"The Last Bookseller"

RBM: A Journal of Rare Books, Manuscripts, and Cultural Heritage reviews books, reports, new periodicals, databases, websites, blogs, and other electronic resources, as well as exhibition, book, and auction catalogs pertaining directly and indirectly to the fields of rare book librarianship, manuscripts curatorship, archives management, and special collections administration. Publishers, librarians, and archivists are asked to send appropriate publications for review or notice to the Reviews Editor.

Gary Goodman. The Last Bookseller: A Life in the Rare Book Trade. Minneapolis, MN: University of Minnesota Press, 2021. Hardcover. $19.95. (ISBN: 978-1-5179-1257-4). Reviewed by Colleen Barrett.

Bookseller memoirs are one way a librarian can learn about how the collections they oversee were formed and influenced by the larger print material ecosystem of booksellers, collectors, and librarians in the past. These often entertaining yarns help explain previous book collecting trends and ethical practices, which both consciously and unconsciously inform how we work as special collections practitioners today. Here in The Last Bookseller: A Life in the Rare Book Trade (University of Minnesota Press, 2021), Gary Goodman hopes to “present a picture of what the odd and glorious secondhand book business was like before the internet took over,” (167) which he does with a reasonable amount of success. Even with some rather strong technological commentary, this worthwhile contribution to the genre is important for special collections practitioners due to the time period covered, location of his businesses, and types of materials in which he dealt.

The work’s seventeen chapters roughly follow a chronological timeline of Goodman’s career as a self-proclaimed “used and rare book dealer,” from the initial purchase of a business in a sketchy part of East Saint Paul, Minnesota in 1982, to his 2017 retirement from Saint Croix Antiquarian Books in Stillwater, Minnesota, where he also helped to create the first official “Book Town” in North America. Each chapter covers a specific aspect of his business ventures or describes notable characters surrounding it, with some topics spanning more than one. They are succinct and enjoyable to read, either isolated one at a time or several in a row. These tales are told with the help of some outside perspectives and quoted sources that are later gathered in a bibliography. Some of the usual bookseller memoir themes appear, including the origin story of getting into the business, here done through buying into a used bookstore with no training; sourcing stock from book scouts, estate sales, and deceased booksellers; book thieves and their methods, including forgers; traveling to exotic and not so exotic places elsewhere to purchase stock; notable purchases; and the ever-present importance of book collectors.

Other chapters are more specific to Goodman’s experiences: his understanding of bookseller styles as shown through a comparison of Bookman’s Alley and McCosh’s Mansion; relocating to a new store and buying into a building with Jim Cummings and Tom Loome; exploring Larry McMurtry’s revitalization of Archer City, Texas and Richard Booth’s of Hay-on-Wye in England through bookstores; founding the Stillwater Book Center, a place where smaller booksellers could rent booths that also hosted bookish events; promoting book tourism through a newsletter titled the Stillwater Booktown Times; early experiences selling books online and the crash of the secondhand book market; pivoting his business to adapt to a world with the internet through the sales of specialized architectural drawings; and finally, his retirement and the closing of his store. An interesting and perhaps unique addition to the work is a “Travel Journal” following the main text. This excerpt from Goodman’s records contains several short descriptions of his travels to purchase materials from November 1993 to August 1998. Each entry names the location, bookstores visited, notable events or purchases related to the visit, and cost of purchases made, though sadly not a list of what specific items were purchased. One frustrating aspect of the work’s format is the lack of indexing, so there is no way to quickly navigate through the book for specific dealers or types of stories. Thankfully, a majority of the chapter titles make it somewhat possible to guess what is being covered and the chapter epigraphs further suggest what will be discussed.

