The Hang Fire Books Blog

The rantings of a bookdealer in Brooklyn, New York.

Tuesday, July 31, 2007


I just subscribed to daily installments of Middlemarch and Democracy in America (Alexis De Tocqueville) via RSS feed.

Dailylit offers email and RSS subscriptions to classics (and new Creative Commons-licensed works) in digestible, web-friendly chunks. I read the first installment of each and the texts were legible and ended at sensible points.

I tried this approach before with Pepys diary but it was in blog format, pre-RSS and I didn't stick with it. I may chuck these eventually and pick up the real books but for now it's a good way to get into substantial books that I've been neglecting.

Let's see if they have a suggestion page so I can request 1001 Nights...

Thanks to Another 52 Books for the link.

I'm back

Spent most of this past week in a loaf-off with this guy:

Since I was a Harry Potter widower (spoiler: He's gay!), I got a lot of reading done. Here's my report.

Streets of Laredo by Larry McMurtry-- I've been saving this one for a while since I was a huge fan of Lonesome Dove (...Laredo is the sequel). Have to say I was fairly disappointed. Without Gus McCrae's loopy soliloquies for contrast, Cal isn't a very interesting character. It could have used some flashback scenes featuring McCrae (since Cal is constantly thinking about him). The manhunting plot is weak as a structural device and the outlaws are so unmotivated and sociopathic that they feel like serial killers from a Thomas Harris novel rather than historical personages. I accepted Blue Duck in LD but he wasn't the most memorable part of the journey. All this book has is another flock. Also I was bugged by the series of ridiculously dangerous lone journeys undertaken by the female characters. Plucky heroines are one thing but anachronistic, foolhardy ones are another. McMurtry still shows off a gift for evoking place though. "Crowtown", a lawless settlement built around a rotting pile of crow-infested buffalo hides, will stay with me.

Tomato Red
by Daniel Woodrell-- Couldn't get through it. Style was overbearingly pretentious and the voice didn't fit the main character's circumstance. Not a tragedy though since I can de-accession the 6-inches of Woodrell titles on my overstuffed fiction shelf.

Maddball by Fredric Brown-- Looking for a noir-recovery after disappoinment of Tomato Red. Went with a favorite author and a favorite subject. Madball (from the magazine story "Pickled Punks") is like Agatha Christie's Ten Little Indians (aka: Ten Little N-words; And Then There Were None) set against a carnival/freakshow backdrop. It's thick with authentic carnie lingo ("madball" refers to the fortuneteller's crystal, "pickled punks" are the jarred fetuses used in the "unborn show") and peopled with colorful, likeable characters...all on the make. Very satisfying.

Valley of the Flame by Henry Kuttner-- Batty and hallucinogenic Rider Haggard-ish sf novel about a meteor crater in the Amazon that leads to another world where time moves at different speeds--like a river current--and mutation is quick. Slow-motion landslides, leopard people, a living forest in the service of a giant reptile brain...I finished this at 3 AM during a lightning storm. Not sure how much of it I dreamed.

Barbara Stanwyck: A Biography
by Al DiOrio-- Felt even slighter than its 220 pages. Gave me a list of movies to look for though. Oh for Turner Classic Movies and a DVR.

Flashman by George MacDonald Fraser-- Forgot about this one. Might save it til next summer.

There...he moved! Did you see him? I win.

Friday, July 20, 2007

For the next week...

I will be
Talk to y'all when I get back.

Charge More

Michael Lieberman at Book Patrol posted about penny bookdealers yesterday. It made me think about ways that more...ambitious? professional? upmarket? booksellers (basically people who don't want to spend every waking moment throwing Barbara Cartlands into puffy envelopes) can separate themselves from that first screen or two of seductively cheap listings.

Here's what I came up with:

1. Describe the book in your hand--Most penny dealers have one description. They're selling some platonic ideal of a used book that may or may not contain underlining; come with the CD; have a dustjacket; benefit someone in Africa; be covered in cat barf. If you accurately describe the condition of your item, the choosier buyers will seek you out.

2. Take a picture--This goes hand in hand with describing the book. If a venue allows for the uploading of images, provide them. This will make your listings pop. ABE has a drop down menu that lets a buyer filter for books with bookseller supplied photos. On eBay, an item with a gallery image takes up more screen space--that's a good advertising strategy. I even take pictures of low dollar books if they're aesthetically pleasing. You want to lure the buyers in with attractive and affordable sentimental favorites. It's a gateway drug.

