“It is hard to be so old, and harder still to be so blind. I miss the sun. And books. I miss the books most of all.”- A Storm of Swords
We traveled far beyond the sea, far beyond the wall. As dramatic as it sounds, given the choice between spending a week or two in the United Kingdom or not, well, the story speaks for itself.
The York Antiquarian Book Seminar takes place in September nestled between the languishing summer months, almost every bookseller dreads and the first major book fair of the Fall in Europe, York Antiquarian Book Fair. It took a quick minute to take realize how lucky I was to be able to attend YABS this year, due to the generosity of Between the Covers Rare Books and the fiendishly fabulous Jonathan Kearns. With that support, I spent three solid days immersed in a comprehensive lathering of many years of book trade wisdom. It was as if a bunch of owls got together, got drunk, and talked about their favourite hunting grounds for three days. The collective knowledge at YABS was cumulatively longer than the Hundred Years’ War [without the bloodshed]* well, maybe a little. (will get to that later).
Micklegate Bar, heads will roll
YABS is situated at the Bar Convent Living Heritage Centre [and nunnery, shhhhhh] smack dab in the front of this amazing Bar. Not bar like booze, but bar like gate [You are awesome, Norse.] Micklegate Bar, in fact. So, not only do I wake up in a 17th century nunnery (and I didn’t burst into flames), I look out the window at a 14th century gate. My A Knight’s Tale fantasies are real, kids. Apparently, a bunch of important white dudes’ heads were severed and left there on display. Aside my personal anachronistic glee, the location was perfect for the seminar. It was close to the train station (thank you Virgin), pubs, shops, points of interest, and even the racetrack for the book fair. The first night we were there, we happened upon a pub with decent food, drinks, and a server with a 12″ spiked mohawk. Am I dreaming?
THE WALL, where’s Jon Snow?
I did, I really did review my binder full of preliminary notes. Perhaps it is the librarian in me, but I like to be prepared. In good fashion, the seminar opened with warm welcomes and introductions from Anthony Smithson of Keel Row Books and a chance to out myself as a ‘recovering librarian.’ It’s funny, but true. Looking forward to the keynote from Heather O’Donnell of Honey & Wax Booksellers speaking not just of the epigram: “use books as bees use flowers,” but “The Signal and the Noise.” I listened intently on the ‘meta’ of bookselling about boosting the signal and filtering out noise and picked up a quote that stuck with me, “Can one place a value in being surprised?” Short answer is yes, to me, the intrinsic nature of the trade rests on the value of response. For me, sometimes that noise is a beacon.
After Heather’s illuminating talk, we dived right into to fundamental financials and business structures, firstly with Alice Laverty, also of Keel Row Books and Sophie Schneideman, Rare Books & Prints. Admittedly, not my favourite subject, but absolutely critical to be able to wade through the process. As someone who skates by most of the time, I realize structure is important, and I resonated with Sophie’s astute sensibility towards administrative time vs. everything else fun in the book trade time. The book trade is a rabbit hole at times, we are Alice in Wonderland, however dedicating chunks of daily time to administrative, bookkeeping, and follow-up is sound. It’s ok to be a lion and a lamb. Good practice, also, to get in the habit of “quoting something everyday.”
I was able to chat with some nice chaps, fellow classmates, generally everyone attending was charming and friendly. After the breaks and food, grateful for the veg selections and liquid gold tea, we forged on with Anthony and Justin Croft speaking about buying books, aka getting your grubby paws on something cool, something spectacular, something achingly amazing, that something you might just sleep with under your pillow. Does that make the estimate value go up? Literally, how do you come upon such stuff. Well, I’ve never done a *real* auction, other than when I was a kid in Indiana and I stared at the cows with a “I will free you” face. From their stories, I can imagine it can be tense and often shady. Auctioneers have techniques that are seemingly dodgy. Ultimately, as mentioned, like in the States with the ABAA, if you are a member, you want to try and have a sliver of ethics. Really, as Jonathan Kearns eloquently mentioned shortly after, ‘best practice’ is your friend. You can operate with a sense of passion, but do so with a spine and a conscience. The rest can be sorted.
York Antiquarian Book Seminar – Jonathan Kearns speaking in poetic tongues
We ended the session with charged brains to tackle bibliographical description aka Kim’s ‘only authority I listen to’ bit with Simon Beattie and Justin Croft. Coming from the land of AACR2, RDA, NACO and other fascist acronyms, I quite like bib standards. Both Simon and Justin are like the NASA astrophysicists of books, not surprisingly could catalog an unpaginated book on Medieval methods of flaying turnips printed on mammoth skin while underwater and make it interesting. While bookseller descriptions are quite fluid compared to library standards, I appreciate the moth-to-flame mentality to be consistent. Collation exists for a reason. It can be useful, not just as a check and balance formula, but a practice that makes you well aware of the material you are handling. How could you not resist becoming intimate with your books?
Stay tuned for Day 2.