A Discussion of Book Auctions with PBA's Justine Berkeley
Justine Berkeley of PBA
By Karen Wright
While in San Francisco for the Antiquarian Book Fair in February, we had lunch at Café Claude with our friend Justine Berkeley, Logistics Manager at PBA Galleries on Kearny Street. PBA Galleries is the largest specialty book auction house in the United States. They hold approximately twenty-five gallery auctions in a calendar year and continuous live online auctions of rare books, manuscripts, autographs, maps, atlases, prints, and photographs.
We asked Justine how she got into the book business.
"It was more like the auction business. I never really feel as though I'm selling books, but that I'm providing a service. I really like it," she said with enthusiasm. "I was a biology major in college and we were doing spotted owl surveys and river water surveys in the Pacific Northwest. It was very, very wet and cold. I decided I was not cut out to do field work. I had worked for another book auction company that was in the PBA space before PBA acquired it in 1992. I've worked at book auction jobs for fifteen years now. I started at PBA in 2001, just a few days after 9-11. I had a friend at PBA who knew about a job in the shipping department. It was just part time and so I was holding down two jobs. One was as the retail shop manager for the San Francisco Giants at the ball park. I love baseball and the Giants, but I hated retail so when I had the opportunity, I went full time with PBA."
Justine is a San Francisco native and she still lives in San Francisco, which she loves. She didn't own a car until she was nineteen years old. "You don't really need one here in the city," she noted. "I can walk just about everywhere."
She would like very much to travel more, she says, but she just doesn't have time. Her life companion is a chef so she says she works out two hours a day at the gym so she can go home and eat. She loves food, dogs, cats, and baseball. I asked her if she is an avid reader, but surprisingly she said she likes to read, but hardly ever has time.
Justine is extremely friendly, good-natured, and full of energy. We liked her the minute we met her several years ago, and if I have any questions about anything at PBA she's the gal I call. We asked her if she likes her work. She loves it, she says, and claims to be a workaholic (it's true; I've seen her in action). When we go there for an auction -- or just to see her -- we sometimes find her in the well-appointed auction room setting up displays, polishing the glass cases or hanging prints, or running books up and down in the elevator from customers' cars. If a book doesn't sell, she makes sure it gets back to the seller, carefully wrapped and shipped. She is a definite Justine-of-all-trades.
Justine quickly moved up in PBA, learning everything she could about the business from schlepping books in shipping to inventory control. As she worked, she improved some of their procedures and kept being promoted. She's heavily involved in inventory control and says that the only aspect of the day-to-day business she doesn't really work with much is the cataloguing department.
"They are pretty specialized," she notes, "But I hold them in very high esteem, They work really hard and some of them can actually research and catalog up to a hundred books in a day."
A Discussion of Book Auctions with PBA's Justine Berkeley
The auction room at Pacific Book Galleries.
That's amazing; wow! Speaking as a book appraiser, I can testify that it takes a lot of time to properly research and catalogue a rare book!
Justine helped set up the relatively new online auction system at PBA and is often to be seen with her headset on taking phone bids during the auctions. She just recently had a chance to do her first auctioneering. She told us that she really gets into this aspect of the auction. "When a customer loses a book they want, I'm as sad as they are, but when they get one they really want, I'm as overjoyed as the customer. It can be really nerve wracking, but it's also really exciting."
We asked what she thought about the future of the book auction business. She noted that book and art auctions were, she believed, the first types of formal public auctions, beginning about the end of the 18th Century.
"It's an old business. It's been going on for a long time. The more upscale auction houses [such as PBA] are frequented by collectors, book lovers, and antiquarian booksellers. They buy based on scarcity and condition. There will always be collectors, though the types of books, documents, photographs, archives, and maps collected may change. Cartography is huge right now. It's a cross market; they may buy because of the history involved in the map, or some buy just because they are pretty, or both."
Before we knew it, Justine's lunch hour was over and we all scurried back to PBA, including Ginger, our pooch. She was much admired by staff and most interested in the older Lassie books. Justine had an auction the next day, so we bid her adieu, inviting her and her partner to come to Nevada and see what a bookstore on the side of a 6000 foot mountain is like. "And you can bring your dog, too," we said as we pushed the button on the elevator.
When we travel, which is as frequently as possible, we try to meet new people involved in some aspect of the book business. At AEMonthly we frequently read about books, but I also like to read about book folk. So, I'd like to do a few biographical articles this year about interesting people who aren't necessarily book sellers, but are still heavily involved in the book business. If there is someone special you think would be an interesting person for me to interview, please feel free to contact me at email@example.com or call me at 775-847-9518.