The main strengths of this work come from the combination of a conversational writing style with a recent historical perspective not recorded elsewhere. It is also the source of its weakness. Given that this work is explicitly written as a memoir of someone claiming to be one of the last booksellers, it should not be a surprise that a recurring theme is secondhand bookselling’s struggles due to the internet. This theme grows stronger throughout the book, leading to final statements like “If the story has a villain, it is the internet” (166) and “The saturation and instant gratification also dampened the enthusiasm of collectors, who enjoyed hunting for hard-to-find items; the thrill of the chase just wasn’t there anymore” (146). Yes, used bookstores no longer have “a monopoly on finding out-of-print books” (143) and anyone with an internet connection can instantly compare prices of similar copies on the market. And yet one need only look to examples such as the Honey and Wax Book Collecting Prize to see that, as always, book collecting (and by extension bookselling) is not yet an extinct hobby (or career).

On a personal level, I enjoyed reading a book referencing parts of rare book lore from the 1980s to the present rather than the usual lore of the 1920s, ’30s, and ’40s that is so well represented elsewhere by John Carter, Percy Muir, David Randall, Barbara Kaye, and others. However, at times it feels like Goodman is reaching for and commenting on any major bookish figure or event with which a reader might be familiar, from E. Forbes Smiley III to the recent documentary The Booksellers. Despite this, no matter how far the stretch may seem, he artfully frames each reference within the context of his own experience. For example, A.S.W. Rosenbach appears through a copy of Books and Bidders found in his first store, John Jenkins is discussed as he once purchased materials from Goodman, and Mark Hofmann surfaces for half a chapter through a woman’s offer of selling a first edition Book of Mormon. These sections do a good job contextualizing Goodman’s experience more broadly within the modern rare books ecosystem and may serve as a good introduction to many readers on different memoirs and nonfiction they might want to read next. Nonetheless, the sections most directly related to his experiences, such as his purchasing travels and bookfair adventures with Military book collector Paul Kisselburg, are the true highlights of the work.

Given Goodman’s location in the Midwest, many of the booksellers and bookish events he discusses are from that location, a treat for those of us who are not working on a coast. He dedicates plenty of space to writing about booksellers in the Minneapolis and Saint Paul area as well as Chicago and the regional book fairs, incorporating newspaper quotations and other’s recollections when applicable. A significant portion of the book is dedicated to describing how Stillwater became America’s first “Book Town,” which will likely be useful for future researchers trying to understand how book tourism was promoted around the turn of the century.

Additionally, Goodman does an excellent job explaining the economic considerations necessary for a secondhand bookseller in the 1980s and ’90s to succeed as well as the different levels and types of people dealing with these books. His financial challenges are not glossed over or overly romanticized. It was also refreshing to read about someone’s experiences based not around strictly rare book sales but rather handling large volumes of used books and working with others doing the same. I also appreciated just how much effort Goodman puts into sharing credit for his achievements. His acknowledgements section is almost redundant given how ready he is to share credit with those who collaborated or worked with him, including his children. Of the two chapters covering specific purchases and how they were culturally significant or important for the business, one is entirely framed around purchases from book quoters, a type of bookseller similar to that of a book scout whom Goodman defines as “those often strange book hermits who answered the ads I placed in AB Bookman’s Weekly” (p. 60). Goodman notes “Some of the more unusual collections I ever handled came from these stops at quoters’ houses, and a few are worth describing, if only to illustrate how traveling booksellers rescued items of historical significance,” (p. 61) a rhetorical move that could have easily been reframed to take all the credit for the finds and their eventual placement. He also regularly recognizes the strengths of his business partners throughout the text and the different ways they helped him.

Though this readable work would be of interest to all special collections practitioners, it would be especially beneficial for those working in acquisitions and public services. Goodman’s work simply does not go into enough detail about specific volumes, collectors, or dealers to be of much use for provenance research or authority work in a technical services sense, but it offers instead an introductory overview of how the secondhand book market was structured through formal and informal channels of communication. This is necessary knowledge for anyone working to build onto an existing collection in a meaningful way. Beyond that, the numerous anecdotes about book people would be especially useful when giving tours or leading instructional sessions with new special collections users. If you want to know more about United States-centric bookselling towards the end of the 20th century beyond the east or west coast and don’t mind a very specific perspective about the internet’s impact on the profession, this is the book for you.

— Colleen Barrett, University of Kentucky