Years ago, in the early and mid-1990s, when I was a new bookseller, we used to make frequent trips towards the coast of California north of San Francisco – to Marin and Sonoma counties – and we could easily spend a day scouting in the used bookstores we found there, and return with a carload of boxes. As the years went on most of those stores closed – and not much came along to replace them. Much as I love buying and selling on the internet, it is not quite the same thing.
I still miss those bookhunting trips, so this month, driven by nostalgia (and a desire to forget the present) we hit the road again. We live further away now, so it became a three day trip, with a great stay in a lovely little airbnb apartment in Lucas Valley, complete with a Bruce Johnson large wood sculpture in the courtyard and a welcoming bottle of wine.
Despite the pleasant accommodations, in our first full day of searching, good books – books worth buying – were pretty hard to find. We even came up empty in several thrift stores. Mystery hardcovers at the Friends of the Library store in Novato were only $1 each, but there were none we could use, although I did find a few books in other sections of the store (one of the advantages of having several specialties means that if one doesn’t work out, another might.)
The weather was perfect – 70 and sunny with a light breeze – the kind of autumn day that makes you glad to be living in California. Point Reyes National Seashore was just a few miles down the road, through the redwoods and rolling hills. Lunch in town consisted of oysters on the half shell, artisan pizza and local beer on the patio – it doesn’t get much better than that, even if we only had one small bag of books in the car so far.
Rebound Books opened in San Rafael in 2005, after most of the other stores had closed, but a newly opened (or even a 12 year old) store – with maybe 10% of the space – just cannot replace a store like Hal Bertram’s old Mandrake Bookshop with its high shelves, and enough inventory to be nicknamed “the Strand of Marin County.” Still Rebound does have a pretty eclectic selection in a fairly small space, reasonable prices (I found a couple of juvenile series books here) and very friendly and helpful owners (it is also conveniently located next door to The WhipperSnapper, a very good Caribbean fusion restaurant) .
The next day we headed to Santa Rosa, where there is still a survivor of the “good old days” – Treehorn Books on 4th St in downtown. Founded in 1979, it always had a good selection of children’s books but now it has lots more books than it used to, including just about the biggest selection of poetry books you will find in a used bookstore. Trehorn has shelves going all the way up to their 12 foot ceilings (or are they 14 ft?), and lots and lots of the shelves are packed with double rows of books, so browsing is challenging. They list a very small selection of their books online, but even though very few are online, and their prices are reasonable, they really know their books so those prices reflect the current market pretty closely.
Nevertheless, I found a couple of items irresistible – the first was a small die-cut children’s book, published early in the 20th century by a printing company founded in Scotland in 1851 – a retelling of The Three Bears. Valentine & Sons, the publisher of a series of shaped books for children, became the largest printer of postcards in Scotland. Although it was later sold to Hallmark, this little book stands as testimony to its work over 100 years ago.
The second book was a signed copy of Howard Pease’s The Secret Cargo – just a reprint, unfortunately – but in a dust jacket – and quite uncommon signed. But it wasn’t the book alone that attracted me – it was the laid in mimeographed program for “Howard Pease Day” in 1961 (the same date as the book was signed) complete with lyrics for a song to be sung to the tune of “Farmer in the Dell. ” For me, it is these kind of connections that make a copy of a book really special.
Yesterday brought some good news with the announcement that African American writer Paul Beatty, known for his sarcastic and penetrating novels which skewer some of our attitudes towards race in the United States, was the first writer from the United States to win the Man/Booker Award for his fourth novel The Sellout. Before this novel won the Booker, it had already won the National Book Critic Circles Award here in the US and been named one of the best novels of the year by the New York Times . In addition to his three earlier novels – White Boy Shuffle, Tuff and Slumberland, Beatty edited, appropriately considering his own writing, an anthology of African American humor – Hokum .
But I also read of the deaths of two very different writers, both of whose works I appreciated and loved – poet Brigit Pegeen Kelly and science fiction, eco-feminist novelist Sheri S. Tepper.