3. Give complete information--Who's the illustrator/cover artist? Who wrote the preface/introduction/afterword? Is the title descriptive enough? (if not, add keywords) Is it a first printing/edition? You can't anticipate every reason a customer seeks out a book, so give them everything you can think of. I've even sold books to descendants of previous owners because I transcribe full inscriptions.

4. Package carefully and ship promptly--Protect the items that you sell. Make sure they arrive in the same condition that you so carefully described.

5. Follow up--Send a shipping confirmation. My standard e-mail repeats the estimated shipping times, flogs my store and blog, requests feedback (with links), and offers to answer any questions. This e-mail reassures the customer that they haven't thrown their money down a black hole and it probably heads off most questions

6. Charge more--If you always go for the lowest price, you WILL be undercut and you're contributing to the devaluing of the item (and the book trade in general). If you take care in describing your product and provide a positive customer experience, then charge for the service. I habitually charge 25-50% more than other booksellers who have less detailed descriptions and/or lower ratings and it hasn't hurt my sell through percentage at all.

Buyers will eventually get burned or have poor experiences with the penny bookdealers (a profit margin of $.60-$1.00 per sale doesn't allow for much time or care). But when the buyers come back (assuming they do come back) show them that it doesn't always have to be that way. Train them to skim right past all the $.01s and find an honestly described product at a reasonable price.

Thursday, July 19, 2007

To Break or Not to Break...

Marty Weil over at Ephemera Blog has posted an open question re: taking apart vintage magazines for the contents, or keeping them intact. Book dealers and collectors are sure to have strong opinions, so visit and make yourself heard.

Wednesday, July 18, 2007

Ephemera Wall

Found two more nice items for my ephemera wall. Both were from a copy of Cluny Brown by Margery Sharp (famed for The Rescuers).

The first is an advertising/memorial postcard for Norman Ray Lambert (1933-1996). Lambert was the owner and mascot of LAMBERT'S CAFE "Home of Throwed Rolls", a small chain of restaurants in Missouri and Alabama where apparently you can still have hot rolls hucked at you.

The second item is a nice pencil portrait of a nun--"Sister Luke"--that earned the artist an A-.

New (to me) Amazon upload method

I use Homebase as my database program (provided free by ABE; subscription required for ISBN lookup). It allows me to upload to most of the sites I list on. On Amazon though (using the "UIEE" method) it only matches the ISBN-bearing titles, leaving 4/5 of my inventory unlisted.

Recently I started experimenting with Amazon's "Standard" upload method. This requires a tab separated text file with specifically-named columns that I created by adjusting the column titles in a Homebase export. Now all but a handful of my books are listed on Amazon and I've definitely been moving some unexpected titles for that venue.

But now when I sell a book I have to update 3 separate records (Homebase, the tabbed text file, and my eBay store). Quite a headache with a large possibility of error.

How do other people handle listing on multiple venues? I'm not willing to pay ANOTHER monthly fee--or a commission--for one of the web-based services. I've been considering building my own database in Filemaker that could create multiple uploads formats...but that's a little too ambitious at the moment.

Desk Set Party Girls

I am well behind on this one but the Times recently published a lifestyle piece on the new breed of librarian. They are tech-savvy, tattooed, and wear sexy retro glasses!

Having watched a number of friends drop everything and heed the call, I can testify that the trade is definitely experiencing a renaissance of interest (though judging from the blog reaction to the piece, not all are happy to be re pigeon-holed as reference desk hipsters).

Monday, July 16, 2007

What I'm Reading: Life As We Knew It

Just finished Susan Beth Pfeffer's YA, end-of-the-world novel Life As We Knew It. In the book the moon is knocked by a massive meteor hit and settles into a new orbit that brings it closer to earth. This plays havoc with the atmosphere, drowns the coasts of the world, and cuts off energy supply lines and most forms of communication.

I'm not giving much away as this all happens in the first couple of chapters.

What makes the book memorable is that it's written as entries in a 16-year-old girl's diary. The narrator's self-centered focus (and the lack of dependable information sources) gives the reader suggestive hints of what's happening globally but keeps the narrative on a poignant, human scale. We follow one family as they make very difficult, and cold-blooded choices about how they're going to live in the face of extinction.

The book strongly evokes two other classics written from a young girl's perspective: The Little House series (in the fierce battles with the elements) , and Anne Frank's Diary (in it's emphasis on small victories over hopelessness). I wonder if the author was consciously riffing on either of these books?

