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Tuesday, 27 March 2018

Flotsam & Jargon





The Bookseller in his natural form, after the sun goes down.

All that bookseller jargon can get pretty confusing. So many evasive euphemisms flying around that it can seem like it's hard to get a straight answer from anyone in the book trade. Because we're very helpful and want only the best for you, we've put together a little glossary of terms below of common things you'll hear booksellers say in stores, and what they actually mean:

"It's not one of our strengths"
TRANSLATION: We've never heard of that before. You are a crazy person. Definitely not something we can and/or intend to help with. 

"My concern is the condition."
TRANSLATION: The book is a lost cause. Couldn't get more damaged if you threw it into a meat grinder. Hell, that might even be the best place for it. 

"You should try X bookstore instead. Sounds like their thing."
TRANSLATION: We hate that bookstore, and like to send them people who they definitely can't help in return for some long-forgotten slight. 

"Please, look around."
TRANSLATION: I haven't heard another human speak in 3 weeks. I'll put up with you for 5 minutes, so I can remind myself why I locked the door in the first place. 

"My margin isn't very high on this one. Can't do much of a discount."
TRANSLATION: You'll claw a discount from my cold, dead, mummified fingers. 

"Oh, of course. It's lovely to see you."
TRANSLATION: I have no idea who you are. I'm stalling for time. Help.

"Kind offer, but not for us, i'm afraid."
TRANSLATION: Get thy demonic book hence, before I call a priest to exorcise it. 

"Let me help you with that."
TRANSLATION: You have the look of a book destroying maniac, and I don't want to take a chance. You might be a murderer, an arsonist, or worse one of those people who folds corners in things they read.  

Thursday, 22 March 2018

Getting On The Ladder

100% pure bookseller angst. 



When I visit a new bookstore, I demand cleanliness, computer monitors, and rigorous alphabetization. When I visit a secondhand bookstore, I prefer indifferent housekeeping, sleeping cats, and sufficient organizational chaos.
- Anne Fadiman


So, you want to get into the book trade? Old books, musty cupboards, lingering systemic sexism - sounds ideal, right? Well, then you'll need to master a few key traits to make you stick out from the crowd:

PENETRATING STARE: You know that look librarians give you when you make too much noise? Be prepared to throw that one at people all the time. They key is prolonged eye contact, without a hint of amusement. Bonus points for a momentary brow furrow as if to say "People? In my store? What the devil could they be after?"

CAVALIER ATTITUDE TOWARDS LONGEVITY: Health & Safety regulations aren't expected to reach antiquarian bookstores until the late 2050s, so be prepared to scale ladders held together by hope and prayers across piles of books with sharp edges and spines on the cover. Exposed wiring is just a quirk. That rustling you heard in the basement probably isn't something TOO feral. What larks, Pip.

HATE EVERYONE: Remember kids, it's not discrimination as long as you despise everyone equally. 

TWEED: Or some kind of antiquated quirk, like a fobwatch or a penny farthing. If you don't have your unnecessary bookseller paraphernalia then what's even the point? If anyone mentions it, you must casually dismiss it as an unremarkable part of your daily lifestyle before promptly leaving to go and browse ugly lamps at a car boot sale. 

TREAT CHILDREN LIKE ANIMALS: Part of the job is leering at children as if they were rats that you aren't allowed to put out traps to exterminate. It's nothing personal. 

CATEGORY IS: It's mandatory to have no idea what you have in stock, or where it could possibly be. All inquiries down this avenue must be met with an arch stare and a riddle. 

Example:

[Enter CUSTOMER, through door. BOOKSELLER is at desk, reading through his half-moon glasses]

[CUSTOMER sidles over to desk. It is deadly quiet. The stuffed owl on the desk stares ominously down.]

CUSTOMER: Um, excuse me?
BOOKSELLER (wearily): Yes?
CUSTOMER: I'm looking for a book, can you help me?
BOOKSELLER: [sighs in a manner of great forbearance] I suppose so. What were you looking for?
CUSTOMER: Oh, a gift for a friend. They like Austen, Bronte, you know, that kind of thing.

[BOOKSELLER gives CUSTOMER a long stare, as if to suggest this is either a request of too great or too little difficulty, but one in which they have no interest either way.]

BOOKSELLER: [waves towards shelves] Over there somewhere.

CUSTOMER: Oh. Um, ok. Between those two precariously balanced copies of War and Peace?

[CUSTOMER exits stage RIGHT. There is a scream from CUSTOMER, and the sound of a collapsing shelf. BOOKSELLER goes back to reading.]

Thursday, 15 March 2018

Controlled Chaos

 IT'S NOT MESS, IT'S IMPRECISE ORDER

“It is clear that the books owned the shop rather than the other way about. Everywhere they had run wild and taken possession of their habitat, breeding and multiplying, and clearly lacking any strong hand to keep them down.” 


It's a temptation in our modern world of phones and gadgets to believe that everything needs to happen instantly, or it's somehow dysfunctional. ORDER NOW screams Amazon at you from billboards, whilst your phone bleeps with 1036 messages about something inconsequential. It's a reflex that's easy to understand, but that doesn't always translate well to the internal bumblings of an antiquarian bookstore. To give you an idea of the complex operations at work whenever someone places an order for a book, I've broken down the process into stages so we can all better understand each other. 

1 - The customer finds a book they like online, or in one of our catalogues. Perhaps they have a question, or wish to purchase it. They call in, and a sinister voice rustles at the other end, with the almost imperceptible lilt to their tone that suggests having to walk to the phone was a small inconvenience. 

