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All Jammed Up
Like most human beings, no doubt, I strive to discern patterns, symmetries even, in the tangle of life. Especially in the tangle of my own life, which recently passed the milestone marked 56. I note that I can now claim to have been a secondhand bookseller for exactly half my life. I note too that my son, at 28, is exactly half my age and – this is the point – earns exactly double what I earn.
I’m not complaining. At least not much. I never imagined that I would wax rich on the proceeds of bookselling. And I accept that computer engineers are of more use to the world – at least to the commercial world – than secondhand booksellers. Even so, I quaintly imagined that my income, starting from a humble baseline, would increase in modest but inexorable increments as I made my way in my chosen profession, reaching a peak as I approached retirement age. The reality – you guessed it – has been otherwise. My income, after a steady trudge through swamps and foothills, pitched camp some years ago on a windswept plateau, halfway up the mountain, and has steadfastly refused to budge. The yearned-for peak remains but a distant prospect.
The trouble with bookselling – one of the troubles anyway – is that it’s a full-time job which, by any professional yardstick, yields only a part-time income. Consequently many booksellers, like many farmers, need “off farm” income. A second string to their bow. For some, a working spouse or partner provides the welcome – and necessary – second income stream; for others, extra revenue is derived from investments, stocks and shares, rental property, pensions, superannuation, inherited wealth and other manifestations of “unearned” income. For a third group of booksellers – the most interesting group – extra income is generated by extra work, sometimes “on farm ” sometimes “off farm”. While the bulk of their income comes from the sale of books, these brave hearts top up their takings by doing something on the side. Many of these enterprises are predictable, some are ingenious and a few are quite out of the ordinary.
During my research, I have formulated this general theory: the more closely related to books (and writing) the second-string activity is, the less extra income it generates. You’d think that booksellers would have more sense, but no! Such is their passion for the book, for the written and the printed word, that they go galloping headlong into the dead-end bibliovalleys of printing, publishing, editing, bookbinding and writing. C’est magnifique mais ce ne fait pas l’affaire. (It is magnificent but it doesn’t pay the bills). Look at my colleagues here in Melbourne. Over in Sydney Road, Franz Timmerman sits hunched over his shop counter editing and proof-reading scientific and mathematical text books. At Flinders Books Jo Johnson, who once wrote novels, now beavers away at commissioned histories of sporting clubs and institutions. (I have one in my shop: Birdies and Billabongs: The History of Kew Golf Club 1894-1994.) You get the picture.
Until recently, Shelton Lea at de Havillands Bookshop, eked out his bookseller’s income by writing poetry. Truly! (I like to imagine that Shelton wrote his poems seated at his shop desk, between customers, as Dr.William Carlos Williams wrote his, between patients, in his consulting rooms.) Shelton, although a well-known and respected poet, probably earned no more than a pittance from his poetry, but I don’t know, and it’s too late to ask. Sadly, he died last year, aged only 59. In the suburb of Hampton, Peter Zerbe of “Bound Words”, does a bit of book-binding on the side. Peter is an accomplished bookbinder and a committee member of the Victorian Bookbinders’ Guild. Though he is alive and well I am too polite to ask him how much he garners from his sideline. I imagine that he does good business, the sentimental general public being prepared to lay out extraordinary sums of money on having very ordinary books re-bound. (Peter’s other passion is motorbikes. Bookbinding and bikes? It must be all about the leathers….)
Over in Tasmania, Michael Sprod of “Astrolabe Books” is, like many booksellers, a part-time publisher. His imprint “Blubberhead Press” publishes high-quality books and monographs relating to Australian history. A profitable enterprise, he tells me, but not very. In Sydney, antiquarian booksellers Hordern House publish high-quality books in sumptuous editions. At Uralla, in New South Wales, Ross Burnet of Burnet’s Bookshop publishes Australian bibliographies, price guides and bookshop directories. He also published and edited Australian Book Collector for more than ten years until its demise in 2002. It was a valuable publication, the only secondhand book magazine in this country, which, sadly, ceased to pay its way. Publishing small-circulation niche magazines for book people is a high-risk business. More power then to the elbow of the editor and publisher of the one you are reading, which survives.
Some booksellers make extra money by writing articles (such as this) for book magazines (such as this). It’s what I do, and it’s what Paul Minet does. We write perhaps as much for the kudos as for the cash, but the cash is still nice. Paul Minet (in case you didn’t know) is a hyper-energetic and multi-faceted bookseller who not only writes frequent articles on bookselling – in a long career he has also written and published books, and has edited and published magazines (he founded Antiquarian Book MonthlyReview, now Antiquarian Book Monthly). Having read his bookselling memoir Late Booking–full of incident and activity – I consider myself by comparison to be a bookselling slob. Rather few booksellers write books about their working lives, probably because the market and the returns are small: notable exceptions are, in the U.K., Percy Muir, Fred Bason, George Sims, Anthony Rota; in Australia, James Tyrrell and Bert Spencer; and in the U.S. – well, you know them better than I do but I would single out Charles Everitt’s The Adventures of a Treasure Hunter for special mention.
