Tuesday, 19 March 2013

Dilemmas of a book dealer (1)

In the past few years I have embraced the bookselling profession. It was not something I had long considered as a desired, or even potential area of work and was largely a decision of necessity as I was unable to find work following graduation from university. This was not a move I would have been able to make without considerable support however, and I am eternally grateful for the assistance of my parents, particularly the expertise of my father, who has spent much of his life in the profession, and continues to do so.
            There are many perks that come with the trade, an obvious, but not entirely trouble-free aspect being a continual supply of interesting books to read. I was warned when establishing Dreadnought Books of the potential danger of specialising in a subject area too close to my own heart. The danger being a reluctance to relinquish ownership of books I had half an eye on reading. With space being an ever present concern for the book dealer a degree of ruthlessness when considering what stock to hold on to for personal use is essential.
Thus I have established myself some flexible restrictions. Whilst I wish it was not the case, the value of a book becomes a significant factor in dictating whether I keep it for personal use, or list it for general sale. Valuable books that I really feel I cannot pass up the chance to read make there way to the top of my prospective reading pile. Generally once I am finished reading a book I will list it for sale unless certain that I will wish to return to it. If a book has been on my shelves too long, and is continually trumped by incoming stock of a more compelling nature, it may eventually find its way onto the market before I’ve had a chance to read it. In truth, interesting books come into my possession at a greater rate than I could ever hope to read them, and as such some must be seen as missed opportunities. I continually remind myself that if I am to stay in the trade I may well come across the book again and maybe then it will take higher reading precedence.
Even with such parameters in place I often face dilemmas of judgement. The most recent case involved Ben Kiernan’s The Pol Pot Regime. This dark period of Cambodian history has captivated me since a brief visit to the country. Whilst I am unsure quite in what capacity, it is a subject I would like to explore further. It is unlikely I will reread The Pol Pot Regime in full, but its breadth of first-hand accounts and illumination of important Democratic Kampuchean documents make it an essential fixture for a comprehensive reference library of the period. The same is true of another book I have on Democratic Kampuchea, Michael Vickery’s Cambodia. 1975-1982. In this instance I have chosen to keep hold of both. The decision was made easier, as neither have much value, and both are Silkworm reprints, a Thai publisher with the knack for minor but frustrating defects. The Pol Pot Regime, for example, has errors to pagination, with one page absent entirely, a second copy of an earlier, out of sequence page, in its stead. For obvious reasons such aspects deter prospective buyers, without massively detracting from the copies use-value for reference. It is unlikely that I would have spotted this had I not read the book, making it the very worst kind of defect for those second-hand booksellers who take pride in their meticulous descriptions.
I can foresee greater dilemmas ahead as I seek to acquire more books on Democratic Kampuchea. Whilst the above books are not of great value, much written on the subject is quite scarcely available and hence fetch considerable sums online. I recently acquired a cheap copy of Peasants and Politics in Kampuchea, 1942-1981, edited by Ben Kiernan and Chanthou Boua. For now it sits safely on my own shelves awaiting consumption. When I have completed reading it this dilemma will resurface, as I fear it will continue to do so throughout my time as a bookseller. Not that one can really have many grounds for complaint. This piece may seem rather negative considering that this is essentially a perk of the trade. What can become problematic is the blurring of the lines between ones own library, and stock for sale. Making a book available online does not guarantee its sale of course, and I have on occasion read a book I have listed on ABE. This obviously comes with the continual fear that some unknowing buyer may sweep it from your grasp at any minute. Although, if the book is proving hard going it could come as a relief! To bring in a cultural reference from a rather different sphere, readers aware of Biggie Smalls’ song Ten Crack Commandments may recall the fourth commandment, oft repeated elsewhere, “Never get high on your own supply”. It appears this sentiment may have more relevance to the book trade than one would initially imagine. I fear I will be unable to rigidly conform to Biggie’s exacting standards. The desire to sample my own stock on occasion proving too great, which is fine as long as this desire is kept under control, managed in such a way as to prevent getting buried in books to read, with barely a volume for sale to the general public.

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