Actors get into their characters’ heads to learn their dialogue. Novelists get into their characters’ heads to create more believable dialogue and narrative to drive the plot. What about booksellers? What methods to they use to learn the stories both in books and behind them? Today we hear from two New York–based booksellers to understand their approach.
Erik DuRon has been a bookseller for over 20 years, at St. Mark's Bookshop, the Globe Bookstore in Prague, and Bauman Rare Books. He is from New York City. Jess Kuronen is an artist, a graduate of Cooper Union, and a graphic designer for the Wall Street Journal. She is from Philadelphia. In 2017, they re-launched Left Bank Books, formerly an open shop in Greenwich Village, as an online used and rare bookshop specializing in literature and the arts. They hope to re-open in the Village sometime in the near future.
Brent: Thank you both for talking with me! What makes memorization a vital skill for book dealers?
Jess: There’s two kinds of things to remember about a book: my interest in the book as a dealer, and my interest in the book as a fan. As a dealer I need to remember why a book is important in an author’s career, why it’s important in history, and why it will be important to my customer’s collection. There’s always a series of smaller stories that helped get the printed word on the page.
Brent: And as a booklover?
Jess: I also try to remember my relationship to a book as a booklover. It keeps me thinking like a collector. Why is this book exciting? We aren’t in the business of trading commodities, plus I don’t think collectors enjoy buying books from uninspired book-selling robots.
Brent: Erik? What makes memorization a vital skill for book dealers?
Erik: Wow, so much. When it comes to books there's really no end of things to remember, not just names and dates and publishers, though plenty of that, too. Many if not all books have what are called “issue points,” usually typographic errors—mistakes made by the printer—that appear, say, in a first printing, but then are corrected in later printings. It's the presence or absence of these mistakes by which we distinguish a potentially valuable copy of a given book from one with little or no value. And some books can get really complicated, with five, six, seven or more issue points.
Brent: Some examples?
Erik: Famous examples include Huckleberry Finn by Mark Twain, and The Great Gatsby by F. Scott Fitzgerald. Huck was first published in 1884 in an edition of 30,000 copies, which was huge for the 19th century. The earliest copies in the edition had something like a dozen mistakes that got corrected as the press rolled: an illustration was defaced and had to be replaced, another was listed as being on p. 88 in the list of illustrations but actually appeared on p. 87, the word “saw” was misprinted as “was” on p. 57, and on and on. It can be the difference between a copy worth $8,000 – $10,000 and one worth just a few hundred dollars.
Brent: What about Gatsby?
Erik: Gatsby likewise has no fewer that six mistakes in its 1925 first printing, the best known of which is the phrase “sick in tired” instead of “sick and tired” on p. 205. Today we can look all these things up quickly in databases and on the Internet, but having a storehouse of this information in your head is invaluable when scouting books in the field.
Brent: For you, books are about storytelling on multiple levels.
Erik: But more than data, I think it's the stories behind books, how they came to be published, what else was going on when they were, that creates meaning for collectors and book lovers in general. Mary Shelley was the daughter of two radical English philosophers, Mary Wollstonecraft and William Godwin. She wrote Frankenstein when she was just 18, and involved in an adulterous relationship with poet Percy Shelley (whom she would soon marry, and who died a few years later when he was just 29). It was initially conceived of as a caprice, while she and Shelley were staying on Lake Geneva, and hanging out with Lord Byron and a few others. Byron had the idea one rainy day that they should all write ghost stories, and the story that came to be Frankenstein was Mary Shelley's contribution. It was published anonymously two years later, in 1818, and widely assumed to have been written by her husband. It wasn't until the 1831 third edition that her name appeared on the title-page, along with an introduction by her explaining the circumstances behind the book. That third edition was also the first with illustrations.
Brent: Wow, that is a fascinating backstory!
Erik: Nearly every book worth reading and collecting has one, and to the degree you can marshal these stories when presenting books to customers and collectors, you'll be that much more successful as a book dealer.
Brent: Jess, any stories?
Jess: We have a first edition of Lucia Berlin’s second book, Angel’s Laundromat. It includes stories that were later published in her 2015 retrospective, A Manual for Cleaning Women, which was published posthumously and became a New York Times best-seller, helping give attention to a largely overlooked writer. This would be a great piece for someone collecting Lucia Berlin, or 20th century female authors, or even building a collection about laundromat drama (everyone has a niche). It is important for me to present to a customer where and how Angel’s Laundromat fits in Berlin’s biography, and how that might fit into their collection. But I also like to throw in that one time I publicly teared up reading one of her stories on my morning commute.
Brent: What are some techniques you use to commit details to memory?
Jess: Look. At. Books. And then talk about those books. And then look at how other people talk about those books. And then look at more books. Maybe even talk about the book while you’re holding the book. It sounds like a generic technique, but just immersing yourself in the material is the best way to memorize it. Bookselling is a lot of reading about books without the actual book in front of you, and then trying to recall your research when you finally are holding the book.
Brent: Very true. The same skills that one uses to learn a foreign language—reading, writing, speaking, and listening—are critical to memorization. They involve different parts of the body and the brain. So talking about books while holding them is terrific reinforcement.
