for Harris and in 1989 organized Baltimore Book Company to sell books at auction. From the outset he was and always remained a maverick. “I’ve been and remain a one man operation. I would find material and make my pitch. Those who consigned quickly understood they were speaking to the salesman, the cataloguer and the shipper. I worked hard to obtain the best outcomes for my clients and could always sleep at night.“
Chris entered the field as auctions were beginning a shift from their traditional function of providing redistribution within the trade at wholesale prices to the then just emerging orientation to retail. Sotheby’s would single-handedly change the rules in the early 1980s and in time see almost all auctions orient themselves to retail. Chris did not.
He, New England Book Auctions and a few others sought to continue to be wholesalers to the trade and for years the strategy was effective. Most other auction houses in time found increasing their retail orientation effective for attracting consignments and raising realizations so few if any reverted. Consignors in turn adjusted, increasingly expecting the retail effort and the higher prices this brought.
The differences between redistribution within the trade and retail were initially primarily in description and presentation. Pedestrian catalogues and thin descriptions less deterred dealers than collectors and institutions because, from years of experience, they tended to recognize the under-estimated and/or important but thinly described. Added to this, it was de rigueur for serious dealers to maintain elaborate private research libraries. The dealer then only needed to have a hunch. They then often had hundreds, and in some cases, thousands of research volumes to consult. The public did not.
The arrival of elaborated descriptions the same year Chris entered the field in 1980 threatened, from the dealer's perspective, to broaden the bidding audience by enticing collectors and institutions, now armed with more information to contest lots that a few years earlier would have been routinely purchased by the trade. To this the trade rebelled, shunning the Sotheby’s approach. In 1982 Christie's too ‘went retail’ effectively ending the war and confirming the emerging trend for auction catalogues to include bibliographic details and explain significance, often in great detail.
Emerging retail auction orientation in the 1980s then created a divide within the auction field that by 1989, when Chris established Baltimore Book Auction, was already shifting decisively toward retail. Chris chose to orient his sales to the trade and would continue to do so for the next twenty-five years, his final sale on January 17th one of the last examples of the old school. At the end his mailing list was shrunken and his consignments mostly those in the lower value category.
Baltimore Book Company calls it a day
Always a serious effort
In the in-between years Baltimore Book Auction would have some great years and make many adjustments. Chris was always a great cataloguer but the outcome of the shift in auctioning orientation to retail was never in doubt. The Internet, beginning in the 1990s would add further transparency immensely helping auctions reach a broader audience that responded to their retail descriptions. Baltimore Book would also adapt to these rising standards but never develop a website or online bidding, their auctions toward the end artifacts of a bygone era, - order bidding and printed catalogues, the final catalogue stapled sheets.
Baltimore of course would land some important material and conduct some great sales. They deserved them. Chris handled the dispersal of the Joseph F. Dush collection in 1997 and experienced great success. His Dush copy of the Maxwell Code [Laws of the North-West Territory], 1796 brought $80,000 when sold to Bob Emerson. A decade later, having subsequently partnered with Ed Hoffman of Columbus, Mr. Emerson sent it to the rooms at Cowan’s in Dayton to realize $103,500, itself a formidable result that strongly relied on the world record realization Baltimore had achieved. In that decade important books increased far more than 20% suggesting the Baltimore outcome was the true pace setter. The processes of consignment and sale are after all mostly logical but also random. When the Dush Collection presented the opportunity Chris brought these books to life.
Databases of auction records also came into vogue during his tenure. American Book Prices Current from 1975 on provided generally complete records of more expensive material sold by selected auction houses in the United States. The AED, associated with this site, the Americana Exchange, began in 2002 to cover auctions in the field worldwide both prospectively and historically, 1875 to yesterday. Together these databases and others made detailed analysis available to anyone with an interest. The old requirement to maintain often expensive and always bulky printed research material in a time-consuming research library was made null. Knowledge became widely available and this too impacted Baltimore’s sales.
