Once & Future

Charlotte Ashley – Book seller, collector, writer, editor, historian

March 30, 2012

My Response to David Mason – Huh?

I really do enjoy my subscription to Canadian Notes and Queries. It is probably my only periodical – outside of Chirp – which I happily renew every year without even having to consider it.  I love Seth’s design work. I love the featured cartooning work. I love the often arch and argumentative nature of many of the essays. And I love that they give space to David Mason, really the only space in any Canadian periodical given to an antiquarian book dealer. But,

Dear Mr. Mason,

You lost me with your latest contribution, “Secrets of the Book Trade: Number 1“. I sorrily admit I didn’t understand a word of it. I followed you as far as the admission that antiquarian booksellers are snobs  – agreed, and good for you! – but the following generalizations about trade bookselling sounded outright made up.

Which booksellers, pray tell, were you referring to? I’m not sure if you’ve looked around lately, but there aren’t a lot of trade booksellers left, and those still standing don’t bear any resemblance whatsoever to the characture you’ve drawn. “…what they are lacking is knowledge of about 500 years of the history of their trade.”? “new booksellers share with publishers is a certain distrust – even fear – of antiquarian booksellers”? “You order a bunch of books from a catalogue, provided by a publisher, sell what you can and return what you can’t. No risk, no penalty, if your opinion of what might sell is wrong.”???

The above quotes represent three total untruths about trade bookselling featured in your essay.

Just this week Ben McNally delivered the 2012 Katz Lecture at the Thomas Fisher on the topic of Is There a Future (Or Even a Present) for Bookselling? which included a learned history of the book trade. Yesterday I attended new book creator Andrew Steeves‘ lecture on “The Ecology of the Book” which also consisted, largely, of a history of the book trade. Even I am a new book seller and a book historian, not to mention an antiquarian book lover and collector. The booksellers I know – those who remain – are very knowledgeable people who are in no way the peddlers of pap you seem to be describing. I think you and I can agree that Chapters/Indigo is not staffed by “booksellers” so let’s leave out their lack of participation in the larger world of books – unless it was actually that straw man you meant to burn down, in which case I’d feel better if you’d been a little more clear.

We bear the antiquarian trade no ill-will. In fact we continue to foster relationships with used and rare sellers. Our remainder tables continue to be pillaged by scouts and dealers, and we offer deep discounts to some favoured dealers who will take away our overstock by the box. We know that the antiquarian dealers do us the same service we do them – redirecting customers who erroneously visit one or the other of us in search of “nice copies of…” or “cheap copies of…”. I send my customers to you weekly. I hope you do us the same courtesy.

As to this business of publishers’ returns policies giving us a free pass… well, perhaps it is this which stuck in my craw the worst, as I hear it again and again from everyone, customers, academics, and now you, who should know better. The ability to return a limited quantity of books allows us nothing but the merest bit of breathing space. We have to remainder or toss books too. We have to vet the vast, vast floods of new books which are solicited each year into a good, salable collection of which we can return no more than 15% and, even then, which we often have to return at great cost to ourselves in shipping and brokerage – especially brokerage. Choosing which books will sell requires not just an intimate knowledge of every author, publisher and subject we cover, but of our customers and their interests, price points, and whims. Every book we buy is a gamble. Unlike you, who can pick up certain Modern Firsts at a good price without having to think about it, we have to speculate on the market of every book which comes through the door. And we can only be wrong 10-15% of the time.

Further, if we feel a social responsibility to pick up and flog new, upcoming authors and presses with no existing market whatsoever in the name of encouraging local talent and the potential cultural giants of tomorrow, we do so by the grace of this returns policy. Not that we send books back to small and independent publishers – quite the contrary, we have a policy of keeping these books whether they sell or not, out of respect for the limited resources of their publishers. But we can do it because of the returns to larger publishers who can afford it, which will let us free up some cash for zero-gain experiments.