I finished at about 4AM this morning and spent the entire day under a stifling, wintry cloud-- terrified about my dwindling supplies (this is on a 90 degree day in July, so that's quite an accomplishment).

Bookthink Profile

Bookthink just posted a profile of me and there's been a heartening outbreak of red stars over my visitor map. Yay! Welcome to the new readers. I hope you will chime in. If you leave a comment on this post (and you have a web presence), I will add you to my blogroll.

To the readers who don't know about Bookthink, my subscription to their newsletters was one of my smartest purchases as a bookseller. They provide a wealth of book-buying and business tips, with articles from notable collectors and sellers across the field. Plus lots of flashpoints and discussions of hidden gems and cult authors. I credit Bookthink with helping me take bookselling full time.

Friday, July 13, 2007

Hollow Earth; New York Book Harbor

Here are a few illustrations from my clip-art file that I thought were worth sharing. The first came from a hollow Earth text called Phantom of the Poles by William Reed (Rockey Co., 1906):

I forgot to record the source of this second one but I love the image of a foggy New York skyline rolling out from the pages of a newspaper.

Bovine Potato

Harry Potter Counterfeits

I heard a fascinating report on BBC radio this morning about Harry Potter in China.

Licensed and accurate translations of the Potter books are expensive and time consuming to produce so unauthorized publishers sell "creatively" adapted versions that beat the official releases into the stores and are offered at a much lower price. Also, at least one entirely original HP adventure (with Rowling's name on the cover) Harry Potter and Leopard-Walk-Up-To-Dragon has been released. Apparently the book draws heavily on Chinese mythology and martial arts and features HP turning into a dwarf after a 'sour-sweet rain'.

MSNBC covered the phenomenon here.

Cervantes (the first global phenomenon novelist) also faced this problem. After the first volume of Don Quixote was released, an unauthorized sequel was published: The Second Volume of the Ingenious Gentleman Don Quixote of La Mancha: by the Licentiate Alonso Fernandez de Avellaneda of Tordesillas (pseudonym). Fearing the loss of his character, and damage to his reputation, Cervantes finished the concluding volume of Don Quixote just a few months before he died. In it DQ confronts the author-imposter in a Pre-Modern, Post-Modern throwdown that boggles the mind.

Does anyone have images of Harry Potter and Leopard-Walk-Up-To-Dragon? or more details about the plot? I think I want to start a collection of HP fakes.

My favorite piece so far is the Brad Neely dubbed, What's Up Tigerlilly-style accompaniment to the crappy first movie. It's called Wizard People, Dear Reader. You can find the whole thing in snippets on YouTube.

Thursday, July 12, 2007

Bookseller in Spain

El Bibliómano, a bookseller in Spain, just linked and commented on my "Estate Sale that Got Me Started" photoset (I was wondering where all those little red stars over Europe were coming from). His blog looks great, but sadly google translator is not giving the full experience. Bi-lingual readers should check it out...and then tell me what he says.

Wednesday, July 11, 2007

Field Report

It was so hot this past weekend that I completed neglected stoop sales...or going outside for any reason whatsoever, so this is more a "crap that showed up at my door" report.

Thank god for eBay, the 24-hour garage sale.

Picked up a very nice assortment of high-grade Dell Mapbacks that will be creeping into my inventory over the next few days. Also an interesting mixed lot of romances that contained some HTF gothics and ghost titles that I didn't know about until now (Anne Stuart's first novel Barrett's Hill, and Ghost in the Swing by Janet Patton Smith). GITS looks like a creepy novel from a kid's perspective about being haunted by a dead sister. People must have very vivid memories of this book, since it's a just a mass market from the '70s but commands around $100. I'll probably give that one a read if I find a lower grade copy.

Also on the paperback front, I also acquired a couple of very rare transgender pulps from the 50s; Half by Jordan Park (aka Cyril Kornbluth), and Man into Woman by Niels Hoyer. Lastly Gore Vidal's pseudonymously penned thriller Thieves Fall Out, which I've been trying to land for a while.

Good stuff. Ah, the humble paperback...Don't they look like candy, all stacked up like that?

Film Noir Miis: Peter Lorre

I'm currently devouring the Peter Lorre biography The Lost One by Stephen D. Youngkin. 50 pages in (out of nearly 600) and Lorre's already addicted to morphine and has suffered a series of health and mental breakdowns. I can't wait to read more.

