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The Author Who Sold Books
Comments () | Published August 1, 2008

Bruce was about as well born as it’s possible for an American to be. His wife, Evangeline—called Vangy by her intimates, of which I was not one—had the most celebrated salon in Washington during my years there. I was invited a couple of times and went, recognizing that salons organized by great society ladies—at which important people from the government, business, or the arts mingled and exchanged pleasantries—would soon be a thing of the past. I would have been a fool to decline.

At Evangeline’s brunches, she liked to serve quail eggs (good) and honey-soaked bacon (bad). The one time I went to dinner at Evangeline’s house—David Bruce was “late” by then—the guests of honor were Roy Jenkins, a jovial-enough English pol, and Conrad Black, the tycoon recently convicted of fraud at a trial in Chicago. Lord Black is now, I believe, in jail—but, hey, what’s a salon without a rogue or two?

Unfortunately, my visits to Evangeline’s salons told me nothing about the Bruce books, which were upstairs. I knew, however, that David Bruce read a lot of history because I often picked up books with his signature in them at charity sales.

My appetite was whetted by John Saumarez Smith’s frequent visits. He stayed with the Bruces and would occasionally avail himself of packing privileges at Booked Up. John got many fine books from the Bruces, but once international postal rates began their ominous rise, a lot of the books the Bruces owned didn’t justify the cost of getting them home to Mayfair. Many of these books eventually came to us.

In 1991, I had quadruple-bypass surgery at Johns Hopkins. The trauma this occasioned has been described in my book Walter Benjamin at the Dairy Queen. The operation took me out of active bookselling for nearly five years, a long and painful interruption.

Fortunately, we had at the time a solid stock of some 75,000 volumes in DC, spread through two buildings and many rooms. But five years is a long time; the shelves began to thin out. My old friends Lou and Ben Weinstein at the Heritage Book Shop in Los Angeles were having the opposite problem. They needed to make some space and proposed to sell us about 5,000 books from the room that held their low-end moderns. Low end to the Heritage at that juncture was any book priced $500 or less. That suited us fine. The books were sent to DC, and our stock was nicely perked up.

I returned to full-scale bookselling in the mid-’90s, and we continued to buy excellent books. Evelyn Nef, widow of the Arctic explorer Vilhjamur Stefansson, sold us some. Stefansson’s main library is at Dartmouth, but Nef kept some excellent duplicates and was glad to sell them to us.

Thus we acquired the only copy we’ve ever had of the first grammar of Inuit.

By the mid-’90s, though, it was clear that time had run out for us in Georgetown. The building we occupied would soon be acquired by something more upscale: a Pottery Barn, as it turned out, and a fancy spa.

Marcia didn’t want to give up, so we moved back across 31st Street, not far from where we’d started, and she hung on there four more years.

We bought Dr. Winifred Whitman’s wonderful library, but there were now 50 dealers reasonably nearby, and we ourselves got offered less and less. We began to open satellite stores in a number of cities—mostly for buying rather than selling. For a while, my old friend Bill Gilliland ran our Dallas store, where we bought an exceptional W.H. Hudson collection and also some excellent books from Lawrence Marcus, including a very respectable Lafcadio Hearn collection.

After a couple of years, we sucked Dallas dry and moved on to Houston, where we at once purchased 44 “incunables”—books printed before the 16th century. In our 30 years of dealing, we had owned only one incunable, and that was incomplete, so we were very happy about this coup.

About this time it occurred to me to think about my hometown of Archer City, Texas, mainly because there were a few empty buildings there. We outfitted one of them with shelves, and my sister opened a little store called the Blue Pig Bookstore, named after the pigs in Lonesome Dove. The citizenry didn’t know it yet, but Archer City was on its way to becoming a book town.

In the cyber revolution we’re now in the midst of, where do readers stand?

I’m not fully convinced that Borders and Barnes & Noble draw off that many readers from the secondhand shops, and if they do, there’s a rapid flow-through factor. Because, as nearly as I can tell, few young people are forming personal libraries, so the books bought new at the chains soon trickle back into the secondhand market. Unfortunately, there are fewer and fewer secondhand-book shops to absorb these shiny new castoffs.

We ourselves are singularly well placed to observe this, because we have now purchased all or part of almost 30 bookshops.

Bookselling will never quite expire unless reading expires first. The secondhand-book business, both as a trade and as a subculture, has existed for centuries because people want to read, and the assumption on which book dealers work is that people will always want to read. But will they? Seeing the changes that have occurred in the last few years, I sometimes wonder.

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This article appears in the August 2008 issue of Washingtonian. To see more articles in this issue, click here.



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