Deal or No Deal

The art of scouting for rare books in the Age of the Internet

Should you have been one of the handful of rare book lovers to have patronized the Austin Book and Paper Show last March, you’d have encountered what the real estate folks call a buyers’ market. So much so that as I browsed the shelves of the 35 vendors (down from 122 last year), it occurred to me that I was being followed. A dealer who had seen me fondle her $200 copy of Charles Darwin’s Animals and Plants Under Domestication (1888) cornered me outside the bathroom to see if I wanted to haggle. As I hurried back to lowball the vendor from Houston, yet another panicked bookseller grabbed my arm with one hand and with the other waved in my face a $52 copy of A.W. Fulton’s 1909 culinary classic, Home Pork Making, which I had also browsed. In the end I left with two boxes of loot, more leftover cash than I had expected, and, I’ll admit, a slightly guilty conscience. When I mentioned this fire sale to Luke Bilberry, owner of 12th Street Books in Austin, he said, “Sure they sold out. They needed gas money to get home.”

I initially interpreted the affair as yet another depressing sign that in the age of online bookselling, traditional dealers were as doomed as dinosaurs. Then I began talking to the dinosaurs. When they weren’t chasing me around Palmer Events Center, many spoke with surprising optimism about the state of the book business. Of course, anyone who loves rare books can tick off a lamentable number of independent bookstores that have closed shop in the past 15 years. When I once briefly entertained the fantasy of opening a used and rare bookstore in San Marcos, several established bookstore owners I spoke with asked me matter-of-factly if I were independently wealthy. Nonetheless, the decline of “bricks-and-mortar” shops, accompanied by the rise of superstores, is only a small part of the story—a story in which the Internet (that supposed enemy of all things antiquarian) has emerged as a sturdy financial crutch rather than a villainous scapegoat.

Although antiquarian in temperament, dealers in rare books are by no means allergic to technology. Bill Estes, who has owned and run The Book Rack in Sherman for the last 27 years, is thrilled with what online book selling has done for his business. “I depend on people bringing stuff in,” he says, “and you never know what you’re going to get.” Sure enough, this unpredictability is something that dealers universally relish. Now, he says, “when we get something good we don’t have to wait for the right buyer to come along. We just list it on Amazon.” Whereas Estes might have unloaded one rare book a month before going online, he says he now “gets orders all the time—five to six a week.” He recently bought for $5 a book called Doolittle’s Tokyo Raiders, an account of a World War II battle, that—after discovering the signatures of all the actual raiders on the inside flap—he listed online for $700. He has several buyers in the bidding.

Alan Culpin, whose Abracadabra Books used to be in Rockport before moving to Denver in 2003, is less overtly sanguine about the Internet, but he’s embraced it with some reluctance. “We jumped on it from the start in 1995 because we had a manager who was computer literate,” he says. He and wife Mary have since seen his rare book sales increase tenfold, which he attributes to the way the Internet allows “people who might not otherwise buy rare books” to do so without leaving their homes. Kevin MacDonnell, owner of MacDonnell Rare Books in Austin and an established and highly respected Texas dealer for 38 years, says that “for many booksellers the world is no longer flat. They’ve taken advantage of the Internet boom to increase sales.” It’s hard to find a dealer for whom this is not the case.

But money is not the be-all and end-all for book dealers. “It’s not as if we’re selling car parts,” MacDonnell says. While the booksellers hounding me around Palmer that afternoon weren’t as economically strapped as I’d assumed, they were still uncomfortable with how the nature of their work has changed under the influence of the Internet. Rare book dealers in Texas and elsewhere might have been quick to realize that the world is not flat, and they might have categorically tapped technology to expand their markets, quicken distribution, and reduce inventories. Indeed, while their bricks-and-mortar presence has declined, they are—through their rugged ingenuity—often thriving under the radar screen, behind closed doors, in garage offices, and out in rural locales where (as with Estes in Sherman) the rent is 25 cents a square foot. However—and here’s the catch—they’re bored. And if they’re not bored, they’re something even worse: demoralized about the future of rare book dealing.

Online selling of rare books might be a temporary windfall for many dealers, but it has also been a bust for the subculture of rare book dealing—an underworld of free-wheeling intrigue, gossip and egomania that once lent the trade a soap operatic intensity. If, as Larry McMurtry recently told me, book scouting is “an addiction,” then the most dedicated dealers, even when they’re lucky enough to move into the black, have gone to the booksellers’ version of rehab. Life might appear healthier in a climate where everything is above board and information is democratized, but it’s not nearly as gratifying for the elite aristocracy of dealers that has toiled for decades at the trade’s emotional core. Perhaps no dealer touches upon the complexity of that core more than a man whose name raises the eyebrows of every serious book dealer in America: the late John Holmes Jenkins.