Thought I'd make another noir Mii to commemorate:

I'm only semi-satisfied with this one. Without flop sweat and a dangling cigarette, It's hard to capture Lorre's essence.

I used to just plow through a director's filmography and figure that actors were incidental, but lately I've been working my way through the noir regulars (Mitchum, Stanwyck, Lorre, etc). Maybe it's the cult of pretty and the lack of great character actors in contemporary Hollywood that's sending me back, but it's fascinating to watch the development of these great faces and personas throughout their careers.

Monday, July 9, 2007

Metal House

My aunt--who's an Upstate Indiana Jones of auctions and abandoned houses--sent me this photo of a residence(?) in Greenfield, New York.

This is the most unsettling building I've ever seen. What the hell is it for? I'm betting it's a black-ops torture barn (with recycling bins for people bits)...either that or a very poorly disguised Decepticon.

She's promised me more photos from her adventures so stay tuned...

Getting to Know Your Customers

One of the biggest handicaps (and sometimes--to be honest--benefits) to being on online bookdealer is that you rarely meet your customers. In a B&M store, people wander in and out, you talk about whatever, and you get a sense of them as a person. This can be great for one's well-being (and would probably cut down on my talking back to NPR) but it also has commercial advantages. You can take want lists, highlight books they might enjoy, and save items for the next time they come in.

Lately I've been trying to come up with ways to duplicate this experience with my online store. This blog is part of the answer (I'm also planning to do a virtual reading series, and have guest bloggers down the road), but more direct contact would be nice...

One of my store focuses is sleaze/pulp paperbacks from the 50s and 60s. I've noticed that I have frequent multi-book sales in this category, so I decided to comb my e-mail records and make a mailing list of these customers. In the process I discovered several faithful, repeat buyers that (due to the detached nature of online commerce) I never noticed before. So I started compiling email lists from these sales (including only customers who clearly browsed my inventory extensively) and I'm considering notifying these customers when I have a large buy in a category they've shopped.

Has anyone tried this? Would you be annoyed of put-off if you got such an e-mail? I would provide a clear opt-out option in anything that I send....

What about other ideas to personalize the online bookbuying experience?

Sunday, July 8, 2007

The estate sale that got me started

Almost 3-years ago, when I was laid-off from a bookstore in Park Slope (that's about to lay itself off...heh, heh), I started selling used books online and trolling Craigslist for estate sales. I hit the jackpot with this one:

The owner had been a printer, a publishing production manager, and a packrat of Collyer Brothers proportion. His estate comprised a Soho apartment and three houses in upstate New York filled to the rafters with junk, beat-up antiques, and ephemera of every sort.

After two days of sorting through the initial apartment, the arbiter and I came to an agreement: I could take what I wanted (within reason) provided I help get the estate into something like showable condition. This turned into a month and a half of urban archaeology, compensated via sweat equity.

With the help of my father and a friend, we removed five dump truck loads of trash from the main house, down to what most people would consider a semi-normal estate (rather than a health and architectural hazard) and in the process I learned a lot about packrat psychology (and this guy in particular).

At first the owner stockpiled, buying multiples of everything--overkill but kind of understandable. He was also a compulsive auction-goer and it looks like he tried to establish a presence on eBay. At some point he went through a messy divorce and was joined by his brother, who mirrored his accumulating but in Bizarro fashion; filling closets--and whole rooms--with cheap stuffed animals, carefully labeled burned-out lightbulbs, and borderline correspondence with public officials. Eventually their personalities seem to blur into a sad folie à deux. In the end the owner died and his brother was committed.

This estate produced many of the items from my "11 Wonderful/Horrible Things Found While Bookscouting" essay (printed in LCRW #20 and continued here) plus numerous life and sanity threatening moments. One night a blizzard forced me to spend the night in one of the houses, resting atop a hope chest, eating stale Rollos washed down with ancient airplane booze mini-bottles (not one of my prouder moments). On another trip there was flash flooding in the next town that sadly claimed the life of at least one person.

I'm a third generation packrat and several members of my family make some portion of their income on eBay. The experience of belonging to one family of packrats digging through the remains of another provided many valuable life lessons. Now I can't pick up an item, no matter how cool or unique, and not think about the pile I'm going to leave when I drop dead.

If you are morbidly curious, I just uploaded a flickr photoset here. Looking through these pictures I have a hard time telling which way is up (and that's not solely due to my lack of photography chops).

