Brick-and-mortar shops in Prague seem to be thriving as if it were the pre-Internet age. I’ve always enjoyed the Orphean descent into the medieval cellar of Podzemní (Underground) Antikvariat and their piles of uncatalogued books and ephemera on the center table. Five tram stops away is Kant Antikvariat. Few know the history of Czech book publishing and selling like Kant’s owner Miloš Burdátš. I try to allow for an extra half hour when picking up a book at Kant, just in case he’s in raconteur mode. Thanks to Miloš, my mental map of Prague is now populated with the ghosts of antiquarians and defunct publishing ventures.
It was at Kant that I first crossed paths with a Berliner who was dealing in some areas that overlapped with my own. We would meet up whenever he was in town and once, obviously in response to the blank looks I was giving him when he used mildly technical antiquarian jargon such as “colophon” or “gathering”, he tactfully mentioned that the intensive three-day York Antiquarian Book Seminar might help me hone my bookselling skills. He himself had attended the seminar and viewed both the York course and its elder cousin, the week-long Colorado Antiquarian Book Seminar, as essential steps in acquiring know-how and contacts in the trade. This was all I needed to hear.
I arrived in York unsure of whether to consider myself a collector, a scout or a dealer, but soon realised that it didn’t matter. Many of those I met in the seminar, both students and faculty, seemed to defy classification, freely roaming the borderlands of bibliophilia. I had enrolled in the York course bent on acquiring the English terminus technicus of the book and the ability to distinguish the various printmaking techniques. Indeed, the York Antiquarian Book seminar was especially invaluable to me in both of these areas. I now know that a blind stamp is not an unfortunate affliction in philately as I’d previously assumed, but a handy term to describe the topography of a book’s outer boards. No longer will the sight of 2°: a-b² A-Y²; 48 give me the cold sweats from a flashback to secondary-school algebra: It’s merely a formula that some professionals use to describe a book, to collate it. I’ve grasped the difference between a woodcut, wood-engraving and intaglio, can tell a book’s format by examining its leaves and am no longer stumped by the existence of wire-lines. These are great strides for someone with no formal training in understanding the book as artefact.
Yet, more importantly, it was the stories and snippets of wisdom garnered over those three days that continue to churn in my head, including one that alone was worth the price of admission:
“When you’re considering a book, think of all the reasons why not to buy it.”
Established dealers and collectors shared their knowledge and offered glimpses into the euphoric highs and humbling lows of their own careers. The testimonies of those with brick-and-mortar shops and their fixture in local communities was of particular interest and has me once again considering opening my own place, even if just every Wednesday afternoon.
I haven’t made any dramatic changes to my business model since returning from York, but there has been considerable tweaking. I’ve outsourced my accounting, to the relief of my entire staff (me). I’ve overcome my fear of Mailchimp and even opened up an Instagram account, since the general consensus in York was that this was the way things were heading for booksellers. But my highly advanced business plan of finding books and uploading them to my website with its super-secret username and password (sutnar67) remains unaltered.
It’s another beautiful late October day. I look out from the window of my tiny office-cum-stockroom to the reds and yellows of the maples, and then further still across the train tracks to the Prague Sewage Treatment Plant designed by Sir William Heerlein Lindley and completed in 1906. Now considered one of Europe’s most significant industrial monuments and hailed as a technological wonder for its times, the plant treated most of Prague’s wastewater until 1967. Wouldn’t it be nice to someday find an inconspicuous binding with Lindley’s original designs for the plant?
Daniel Morgan, Winner of the ABA Educational Trust scholarship