Bill Estes, photo by Steve Satterwhite

Jenkins is hardly a household name. After moving to Texas to attend the University of Texas in 1958, he went on to become an Austin-based rare book dealer known internationally for his world-class collection. He was a crusader for bibliophilic justice, leading the FBI on a sting mission to recover two Audubon manuscripts that a gentleman who claimed to have found them in an attic tried to pawn off on Jenkins in 1971. The documents turned out to have been stolen from Union College in New York by a book bandit with strong ties to the mafia. Jenkins served as president of the Antiquarian Booksellers Association of America from 1980 to 1982, where, building on his Audubon experience, he became a passionate advocate for the aggressive recovery of stolen maps, prints, and books. Driven by passion for all things Texan, he played a pivotal role in helping UT (whose press published his own biographies on Texas figures) acquire massive collections of rare Texas documents. The most notable of his coups was the Eberstadt Collection, an unparalleled archive of Texas and Western history that Jenkins bought for $10 million from Edward Eberstadt & Sons of New York. Between 1965 and 1988, Jenkins claimed to have sold over 500,000 pieces of Texana worth more than $30 million. Not only did Jenkins become a millionaire in the process, but he epitomized the glory of rare book dealing for a generation of budding scouts.

Inevitably, the largest antiquarian bookseller in Texas history had a dark side. Perhaps the most innocent of his sins was his penchant for gratuitous flamboyance. Trying to ensure that nobody missed the significance of his Eberstadt purchase, Jenkins transported the collection from New Jersey to his Austin warehouse in a fleet of semitrailer trucks escorted by Texas Rangers. Other aspects of his business were more sinister. Accusations of fraud and forgery stuck to him like white on rice, and it’s likely that he knowingly sold several fakes of the Texas Declaration of Independence. On several occasions fire engulfed what the Antiquarian Booksellers Association of America reminded members was his “well-insured premises.” (The booksellers subsequently removed Jenkins, whose footprints were found in the aftermath of one of those fires, from its ranks.) A well-known fixture at Las Vegas poker tables, Jenkins was recognized by his nickname, “Austin Squatty,” a reference to the way he sat cross-legged when he played hands that routinely reached up to $25,000.

On April 17, 1989, Jenkins turned up dead in the Colorado River, just west of Bastrop, with a large caliber gunshot wound to the back of his head. “I wish it was cut-and-dried,” said the Bastrop County sheriff of Jenkins’ death, “but it’s not.” Officials ultimately called it a suicide.

Of course, Jenkins is no poster boy for the profession as it once was, or even a fair representation of its seamier underside. But Jenkins, whose addictions so tragically bled into each other, captured in extreme form many of the qualities that made rare book dealing such a rush before the digital age—the hunt, the gamble, the ego, the intrigue, the competitiveness, the grand gesture, and, maybe more than anything else, the precious worth of individually accumulated knowledge. “John Jenkins worked harder to make a dishonest dollar than an honest one,” says MacDonnell, who managed Jenkins’ literary first editions from 1980 to 1986, “but he was a great bookman.” Despite his problems, MacDonnell continues, he understood that it was a vocation in which, as MacDonnell well appreciated, you not only got to “put your soul on the table and show everyone, ‘here’s what’s in my heart,'” but “you got to travel, you got to have fun, you got to make some money, and you got meet people.” It was all part of buying and selling books at a time when the vast majority of inventories were unknown.

Bilberry of 12th Street Books maintains a conspicuous online presence to complement his walk-in business, but he appreciates—one might say longs for—the good old days. Bilberry entered the rare book business in 1990, the year after Jenkins’ death, as a clerk and later assistant manager of Houston’s Detering Book Gallery. These were the twilight years, a time when young dealers apprenticed their way toward independence by learning the subtleties of the trade through an established master. Bilberry thoroughly benefited from his education under Oscar Graham, Detering’s rare book buyer and a high priest of rare book dealing. But by 1994, having seen thousands of rare books pass under his nose, and having done his bibliographic homework on those books, Bilberry was ready to strike out on his own.

