Thursday, March 30, 2006


Calvin and Hobbes taught one of my daughters to read. She pored over the cartoon treasuries until the bindings were shot and pages started falling out. I often thought how it would be fun to create a Calvin and Hobbes reading "curriculum" so I was delighted to find out about this textbook from the mid-1990's.

The Calvin and Hobbes comic strip ran from 1985-1995 and Bill Watterson allowed only two licensed items during that time: a 16 month wall calendar and this book, which was written by a speech pathologist and special education teacher in North Dakota. The license limited the print run of this book to 2500 copies with the stipulation that it only be advertised to school teachers. Here is part of the letter they wrote to Watterson, asking permission to publish this book:

"We are special educators in Tioga, North Dakota, and we are very aware of how your work speaks for all children as well as for those who have trouble articulating their experience in the world around them.

Several of the children we see have attention deficits or social difficulties. One boy said, "Calvin makes me see that I can laugh at the stuff that other people always nag me about!"

We have incorporated Calvin and Hobbes into our programs to help our students understand concepts like humor, puns, implied meaning, figurative language, sarcasm, facial expression; all the subtle language concepts that "make it or break it" for these children. So many of these kids use Calvin as a point of reference."

Here is a vocabulary list from Unit 1:

A. I'll crack
B. coronary
C. nail me
D. flay me
E. out of his mind
F. looking at the big scheme of things
G. stew in my own guilt
H. blow every capillary in his body

Here are some of the reading comprehension questions:

"In 'The Report', Calvin and Susie call each other several names that imply the other is not very smart. Fill in those phrases below."

"What do you think the principal meant when he said they had 'quite a file' on Calvin?"

"Calvin told Hobbes that he dropped the binoculars. Why was that an understatement?"

"Why wouldn't Calvin's idea to glue the binoculars work?"

"When Hobbes suggests that Calvin tell his mother, he disagrees. What phrase implies he's been in trouble with his mom before?"

(For more information and excerpts from this book click here)

This book recently sold on eBay for $365 so I will keep my eyes open for it because Wisconsin isn't that far from North Dakota, where it was published. I see that the same seller has another copy on eBay right now.
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Even bookselling requires courage. Last weekend I finally worked up the courage to open an eBay store and uploaded 2000 of our books there. This probably doesn't sound nerve-wracking but it was. Even more nerve-wracking than going to a crowded library sale and fighting for space and watching other dealers look up book values with their cell phones while I'm holding a toddler in one arm and a stack of books in another and having to rely solely on my wits.

eBay is the most expensive place to sell books online. The monthly costs are double (or more) the costs of Amazon, Alibirs, etc. Plus it isn't easy to upload 2000 books to eBay, the way it is on the other sites. You have to use an outside service and it's somewhat minds-on because you have to configure your settings and insert codes and such. So, the thought of an eBay store always gave me pause and we've only used eBay to auction the occasional book or to sell groupings of books.

When you have a store on eBay you can let your inventory sit there indefinitely at a fixed price until it sells and not hassle with auctions. The downside to this is that store inventory doesn't show prominently in regular searches. Most people don't use the special store inventory search field, they use the search bar at the top of every eBay page. eBay did store owners a favor (!) in February and improved the way store inventory appeared in regular searches. We've had an eBay store for non-book items for almost two years and I noticed a surge in sales immediately. This, along with the recommendation of Craig Stark at Book Think gave me the courage I needed to open a store last Friday (speaking of BookThink, there is a profile of us on their home page this week).

Sales were brisk over the weekend. Then, abruptly, with no warning, eBay announced on Monday night that it was removing store inventory from the regular searches, and we've had one eBay sale since then. This was the very feature that motivated me to open a store in the first place. It figures. We finally take the plunge and eBay changes the rules yet again. I'm tempted to sit back on my heels and give up on an eBay store but I won't. The next time I need some bookselling relaxation I'll just go to the busiest library sale in my area and bring a few extra toddlers with me.
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Saturday, March 25, 2006


When we sell a book sometimes I pause and look at it. And wonder. Someone actually wrote this? Someone actually bought it? Go figure. We sold King Solomon Skipped by Peter Wohlfelder this weekend and the book made me wonder in this way.

The "ancient mystery" revealed in this 72 page book is the joys and benefits of skipping. Apparently there is one (yes, one) Bible verse that mentions King Solomon skipping through the hills. The author uses this to justify skipping as a superior form of exercise. The author makes the following claims:
  • Children who skip do better academically.
  • Skipping can renew your youth.
  • Skipping does more than flood your brain and body with endorphins. It also triggers love chemicals that give you the same euphoric feeling you have when you are first in love.
  • Skipping isn't hard on the joints, like jogging. "Skipping in contrast is a smooth-flowing motion with much better results. You actually feel like you are flying."

