Tag Archives: colorado antiquarian book seminar

Get Thee To A Nunnery…

So, I’m back in my basement after being rudely dragged out into the pale Northern sunlight to fight off Mance Rayder’s Army of Wildlings,  attend both the inaugural York Antiquarian Book Seminar and the amazing York Book Fair.

The first of those has been a labour of love; a two year labour of love in the case of Anthony Smithson of Keel Row Bookshop, and just over a year in my own case; since he invited me to join him at the Colorado Antiquarian Book Seminar (aka: the best week of book related awesomeness I’ve experienced since I became a professional dealer).

Organising such an event, firstly, is an achievement of epic proportions; herding cats has nothing on herding book dealers. It’s not considered a good idea unless 20 people have told you it’ll never work, ten people have told you you’re not qualified and 4 people have actively tried to mess  it up (that’s actually the wikipedia definition of a book trade good idea).

“I’ve got a good idea!” Said Anthony. “Let’s teach people how to be rare booksellers! It worked in Colorado.”

“You shall have my axe!” Said Gimli.

“And my bow!” Said Legolas.

“Uh, yeah, ok, sounds cool.” Said Jonathan.

“Smithson! Smithson! We hates it forever!” Said that guy with the grey complexion and the webbed feet who turns up at book fairs. Never mind him though, he doesn’t even get a look in.

"Nobody wants to learn about books from you...you don't have any friends..."

“Nobody wants to learn about books from you…you don’t have any friends…”

So, the first step is apparently getting together some of the brightest, most accomplished and highly respected people in the book trade and making them your Fellowship faculty and have them gather at The Bar Convent, York:

Ed Maggs, Simon Beattie, Sophie Schneideman, Justin Croft…basically all these people. They all said yes. They all turned up and they all gave informed, intelligent, insightful and often downright hilarious lectures and presentations on all of the most arcane elements of what, to a neophyte, can be a deeply arcane trade. Ed Maggs on Archives was worth the admission cost alone, Sophie Schneideman on the Art of The Book, Adam Douglas on Fakes and Forgeries…and possibly the most in depth and enthusiastically presented and participated series of lectures on formal and accurate cataloguing from Messrs. Croft and Beattie. Anthony on running an open shop, and the Mighty Nigel Burwood on buying books, and the esoteric routes by which they may be priced and sold. We also had Tim Pye from the British Library (yes, they come out in daylight, occasionally) informing us what librarians look for in a bookseller…which leads me to believe there should be an app for that…some kind of BiblioTinder where “Archivist Seeking 17th Century Broadsheets” can finally be united with “PamphleteerUnbound775” and they can happily make shelf-marks together.

I pretty much sat through every presentation making notes of some sort or another. It was either “Now that I did not know!” or “This man/woman is way too funny and interesting, he/she needs to stop because I’m up next.”

Purely in the interests of giving Anthony a minor cardiac event I ended up rewriting almost my whole final presentation an hour beforehand as I realised with a sense of sick, Lovecraftian horror that Lorne Bair and Carl Williams were actually saying everything I was about to.

Yes, absolutely like that, only with more books...

Yes, absolutely like that, only with more books…


For a moment I hovered on the brink of blinking out of existence in some sort of quantum event as I was rendered utterly superfluous and redundant (that’s a theme of this year, did I mention that? Private joke, you’d only get it if you were at YABS, just saying…) and then I reflected on the fact that after those two had finished speaking no-one was going to be listening anyway, and I could have basically recited a list of baking ingredients…so all was well…except for Anthony’s bulging eyes as potential last minute disaster reared its ginger, bespectacled head.

So the faculty pretty much had it all sewn up. The quality of information and its presentation was amongst the highest I have encountered in over four decades of sitting in rooms with distressingly smart people. Rob Rulon-Miller and Lorne Bair (basically the book-dealers other book-dealers dream about being and then wake up disappointed) made the massive commitment of travelling all the way from the US.