London bookseller Rick Gekoski is an Anglo-American who probably reaps more rewards by his pen than most. Last year when he was here in Melbourne he told me he would be happy “to make the price of a plasma TV” from the sale of his book Tolkien’s Gown and other stories of great authors and rare books. (Constable 2004). I hope he did… and a lot more besides (It is now published in paperback by Penguin.) Rick also moonlights regularly as a broadcaster on BBC Radio 3. Another Londoner, Erik Korn, specialist in antiquarian scientific books, is, or was, another regular radio personality, as panelist on “Round Britain Quiz”, an erudite program for nimble-brained polymaths. He also wrote a bookish column called Remainders in The Times Literary Supplement, later gathered up and published as a book with the same name (Carcanet 1989).
It is likely that regular journalism is a better paying proposition than writing books. Melbourne bookseller, Kenneth Hince, for many years supplemented his bookselling income by reporting on classical music for the The Age newspaper. It was a job which fitted in with bookshop hours: he would close his shop at six, have dinner, be at the concert at eight, finish by nine-thirty, and get his copy to the editor by eleven. Kenneth is now retired but it is rumored that, while his income from bookselling paid his day-to-day bills, his music reviews paid for the private schooling of his five children. Bravo, maestro! Moving briskly to another part of the literary spectrum, I recall that an English bookseller, Barbara Samuels of Market Harborough regularly wrote romances (under a pseudonym) for publishers Mills and Boon. And got good money for them.
A surprising number of secondhand booksellers have made their names as crime writers or as writers of bibliomysteries. The English contingent (with sample titles only) include John Blackburn (Blue Octavo, Bound To Kill), Roy Harley Lewis (The Manuscript Murders, A Cracking of Spines) and George Sims (The Terrible Door, Rex Mundi). In Australia, we have Carolyn Morwood (The Blessing File). In the U.S. leading exponents of the flourishing bibliomysterical genre include John Dunning (Booked To Die, Bookman’s Wake), Julie Kaewart (Uncatalogued, Unsigned, Unbound), Lawrence Block (The Burglar Who Liked To Quote Kipling) and Marianne Macdonald (Death’s Autograph, Road Kill). I am not convinced that all of these are, or were, bona-fide bookdealers. Indeed, I should like to delve more deeply into bibliomysteries some other time: meanwhile I commend to you an article by Steven E. Smith: The Antiquarian Bookseller as a Hero in Bibliomysteries. You can find it on the web. (And may I propose, please, a new potentially money-spinning genre: the biblio-romance? Get cracking!)
The prince of bookseller-writers must surely be Larry McMurtry, whose guiding hand is behind (or possibly in front of) the book town Archer City, Texas. You could argue that Larry is actually a writer, whose sideline is bookselling. That may be so, but after his graceful tribute to booksellers at the Oscars in March, I grapple him tightly to the brotherhood of booksellers. It is worth recording what he said, when he and Diana Ossana accepted the award for best screen adaptation: “And finally I’m going to thank all the booksellers of the world….from the humblest paperback exchange to the masters of the great bookshops of the world. All are contributors to the survival of the culture of the book. A wonderful culture which we mustn’t lose.”
Printing is another favored (and often money-devouring) sideline for dedicated booksellers – especially “craft printing”: private press work, hand-printing, letter-press and so on. A Melbourne bookseller who took a different tack was Gaston Renard. He discovered that the most efficient and reliable way of getting his catalogues printed was in-house, using his own equipment (this in the days before PCs and desk-top publishing). He took on outside printing jobs and built up a useful business. I was going to say “alongside” his antiquarian book business but strictly speaking it was underneath his book business. I remember the custom-built premises in Sackville Street, Collingwood: the printing works were on the ground floor, with the books up above on the first floor. All gone now. Gaston’s son Julien still deals in antiquarian books but on a smaller scale (he sold off the bulk off his stock to a large internet bookshop site/search engine a few years ago for a very large sum of money – a great bookselling coup, timed perfectly to coincide with the great upsurge in internet bookselling). Another Melbourne bookseller, Graeme Robinson, of Access Books, turned what was more or less a hobby into a lucrative sideline. Being a talented amateur carpenter, he made his own shelving and bookcases; he then built bookcases for customers and colleagues who admired his craftsmanship. As word got round, his order book filled up and the extra work subsidized his bookshop very nicely. Last I heard was that Graeme had got out of books completely and was now a full-time shop-fitter. Some sidelines make you offers you simply can’t refuse.