Saturday, July 7, 2007

Another Antiquarian Titan

The Heritage Bookshop of Los Angeles, CA is closing its doors after 44 years in business. Never set foot in the store myself but it sounds and looks like it was a worthy spot for a pilgrimage.

In contrast to the flaming, Jerry-Bruckheimeresque wreck of the Gotham Book Mart, the Weinstein brothers (Brooklyn natives) are closing their store happily and voluntarily.

Despite uninspiring claims that "neither one of them is intellectual or a reader" and their own statement that they "didn’t enter the business because [they] wanted to pursue knowledge" it's heartening to see someone bring a graceful close to a career spent in rare books.

The Brothers reference library comprising "12,000 volumes, including bibliographies, auction records and books on books....will remain intact at the William Andrews Clark Memorial Library."

Thursday, July 5, 2007

Erottery & Sexeramics

Somehow I've started an accidental collection of erotic pottery and ceramics. Thought I would share. This pin-up girl ashtray is one of my favorite things in the world. If someone put a cigarette out on her, I would kick their f***ing ass.

When I found these chinese figures, they had been kept outside in a garden or something and I had to really get in there with a Q-tip to clean them up. They are VERY detailed.

Notice that the Manchu-era couple have a healthy sex life while the Maoist is a eunuch. Not sure if there is some kind of political commentary implicit.

Bookselling Tools: ActiveWords

One of the most mind-numbing chores of selling vintage books online is typing the descriptions. Though each book has individual high-lights and flaws that need to be enumerated, for the most part a bookseller is drawing on a handful of phrases again and again. Any way to speed this up means you make more money, and have more time away from the monitor (unless you blog of course).

I've found a program that helps me write descriptions much more efficiently (without skimping on the detail either). It's called ActiveWords. It's a macro writer and organizer that lets you create short letter/number sequences to substitute text, open programs, and perform a number of other useful tasks.

Here are a few basic shortcuts that I use constantly:
  • typing "home" + F8 (my AW activation key) inserts my home address into any text field
  • "store" + F8 inserts my office address and a Googlemaps link
  • "inv" + F8 inserts my invoice template
For book descriptions I have hundreds of macros:
  • mrw -- Moderate reading-wear
  • tan -- Pages lightly age-tanned but clean and supple
  • bump -- Light bumping to corners and spine edge
  • dust -- Top page edge shows dust discoloration
  • pulp -- Attractive, vintage mass market/pocket paperback with colorful [ ] painted cover art. Cover is bright with [ ]. Pages faintly edge tanned, but supple. Binding solid. Cover copy reads:
etc, etc.

Setting up ActiveWords is a gradual, evolving process. Whenever you use a phrase repetitively, enter it in ActiveWords. Change it when it isn't useful and review your phrases every once in a while to see what you've forgotten about or don't use anymore.

The program is affordable and you can purchase additional discounted licenses for your laptop or employee machines. There's a 60-Day free trial available here. There's at least one Mac equivalent to AW and probably a few competing PC utilities but I haven't done a comparison.

Anybody have any other time saving programs for the bookseller? I'd love to hear about them.

Wednesday, July 4, 2007

Santa Tag

Just found this Christmas tag / presentation bookplate inside Lives of Our Presidents: From Washington to Wilson for Young People by Charles Morris (Winston, 1913).

It's charmingly signed "From 'Big William' with love from the Little Bartlums, Christmas 1924".

Is it just me or does Santa have angry eyes?

Clearly I'm suffering from a holiday disconnect.

Monday, July 2, 2007

Paper Engineering "Manikins"

Here are a few images from the Hand-Book of Ready Reference, edited by Andrew A. Gardenier (published by King-Richardson Publishing Company, Springfield Mass, 1897). This is an agricultural reference book with paper-engineering anatomical inserts called "Manikins" of a horse, a cow and a fetlock.

(Click on the images to enlarge.)

The horse and the cow each have five layers, the bottom layer bears several, overlapping, hinged, innard pieces.

Very cool. The prize of my pop-up collection. I have the salesman's dummy version, but I don't think the full text contains any more "Manikins" so I can live without the extra three inches of agricultural info.

eBay Malaise

David Steiner of just posted an illuminating and depressing account of the results of eBay's hamfisted tinkering with store searchs, listing fees, and careless placement of competing advertisements. Lots of drooping graphs and an insightful history of the last year or so in the eBay marketplace.