Flying! Love chemicals! I decided to give it shot, in front of the children, on our new laminate floor. "That's not how you skip!" said one of them and proceeded to give a demonstration. She skipped and fully extended her legs and looked very graceful. So did daughter #2. The youngest daughters just sat there and smiled mischievously at my attempts. I didn't feel young or lovey-dovey or more intelligent after skipping. And compared to my daughters' skipping, mine looked like clumsy hopping (or, more specifically, like what your leg does when you unexpectedly step on a Playmobil doll or Lego brick in the middle of the night). So I'll skip it. It's obviously an activity for the young. Or for men with 1000 wives and all the riches in the world and don't have to care whether or not they look foolish in public.

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Wednesday, March 22, 2006

The ten books we'd most like to find so that we could BUY an island

We were tagged with the "What ten books would you want with you if you were shipwrecked on a desert island" meme. For me it's more fun to think about which ten books would help us BUY an island instead:

1. The 1640 Bay Psalm Book. This was the first book printed in the United States and is worth millions of dollars.

2. The 1939 first edition Alcoholics Anonymous book. 4730 copies were printed and it is worth $10,000+.

3. History of the Expedition Under the Command of Captains Lewis & Clark to the Sources of the Missouri, thence across the Rocky Mountains and Down the River Columbia to the Pacific Ocean by Meriwether Lewis, published in Philadelphia in 1814. Worth $60,000.

4. All six of the Harry Potter books printed in Japanese and signed by J.K. Rowling. I don't know how much these books would fetch, but a Japanese edition of Chamber of Secrets signed by Rowling sold on eBay for almost $18,000.

5. Ulysses by James Joyce, Shakespeare & Company, 1922. $175,000.

6. The Tale of Peter Rabbit by Beatrix Potter, privately printed,1901. $87,000.

7. The Hound of the Baskervilles by Arthur Conan Doyle, George Newnes, 1902, $100,000+.

8. The Great Gatsby by F. Scott Fitzgerald, Scribner's, 1925. $87,000.

9. The Hobbit by JRR Tolkien, Unwin, 1937. $43,000.

10. Oh, and a First Folio Shakespeare from 1623 wouldn't be a bad find either. It's the first collected works of Shakespeare. Only 750 copies were printed and there are only six copies in private hands. In 2001 one of these sold for more than $4 million. In 2004 a housewife in England inherited one of these and it sold for "only" $280,000, probably because of its condition.

I won't tag anyone specifically, but if any booksellers out there have a Most Wanted list and care to blog about it, have at it.

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Monday, March 20, 2006


Last week I found a copy of the Better Homes and Gardens Story Book from the 1950's and picked it up because I vaguely remembered reading somewhere that the book is worth $40-50. I brought it home and looked it up and sure enough that's what it's worth. And then I found out why: because it contains the story Little Black Sambo.

A few days later I found two Child Craft books from the 1950's at that same thrift shop. I picked them up because the night before I had read that Child Craft books before the 1980's are worth something, even if you don't have a complete set. I brought them home and found out some sellers were selling copies of volume 3, Experience Stories and Animal Friends, for $10 but two sellers were selling it for more than $40. And then I found out why: because it contains the story Little Black Sambo.

I was born in the 1960's and, to my knowledge, had never been exposed to this story until last week. I have since learned that controversy swirls around this story, even today.

In1898 Helen Bannerman wrote this story to amuse her daughters during a two hour train ride in India. Her husband was an officer in the British army and they were stationed in India for 30 years. On the surface the story appears to be innocuous and engaging. An African boy in India sacrifices his purple shoes, red coat and blue trousers to the tigers. He outwits predators and returns safely home to eat 169 pancakes.

The illustrations, however, are wild and exaggerate racial stereotypes. This is the illustration from the cover of the 1899 book:

Sam- is a common prefix for names in India but Sambo had negative connotations in the west. For both white and African American children, Little Black Sambo was too often the first black child that they encountered in picture books.

In 2003 Handspring published a 40 page reprint of Little Black Sambo with new illustrations by Christopher Bing. The publisher said on the Handspring website, "It is my hope that a child who encounters the present volume will come to learn the complex history and dark shadows with which this story has been fraught from the first, because in the truth that history so often reveals lies a fuller understanding of our culture and our blind spots."