Book auctioning is another booksellers’ sideline which is gaining ground. In Adelaide Paul Depasquale of Pioneer Books organizes two or three public book auctions per year, while in Melbourne three of our leading antiquarian booksellers joined forces a few years ago to create a company called “Australian Book Auctions”. It is the only auction house in Australia to specialize in books, and nothing but books. It has been outstandingly successful, both at attracting high quality offerings and at achieving high prices. The directors all operate conventional antiquarian book businesses as well. There have been mutterings in some quarters that auctioneering booksellers are not really “booksellers” within the normal meaning of the word and that they ought not to be eligible for membership of our professional body, ANZAAB. And what about conflicts of interest (say the mutterers) when these people are wearing their bookdealer’s hat one minute and their auctioneer’s hat the next? All this is good fun and I don’t propose to go into it here. But I am sure that, as a sideline, book auctioning is not for the faint-hearted. I suggest that an easier option would be to set up as a “bibliographic consultant.” I never heard of a consultant who didn’t make a packet.
Let’s put aside book-related activities and see how cash-strapped booksellers spread their wings in other ways. What I call “parallel retailing” is a popular option. You know what I mean: the bookshop/coffee shop, the bookshop/gift shop, the bookshop/craft shop, the bookshop/antiques shop. In Exeter, New South Wales, James Larsen runs a bookshop/post office and in Tenterden, England I stumbled across a bookshop/pharmacy. Contact me immediately, via the editor, if you have sighted other bizarre businesses running in tandem with a bookstore. Please let there be somewhere in the U.S. a bookshop/butchery or even a bookshop/abattoir. “Slaughterhouse Books”? “The Bloody Shambles Bookshop?”
But lateral thinking can reap richer rewards than parallel retailing. Melbourne bookseller, Mike O’Brien, recently disembarked from the Oceana Cruises luxury cruise ship, M.S. Nautica, having spent four weeks swanning round the South China Sea, as an "enrichment lecturer””. Mike is a specialist in military history, a Vietnam veteran and a retired major-general. In between downing Singapore slings in the Horizons Bar and sightseeing in exotic ports, he managed to deliver half-a-dozen on-board lectures. His subject: military engagements in Vietnam, Borneo, Singapore, Thailand and Hong Kong. Nice work, and very enriching! I see that Cunard are soon to launch their new superliner Queen Victoria, which is equipped with a library of (gosh!) six thousand books. (Surely they mean sixty thousand books. Or six hundred thousand books. This is the Cunard’s new flagship for heaven’s sake!) If Cunard have scrimped on their library they will probably scrimp on their enrichment lecturers. Be warned (and get in quick if you have inside you around six lectures on a useful specialist subject).
A bookseller from the same suburb as Mike is Loch Wilson of Loch’s Bookshop. Loch’s sideline is unusual: he is a rat-catcher. Or, to use the jargon, a Pest Control Executive. He does not (apparently) specialize in vermin of the book. I was surprised when at my first visit to Loch’s shop, he pressed his rat-catcher card on to me: “Just in case you ever need my services. Everyone does sooner or later, you know.” Which is what funeral directors say too. Talking of which, Daylesford bookseller Paul Kennedy used to be on call as coffin-handler and official mourner for the local undertakers: he could be seen on funeral days, clad in black, leaving a note on the shop door “Gone to Funeral”. Melbourne bookseller, Michael Noonan, used to work part-time as a grave-digger at the Melbourne General Cemetery. I know because he worked part-time for me too (my shop is the nearest one to the cemetery).
In Tasmania, where they do things differently, bookseller Pete Jermy of Ulverstone Books moonlights as a drummer in two bands: The Liquid Nails (blues/contemporary rock) and Nine Lives (rock/soul review). Back in England, Pete drummed with The Honeycombs, who (you remember) had a No.1 hit in 1964 with “Have I The Right ?” (It reached No.5 on the U.S. charts). Pete’s new bands have not hit those heights but in a good week with three gigs he can earn as much as he earns in a week of bookselling. And Michael Sprod, of Astrolabe Books in Hobart, blows a whistle – as an accredited soccer referee, he gets to travel round Tasmania on Saturdays in winter, adjudicating soccer matches at the highest level. He reports that his referee’s remuneration just about covers the cost of paying for an assistant in the shop while he’s away.
