The Mountain Times

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The smell of paper and the business of books

Artists made this book. The boards are covered in tanned leather worn smooth by more than two centuries of handling and the oils that come naturally off the human hand.

The spine is stiff and straight, detailed in gilt that was applied by a steady hand. This gold retains its luster 226 years later.

The paper used for the pages was handmade from cotton or linen rags that had their own history. This paper is thicker than today's mass-produced product, more like blotter paper, and a shade off from clean white.

Run your fingers across the page and feel the letters on your fingertips, the impressions made by handset type pressed into the paper sheet by sheet. Riffle the pages. The binding is tight; not one page is loose even after centuries of use.

Now smell the book. Its years of sitting on shelves collecting dust, the decades when it could only be read by daylight or smoking candles or even smokier gaslight, its connection to the natural world of animal leather and flax all combine to create a slightly acrid, musty odor.

For $1,000 you can own a copy of this work of art, John A. Graham's "A Descriptive Sketch of the Present State of Vermont, One of the United States of America," published in London in 1797. The State of Vermont was five years old.

"Everything's a treasure in its own way," says Sonny Saul looking around his Pleasant Street Books in Woodstock, where Graham's book is just one of many treasures for sale. Saul's smile betrays his cynicism. He's put in 25 years in the used book business. Today's fad may be tomorrow's flop.

Saul continues: "Bookselling is all market driven." Prices of books, like almost anything else for sale, are determined by an algorithm that takes into account the book's availability and demand for that book. What's a treasure to someone who appreciates the fine details of bookmaking or the acuity of Graham's observations of Vermont's early development is of no interest to someone whose passion is astronomy. To succeed in the business of bookselling, Saul says, "is a matter of getting the right book into the right hands."

But the irony of bookselling these days is how incidental the actual books feel to the commercial exchange.

Saul opened shop in Woodstock in 1986 with his mother. His mother lived in the brick cape out front, where he now lives, and the book and card business grew in the small red barn behind the house. Early on, Saul diversified, carrying coins and baseball cards, too.

"I made more money selling baseball cards than I ever made at anything else," he says. Then he was robbed. He gave up the baseball card business and regrouped strictly as a bookseller.

He admits that he didn't know much about bookselling at the start. Fortunately, he had a couple of mentors, other booksellers who offered him discounts on large quantities of books they were having trouble selling. Trolling through the boxes to see what treasures he might uncover was exciting. Meanwhile, these castoffs of already castoff books filled his shelves and taught him that he still had more to learn to succeed in the business.

"If this was going to work," he says, "I had to get smarter about it. I would sell fewer books, but they would cost more. It's easier to sell a $1,000 book than a $100 book. And it's easier to sell a $100 book than a $10 book." As counterintuitive as that sounds, it reflects the algorithm: in a manner of speaking, $10 books are a dime a dozen because they are so abundant.

Saul's inventory became more selective. More of the books he acquired had gilt on their spines, or they were rarer, or they were autographed, or they filled out categories, such as cookbooks, that have always done well as used books.

But as Saul was learning one way of doing business, the business in general was evolving into something else altogether. Book selling has been upended in the digital age.

"I used to be able to go to other stores and buy books. You can't do that anymore," Saul says. He misses traveling around to other shops and picking up a copy of a book like John Graham's, feeling the substance of a solid book made by artisans who spent their lives perfecting their trade. "I don't do shows much either," he adds. In part that's because there are fewer shows and fewer booksellers selling at shows.

Two weeks ago the semi-annual Vermont Antiquarian Book Fair in Burlington drew only about 40 vendors. In years past, that show would attract nearly 100. Saul misses the opportunity to mingle with his peers, to pick over their inventory hoping to find that special book he knows one of his customers wants.

He spends much of his days online, cataloging acquisitions, searching web sites for books to buy, listing books he has for sale on other websites, and contacting customers via email with suggestions of books that might interest them. He might buy a book online, handle it when it arrives in the shop and then sell it online, handling it a second time only to ship it.

Unfortunately for Saul, that buyer never enters the shop, never picks through the other books filling the beautifully hand-carved bookshelves, and never finds three other books that catch his eye. Those three books-that little margin-multiplied by all the browsers Saul and other used booksellers have lost to the internet, to Kindles, to video games, to a society-wide loss of interest in reading can make all the difference in a store's success or failure.

Last year Saul moved several soft armchairs into his shop and a baby grand piano. With a cheerful floral rug underfoot, he created a venue. A musician who teaches, he brought his piano students into the shop for their lessons. On Tuesday evenings, he hosts events, some musical but some also political. Income from the piano lessons ensures that he eats even when the book business is slow. Those lessons provide financial stability that lets him take risks in the book business.

"I can afford to be patient," he says, explaining that he will buy a book or piece of ephemera worth thousands of dollars and just hold it until the right buyer comes along. To make his point he opens a drawer and pulls out a four-page, handwritten letter by Louis Armstrong. Armstrong liked to type, so a handwritten letter is rare, and Saul is offering this treasure for $8,000. He points out the markings above and below many of the words on the first page.

"That's original orthography," Saul explains. "He marked the page so the reader would slow down and read it as Armstrong would have read it." It's syncopated prose, the verbal riffs of a master of the blues. Perhaps not right away, but eventually someone will recognize this prized letter for what it is, Saul believes. After all, it is also the work of an artist.

Nancy Price Graff of Montpelier is a freelance writer and editor.

Photos by Nancy Price Graff