Kelly’s first book To the Place of Trumpets won the Yale Series of Younger Poets Prize and she went on to win almost every poetry prize out there – the Guggenheim, NEA, National Book Critics Circle, Lamont. Her second collection, Song, was the Lamont Poetry Selection, and her third book, Orchard, was a finalist for the Pulitzer, among other awards.
Sheri Tepper started writing later in her life, and her first novels – the True Game series – have become enduring fantasy classics – but her most important and influential books are the ones which create a feminist vision of the future – notably The Gate to Women’s Country and Grass –
In addition to science fiction, Tepper also wrote enjoyable mystery stories under the pseudonyms of B. J. Oliphant and A. J. Orde. But one of my favorite novels by Tepper is her delightful The Family Tree which begins with police officer Dora Henry investigating three apparently motiveless murders whose victims were all leading geneticists and segues into a surprising fantasy.
We can look forward to more books from Paul Beatty, but all three of these authors will continue to connect with their readers.
Last year, one of our customers, a dedicated collector and just an all around great guy announced that he was donating his science fiction collection to the University of IOWA. His collection included almost 18,000 books with over 30,000 author signatures in them! But he built this collection one book at a time – because he loved doing it –
This is a pretty extraordinary example, and one that most of us will not even begin to come close to. You could have a book collection that fits on one shelf (in fact, if you collect miniature books, they could fit in a small box) – so what makes a collection, if it not the size of it?
What is the difference between book buying and book collecting?
There are probably as many answers to that as there are people, but I’ll throw out a few. I read – a lot! and I prefer to read books I own. I like to read them on my own schedule, and not have to worry about returning them to the library. If I only have a few books to read, that is almost as bad as having none. I became a reader long before the days of e-readers, but if they had existed back then, I would have been in heaven. Instead I got hooked on “print” and I still am. Anyhow I bought hundreds and thousands of books – some of them got left behind in various moves, but they were quickly replaced. I would check to see if a book was a first edition, but that didn’t make me a collector. I was buying books primarily because I thought I wanted to read them – even though I acquired far more than I could actually read.
So there is one difference: a book buyer is focused primarily on the content. The content is also important to most collectors, but in addition to the content, a collector is looking at the book as an object. A jar might be a great container for flowers, but a hand-blown glass vase is not only a container for flowers, it can be gorgeous by itself (admittedly with books, sometimes “ beauty” is just in the beholder’s eye, but that is another issue).
Another way to define collection is that the sum of the objects is greater – or more interesting – than the individual items. A shelf full of books that were selected just because you wanted to read them is just a bunch of books – but if some of those books were also chosen because they are modern first editions signed by the author, or because they tell the story of women in the West, or disasters at sea, then that is the nucleus of a collection. We purchased part of a collection from a woman who was moving across the country and downsizing – it was pretty obvious that one of her interests was fiction by Southern writers, but there were quite a few books that didn’t seem to fit in, so I asked her about them. She was also collecting books with dust jackets designed by one woman.
The first rule of collecting has been stated so many times, in so many places, that is has become a cliche – but that doesn’t make it less true. Pick something you really love: an author, a subject area or genre, an era, a series, a publisher, an illustrator — the possibilities are endless. Chances are very good, if you’re anything like me, that you’ll already have at least a few related books on your shelves, and that you’ll have read them. These books, and the existing knowledge you’ve gotten from them, are more than enough of a foundation on which to begin building a collection. The most important driving force for the assembly of any collection isn’t money — it’s passion. And if you lose interest in the topic, just move on… happens all the time!
A collection can be as focused as seeking out every single edition of one title, or every book and publication of a single author, or it can simply be signed copies of books by authors you want to read. The focus can be on the design of the book – like the lovely early 20th century art deco bindings of designers like the Thayers or Margaret Armstrong – or the striking covers on vintage paperbacks of the 1940s and 1950s. It can be related to your career – like architecture or oceanography – or to an avocation like photography or reflect a love of the outdoors. One woman I knew was collecting Weekly Reader editions of children’s books, not just out of nostalgia, but because they influenced a whole generation of children and no one has really looked at them seriously.