Dr. Alvin Puissant, head of the African Studies department at Harvard in 2003, was not at all pleased with this reprint: "I don't see how I can get past the title and what it means. It would be like...trying to do 'Little Black Darky' and saying 'As long as I fix up the character so he doesn't look like a darky on a plantation, then it's OK.'"

Another Harvard scholar, Dr. Henry Louis Gates, Jr., Chair of Afro-American Studies, had a completely different reaction. He was so impressed with Christopher Bing's illustrations that he referred Bing to his own agent, who in turn referred him to Handspring. According Handspring, Bing felt that "to simply recast the figure of Sambo as an Indian child wrenched the story out of the cultural context in which it been understood by an American readership for over a century. Therefore, his Sambo is a glorious and unabashedly African child, who runs through a richly detailed Indian setting, a fluidity of culture and geography possible only in the genre to which this tale ultimately belongs: true and marvelous fantasy. Bing said, "I would love for the black community to be able to take this image and this original story and make it a positive."

I suppose this isn't the last controversial book I will stumble across as a bookseller. Maybe the next one I'll find is a first edition of J. D. Salinger's Catcher in the Rye in fine condition. I can but hope.

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Friday, March 17, 2006


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Wednesday, March 15, 2006

Books to sell *and* to read

Most books that we purchase for our inventory are not books that I would personally choose to read. So it was a treat this weekend to open a box of books from an estate and find a pile of books by Miss Read (Dora Saint) and two by Elizabeth Goudge (1900-1984). I went to the computer and listed them immediately.

Miss Read's 40+ books are centered on English village life and the main character in many of her books is a school teacher named Miss Read. These are not minds-on books, but the sense of community within them is very inviting and I read her novels obsessively when my oldest daughter was an infant. Miss Read's books were an influence on Jan Karon.

Elizabeth Goudge is tied with Flannery O'Connor as my favorite 20th century female author. Goudge's books are not focused on village life, like Miss Read's, but on family life and on the inner life of the characters. I've read the Eliots of Damerosehay series twice and often pick up one of the volumes to reread passages. I want to adopt Lucille as my grandmother. I want a house like the Herb of Grace. The Scent of Water, another favorite, is about a woman who retires early and moves to the countryside. Not a thrilling plot. But the depth of insight and character development is wonderful. Goudge suffered from depression and was a quietly pious woman and this influences her writing. Her children's book, The Little White Horse, was J.K. Rowling's favorite book when she was a girl.

If you're a bookseller, pick up hardcover books by these authors when you find them, even if they are ex-library books. They're scarce and sell for a decent price. But try to read one before it sells, okay?
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Monday, March 13, 2006


Last week we sold a copy of The Firefighter's Workout Book : The 30 Minute a Day Train-for-Life Program for Men and Womenand I wondered what a Bookseller's Workout Book would be like. It's obvious that "endurance, strength, and vigor" are necessary for firefighting but perhaps less obvious that bookselling is also physically demanding. Here is my bookselling workout:

Strength Training - A bag of books weighs 15-20 pounds. A box of books weighs even more. At library bag sales we can easily fill several bags and boxes. These boxes have to be carried to the car. I vary this workout. Sometimes I carry a bag in each arm. Sometimes I carry one bag at a time and make more trips. Booksellers also have the occasional opportunity to acquire an entire library from an estate and can count on carrying 15 or more boxes of books to one's vehicle. And when you factor in a couple of trips to thrift shops each week, we carry some serious book poundage on a regular basis.

Aerobics - Those books we bring home have to get listed on the computer, eventually. After listing them we get to carry them, yet again. Usually by the armful or boxful into their storage area, which in our case means going up and down steps. When you add stair laps to the bookseller's workout it becomes aerobic. Some books aren't salable. I donate these to our library, which requires carrying bags of books up a hill in the parking lot and then into a back room of the library. When a book sells it has to be removed from its shelf, necessitating yet more trips up and down steps.

Stretching - While selecting books at bag sales there are many opportunities to stretch my muscles. Sometimes the sale is crowded and I have to stretch my arms long distances to reach the book that I want. In many cases I don't even have to see the title or author. A publisher's logo or an interesting looking spine is all it takes and I reach for it. Many times there are boxes of books under the tables. Deep knee bends allow me to look at these books, or at books on a lower shelf. I often have the added benefit of doing all these moves while carrying a 30 pound toddler on my hip.

Sitting - You probably think that sitting at the computer entering books is a sedentary activity and for normal people it probably is. But when you have a 30 pound child and a 40 pound child on your lap at the same time - and not just sitting on your lap, but squirming and grabbing your flash drive and throwing it behind the desk - it makes even a firefighter's workout seem relaxing.