Jess: I’m fairly early in my bookselling career, so I’m still familiarizing myself with the terms of the trade. I’ve made flashcards, Googled everything, practice pitched books at parties, read through other dealer’s catalogs. One of Erik’s useful training exercises is having me read a dealer’s description of a book and fully visualize it. Then I have to decide what I think the book looks like before referring to the photos to check my understanding of the description. It’s taught me how to identify books by non-visual cues, while also testing if I remember my book jargon.
Brent: Erik, anything to add?
Erik: In my case I would say it helps to have been a reader for much of my life. If you have a passion for a subject and willingly immerse yourself in it, you find you kind of organically retain things. Books are tactile, you need to hold them and handle them and look at them in person to absorb their full content. If I know a book like Huckleberry Finn has a dozen issue points, the first thing I want to do is handle a copy and find each and every one of them. Those mistakes, and the printwork in general, are traces of human effort, even if sloppy effort. If you can see the real thing, and have to put in a little work to find it, it helps fix it in your mind. That said, when specifically training to be book dealer, and trying to come to terms with and master the vast quantities of data, flashcards certainly helped. Beyond that, though, I like visualization.
Brent: Tell me about your visualization process.
Erik: I like to create mental web of associations. If Fitzgerald published Gatsby in 1925, what was Hemingway doing? Well, he had only published two small books of poems and stories up to that point, and it was Fitzgerald in fact who introduced him to his editor, Maxwell Perkins. Perkins bought two of Hemingway's novels for Scribner's, the publishing house where he worked, and they were both published in 1926, one year after Gatsby. They were Torrents of Spring, which was sort of Hemingway's leftover juvenilia, which Perkins bought to get Hemingway out of his contractual obligation to another publisher. The other was The Sun Also Rises, seen by many as Hemingway's masterpiece, and certainly my personal favorite of his books. And then there were so many other good books by members of the so-called Lost Generation published then and around then. It helps to cultivate a vivid sense of literature and history as being made by living people.
Brent: What information is trickiest to remember, and how do you approach it?
Jess: I will never know exact dates. I’m a strong believer in “1920-ish.”
Brent: You sell yourself short! There is a method called The Major System that can help you master dates and other numbers. It involves assigning phonetic values to each digit and then turning numbers into words. Sort of like remembering a phone number by a word it spells on the keypad. That said, frequently changing price information must be a bear to remember.
Erik: I find that pricing history and other market-related factors are trickiest to remember. At that point you're talking about purely quantitative information, and somewhat arbitrary at that. What did this book sell for the last time it appeared at auction? How about the last time a dealer offered it? Why? Was it because of condition? Or had a copy not appeared in a long time, and so there was greater demand? When you're scouring through databases looking at this stuff, you don't always have all that background information. It’s just numbers, but you still need to know them so you don't make a mistake when you try to buy a copy for a customer or for inventory. That’s where I just look a thing up over and over again, as many times as it takes to stick. In most cases that information is there and you can research at your leisure. When it's not there sometimes you just have to guess, and that's where experience and instinct kick in.
Brent: Repetition is your friend. Repetition is your friend! What else would you like my readers to know about why your work is important and why physical books matter?
Jess: Books have always “suffered” due to technology and increasing ease of production. Illuminated manuscripts became non-luminous and were eventually replaced with movable type. Leather was eventually replaced with paper. At each stage in the history of the book, the form and craft have further self annihilated, little by little, until now we have back-lit PDF torrents we read on our phones.
Brent: And yet, that clearly hasn’t diminished the demand for physical books, as witnessed by antiquarian book fairs and even online sales.
Jess: Right, at every stage of the book, we have always had book collectors—passionate, obsessive, slightly manic bibliophiles. We are not entering a book-less world, but the form has changed and will continue to change. Amazon’s Kindle turned 10 last year, but ebook sales were down 17%—compared to a 5% bump in printed books. Maybe I’m naive, but who wants to collect PDFs?
Erik: I don't like to be sentimental or grandiose about books, though I may just automatically be both. Books are the repositories of so much of our history and experience, aren't they? At any rate, they've been the most efficient technology for the transmission of knowledge and narrative for going on 600 years. And they can be beautiful examples of craftsmanship in their own right, aspiring to the totemic status of an art object, even if mechanically reproduced. And certainly there have been incredible handmade and artists' books.
Brent: Any final words about the impact of technology on books? It seems safe to say that the internet allows serious collectors can search more widely for desirable books.
Erik: Obviously, revolutions in technology that upend society occur, and we've been in the midst of one for a while now. I don't think of myself as a conservative person, but I think it would be a real shame for us to lose a relationship with books, which would be like losing some fundamental piece of self-knowledge. At any rate, it's probably true that books, while incalculably influential in the history of the race, have only really captured the imagination of a small percentage of the population at any given time. I'm of that number, and those of us who are recognize each other. Though it has to be said, there do seem to be fewer of us lately.
Brent: Well, thank you both, Jess and Erik, for sharing your extensive knowledge. There are so many profound similarities between your memorization techniques and that of the performing artists I interview: activating your senses, visualizing and associating, engaging in tireless repetition, and so much more. The practical application is eminently transferable.
Left Bank Books’s hand-picked inventory of used and rare books reflects their interest above all in creative process. Artists and designers, musicians and performers, photographers and filmmakers, poets and novelists—all take their inspiration where they find it. Whatever your practice, Left Bank Books wants to be one of the places you go looking. Browse their inventory and find out about book fairs and other events at Left Bank Books.