AE Monthly

Articles - May - 2007 Issue

Susan Heller: Book Dealer at the Crossroads

Burns

Publisher's own set of Works of Robert Burns


By Bruce McKinney

Three years ago I started a conversation and friendship with Susan Heller of Cleveland, Ohio. She was one of the early members of AE and bit by bit, in telephone conversations began to speak of her interest to retire. I was aware of others at the same stage and in time made a trip to Ohio to see three dealers at, approaching or just past this threshold. We met in May 2006. For forty years she'd been Susan Heller of Pages for Sages and for the past five years alone. Her husband, Haskell, died in 2002.

Susan didn't set out to be a book dealer. She was going to be a school teacher but personal interest and circumstances intervened and a book dealer is what she became. It was a career she shared with her husband who was also an M.D; she the public person, he the inside man. It made for a durable partnership that unearthed and sold many important books and produced two children who today are the brightest stars in her night sky. These were also the most tumultuous decades in the history of bookselling although it didn't start out that way.

Susan had an eye for quality and bought books carefully. She or Haskell wrote descriptions and she then mailed catalogues to her client list. If material didn't immediately sell, so be it. Such books were a good investment.

Over the decades she accumulated fine material across the entire horizon of book collecting, filling the basement, the attic and the family room to overflowing. She loved to buy good books and in the early years selling them was easy. The advent of the internet in the 1990s changed everything. At first online access was simply an insider's way to locate material and seemed a blessing. But descriptions of books for sale quickly surged onto the online sites at a pace far outstripping buyer interest and what began as a blessing became a curse.

Even memory, the bookseller's most reliable tool, now became the unseen enemy, relentlessly reminding sellers of what a book had brought. Surely mine will bring this price in time, the down turn an aberration, not a trend. And so prices were held higher than the market justified and sales declined. For this book market was different; much larger and impersonal. Anyone could post and some days it seemed like everyone was. It was less and less a relationship business; more and more simply about the copy and the price: a business of artists that became a business of accountants.

In this now the third year since Susan first discussed retirement she is going to sell her home and move into a community of the retired and elderly where she can enjoy some peace and potentially much friendship, be less concerned with daily chores and more focused on fun. Not that she'll slow down that much. She'll remain busy but without the pressures and obligations. She has decided its time.

AE Monthly


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