There are no rules for collecting – each collector decides for herself or himself what is important, and that can change as you delve deeper. There was a time (in the English speaking world at least) when book collecting was dominated by older (and often wealthier) white men, and the price guides and books on collecting from that era reflect that bias. But that is no longer true, due at least in part to the revolutionary power of the internet.
This is an interview which was first published in The Standard, the journal of the Independent Online Booksellers Association, back in December 2001, but I think it is worth repeating here –
Regarding Black Writers & Literature
an interview with Chris Volk, bookseller and Shirley Bryant, editor of The Standard.
Q: One of your specialties is Black literature. How/why did you choose this area to specialize in?
A: I had both personal reasons and what I like to think are practical business reasons. The civil rights movement was very active when I was a college student, and in the years right after that, and while I was only involved in very minor ways (participating in a tutoring program, etc.) it was something I believed in, and I began to read and buy books related to blacks in America. In fact, this was one of the common areas of interest between me and my first husband (now deceased), who was black and working as a part-time lecturer in black studies when I met him. Since we had two daughters, I continued to buy books in this area, so that they would have them available.
When I started as a bookseller back in 1993, I was planning on selling books mostly by catalogues and at shows, and so within the overall area of modern first editions, I decided to focus on women authors and African American writers, two areas I both liked and felt were somewhat neglected, since historically most booksellers and book collectors in the U.S. have been white males. I also felt that since I was more knowledgeable about these areas than many booksellers, it gave me a little bit of an advantage that would offset my newness in the business.
Q: Which Black authors do you consider the best overall and why?
A: In terms of sheer literary elegance, I would have to say Ralph Ellison and the best of W. E. B. DuBois’s writings are extremely powerful. I think we all know the list of classic African American authors, ranging from Frederick Douglass to Hurston to Wright and to Baldwin, so I am not going to select a ‘best’ from among them.
I am not even going to try and select some favorites because so often it is a question of which writer affects you the most on a particular day or in a particular mood. I will mention a few who I think don’t get the recognition they deserve: Percival Everett (who has written many novels over about 20 years, with a new, very funny one out just this year), Paule Marshall, Gayl Jones (her personal tragedies made her name better known for a while, but I think she is still not read enough), James Alan McPherson (he won the Pulitzer prize for one collection of short stories, but I wish he would write more), Sherley Anne Williams, George Lamming (from the Caribbean) I could go on and on and on another day, my list might be completely different. Many of the African American writers whom I like are poets, rather than novelists.
Q: Do you think Black authors have a unique perspective because of being Black, or is that irrelevant? If they do have a unique perspective, do you think they’re writing things that non-Blacks can relate to, or are their experience foreign to most other races/ethnic groups? I guess what I’m asking is whether most Black literature is based on a past of poverty and oppression that any struggling ethnic group can relate to, or is it unique to American Blacks?
A: To the extent that some (not most) African American literature is based on a past of poverty and oppression, I think it speaks to all groups who have struggled against these – however, the black experience in the U.S. is unique in many ways: the length of their history in the U.S. going back to the 17th century, the fact that they were brought to the U.S. unwillingly as slaves, and also that the form of slavery to which these Africans were subjected in the west was in many ways the worst the world has ever known (the only one which considered slaves as chattels, of no more significance than ownership of cattle).
The other important thing to realize in looking at African American literature is that in many ways it is part of a world literature or a trans-Atlantic literature. The term “diaspora” is used to indicate the spread of those of African descent to most parts of the western world. So my own personal perspective has been broadening to include Afro-Caribbean writers (many of whom left the Caribbean and went to England, France, Canada and the U.S.), Afro-Brazilian, and African writers. In fact, if you are talking about a writer from Puerto Rico or Cuba who has come to the United States, is that writer a Latin American or an African American or both?
One other point: the best literature is universal – Thus Grapes of Wrath speaks to all readers, not just migrant farm workers, and I think so does Wright’s Native Son, and Baldwin’s Go Tell It on a Mountain and Zora Neale Hurston’s Jonah’s Gourd Vine, to give just a few examples.