Mr. Rulon-Miller gave the keynote address; a no punches pulled overview of the rare book world, its highs and its lows, and an admonition to all present that if you think you can have one without the other, you’re in the wrong business. He also spoke about tape, packing tape, apparently he has strong opinions about tape. Who knew?


Lorne Bair, apart from being present for the whole seminar, sitting either with the faculty or at the back of the room, is a leading light (along with Rob) of the Colorado Antiquarian Book Seminar, our alma mater…and is also one of the world’s leading dealers in counter culture material.

Having Mr. Bair in the room when you are embarking on something like YABS (essentially a parachute-free leap of faith kind of gig) is akin to having Stephen Hawking back your primary school papier-mache model of the solar system. It makes the whole thing way easier.

But…anybody could have hazarded a guess that a faculty like that, which reads like a bibliophile’s fantasy football lineup, are going to deliver some outstanding material.

But the students!

"Why yes! Of course I'll tell you more about WordPress and Search Engine Optimisation..."

“Why yes! Of course I’ll tell you more about WordPress and Search Engine Optimisation…”

I don’t think any of us could have guessed that the inaugural year of YABS was going to get such an impressive group of students. We didn’t really know what we’d get, but I personally was blown away by the enthusiasm, attentiveness and intelligence present in that room. Apart from the proviso that there are no stupid questions, you don’t actually expect all of them to be good questions! Whilst I would normally feel a little less than comfortable about being faced with a query so searching that I had to make a whimpering noise and ask for help, on every occasion it happened at YABS I just felt kind of proud. In an echo of CABS last year, a good number of the students were already deeply embedded in the trade, either as employees of the great and known, like Fuschia Voremberg of Maggs Brothers, or Joanna Skeels of Quaritch, or Ed Nassau-Lake of Jarndyce; or they were somehow achieving amazing degrees of commitment, like Natalie-Kay Thatcher (recipient of this year’s Jonathan Kearns/BTC Scholarship, oh yes) who has somehow managed to start out working for two (count ’em) highly respected ABA dealers AND run her own book related business.

That’s right up there in the Shannon Hartlep, L.N. Golay, Heather O’Donnell leagues that is. That’s “You should be standing here talking to these people instead of me” territory. If I hadn’t known better I’d have thought it was a conspiracy…like those parties I used to get invited to by girls that were always mysteriously just over when I got there, or happening on an oil rig. I should have looked about me and thought “Wait a minute…these people are smart…too smart!”

Hi! Anyone around? I brought Lambrusco...hello? Am I early?

Hi! Anyone around? I brought Lambrusco…hello? Am I early?

But apparently that’s what you get when Anthony Smithson convinces you to gather people together to teach them about rare books.

It was exhausting, and delirious, and inspiring and terrifying and thoroughly enjoyable. These are not words normally applied to anything taking place in the conference room of a convent (except that one time where they double-booked BurlesqueCon and my Gentlemen Prefer Tweed Annual Gathering…totes cray cray that was…), but on this occasion they are accurate.

I would do it again tomorrow. This time I wouldn’t let Lorne Bair and Carl Williams go on first…










I left my heart in Colorado Springs…and my luggage in Denver.

Criminal as it may seem, I have been back a couple of weeks now and I still haven’t shared the tale of my adventures at the Colorado Antiquarian Book Seminar. A fortnight standing in as a coconut shy for the more Luddite of the Antiquarian Bookseller’s Association will do that.

“But tell us your adventures!” I hear you clamouring, “Were there beautiful women, and strange narcotics, were there acts of great derring-do and sundry torrid and passionate encounters neath the sparkling dome of the big, big Colorado sky?”

Why yes, dearly beloved, yes there were…all these things and more.

So, background…every year in August the best, the brightest the fastest and the wisest in the rare book trade act as faculty for those lucky enough to be admitted to what is effectively “Bookselling School” at Colorado College, Colorado Springs.

