My bookselling started like many things in my life, by accident. I was sorting through a pile of papers in a junk shop in Magdalen Road in Norwich, when I came across a huge selection of violin music for which the proprietor was asking next to nothing. I bought the bundle and took it home. Over the subsequent weeks I proceeded to advertise it for sale by individual title. This must have been in the very early 1980s, and advertising such things as violin music was not so easy as it has since become, with Ebay always to hand.
I cannot remember now where I advertised the music; possibly in Exchange and Mart, but it sold very well. There was a copy of Monti’s Czardas I remember, and a lot of similar pieces for solo violin with piano accompaniment. Unusually most of the pieces were complete. As I later discovered, with sheet music where the pages are all loose, it is very easy for them to become detached and lost. I thought I would look out for some more violin music, but I soon found that this was easier said than done. There were acres of piano music, but nobody wanted that, unless it was very old (i.e. eighteenth century) or very well bound (in full leather and not rubbed or scuffed). Of course, it was because violin music was relatively rare that my bundle had sold so well. These were the sort of things I discovered as I went along. It would have saved me a lot of time and heartache if there had been someone to teach me, but at the time I saw no need of a teacher, being brash and young.
Quite rightly I decided that selling violin music was too specialised a field, in Norfolk anyway, and branched out into music books. These varied between the general, which again nobody wanted, and the specialised, which were highly sought after. Once again it was the violin which appeared to rule the roost. The most expensive were those books on violin making. The knack of making a success of bookselling is of course to buy more cheaply than the price at which you can sell. I could have bought most of these books at the full retail price, but finding a bargain was much more difficult. To me, buying a bargain book from a member of the public seemed a bit underhand, but to find a bargain in bookshop was fair game. It is important to know that the condition of a book is of crucial importance in determining its value, which is something I was slow to appreciate.
Because I did not play the instrument anything connected with violins I could sell without a qualm; anything connected with the double bass, which I did play, of course I kept! I was certainly better at selling music books than just sheet music, but even so the field was rather restricted as far as purchases were concerned. I needed to select another subject in which I was already quite knowledgeable, but not so dedicated that I would feel a pang in selling a book. I had to enlarge my field of subjects, but not to the extent that I was no longer a specialist.
Beyond music the special subject I decided on was maritime books; these were more plentiful in Norfolk than music books. This must be to do with the proximity of the sea and the Broads. These books seemed to have an enthusiastic following across the country which made them easy to sell. I must have produced dozens of catalogues, at first on my typewriter to be printed by the local printer, and latterly on my computer. Of course you only had one copy of each book, but that is how the secondhand book business is.
Specialised knowledge of the kind of books to look for was the key to making a killing, and the wider you spread your net the less you can know about individual titles. The secondhand book selling trade has been turned upside down by online trading. Nowadays the internet has made the economics of secondhand bookselling quite different.
Nowadays the shop selling old books has almost vanished and nearly all such sales are made on-line. In this way you are much more likely to find the book you want, but you are less likely to find it at a bargain price, because it is much easier for the seller to find the going rate by doing a quick search. Serendipity, which would throw up all sorts of unexpected treasures and delightful surprises as you browsed the bookshop shelves, has largely disappeared.
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