I cannot imagine what point you will eventually make with Number 2 of this series after making such an artificial distinction between booksellers in Number 1. If your intention was merely to point out how very learned you are, I salute you but suggest that you do not become more learned by painting us as less learned. I’d like to suggest that a more useful project might be to make common cause against the real outsider in our field, the entirely algorithm-based online bookseller who is undermining both our businesses by selling entirely unvetted, undifferentiated texts based on price point alone. But that’s another post.

In conclusion, I think you’ll find those booksellers among us who remain in business in this difficult age are a hardy bunch, creamier than whatever booksellers of yesteryear you’re remembering. We each have our bodies of knowledge about aspects of the objects we dedicate our lives to.  We are aware of how we compliment each other – have we kissed and made up yet?

Thanks for you time,

Charlotte Ashley

P.S. I would love and prefer a job in antiquarian bookselling. If you’re ever looking for a knowledgeable and neurotically dedicated apprentice, you just let me know.

March 26, 2012

Things To Do This Week (March 26th 2012)

It’s not often that I outright plug an upcoming event, but this one came at me kinda last minute and I have been rather lax about keeping my regular bookish event listings current. Also, I will be attending, so think of it as an opportunity to come see me!

 

March 22, 2012

5 Things For Your Kids To Do While The TPL Is On Strike

This week the Toronto Public Library’s library worker’s union officially went on strike. I support the workers 100% in this: their desire to give a little bit of security to their largely precarious workforce is absolutely reasonable and, if you ask me, even asking too little.

But that doesn’t mean I’m not sad to see the libraries closed and locked. We made the ill-timed decision to return our library books last week without choosing a new batch, a snap decision made when faced with an unexpected double-nap on the part of my two daughters. No fear, though: Toronto is chock-a-block with book events, even for the littlest persons. So with no further ado, here are five things you might want to do with your small persons while the librarians fight the good fight!

1 – Visit an Ontario Early Years Centre

Or, in my case, The Children’s Storefront, a not-for-profit drop-in for preschoolers and their care givers. All Early Years centres have books, but the Storefront has an especially impressive library, the result of donations and a fundraising campaign over the last two years while the organization was moving to a new space in the wake of a devastating fire. While you can’t withdraw the books and take them away, you can cuddle up in the library alcove with the rugs and the pillows and enjoy the collection which runs the gamut from board books through picture books, reference books, big-kid books and even parent reference books. My voracious reader and I spend at least three days a week here and have yet to even make a dent in the literal wall of books available.

2 – Take A Class at Mable’s Fables

If you haven’t taken your child to Mable’s Fables, you are doing them a disservice. When I moved here twelve years ago, Toronto had an array of children’s bookstores and, unfortunately, all but one of them have gone out of business. But one of the last ones standing is unimaginably perfect. Mable’s has launches, book clubs, book drives, a web store, institutional services and classes as well as the given great selection of books. They offer a range of children’s activities, some of which are not too dissimilar from the TPL’s “Baby Time” and “Family Time”, though they do cost a one-time fee. The new session begins between now and early April – so it’s the perfect time to sign up!

3 – Make Comics at Little Island Comics

Little Island Comics, the just-for-kids (-and-childlike-adults) comic book shop on Bathurst at Bloor, hosts a drop-in comic making session for kids every Saturday morning from noon-3pm. You can take these home or leave them at the store where they will be on display, and especially young visitors can do a little colouring. And more often than not, your Saturday comic making session will be hosted by actual comic book creators doing launch-like events for their recent books. Go work with Chris Leung and Sondang Sianipar of The Misadventures of Mal & Lot on March 31st, or Peyton & Hilary Leung of The Pirate Girl’s Treasure on April 14th. And on that note…

4 – Go to a Book Launch

Maybe it’s just me, but I think kid book launches are WAY cooler than grown-up book launches! Maybe it’s the emphasis on activity rather than schmoozing, I don’t know, but kid’s book launches always seem to involve games, magicians, theatre, music, contests and a whole lot of drawing. We had a fantabulous time two years ago at a Ninja, Cowboy, Bear launch which involved a very spirited Ninja, Cowboy, Bear session (think rock, paper, scizzors), and so we have every intention of attending Small Print Toronto‘s launch of The Pirate Girl’s Treasure, Origami for Pirates! I didn’t realize until writing that I’ve plugged this book twice in one post – I swear I’m not working for anyone involved – I just think the idea of a pirate girl’s adventures with an origami theme is AMAZING. But your interests may vary – check Small Print’s website for other launches and events this spring, or keep an eye on Open Book Toronto‘s extensive listings.