Which is, of course, a consideration. It’s not much use having a part-time job which actually costs you money. This is why “in-shop” activities are so appealing. May I commend espionage – international spying, covert operations, you know the sort of thing – as a convenient and profitable sideline? You will have the added satisfaction of knowing that, in your fashion, you are fighting tyranny and injustice. And in Peter Kroger you have a very good (or, if you prefer, a very bad) model for bookshop spying. In the mid-1950s, Kroger moved with his wife Helen from Canada to London: he set up shop in the Strand as an antiquarian bookdealer specializing in erotica and “curiosa”, with an emphasis on books about sado-masochism and torture. He was knowledgeable and successful, respected and well-liked in the trade. Then, in 1961 he and his wife were arrested, charged with espionage, tried and sentenced to twenty years in prison. It was proved that they had been passing British naval secrets and other classified intelligence to Moscow. The bookshop was just a front, a good one but not quite good enough.
Kroger’s story is interesting. His real name was Morris Cohen and he was born in the Bronx in 1910, the son of East European immigrants. At university he became a communist and then went to Spain to fight Franco and the fascists during the civil war. He married “Helen” (real name Lona), also a communist, and served in the U.S. army during the Second World War. They had both begun spying for the Soviet Union in the late 1930s and after the war carried on their operations in New York. They were close associates of Julius and Ethel Rosenberg, the “atom bomb spies” who, after a sensational trial went to the electric chair in 1953. The day of the Rosenberg’s arrest, the Cohens were warned and were able to make their escape. With Soviet cash and forged passports (they assumed the identity of Peter and Helen Kroger, a couple who had died in New Zealand) they traveled the world until settling in London in 1954. They served only eight years in a British prison before being released in 1969 in a prisoner exchange with the Soviet Union. They settled in Poland. This is what Peter Kroger writes about his life in espionage: “Every man to his trade, and this is mine.”
Despite my Cambridge education, and my flair for languages, spying is not my trade. But teaching is. At least it was. So when, back in December, someone said to me: “You know, they’re looking for a French teacher at Braemar College” I pricked up my ears. What if I applied for the job? What if I got it? How good would that be? An end to scratching around for a living selling books. I’d be earning real money and I’d be getting weeks of paid holidays, not to mention superannuation, health insurance, sick leave, the whole package. And with a commute of fifteen minutes to Mount Macedon instead of fifty-five to Melbourne, I’d save hours on travel, and a fortune on petrol. Then on the macro scale – this was tantalizing – there would be the symmetry of it all. I spent my first seven years in the workforce as a teacher of French. How neat to conclude my working life doing the same thing. Teaching would bracket my career as a bookseller, top and tail it so to speak. From pedagogy to bibliopoly and back….brilliant!
The fantasy lasted for all of 48 hours. The dreadful realities of teaching came flooding back to me. “You could do it part-time,” said Susan helpfully. No, I couldn’t. If you take it seriously (and I did) teaching is all-demanding, all-consuming. There are no half-measures. I tore up the application form. “Anyway,” I said, “after all these years of working for myself, I’m probably unemployable.”
I may never find out. It looks like I may already have stumbled onto a good thing. On my country plot outside Melbourne I have been planting raspberries, or rather (to be pedantic) raspberry canes. Over a thousand of them, of different varieties: Willamette, Heritage, Nootka and Chilcolton. They are slowly coming into production. And since December I have been making jam, laboring over a steaming jam pan like some crazed wizard. The shelves of our pantry are heavy with gleaming jars of wine-dark jam. Two days before Christmas I took thirty pots of jam into the shop and stuck them on the counter with a small hand-written notice: “Alice’s Home-Made Raspberry Jam. Ingredients: Raspberries, Sugar. Organically produced by peasant labor in Woodend.
Small pot (240grams) $4,00; large pot (360grams) $6.00” And Alice in Wonderland is pictured holding a small sign which reads simply “Jam To-day”. I sold the lot by mid-day on Christmas Eve. And sales have continued nicely, with plenty of repeat business. A man came in last week and bought two more large pots. “I don’t know if your books are any good,” he said, “but your raspberry jam is bloody brilliant.”
I have always known that most Australians, like most people everywhere, are far more interested in food than secondhand books but it’s good to reap some benefit from this knowledge at long last. Nor is this small add-on to my business simply “money for jam.” When I totted up the set-up and maintenance costs of my raspberry patch, production and manufacture costs, (not including labor, of course) I worked out that each pot of jam currently owes me about twenty dollars. Luckily this figure will reduce as time goes on. I calculate that some day soon, in about 2008, I should be in front! And after that, whoopee! You will recall what the small farmer said when asked what he’d do with the million dollars he’d just won on the lottery. “Easy,” he said. “I’ll just keep on farming the way I have till the money runs out.” In the same fighting spirit, I aim to carry on bookselling a while longer yet. At the very least until the jam runs out.
Anthony Marshall is owner of Alice’s Bookshop in North Carlton, an inner-city suburb of Melbourne, Australia. He is a member of the Australian and New Zealand Association of Antiquarian Booksellers and author of “Fossicking for Old Books” (Melbourne 2004).