Adding further challenges during the Baltimore Book Company years, there was a steady increase in auction houses virtually all of them after 2000 with active Internet presences. And then there was eBay. The world was moving on and the competition heating up.
In this period, in response, Chris experimented with an electronic site and with accepting credit cards but found neither worth the added expense. He preferred to keep his commission rates very low; I believe the lowest in the business with the consequence that while he often had very good material, he did not have the glossy [and somewhat costly] presentation the market was increasingly expecting.
Baltimore Book Company calls it a day
Material in the Dush sale
Consignors, then judging the book selling sites by their proverbial covers on line, had more information about Baltimore’s competitors than they did about Baltimore and this probably cost him consignments. He could catalogue and sell their material but he didn’t always get a chance to make his pitch. Consignors liked gloss and could justify their decisions to consign elsewhere to expectations they would net more money elsewhere. Consignments were becoming more competitive.
Net all in and even if they couldn't clearly explain it consignors instinctively preferred auctions with a retail feel. In compensation Chris’s sales shifted toward the less expensive material that other houses increasingly shunned.
In the transition Chris continued to do well, if not as well as the trade generally. Baltimore became the alternative frequently mentioned by auction houses in very positive terms as they gently turned material down.
This formula would inevitably run out and on January 17th it did, not because Chris couldn’t continue to sell but because the consignments were getting tougher and the consignors more demanding. To me in our conversations recently he emphasized:
“I want you to understand that I took pride in my work, and felt I was contributing, not just taking advantage and settling for crumbs – and the way I went about things became extremely easy for potential buyers because I kept things very simple – no fake bids off back walls, no abuse of advance bids, no special treatment in bid sequence based on who was on the phone, just straight up and forward – in short, just what I would hope for if I attended an auction elsewhere – a confused bidder is a reluctant bidder, and a confused seller just goes somewhere else. In this business, as I have said ever so many times, you can be the nicest, most gracious and smartest person around, but you don’t make any money at all if you don’t get consignments – and Baltimore Book Company was never a principal consignor to any of its auctions, never advanced money in order to obtain consignments. Playing games is for recreation, and playing straight has always been the hallmark of successful businesses, always has been and always will be. If there is any secret to my being successful for decades in a competitive and occasionally cut-throat business, it is this last observation – slow and steady and straight doesn’t always win the race, but it always gets you to where you are headed.”
He also expressed concern that in this story [that I sent to him for comment and adjusted somewhat based on his feedback] his company was portrayed as a small town operation and he as a small town guy. This is neither my intention nor even a passing thought. Baltimore is a city saturated in history and he almost single handedly provided its citizens with opportunities to buy and consign for more than two decades.
Chris, now 64 and looking forward to golf, retirement and doing good deeds for others will, in his next chapter continue, in his solitary determination, to do what he feels is right and continue to be able to sleep at night, knowing he is making every effort to get the best outcomes.
After covering Baltimore’s sales for many years we stopped in 2008. His text format was awkward and he never was willing to use up-to-date software, the precondition for all versions of wide spread online coverage. He never made his electronic files compatible and we, after doggedly capturing his sales for our global auction search for seven years finally said enough already. He just didn’t want to make it easy and we didn’t want to expend disproportionate resources on a reluctant auction house. So we walked away and this unfortunately probably contributed to his decline. It’s too bad.
This said, I have the greatest respect for the consistency of Chris’s view. He never shifted, never contemplated. He went from day one with a variation of the Harris model, a dying idea and stayed with it right to the final bang of his auctioneer’s gavel. Consistency is uncommon in the trade. For Chris it was in his bones.
His final sale was recently again in our upcoming auction search and his final outcomes in our weekly auction reports. And you never know, perhaps there will be another auction. Bookselling is one of the few fields where age is a virtue. If so, he’ll no doubt stick with his formula and I’ll hope for his sake and the sake of his consignors that it works because it deserves to.
For the past twenty-five years he’s been selling copies. And it turns out he’s an original, an American original.
Here is Chris's contact information:
Baltimore Book Company
34 Cedar Avenue
Towson, Maryland 21286
Telephone:  494-1075