5 – Attend The Toronto Storytelling Festival

When most of us think “story time”, we’re thinking “for kids”. Maybe even “for kids who can’t read yet”. Storytelling Toronto knows better. All literature is rooted in an oral tradition, and a vibrant storytelling scene still exists in Toronto, as it does almost everywhere. The 34th Toronto Storytelling Festival is a big, elaborate affair which will run the weekend of March 29th-April 1st at a variety of venues (the website is excellent and comprehensive – do look). Events run from storytelling sessions to workshops to meet-and-greets. The majority of the events are not, in fact, aimed at children, but family and kid’s events are in no short supply. The most focused children’s events will be at the Bata Shoe Museum – Parent-Child Mother Goose Program (March 31st, 10:30am-11:30am), Andy Jones tells “Jack Tales” (March 31st, 1:00pm – 2:00pm) and Stories from Mother Earth (April 1st, 1:00pm – 2:00pm).  But kid-friendly events don’t begin and event there, so do look at the schedule for more ideas!

March 7, 2012

I <3 the Shahnameh

In his 2003 A Splendor of Letters: The Permanence of Books in an Impermanent World, Nicholas Basbanes tells the memorable and, speaking as a bibliophile, devastating story of the Houghton Shahnameh.

The story goes like this: Arthur A. Houghton Jr., a 20th-century American book collector, has among his insanely valuable books a manuscript which has been described as the most spectacular example of Islamic art, if not of manuscript art, ever produced: The Shahnameh of Shah Tahmasp. This copy of the Shahnameh (a 50,000 line poem first put to paper in 1010 by the Persian poet Ferdowsi) managed to survive intact from its creation in the early 16th century until the 1970s, when it ran afoul of Houghton.

Houghton acquired the manuscript from Baron Edmond de Rothschild in 1959 and almost immediately put it on deposit at Harvard University with “the understanding that an elegant facsimile would be published by the university’s academic press.” (Basbanes 2003) Then, for whatever reason, he abruptly withdrew it from Harvard in 1972 and donated 78 of the most valued pages to the Metropolitan Museum of Art. Yes, he cut out seventy-eight pages and gave them away.

There’s some speculation that Houghton intended to eventually donate the rest of the manuscript to the Metropolitan Museum, but that didn’t happen either. Instead, between 1972 and 1996 the remaining 180 pages of the manuscript were sold off or traded, in batches both by Houghton and later his estate, to a variety of private and public collections. Souren Melikian wrote in his 1996 report on the final Sotheby’s sale “It was a great day for commerce but hardly for the preservation of cultural treasures.”

Long story short, a priceless treasure of book art was destroyed by a single owner. But all was not entirely lost: in 1981 Harvard University Press did manage to produce a facsimile in two volumes, 600 copies of which were actually sold to the public. Nowadays you can get a copy of this facsimile for the comparatively low price of $3500-$4500.

Ever since reading Basbanes’ tale in 2003 I have been mad to own a copy of this facsimile. It was absolutely in my top-5 list of books I’d buy if I, you know, had the resources to spend on collecting that I wish I did (along with Frank Wild Reed’s Bibliography of Alexandre Dumas and the 1893 deluxe edition of the Beardsley-illustrated Morte D’Arthur, in case anyone wants to get me an especially lovely birthday present). And so I nearly had an aneurysm when I saw the solicitation from Yale University Press for a new facsimile: The Shahnama of Shah Tahmasp.

Now, I couldn’t buy the deluxe edition. But I’ll be damned if I’d let a book I’d been fantasizing about for the last decade go totally un-bought. I picked it up yesterday from the Bob Miller Book Room.

My new baby!