Should the year have been 1998 rather than 1994, Bilberry would likely have started by buying books online. However, not having access to such sites as bookfinder.com, alibris.com, or abebooks.com, he raised his stock the old-fashioned way—he hit the road. Armed with an Airstream trailer and a modest pocketful of cash, Bilberry crisscrossed the country, culling a collection of books by cold-calling libraries, visiting backcountry used bookstores, perusing thrift shops and garage sales, and, through it all, learning that the best part of the rare book business was when you “played on your knowledge.”

“Playing on your knowledge” is something that seasoned rare book dealers value as sacred. It’s how they’ve traditionally rated themselves and is nothing less than a central part of a dealer’s identity. “It’s really knowledge that comes from the experience over many years of handling books,” Bilberry says. Of course it’s also knowledge that allows you to eat a guy’s lunch. “Oh, I scooped a lot of people,” Bilberry says. Sure enough, within a few weeks of his journey he was paying for his trip by playing on his knowledge, all the while saving the real finds for his future store. After seven months of traveling, Bilberry returned to Houston with 4,000 books weighing down the Airstream. He started 12th Street Books in 1998 with a co-investor and now runs a brisk business that relies on a steady client base, an aesthetically pleasing bookstore free of gift-shop junk, and the Internet, where he offloads many of his books.

Oscar Graham, photo by Troy Fields

Bilberry and many other dealers I interviewed spoke highly of “the scoop.” Scooping another dealer sounds like a Machiavellian thing to do—and it is. Which is the point. Scooping was never considered dishonest. In fact, it was—as Bilberry learned— generally assumed to be an intensely exciting part of the game. If one dealer knew his hand better than another, woe to the dealer who had lesser knowledge to play on. There was nothing ethically problematic, Graham says, about buying a book for $25 from an Ohio vendor that you’d seen a few days earlier priced at $100 in a New York shop. MacDonnell shrugs and calls it “arbitrage”—moving goods from one market to another. Today, though, it’s increasingly difficult to scoop anyone—no matter how ignorant about books people might be—so long as they have access to a computer. With the Internet, supply (or at least a version of it) is a click away. A wealth of data has, in a sense, been uploaded from the minds of men who spent years accumulating it into a neutral database where any crackpot, as Culpin puts it, “who just inherited a thousand books from his grandfather” can use it to become an amateur dealer. Many genuine rare book dealers—those who have “played on their knowledge” to build their businesses on an honest foundation of hard-earned experience—have been emasculated as a result. “I must say that it’s not nearly as much fun,” says Graham.

The rare book situation, though, might be a whole lot worse than “not nearly as much fun.” Experienced dealers with the deepest understanding of the rare book trade—people like MacDonnell and Graham and Culpin—see handwriting a distant wall, and they’re fairly certain the message spells doom on many levels for a trade that’s gone digital. All the initial cheering about what the Internet has done for short-term sales notwithstanding, more skeptical dealers see a classic “race to the bottom” scenario developing. It’s a familiar macroeconomic concept: Supply increases while competitors outbid each other on goods whose price is falling. Dealers are moving their inventories more rapidly than ever with the Internet, but they’re doing so in an environment where the market uncritically responds to what is “out there” on Web sites such as bookfinder.com and addall.com. Sadly, the dealers hit the hardest in the race to the bottom are those who have been in the business the longest, building their collections, like Bilberry, from the ground up. Old-timers who have taken a blue-chip investment approach—that is, those who have done their homework, scouted the territory, and accumulated an inventory with an eye toward future sales—have been devastated by information-age deflation. “Imagine having thousands of books that used to be worth $50 a piece that are now, many years later, worth $20,” MacDonnell says. “Things were supposed to go the other way; it’s like being an Enron employee without Kenny Boy to blame.”

Luke Bilberry, photo by Jana Birchum

A free-market advocate might celebrate this trend and conclude, “Oh well, survival of the fittest”—and note the benefits that evidently accrue to the consumer. But, as is usually the case with so-called free-market interpretations, the situation is not so simple. One problem is that the information listed online is anything but perfect. As MacDonnell repeatedly told me, “What’s visible is a complete illusion.” For a variety of reasons, dealers rarely ever put their entire inventory online—a fact that screws up the supply right off the bat. All kinds of crazy sc
narios can follow on the heels of this misinformatio
. For example, when an amateur dealer who has inherited from his grandmother a copy of Home Pork Making goes to bookfinder.com and sees only two copies of Home Pork Making listed, he’ll think he’s struck gold. He’ll price it high and find a buyer. The buyer will check the supply, agree to the price, and the exchange will occur. The following week, a buyer interested in Home Pork Making might visit the same site to find six copies listed, and thus buy three copies for what the first buyer paid for one. The next day, another hapless Home Pork Making buyer will go to the site and find three copies listed, all of them priced through the roof. He’ll buy one. Then eight more will appear. Before you know it the invisible hand is smacking people around left and right for their gullibility. In short, with online trading the supply that one sees is nothing more than snapshot of a much larger, hidden story.

