Essays & Observations

Know Your Bookseller

The internet offers limitless possibilities for the book-buyer, but often frustration and disappointment for the serious collector. The breadth and depth of the internet give the illusion that anything and everything can be found within its infinite web, instantaneously and 24/7. You just have to know what you’re looking for, and how to look for it, and where to look for it; and then you have to know whether you can trust the person from whom you’re buying the thing that you think is the thing that you really want. The same way you did before, in the days before the internet, in the old days of the bookshop, when, in fact, it was the same: much mining for little gold; or just fool’s gold – except that in the old days, you could actually see the book, and if you ordered it from a bookseller’s catalogue, you could return it if it didn’t meet your expectations. And if you had a particular bookseller, or a number of booksellers, whom you trusted and who would offer you books that they knew might interest you, you could rest assured that if something you wanted came on the market there was a good chance that you could buy it. That was the old-fashioned, time-honored way; and at its best, the rare book trade continues to do business that way, in spite of the internet.

At first it seemed that the internet would provide a wonderful venue for selling rare books, particularly in light of the diminishing world of bookshops. In the early years of the major book search engines, most of the books were supplied by reputable booksellers, booksellers with experience and expertise and a professional regard for their customers, booksellers who were trained in the art of bibliographical description and comparative pricing, and who conscientiously plied their trade. But now most of the booksellers on the internet aren’t booksellers; they’re just regular people without either the experience or the resources to distinguish or evaluate first editions, people who are just looking to sell; and the major book search engines are flooded with books that aren’t what they’re represented to be; in fact, in some cases they aren’t even books. And the peculiarities of the search engines’ data fields themselves render problematic any possibility of accuracy, with the result that searches turn up more and more irrelevant, confused, garbled, and specious entries.

It’s true that the internet, in making so many books available, has exposed the fallacy of scarcity. But while it has shown that many books that were once considered scarce are now quite common, it has also fostered the illusion that books that have always been rare are also readily available and available at a bargain price; and this is perhaps an even worse fallacy. You can’t always get what you want; rare books aren’t a source of instant gratification; and no matter how much money you may have, there are books that you simply won’t be able to buy. While this is not to say that one can’t find wonderful and rare books on the internet, you can’t find them there everyday, or whenever you decide you’re ready to buy them, and in all probability you won’t find them at all.

The reason for this is not that rare books are scarce in some quantitative way. It’s because rare books are precious, and not just in a financial sense; they’re precious because they are among the finest artifacts of our history, the most profound expressions of our culture. They represent the best that man has accomplished, and as collectibles, they’re disappearing. Collectors buy them, and then libraries buy them, or receive them as bequests, and what remains on the market are often the inferior trophies of speculative collectors rather than the numinous rarities that one can only find today in the great libraries of the world.

There’s no question that you can find ordinary books at good prices on the internet, particularly useful books, although even that is becoming an increasingly tedious chore. But when it comes to collecting, the internet is all too often for dummies, a virtual flea market of people who don’t know what they’re selling and people who don’t know what they’re buying. It’s a free-for-all, and the only rules that seem to apply are caveat emptor, followed hard and fast by “all sales are final.”

That’s not the way it used to be, and that’s not the way it is today, if you know your bookseller.