Cataloging Sur la Vipere

Things have been moving slowly at the shop. In a short time the place will be frantic for the New York Antiquarian Book Fair, packing and shipping and convincing somebody that they really do need an hors de commerce copy of the Cranach Press Elegies from the Castle of Duino – but for now it’s quiet.

(I made that up, we don’t have a Cranach Press Duino, but god knows I’d kill for one. Gill may have been a total evil scumbag, but damn could he carve them woodblocks.)

When it’s quiet like this I sit with a stack of books and catalog them. I’m slow at it because I’m still learning, but I’m discovering it can be one of the most interesting parts of bookselling. Once you get through all the Ian Flemings and Jack Londons and the other 20th century stuff too familiar to be interesting, you run into something like Les Nouvelles Experiences sur la Vipere, with the un-put-down-able illustration of two snakes kissing on the title page. Is this like how Aristotle thought that hedgehogs have sex standing up on their back feet? I wonder, flipping through the diagrams of what seem to be perfectly respectable anatomical diagrams of the insides of snakes. It’s good to take anything you read with a grain of salt, but with texts from the era when alchemy and real science were just starting to have distinct personalities, it’s best to just screw off the top and throw all the salt in the pot.

With stuff like sur la Vipere I find myself yawning at the same Worldcat page for a half hour or so. Parsing a description written by a real librarian is hard; at least, hard when you don’t have the secret decoder ring that every librarian has — the secret decoder ring called a degree in fucking library science. I’m trying to see if their description of the book matches the one I have in my hands, to see if it’s 1. the real thing, 2. complete, (like, not missing any pages) and 3. important or interesting in any way. Frequently the book in question is none of those things, which I then have to mention in my description: “Les Nouvelles Experiences sur la Vipere, 3rd edition, lacking the frontispiece engraving which shows two snakes who have totally dropped all pretenses and are straight up gettin’ it on.” If only.

I do like cataloging, but I can only take so much of it at a time. After too long I start wondering, wait, wasn’t the point of a career in bookselling to look at books more and at computer screens less?, and then I get kind of depressed. I also spend this quiet season at the shop praying for people to walk in — not people who will actually buy anything necessarily, maybe just people who are interesting or cute or who have a cool foreign accent, anybody who can hold a non-hackneyed conversation about books. Seriously, it’s ok to go into a bookstore and not buy anything. Just give the poor underpaid bastard behind the cash register a little human interaction, they will generally be more than willing to talk to you for hours about what they’re reading, or which overrated writer they think can fuck off to the stratosphere <cough  cough Don Delillo cough>.

(There are exceptions to this rule. Many years ago there was an art book dealer in the same building as my shop who was notoriously abusive to her customers. Some people think it’s cute when bookstore owners are kind of cranky — chasing customers out the door with threats of physical violence is definitely not cute).

I’m sure in the not-too-distant future I’ll be looking back with nostalgia on these slow work days. “Remember when I had time to actually catalog books?” I’ll say wistfully, “Remember when I could actually stop for a minute and crack open one of these goddamn books?” Because the bookselling business is actually more busy than a lot of people think: there is the constant lament that nobody ever reads anymore, that all the poor booksellers are going out of business — but that lament is voiced, in my experience, mostly by people who never step into bookshops themselves. My shop is a bit of an outlier, dealing mostly in antiquarian books, but I think I echo the paperback hockers and the rest of the trade when I say that, actually, people are buying tons of books. I know a guy who set up shop on a corner in Oakland a few months ago, and he’s struggling to keep his shelves filled after weekends when people like me descend and scoop up all his Willa Cather in one bite.

Recently, he even pulled from his personal shelves to keep the store stocked. “I’ve been so busy at the shop lately,” he said, the last time I saw him, “I haven’t had time to read any myself!” It’s a common complaint, one that I’ve certainly had in the past. For now, though, I get the small luxury, the fantasy that everyone who dreams of one day opening a bookshop has: I get to sit behind the desk and actually read some of the books on the shelves.

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