But here’s the best bit:

Being, as I was, at headed for the Bob Miller Book Room, I thought I’d take the family to the Royal Ontario Museum for Maggie’s Daily Dose of Dinosaur and, lo and behold! They are currently showing a special exhibit on the Shahnameh! Among the ROM’s holdings are pages from another great Shahnama manuscript also broken up during the 20th century, the Great Mongol Shahnama. These and other pages on display from McGill University and other sources represent a rather depressing history of decontextualizing Islamic art, but that’s a post for another day. As an introduction to the stories and cultural value of the Shahnameh, the exhibition is absolutely worth seeing. They even have a copy of the 1981 Houghton Shahnameh from Harvard on display – “The most luxurious and lavishly illustrated royal manuscript” preserved to “document and contextualize…” the illustrations.

A context we only get now in facsimile, thanks Houghton.

The ROM’s Shahnama – The Persian “Book of Kings” exhibit runs until September 3, 2012 in the Wirth Gallery of the Middle East, Level 3.

March 5, 2012

So Many Autobiographical Graphic Novels (A Mini-Review)

When I last visited Little Island Comics, it was with the intention of buying one, small book for my daughter and getting out of there. That wasn’t what actually happened: what actually happened was I stacked up books until I reached my carrying capacity. I had avoided visiting a comic shop of any kind for months because I am so very far behind on my reading, but all that meant was that there were months worth of books which had come out that I desperately, desperately needed to own. And this was just at the kid’s comic book shop. I couldn’t bring myself to look at the grown-up stuff.

My current graphic novel to-read pile.

I resolved when I got home to start ploughing through the pile. After all, even the densest, most literary graphic novel is still mostly pictures and reading one is actually only a commitment of, at the most, a day or two.

My first-pick was Kean Soo & Tory Woollcott‘s self-published Toronto to Tuscany: An Italian Adventure. This isn’t a book, per se; just a little 32-page mini-comic. But I like to pick my reads in part by serendipity. We’d met Tory the day before at Little Island (where she apparently works) and my daughter is currently going through a Jellaby phase. Toronto to Tuscany had been on my shelf since last year’s TCAF so, really, its turn had come.

Toronto to Tuscany is a collection Tory & Kean’s anecdotes about their 2010 Tuscan vacation together. It’s funny and cute, which is about all I could ask of sixteen folded-and-stapled pages of printer paper. If anything, it is remarkable for being so little and yet so worth owning. Tory & Kean’s trip is pretty much just like any European vacation taken by two quirky Canadian 20-or-30-somethings. They have transportation problems, use badly diced local languages in restaurants, see attractions and bicker. I’ve had this trip myself to different places with different people.

Hilarious!

Autobiographies and anecdotes are a huge part of the graphic novel scene. There’s something about the medium that can turn a little story – “this one time I saw a naked dude in Manarola” – into comedy gold. Comic strips have been turning tiny observations into punchlines for years. A funny face, a fall in the water and a sideways glance convey laughs in a way text can’t. See Kate Beaton‘s Fat Pony for a perfect illustration. It’s just a pony. But oh my god that thing kills me. Nor do the pictures have to just play for laughs. Sadness, loneliness, anger, shock – in short, the wide spectrum of human emotions that we read daly in the faces of others can be illustrated by a good artist telling a story in pictures. Graphic novels solve the story teller’s “I guess you just had to be there” limitation, because they can bring you there.

There’s something more to it than just illustrating a good anecdote though, and I think it’s the added element of fandom. I bought Toronto to Tuscany because I like Kean Soo. We follow celebrities on Twitter or Facebook because somehow, what they ate for breakfast or what music they’re listening to brings us closer to them. If mainstream superhero comics and literary graphic novels have any crossover anymore (outside of sharing retail space) it’s in the obsession of their readers. Graphic novel devotees celebrate their creators almost cultishly. $5 for what you did last summer? Yes please!

In any case, Toronto to Tuscany succeeds in both ways. Funny scenarios are made funnier by Tory & Kean’s alternating illustrations of each others’ silliest moments. My fandom is satisfied by a little glimpse into the private lives of my comic-creating heroes. It’s the kind of little thing that makes comic collecting fun!