Go here to find out more: Colorado Antiquarian Book Seminar. No, really, it’s awesome.

First off, Colorado Springs look like this:

All week I kept looking upwards and going "Gah!"

All week I kept looking upwards and going “Gah!”

It’s gorgeous.

Secondly; the faculty consists of people like Lorne Bair, Rob Rulon Miller, Kevin Johnson, and Terry “The Dryer” Belanger…and others, Nina Musinsky, Dan DeSimone…and there’s more! There’s also Dan Gregory (a man who has done more for the modernisation of the rare book trade than just about anyone else). And others!

So there’s that.

Anyway…3 flights, every one of them delayed, a giant terrifying (yet awe-inspiring) cliff of lightning-spewing cloud, clear air turbulence and nobody understanding a word I was saying until I said with a slight American accent, sharing the last stormy part of the journey in a very small plane with a very serene sniper who actually slept through the worst bits.

I arrive at Colorado Springs at about half eleven at night, my luggage lost in the unholy demonic puzzle box that is Denver International Airport, with half an hour to get to a place I don’t know, to speak to a person I’ve never met, about a key I really hope is waiting so that I don’t have to start my visit by being locked up for vagrancy. 

By midnight I have my key, I have the run of an empty motel (weirdly not as exciting as you might think), I have beer and a microwave burrito and the guy with the ponytail in the 7-11 just spent ten minutes trying to get me to say things in an English accent because I “should totally be like, a bad guy on a TV show, man.”

I neither look nor sound anything like this man...but he cropped up frequently on 7-11 visits and elsewhere. (this image is for Marguerite)

I neither look nor sound anything like this man…but he cropped up frequently on 7-11 visits and elsewhere. (this image is specially for Marguerite)

I sat outside in the car park, alone at 2 in the morning drinking beer. It was a warm night, and I was struck forcibly by the understanding that having flown across the planet to be instructed on the subtleties, vagaries, tips and techniques of my chosen trade, I was suddenly, quietly, yet quite conspicuously…happy.

That, ladies and gentlemen, is presumably what they were talking about when they said “Try and do a job you enjoy.”

Anyway, long story short: A hell of a lot happened. 

Day one: myself and Anthony Smithson (of Keel Row Books and the Eminence Grise of The York Antiquarian Book Seminar, the reason I ended up in Colorado in the first place) are lounging about in the awkward, pallid fashion of British men abroad in warm climates.

We are chatting to a bookseller from Seattle called Mark who bears a ridiculous (and quite annoying) resemblance to Gregory Peck in the role of Atticus Finch.

A tall young woman of piercing eye, no-nonsense demeanour and awesome tattoo-age glides up, and announces she’s taking us to a pub. Obviously we allowed this to happen, because that’s what gentlemen do.

We discussed, over beer and various arcane US snacks, Mark’s business in Seattle, my own (well, Adrian’s) in London, Anthony’s flourishing Empire in The North, and then asked the young lady (whose name is Shannon) what place she had in the bookseller’s pantheon.

Half an hour later we were sitting there; goggle eyed and slack jawed as she laid down a tale of such blinding business acumen, hard work and devotion to her objective of opening and running a cool little bookshop somewhere nice ™, that we damn near just gave up on the spot and proclaimed her the winner of all Book-shoppery.

Seriously, she took a rundown, exhausted, ninety percent trashed bookshop in Guernville, California and turned it into a thriving, happy and profitable community bookshop with a strong local following and a very strong future. The bar-staff had to come ask me why I was clapping. It was absolutely the most downright encouraging story I’d heard in years, because this business can be a pig to get into and an even bigger pig to progress in.

So there was that. It wasn’t the first time that happened either, there were a number of people attending the seminar, ostensibly to learn, who were already making their way with admirable skill and dedication. It was a very inspiring crowd, and one that I was very happy to be a part of…

PART 2 to follow.


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