Bookselling in a Red and Blue World
One of our more controversial books.
By Renée Magriel Roberts
I'm at the computer today and should be doing something for the bookstore: entering a quantity of Ben Franklin-related materials, or putting together our pretty amazing catalog of Henry Lord Brougham bronzes, signed letters, books, and engravings. Or perhaps I should be making headway on the tens of thousands of really good books (that have been screened at least three or four times) and are sitting in boxes waiting to have their moment online.
I could be on eBay, looking for that next great buy (like the very first edition published in 1869 of Jules Verne's Twenty Thousand Leagues Under the Sea, snatched in the middle of the night from a Spanish bookseller), or conversely, putting some of my for sure materials up for sale, like the 1795 first English edition of George Washington's letters to Congress.
If I'm feeling like we don't have enough books, I could be scheduling visits with the estate sales in our area. With an unusually high population of elderly citizens, you don't have to go far to find books for sale privately. Not likely on this one though, as we have totally run out of space for mass acquisitions.
I could be doing personal searches for those special clients, you know the ones that account for a disproportionate amount of our sales. Since many of them already know how to use the used book search engines, we have to get creative. For example, once I found a scholar who had cited a hard-to-find early edition in his research paper and was happy to sell it (he was just interested in the content, not its rarity).
Instead, I'm finding myself obsessing, during business hours, over our politics. Not only the national races, but also local stuff, and of course the effect that this economic disaster (this seems like too mild a word for the implosion of the financial services industry) will have on our business and the businesses and lives of those we know.
For example, we just received a phone call from our payroll company for the weekly payroll numbers. Not difficult, as we only have two employees. But when I got to speaking with my rep, she told me that a lot of businesses she works with have gone out of business. She's worried about her own job.
I've had similar conversations with suppliers. All of them - both large and small - seem extremely anxious not only to get additional business, but to get paid as quickly as possible to improve their cash flow. We don't offer credit-based transactions either through the bookstore or through the publishing company, with a very few exceptions. We didn't want to have to maintain an accounts receivable, and in times like these, that policy appears to be almost prescient.
Bookselling in a Red and Blue World
An early anti-war book, said to have been suppressed by the British Empire.
My accountant just moved into a brand new, more expensive location. Will he be able to stay there? And too many retail parking lots around here seem eerily empty and a LOT of stores have drastic sales signs out on the street. I've always enjoyed the mix of small town establishments which seem so different from the suburban areas. Will I have to start buying everything over the 'net, while we're surrounded by a lot of empty storefronts and discount stores full of Chinese junk?
I can hear my husband, Mark, outside pounding. He set himself the task of completely finishing and/or re-building the skin of our warehouse and back yard area. He's lucky. He can take out his political frustrations on the structure. He can fill his mind with things like trying not to fall off the different roof areas. He can see all of his progress clearly in the new shingles, new doors, and new stone surfaces. Boxes moved and boxes shipped are all signs of progress, not to mention the care and feeding of our politically incorrect but paid-for SUV, used sparingly for hauling. My keyboard-pounding is not as purgative.
I don't feel like we're working in a patchwork country; I feel like we're standing at the edge of a precipice. Not just a credit-swap pit, but somewhere on the edge of a house of cards, or precariously near the event horizon of a black hole, sucking in all light, not just red and blue waves.
We have only a little bit of time to do some big things with our physical environment. If you have ever studied Al Gore's climate change map, the coasts get pretty much swallowed up with the rise in the oceans, and that includes Cape Cod. How do we deal with that apocalypse on a day-to-day basis? Climate change is the most democratic of disasters.
What is our role in the degradation of education in the inner city? How can we possibly afford to have generations of children growing up with no learning and no hope?
How can we stop the carnage of Iraq and Afghanistan?
Many years ago, when I was working on a Ph.D. in comparative mediaeval literature, I had similar anxieties. Then I made the (in hindsight wrong) decision to leave the program in favor of a more socially activist life. I found it difficult to study more esoteric literature when so many things were happening, like the movement for Civil Rights, that had deep importance for me. It took decades to finally finish that degree.
This time, despite our very strong feelings about this election, we certainly will not be making any life-defining decisions based on the results. We are determined to push through the election and use our publishing company, our rare books business, and our lives, to reflect the things that mean the most to us.
Our imprint, Clock & Rose Press, revived Scapegoats of the Empire, the Breaker Morant story that took place during the Boer War, an early, moving memoir with a strong anti-war theme that was thought to have been suppressed by the British government or its sympathizers. We have published other controversial books, ranging from the Enron Report to Passion of the Greeks: Christianity and the Rape of the Hellenes.
Bookselling in a Red and Blue World
A "for-sure" eBay item, the 1795 first English edition of Washington's letters.
We have also used our imprint to preserve rare books, such as the Timber Merchant's Guide (originally published Baltimore:1823). And we have given back to our own profession by reprinting A History of Book Publishing in the United States, producing a new edition of Jules Verne: A Collector's Bibliography and soon Bibliotheca Washingtoniana Nova, a bibliography of books by and about George Washington.
We'll take November 4th off to vote. We will vote early and then anxiously listen to news about the election. If all goes well and another election is not stolen, Barack Obama will become the next President, which will be a stunning statement to the world, that we are a country who appreciates a fine mind, a country working its way out of the deep prejudice of the past, and a country with hope for the future, be it economic, environmental, or peace-oriented. That will be just fine for us, and just fine for our business too.
Renée Magriel Roberts can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.