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While the books remain magnificent fossils, the business evolves

6 mins read

By Scott Graber

It’s Monday afternoon and I’m aboard MetroNorth — a train running south along the eastern shore of the Hudson River. This afternoon I’m traveling with my wife, my friends David and Terry Murray, and we’re about two hours north of New York City.

This particular train races down the Hudson River Valley past granite, rain-slicked mountains, past marble mansions that once defined great wealth, past sleep-deprived cadets who have learned a measure of discipline and perhaps some calculus at West Point. 

Shortly we will slide into the crowded, chaotic caverns under Grand Central Station.

Fifteen years ago, my wife, wanting to escape the heat and febrile marshes of Beaufort County, bought an unfinished space in a long-deserted textile mill in North Adams, Mass. The Eclipse Mill also came with Grover Askins — a retired publisher who had turned his energies to old, used, out-of-print books. 

And so, for the past three days I’ve been hanging out in Grover’s loft working my way through great stacks of classic fiction hoping to find something that will entertain and inspire.

Askins is tall, gray-headed and somewhere along the way he learned how to sell books to people who may or may not actually read those books. And he doesn’t care if they love fiction or non-fiction. Or if they prefer short stories to novels. Or if they want their books signed by the author. 

The only thing that Grover cares about is the fact that there are still people — a diminishing group to be sure — who remember a stained-with-coffee collection of poems that were read on a train from Paris to Dijon. Or remember reading Cat’s Cradle to a pale, dark-haired woman on a beach in Majorca. Or remember an annotated, well-worn Nevil Shute novel read (sipping a single cappuccino) in a trattoria off Piazza del Popolo.

Grover also knows there are still folks who love rare, leather-bound books full of maps … or illustrations of lemurs. He knows there are still people who collect first editions or want texts on 19th-century medicine. He understands there are still people who love the feel, the look and the texture of books and wallpaper their New York City, view-of-the-park high-rise with heavy volumes that deal with Chinese porcelain. 

And so Grover gets a call — more often an e-mail — asking if he has a copy of Thomas Templeton’s Condensed Survey of Ceremonial Masks in Senegal. Sometimes, not often, he has that very book hiding in the floor-to-15-foot-high-ceiling bookshelves in his loft. 

If it’s not there, it may be in his warehouse in Chatham, N.Y. If not in Chatham, he remembers it may be owned by collector he dealt with 10 years earlier — now was that man from Boston or Baltimore? 

When he calls the collector, a woman informs Grover that her husband died two years earlier and she has grown tired of his books. 

“Would you be interested in buying Marvin’s collection?” she asks. 

Knowing that the widow wants to sell everything, Grover — at this point — has to decide whether or not he can afford the entire collection. That means driving to Boston and going through the books one by one to determine whether the widow has enough rare, salable books to warrant his buying everything. And if there are enough salable books where in the world will his store the 500 books he can’t sell? 

For many years, collectors came to Grover’s loft in the Eclipse Mill doing what I did this past week — searching hundreds of titles looking for that long lost Graham Greene novel that will redefine their lives. 

“But these days people go straight to the Internet,” he says. “Very few people want to drive to North Adams anymore. Or spend time searching.”

And the Internet has had another impact on in this business.

“Today, a used book buyer can put an app on his cell phone that will tell him the going price of any used book,” Grover says. “The buyer simply swipes the barcode and is told — by someone in the ether — what he should pay.”

The older books have no barcode and still require that Grover examine the binding, touch the pages and know something about the passion of the collector — to have some instinctive, institutional knowledge of the book and those who seek the book. 

But the business is changing and will require Grover to adapt, to be nimble if he wants to stay in the game while the rest of the world turns to algorithms.

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