I have just returned from the Colorado Antiquarian Book Seminar, and my enthusiasm is still burning. I want to tell you all about it.
The Colorado Antiquarian Book Seminar (CABS) is often called Boot Camp for Booksellers. It’s a week-long seminar held in Colorado Springs each summer where the foundations of buying, researching, cataloging, and selling antiquarian books are taught. I was grateful to receive a scholarship from Bibliopolis this year after my Honey & Wax Books colleague Heather, a CABS alumna, encouraged me to attend.
Let’s start with the nights. After dinner we wander over to the tables set up outside our building and talk to each other. Everyone has a story, tales of book scouting hoarders’ houses from Oregon to Italy, of the books we most covet, of the booksellers’ catalogs we most admire. We talk history and obscure facts (a shout out to sword swallowing and neon lights). Above all, we talk about the moment we realized we were in love with bookselling.
Each teller’s countenance glows a bit when they talk about falling in love. I feel like I’m watching fireflies. We bookish types rarely talk so much. We sit outside in the rusty orange light, consume food and drink scavenged from the 7-11 across the street, and take in the spectacle. We are a tribe.
The next morning we stumble blinking into the sunlight and get back to work. Running a business is not forgiving in this world, an odd little corner of life which strikes many as a curiosity at best. There are no shortcuts. There is only your knowledge, your skill, your creativity, your work, and your pragmatism. Only one third of the CABS class from ten years ago is still in business. I mull over the lectures and recall one particular fact brought up by the new director*: if I don’t do this well, I won’t be able to do it for long.
The faculty doesn’t sugarcoat this. They are unforgiving and even, at times, ruthless. They take pride in the standards of their profession, and they will not see those standards slip. But they are so good at their jobs. It’s a pleasure to watch. I feel honored to know them. I see how they observe each other, play off each other, poke fun at one another. This is part of the business, too. Make no mistake: bookselling is a way of life. CABS sets the standard for it.
Herein lies the seminar’s real value. We antiquarian booksellers have a responsibility in how we seek, research, and sell the printed artifacts of our civilization. While at a certain level we are in competition with one another, in more important ways, we are united in both our temperaments and our goals. We want to make a living, even (dare I say) a fine living. But we also feel a moral imperative to care for these fragments of human thought, to rediscover forgotten paths, and to keep the memory green. And, okay, yes. It may also be the case that we just couldn’t help going down the rabbit hole of research on that obscure little pamphlet we came across the other day. It’s amazing; I can totally sell that.
If you are thinking of entering the antiquarian book trade:
Go to CABS.
If you work in the trade and haven’t yet attended:
Go to CABS.
Even if you’ve been doing this for a while (closing in on a decade for me):
Go to CABS.
Antiquarian booksellers are typically resistant to this kind of rhetoric. I get it. Most of us have the temperament of a cat; we look with disdain upon those who dare suggest we act a certain way. But this philosophy contains a generous breadth and depth. It asks only that you work hard, ethically, and creatively; that you take pride in what you do; and that you value the role of the antiquarian book trade in the world.
Many of you who are reading this aren’t newer booksellers, or even booksellers at all. For you, attending may not be the right fit. However, if you see the worth in maintaining this world at the highest standards, consider donating to CABS. If you value the antiquarian book trade, demonstrate that your opinion isn’t simply a vague feeling of good will. Be generous in your donation if you can. I’ve donated an amount just large enough to be a bit painful. If you can’t, a small amount is fine, too. Even with $10, you’ll be investing in the future of this gently mad world.
To learn more, visit the CABS website.
*The new director of CABS is Lorne Bair, of Lorne Bair Rare Books.