Friday, February 28, 2014


my life an open book

A respite from Samuel Clemens, today.  Because, while preparing to pay my income tax this year, I was sorting through old papers and found the original copy of my resale certificate for secondhand books and antiques, and I was amazed to find that the date on it was exactly twenty years ago.  Seeing this madeleine, this hard evidence of my own age, got me thinking about the book business and how many permutations of it I've experienced in life so far.  Many wonderful memories!  A not-so-brief run-down:

Childhood:  I grew up in houses full of books.  My first hometown library was a palace for books, with a wonderful children's room, and a story hour.  I remember visiting two used book shops when I was a young teenager.  I volunteered briefly at my second hometown library.  I read long and often.

School age:  In college I worked in the art history slide library, which was run by the head librarian of the adjacent art and music library.  I also worked at my first bookstore job, as a student worker, twenty or thirty hours a week, for a year. One of my friends worked at a different bookstore, in town. As an undergraduate, when I wasn't working or just taking refuge in the painting studio, I spent hours walking through the stacks in the main library, just looking for good books to read.  I visited the special collections wing once and didn't understand what I was seeing there.  Rare books?  What...? 

After college:  The bookstore I worked at when I was a student hired me full-time and I spent nearly seven years there, as a clerk and buyer.  I supported myself on pennies above minimum wage, but the store was at a university, so I was able to use staff tuition wavers to take classes and get a master's degree.  My boss was a wonderful book lover, and we oversaw a trade book department of maybe twenty-five thousand titles.  She sent me to the annual New England Booksellers' Association conference in Boston for several years in a row, and I heard John Updike speak, Donald Hall read poetry, and had books signed by Nick Bantock, Donna Tartt, Robert Olen Butler, and suchlike.  This was when I really began to internalize the fact that BOOKS are written by REAL PEOPLE.  A revelation of the obvious, I know, but important to me anyway.  I got a great education at this bookstore, both in business and in book-lore.  And most importantly of all, I met Ryan there, when he was beginning graduate school himself and had started working part-time in the stock room.

More twentysomething years:  Ryan and I started hunting for secondhand books together, for fun, and I remember going into a real antiquarian bookshop for the first time, with him, one weekend afternoon.  And thus I fell doubly in love.  I started to gravitate toward secondhand books more and more, and yearned to have a shop of my own.  I got the aforementioned resale number from the State of Maine, and started selling a few secondhand books at a local antiques mall.  I was also making art out of old books that were already falling apart, and I took classes in bookbinding and letterpress printing.  One year a tipping point came and I quit my full-time job (and I'm glad I did when I did, since our great store died a slow death after the coming of Borders, one town away), and went to work clerking part-time at the same antiques mall where I was selling my books.  I stayed there for two or three years, then along came eBay, and since good library sales were everywhere, I had tons of inventory to sell both in my book booth and online.  My eBay income quickly allowed me to leave the clerk job, and so I started selling my own books full-time.

Thirtysomething:  Another tipping point occurred, and my income became such that I could afford to rent a little bookshop space.  I sold books online so I could have an open shop (not the other way around).  I spent seven happy years there, at Sarah's Books, with my retail shop out front and a tiny art studio in the back.  I sold books at some antiquarian book fairs, too, for a few years.  I bought and sold some really wonderful books!  It was truly a dream come true, and a very happy time in my life.  The last few years of the shop overlap with this blog.      

Middle age (whaaat!?):  As I approached middle age (where I am now, god willing?), I found to my surprise that art, specifically painting, had become an internal imperative.  I was no longer content to fit it in around the edges of my shop life.  Two roads diverged in a yellow wood and all that.  I knew I could have gone on to become a real antiquarian bookseller, for life, and a big part of me wanted to do that very thing.  But I trusted my instincts, and I still do.  And I suppose we must mention Amazon, and the flattening of nearly all secondhand book prices, but let's not dwell on it.  I will say that I had some good years financially, and some years in which it was hard to pay the bills.  I closed up the shop and went back to selling books in a different antiques mall, and that's where I still am today.  Several thousand books for sale, with minimal overhead - this gives me just enough income and just enough pleasure in the buying and selling of books to continue to do it, like I always have, for love and money.  I miss my shop sometimes, but see clearly how much I've gained - the time, buckets and buckets of priceless TIME - to paint, read, and be outside after years and years of working indoors. 

Today:  Books, still.  We have a few thousand of our favorites here at home and I read constantly.  I've tried to write my own books - I love them so much that I can't help but think What if... but for now at least - while I do keep filling blank journals, and I keep writing here - painting remains ascendant.  And happily so, since my life with the printed word has been rich and full but sometimes frankly overwhelming.  This must be one reason I love painting so much - it says everything I most want to say, with no words.   

SNF, You left out the punk rock stuff.
Weeeell, I consider that crucial phase to be implicit in this necessarily short and tidy autobiography! Art student and bookstore clerk - 'nuff said? xxoo!

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