Beyond deflation and imperfect information, online book trading is rife with fraud. Old school dealers might have played on their knowledge to scoop a competitor, but young dealers entering the business through the Internet today too easily play on their fecklessness. Much of the fraud is petty, and it has everything to do with the way the Internet has allowed amateurs to invade the ranks of the professionals. Culpin estimates that about 20,000 online dealers have swamped what was once a cozy club of about 1,300 traditional dealers. “Most of them haven’t a clue,” he says of the arriviste hordes. MacDonnell, who owns the largest private collection of Twain first-editions in the world, thinks they do have a clue about at least one thing: stealing. He speaks passionately about fraud because he’s so often been on the receiving end of it. Here’s how it typically works: MacDonnell acquires a rare book, spends hours and sometimes days tracing its provenance, checking the bibliographies, verifying the authenticity of the binding, researching the print type, and authenticating the frontispiece. Then he writes a description, lists his sources, and places it in his paper and online catalogs. An anonymous online seller who happens to own an inferior version of the same book—perhaps one with the cover replaced—proceeds to swipe MacDonnell’s description, post the book on ebay.com, and sell it for $5 less than MacDonnell’s copy. Thus MacDonnell, with his diligent trips to research libraries and hours poring over bibliographies, sees his work demolished by a part-time dealer practicing what Culpin calls “a nice little side business.” On one occasion the online buyer of a Twain first edition who suspected he’d been ripped off called MacDonell for advice. MacDonnell asked him if he had a copy of the Bibliography of American Literature, for starters. The buyer had no idea what he was talking about. After mentioning this detail, MacDonnell, a kind-looking man with a gentle smile, looked at me, crunched his eyebrows, and—with a wall of the world’s best collection of Twain books behind him—said, as if he were addressing the duped buyer, “You shouldn’t be fucking around with Mark Twain!”

In the pre-Internet days this was the kind of buyer that MacDonnell might have taken under his wing and educated rather than cussing out. If there is a single aspect of rare book dealing that traditional dealers miss the most in the Internet age, it’s the social aspect of working with collectors. Graham recalls how his best customers were the ones who, as young book lovers, started tentatively but, with Graham’s guidance, evolved over the years into serious and confident collectors. Decades of this kind of bit-by-bit interaction have enabled Graham to stay in business. “Most of my sales remain on a person-to-person basis,” he says, with buyers he’s known for a long time. “Buying books is about growing, learning, and being exposed to things.” He relished being able to discuss books with clients who held “the object in hand” and worked with him to develop a philosophy of collecting. MacDonnell (who spent almost four hours talking nonstop to me about books) takes his educational mission seriously as well. Over the years he has advised collectors about how to build a reference library, how to recognize original binding, the intricacies of broken type and issue points, and how to amass the most comprehensive collection they can afford. The art of cultivating serious clients not only gives MacDonnell emotional and professional satisfaction. It pays off in the old fashioned way, too. Last year, over $250,000 of his total income came from five sales to long-term clients. For clients and dealers entering the business in the digital age, there’s almost no chance to form these kinds of relationships. “The clients I only deal with online,” says MacDonnell, “don’t give a crap about me.”

Is this the fate of the rare book trade? Buyers and sellers who don’t give a crap about each other trying to dupe invisible clients online with bogus deals? Out in Archer City all of the concerns that currently plague the trade seem irrelevant. McMurtry still runs his bookstore, Booked Up, which now contains somewhere in the vicinity of a million books. None of these books factors into the supply that so many online dealers accept as truth because, as McMurtry says, “I’ve never used a computer or done anything on the Internet.” When I spoke to McMurtry on the phone, he was out in Tucson visiting used bookstores and sending back a couple of boxes a week to Archer City. “I scout every day,” he says. “There are always bargains for those who want to look—it’s a matter of how much energy you want to put into it and where you want to look.” Where you want to look … One can only hope that an emerging generation of rare book dealers—few and proud as they might be—will decide to look in the right places, places that—as Texas dealers like Jenkins, Graham, and MacDonnell knew so well—can only be discovered by interacting with the world beyond the computer screen.

James E. McWilliams is a writer and historian living in Austin.

James McWilliams is an Ingram professor of history at Texas State University-San Marcos.

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