I don't suppose that any of that would make for an interesting workout book or video. And, unlike The Firefighter's Workout Book, it'd be impossible to persuade people to spend 30 minutes a day doing these bookselling workouts. But at least you know that the next time you need help moving you should ask a bookseller.
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Friday, March 10, 2006

1950's Teen Cookbooks

Today Brian brought home a 1955 first edition of Junior Cook Book : Better Homes & Gardens. This reminded me of another 1950's teen cook book we have: Date Bait by Robert Loeb (written by a man; how interesting). My teenager and I sat down and paged through these cookbooks this afternoon and laughed out loud many times. What a refreshing contrast these books are to the Food Network cooking culture.

The Date Bait's premise is not subtle. The author sums up the purpose of the book in this poem:

If you know how
To cook the bait
To bait the hook
To hook the date
For whom you cook -
You'll have more friends,
You'll have more dates,
And Mater and Pater
Will allow more "lates."

My daughter and I laughed especially hard at Date Bait's description of the two kinds of mothers: the "kitchen is a sacred domain" type and the "kitchenwork is a pain" type. If your mother is the former it will hinder your "social independence" because she likely won't let you into her sacred kitchen to prepare "snacks, teas, and picnics" for your friends. Imagine. Social independence defined as tea parties and picnics (activities that occur at home, even) rather than as trips to the mall. If your mom is the "kitchenwork is a pain" type you will have easy access to the kitchen but the cookbooks that await you there require a Ph.D in Kitchenology, warns the author. So it's Date Bait to the rescue, with its illustrated recipes that don't require that you be a honor student in Solid Trig to understand them.
Date Bait isn't just about luring boys. I'm pleased to report that there's an entire chapter devoted to mom and dad bait: "How about a change of pace for the 'old folk'? A surprise meal prepared by the hand of junior miss is a sure-fire gift." The momlette recipe and popcakes look particularly appealing.

Junior Cook Book : Better Homes & Gardens is a small version of the red plaid Better Homes cook books that we know so well. This cook book is more serious and practical (there are no references to cooking for boys) but, as I was sure to point out to my daughter, it, too, exhorts the teens to cook for their parents and even provides a menu for mother's birthday dinner: Minute Steaks, Baked Potatoes, Hot Buttered Peas, Pretty Relish Tray, Partytime Cake. Like Date Bait, it presupposes that teens will have backyard picnics and parties on the porch and recommends drinks such as pink lemonade and snacks such as shoestring potatoes from a can. I'm tempted to use this cookbook myself. You have to admire a cookbook that suggests pigs in bacon (hot dogs wrapped in bacon strips) as an acceptable main dish for lunch.

After this nostalgic foray into 1950's teenage cooking my daughter went straight into the kitchen and baked peanut butter cookies. Whether or not I'll receive Minute Steaks for my birthday remains to be seen.
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Thursday, March 09, 2006


What's nice about being an online bookseller is that there's always a task that suits my mood. If I feel like being physical I can shelve books and rearrange boxes or take books to Goodwill. If I want to sit and not think too hard I can list books in our database. If I want to sit and have some challenge I can research the more obscure books and determine a selling price. If I want to get out of the house I can go out and acquire new inventory.

Listing new books (I try to list at least ten new books everyday but lately I've been a bit lax) is probably the most important bookselling task for keeping a steady cash flow. But lately I've been all about acquisitions. This is due, in part, to the dreary weather. It is also due to the BookThink newsletters I receive. Each one is laden with information for booksellers and I print out pages, make handwritten notes, and stuff all these pages haphazardly in my purse to refer to so that I can be on red alert for certain authors and titles when I'm at sales. But in yesterday's newsletter he says "deadly serious" booksellers don't do this. Oops. "Deadly serious" booksellers have scouting books and he gives instructions as to how to compile a proper notebook. Before I even finished reading the newsletter I opened a Scouting Book file on the computer and started typing. I'm deadly serious now. It's a new task for me to do when I'm in the mood to sit and think. A new project. Whee! And I'm now going to go list ten new books. Uh huh. Really. I am.

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Tuesday, March 07, 2006


An online transaction is impersonal, right? Not always. Over the weekend I received an e-mail from a customer that was more meaningful and personal than a typical face-to-face interaction with a store clerk.