Q: Do most Black authors only write about Black characters? I’m curious about this, as Caucasian authors seem to write about all nationalities and racial and ethnic groups (although perhaps not with the authority that an author from a particular country or racial or ethnic group brings to writing), and most of the admittedly few current Black authors I’ve read seem to stick to Black characters and Black situations.
A. I guess I am partly curious about why you say that white writers seem to write about all nationalities and ethnic groups. Certainly one sees this in children’s literature where in the past the writers were almost exclusively white, but the children were often from different countries, or little black children. But I think in serious literature it is much less common for a white writer to have the protagonist of the work be of another race. Again, in the past, some Southerners wrote novels in dialect, but these were intended to confirm white readers in their belief that Negroes were simple, child-like, happy folks, or untrustworthy and shifty or whatever.
I don’t want to say that there aren’t any exceptions, because of course, there are but they are precisely that, exceptions: To give just one very modern example, Susan Straight is a white woman who set her first few books exclusively within the black community but she was married to a black man and living within that community at the time and her books stand out precisely because they are uncommon.
Some other interesting exceptions occurred during the Harlem Renaissance when you had a white woman like Nancy Cunard create the massive anthology “Negro” or Marc Connelly write a play like “Green Pastures” Langston Hughes referred to this phenomenon rather uncomplimentarily in one of his poems, but the fact remains that the Harlem Renaissance was a time in which it was “popular” to be black. Similarly, during the Civil Rights era and the Black Power movement, there was a certain allure to the whole scene which led to many writers who were not black featuring black protagonists.
However, it is true that most white writers have, in a sense, more freedom to write totally outside their own culture or their own experiences. They have been given this freedom by society, where they are not expected to “uphold the race” and by publishers. However, one of the ongoing issues for many black writers is not just expressing themselves creatively but also how much of an obligation do they have to work to correct injustice through their writing. Should they always be thinking of the white reader who might read their books and find his/her stereotypes confirmed if they described a black man as brutal or unfaithful (a criticism leveled against Alice Walker and Gayl Jones, for example)?
Richard Wright, whose books focused on the daily injustices blacks faced in America, felt that Zora Neale Hurston was wrong in writing her novels about a self-contained black world. I just got a copy of Bronze, the second collection of poetry by Georgia Douglas Johnson, a minor Harlem Renaissance writer. Her first collection was criticized because it dealt with the “heart” and not race, so this was her book of poems on race (although still infused by the heart), and in her last book, she again ignored race.
An interesting example is Charles Perry: his first and only published novel Portrait of a Young Man Drowning, was based on his own experience of juvenile gangsters in his Brooklyn neighborhood, but it features almost exclusively white characters – a decision made, according to Perry’s daughter, out of a fear that issues of race could cloud the humanity of the characters. Did this make it harder for him to get published?
Just two more very different examples: Many people still do not realize that Frank Yerby was a black man. His earlier books did not have a picture of him on the dustjacket, and almost all of his books are historical fiction, adventure novels, and so on, set almost exclusively within a white world. When Charles Chesnutt published his first book, even though it used dialect, it was thought that he was white. In fact, he was light skinned enough that he could have easily passed for white, but instead his novels became increasing more “political” and less popular. What had been considered his last novel, The Colonel’s Dream, was published while he was still relatively young, and only a few years after his first, and sold poorly. In fact, a recently found later novel of his has just been published, and this is the story of a man who grows up thinking he is black, and discovers that he is white (does this count as a black writer writing a novel with a white protagonist?)
So African American authors have both pressure from others in their communities to write about black people for many different reasons and from publishers who find it easier to keep writers in a ‘box’, a desire to overcome the prejudices and injustices they have faced, a dramatic history to write about is it surprising that they mostly write about black characters?
Q: Do you believe it is harder, today, for a Black author to find a publisher? To be marketed as a mainstream author by publishers? Or do their works command a smaller audience which discourages publishers from pushing their work?