2 - The conversation concludes, and the hunt for the book is underway. The computer is loaded up, and immediately breaks down in a new and unforeseen fashion. Attempts to print a list of locations are confounded by the printer, which was possessed by the spirit of a train driver in 1872 and has been on strike ever since. 

3 - Technology having failed, staff rush to the shelves where the book was last seen (some time in the last decade). Some are killed by landslides of encyclopedias, treacherously placed statues or the endangered species of shelf badger unique to English bookstores. These are chalked down to acceptable losses.

4 - The shelf in question is empty, or filled with books of another kind entirely. A small but fierce debate rages as to whether this was planned, or just a natural phenomena. It is decided that noone is to blame.

5 - The remaining booksellers split into adventuring parties of 5 or less, and use a combination of divining rods, highly trained bloodhounds and alethiometers to track down the book. It is found somewhere entirely unpredictable, such as on the roof, or stapled to the underside of a bookcase.

6 - The customer is contacted, and informed that the book is available. The goblins prepare to package the books and ship them.

NB - No Sotheran's staff were harmed in the making of this article. We do not actually employ goblins. (Well, not in the literal sense.) Shelf Badgers are a fiction, until proven otherwise. The printer is definitely possessed.   

Monday, 5 March 2018

Upstairs, Downstairs


“The truth is that even big collections of ordinary books distort space, as can readily be proved by anyone who has been around a really old-fashioned secondhand bookshop, one that looks as though they were designed by M. Escher on a bad day and has more stairways than storeys and those rows of shelves which end in little doors that are surely too small for a full-sized human to enter. The relevant equation is: Knowledge = power = energy = matter = mass; a good bookshop is just a genteel Black Hole that knows how to read.”                                                                                     - Terry Pratchett -  Guards, Guards!



There was always a certain comforting reliability to the inconvenience of the old shop layout. You could rely on the maze of peculiarly obstructive furniture to pose a small but consistent risk of death wherever you were in the store, from the teetering piles of journals on the highest shelves to the knee-high boxes that would leap in your way just as you tried to descend the stairs. Sadly our renovation required many of these idiosyncrasies to be removed or rearranged, and longstanding customers of Sotheran's will no doubt notice their absence. However, the new layout of the store has several advantages which arguably make up for the exodus of homicidal furniture. Here's a handy guide to what survived the purge, and what didn't:


Things we've changed:


  1. The right half of the store has been vacated, ready for a sublet which will proceed in due course. We (of course) were hoping for a Zoo, but according to our lawyers there's some issue with 'space requirements' and 'practicalities'.
  2. The new window display lets daylight into the store, which not only had the primary benefit of solving our vampire problem, but also helps the place seem more open and bright
  3. We replaced the long-suffering carpet on the upper floor with wooden flooring, which is superior to the carpet in that it hasn't taken on a suspicious shade of grey in some places.
  4. The "Grand Cabinet", ironic guardian of all books too strangely shaped to be housed anywhere else, was a casualty of the renovation and has been consigned to the void. RIP.
  5. The Childrens/Illustrated and Travel departments have moved downstairs, to make use of the new shelving space down there. It's not because they embarrass us. *sly wink*

Things we have kept:


  1. The staircase. We need it to get up and down. Motions to include an escalator were regrettably dismissed.
  2. The portraits of Mr & Mrs Sotheran, who brood suggestively from above the stairwell.
  3. The bookcases, partly kept out of appreciation for their Victorian charm, and partly because no one could be convinced to try moving them
  4. The bookshelf ladders, the mere rickety sight of which has been known to drive health and safety inspectors to drink.
  5. The staff, who have also been known to drive health and safety inspectors to drink

Friday, 5 January 2018

"The alphabet now ends at Y". Sue Grafton 1940-2017.

We were greatly saddened to hear of the death of Sue Grafton, who lost her battle with cancer on 28th December 2017. Sotheran's has stocked many of her books over the years and they have always found a loyal readership. Grafton had a fine reputation as a writer of crime novels, her most famous work being the "alphabet series" of books featuring the detective Kinsey Millhone. Starting with "A" Is for Alibi in 1982, the novels followed Millhone, described by Grafton as her alter ego, through 25 adventures in the small fictional town of Santa Teresa, California, culminating in "Y" Is for Yesterday, which was published only last year.

Herein lies the tragedy of a creative life - it can't be guaranteed that you will live long enough to complete your magnum opus. As Schubert, Bruckner and Elgar could all tell you, the physical realities of old age or illness are no respecters of artistic inspiration. A project that Sue Grafton began 36 years ago will never see its conclusion, even though she had begun to plan "Z" Is for Zero and had presumably planned the culmination of her life's work. According to Grafton's daughter, no ghostwriter will ever be allowed to write in her name and  "as far as we in the family are concerned, the alphabet now ends at Y".

This is very different from the approach of, for example, the estate of Ian Fleming, which continues to keep James Bond alive through distinguished writers such as Sebastian Faulks and William Boyd (although these are more than ghostwriters, producing new Bonds under their own names). There must be a huge temptation for artists' families to see an unfinished work through to its completion, just for the sheer satisfaction as well as for financial reasons. Grafton's readers will surely be saddened that they will never see Kinsey Millhone bow out as her creator intended. Nevertheless, there is something quite noble about the Grafton family wanting to keep her creation her own. She was a single-minded writer who refused to sell her books to Hollywood as she couldn't bear to see Millhone in someone else's hands; it seems a fitting memorial that her work is left untouched.