He purchased a set of Dorothy Dunnett books from me on eBay and found my blog entry about the "tale of procurement" of these books: "My landlady commissioned me to find these. One of my regular tasks is to venture down into the basement with a freshly duct taped box of books that she's just finished reading and return with another box that is usually covered with dust and coming apart along the bottom edge. When Louise was working she'd bring in new titles from the outside, but after retiring she began re-reading everything she'd stowed away as a younger woman. We are now more than half way through her cache, so I might be making these purchasing expeditions more often. The last time she got me involved in book buying we came home with a collection of Ursula Le Guin novels, and as it turned out they were purchased for me...I'll be including a copy of your blog with the books when I give them to her.It's almost as if you had discovered the books for us or as if we had been at the St. Barnabas sale with you. Thanks again. I wish all of my purchases could be this gratifying."

We made the rule of three on those Dorothy Dunnett books. That is, they sold for at least three times what we paid for them. Barely. Usually books sell for MUCH more than that, but these books did not. There were a lot of highlight marks on the pages. Obviously the prior owner pored over these novels and read every page. This diminishes the "value." I could be disappointed in the final sale price but knowing that Louise will soon be reading the books is what makes them valuable.

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Sunday, March 05, 2006


Why do we sell books? With four daughters, and too many graduate degrees, we need all the streams of income we can get. When he was a boy Brian used to take the money that his parents gave him to spend for rides and cotton candy at the local fairground and come home with bags of books instead. Now he gets to come home with bags of books several times per week. Our idea of a fun "date" has always meant going to used bookstores. We would be remiss, however, if we did not mention the influence of the book 84, Charing Cross Road by Helene Hanff. (It was also made into a movie starring Anthony Hopkins.)

If you are a bookseller and have not read this book you need to correct that glaring oversight immediately. Or at least watch the movie. If you like to read books you, too, will be charmed by this book as she wanders her way through some of the great works of English literature. The book is 94 pages long and contains the letters that Hanff wrote to a bookseller in London from 1949-1969. Hanff lived in New York City and was unable to find affordable copies of the antiquarian books she wanted so she responded to an ad in a local newspaper by Marks & Co in London and thus began her 20-year relationship with Frank.

Helene sends letters requesting that Frank send certain books. The letters at the beginning are formal but Hanff loosens things up by saying, "I hope 'madam' doesn't mean over there what it does here." Her wit is so delightful that you will sit there and read the book in one sitting. When Frank sends a Bible that doesn't meet Helene's expectations she writes back, "Kindly inform the Church of England they have loused up the most beautiful prose ever written, whoever told them to tinker with the Vulgate Latin? They'll burn for it, you mark my words."

When Frank mistakenly sends an edited version of a book she lets him have it: "WHAT KIND OF PEPYS' DIARY DO YOU CALL THIS? This is not pepys' diary, this is some busybody editor's miserable collection of EXCERPTS from pepys' diary may he rot. i could just spit. where is Jan. 12, 1668, where his wife chased him out of bed and round the bedroom with a red-hot poker...i will make do with this thing till you find me a real Pepys. THEN i will rip up this ersatz book, page by page, AND WRAP THINGS IN IT."

Helene also scolds Frank for sending her a book and writing a personal inscription on a card rather than in the book. After Brian and I read her view on inscriptions we agreed with her and are now charmed by such books:

"I love inscriptions on flyleaves and notes in margins, I like the comradely sense of turning pages someone else has turned, and reading passages someone long gone has called my attention to."

When Frank sent Helene a book he often described it as a "good clean copy." It made me smile every time I saw that phrase in his letter and I now often include that phrase in our online book descriptions.

Our home and storage areas are now full of several thousand books, all of them used, all of them with pages someone else has turned. Thanks to the internet and the minimal overhead we can do what seemed impossible 15 years ago when we would frequent Much Ado Books in Marblehead, Massachusetts and fantasize about owning a bookstore: sell good clean copies to people all over the world.
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Friday, March 03, 2006


Every week we sell books that, when I look at the title, make my teeth fall asleep at the thought of reading them. Here are a few examples from this past week's sales:

Republican Ascendancy, 1921-1933 by John Hicks

The Shape of Thought: An Analytical Anthology by George Bond

Negative Dialetics by Theodore Adorno

This title was the most interesting to me:

Murfles and Wink-a-Peeps: Funny Old Words for Kids by Susan Sperling

children's Bible sold for $35 and I can't figure out why it's worth that much. It's an ordinary toddler sized Bible with unimpressive illustrations and only one or two sentences per page. I found this Bible at the thrift shop that has a mostly lousy book selection yet I always find a gem or two there. I hesitated about paying $1.49 for it but decided to take a chance on it because I've never seen this book before. Because toddlers are inclinced to color and gnaw upon books I wonder how a parent can be relaxed about handing a $35 book to their little one. But I'm not complaining. It's good for business, after all.
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