A: Most African American writers would be considered ‘mid-list’ writers. I think that all mid-list writers are having problems now in finding publishers, but yes, this situation is probably exacerbated for black authors. I recently went to a signing by Mary Monroe, who just published her second novel more than 10 years after her first one and the reason was that she could not find a publisher. I can give several other examples of women who have had good critical reviews, or even won prizes for their books, but they wind up with no publisher for a while.
Marketing is, of course, another issue and it is one that becomes very obvious in some bookstores where African American writers are for the most part put in a separate section of the store. In a way, this increases the ‘ghettoization’ of black authors, by implying that only black readers will be interested in their books. Writers like Toni Morrison obviously have broken out of this, but I think this trend is increasing.
Q: What genres seem to attract the most Black authors? Does their being Black usually have an effect on these choices?
A: African Americans write in all genres aside from straight “literature” there are many black writers in mysteries, romance, science fiction, juvenile and children’s literature. Perhaps the genres where they are relatively under-represented are science fiction and Western fiction.
Q: Am I mistaken that most of the currently popular Black literature authors are women? If that is true, what is your thinking on why?
A: If by popular you are referring to those who appear on the best seller lists consistently like Bebe Moore Campbell or Terry MacMillan or even Toni Morrison, then it might seem so. Remember most book buyers in the U.S. are women, and one of the things that Campbell and MacMillan seem to have done is to write novels about black women facing emotional/family/romantic/financial problems in a way that has more to do with being middle class American than specifically African American so that makes their novels popular enough that they will hit the best seller list. I don’t pay attention to the best seller lists all that much but I will agree that there do not seem to be any African American male writers who approach the popularity of Clancy, King, Koontz, etc.
However, when looking at literature overall, there are many popular African American writers who are men. With some exceptions, popularity usually means that a book is less challenging, so I am not sure that is an important goal.
Q: Are most Black literature authors (as opposed to autobiographical, nonfiction, or politically related writing) from the U.S.? If so, why?
A: Well, I dealt with this a little above, but no, most of them are not from the United States. Africa and the Caribbean have both produced Nobel Prize winning authors (to use just one yardstick) the Caribbean especially has produced a large number of interesting authors, both in the past with such writers as Aime Cesaire and currently with not just “giants” of literature like Derek Walcott, but also with many interesting younger writers, such as Jamaica Kincaid and Edwidge Danticat and Caryl Phillips (and remember, not all black literature is written in English – much of it is in French and some in Spanish.) Many writers move between countries – in other words, lots of Caribbean writers go to Canada or England or the U.S., and back again.
Q: Do you think that popular Black authors are helped a lot by the publicity Oprah gives their work? What other venues or people are helping Black authors?
A: I can’t really give a complete list of authors Oprah has selected, but it seems to me that her effect has been much more dramatic on some of the white woman writers she
has selected: specifically, I am thinking of her first selection, Jane Hamilton, who was very little known until that happened.
In a sense, Oprah is much more conservative in selecting African Writers: many have already won recognition. Toni Morrison was already a Nobel Laureate, Ernest Gaines had won the National Book Award, Crosby books were already all best sellers, etc. I might be missing someone but offhand I cannot think of an unknown young African American fiction writer who she selected.
Q: I’ve had some Black customers who only collect works by Black authors. Do you find this prevalent?
A: Most collectors have to limit their collection – African American collectors are no exception. Certainly, many of them collect primarily in certain periods (Harlem Renaissance, or modern literature or late 19th century), but I have had African American collectors who only collect mysteries, one who was a serious Anne Rice collector, others who collect children’s books.
And many of the collectors whom I have dealt with who collect African American authors are not themselves African American.
Q. What percentage of your sales are books by Blacks?
A: I actually looked this up because I wasn’t sure and I was surprised to see that African American books are approximately 15% of the books which we have catalogued and represent about 15% of our sales (in terms of numbers of books). The only difference is that the average sales price is somewhat higher than our overall average, and this reflects the fact that I will put more energy into “buying” in this area.
I would like to see a higher percentage of our books in this area, actually, but finding really good quality books is becoming more and more challenging.
Interview by Shirley Bryant.
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