The business was started in New York City by my father, Howard S. Mott, in 1936. He had been a collector for many years before he began dealing. I’m trying to encourage him to write his memoirs, but unfortunately we wouldn’t be able to print all the best stories. Although my parents are not active in the business these days, they are still readily available for consultation.
My father was one of the founders of the ABAA and knew almost everyone in the trade. I didn’t care much about rare books as a kid, but I always liked booksellers. I remember selling my first book when I was five years old to Charlie O’Malley, an Irish American bookseller in New York. He used to buy quite regularly from me when I was a kid and always over-paid.
I came to Great Britain for the first time in 1962 with my parents who spent the summer buying books. During the ’60s they came every year to buy from a couple of private sources. At the time they were also collecting J. M. Barrie for Walter Beinecke. As a teenager, I met Richard Sawyer, Keith Fletcher and Stephen Massey. We had a lot of fun together and have all stayed very good friends. That’s one of the nice things about this business – there’s competition, but it doesn’t harm friendships. From what I know about the outside world, the book trade is unusual in this respect.
My parents never even hinted at the idea of my joining the business. They just included me and my late brother in the travel and the parties – and they had great parties in the Mid-Atlantic Chapter of the ABAA. I’ve got a picture of Charlie O’Malley coming to one of Betty Woodburn’s picnics with his own case of beer.
I didn’t really get into the business until 1970 after a rather chequered period. Although I started college in 1963, I graduated nine years later, having done a lot of things in between: I worked on an archaeological dig in Jordan, I spent three years in the United States Navy (partly in Vietnam), I crewed a charter boat in the Caribbean, worked as a plumber’s apprentice, and manned a bar in the Virgin Islands. I’ve also made ice cream sundaes and been a short order cook. I think I could also have been a London taxi driver. Some good booksellers have been taxi drivers. Ole Dam drove a cab in London and Jim Cummins drove one in Boston. Before I finally decided to go into my parents’ business, I thought I would give it a shot for a summer to see if I liked it and if we could all work together. At first it didn’t work well and I said to myself, ‘OK. One more shot’. I gave it another summer and this time it clicked. We got along famously and I enjoyed the work. My first real project was to catalogue a large collection of 700 eighteenth- century pamphlets relating to the Americas. My parents hadn’t wanted to tackle this job and the pamphlets were sitting in boxes on the ping pong table at the back of the house. I’ve always liked doing research – as most booksellers do. It’s part of the great fun of the business. To this day eighteenth-century British pamphlets remain one of my favourite subjects.
We all like different aspects of the business. My mother, for example, handled autographs, manuscripts, atlases and maps. My father liked more the belles-lettres. He is particularly knowledgeable about English and American literature and nineteenth-century American humour. In his day you had to learn bibliographical points from experience because bibliographies didn’t exist the way they do today. I remember unloading some books and, while they were still in bags, my father identified a copy of the first issue of Mrs Wiggs of the Cabbage Patch simply from the gilt edges on the top of the book. Only the first issue has the top edge gilt. All the good older booksellers carried that type of knowledge in their head.
I made one of my first big mistakes at a bookfair in Rochester, New York. It was early in my career and my father had just told me some issue point about the Canadian edition of Huck Finn, which precedes the American edition. At the fair someone had a copy of Tom Sawyer and somehow I got the two titles mixed up. I offered the owner $200 for the book and then thought I should increase it to $400 which she accepted. When I brought the book home, my father said, ‘I hope you didn’t pay more than $10 for this’. I told him what had happened and he threw the book over his shoulder into the trash can where it remained. Nothing was ever said about it, but my parents knew I had learnt a lesson. How else do you learn as a bookseller? If you never make mistakes, you’re not taking enough chances. It’s only in the last four or five years that my parents haven’t been able to work very much. These days my mother is blind and my father has glaucoma.
The business is open by appointment at my parents’ home in Sheffield, Massachusetts, a large eighteenth-century house in six acres of land with seventeen rooms, most of them full of stock. You might say the business is antiquated as well as antiquarian. We’re not computerised yet and everything is done on an electric typewriter and 3 x 5 cards. But I’ve seen colleagues’ computer systems and they look wonderful. If I had one, I probably wouldn’t do things differently, but I would do them faster.
In general I like obscure books, although these can be harder to sell simply because they are less obvious. I don’t know standard books very well; we certainly deal in them, but they don’t give me any great rush. People often think of us in terms of Americana, but I’ve only done one or two strictly Americana catalogues in fifteen years. Of course there’s a lot of this material in our other catalogues, which tend to contain English and American literature, poetry and autographs. I’ve recently done two catalogues of unusual imprints – mostly the work of missionary presses – and a catalogue on ‘British Travellers in America’. We also do bookfairs in Boston and London every year, and San Francisco every other year. The first fair I did in London was in 1962 when I was 17. My father was the second American dealer ever to do a London bookfair – the first was David Magee, but he never became an American citizen so he doesn’t count! David used to bring twenty-five good books, sell them before the fair opened and never have to stay in his booth.
The fair was held at the National Book League in Albemarle Street and there were only about twenty-four exhibitors. I remember being asked to watch someone’s booth while he went to have a drink, and then another booth, and then three.... Finally I was watching the whole exhibition while the booksellers were having great fun in the bar.
Over the years I have noticed that a lot more people at London fairs want to bargain. I know it’s prevalent everywhere, but it’s very noticeable here. I’ve just had a major English institution offer me half the price for a catalogue item, as though I had found it on the doorstep.
As a visitor I don’t get the feeling that the economic depression has lifted in England. Things are a little better in the States, though some people tell me business is terrible. The ’80s are over and I guess we just have to work harder at it. There are still plenty of books out there and customers too – it’s just a matter of trying harder to match them up. But I do sometimes wonder about the growing number of people in the trade. Bookselling must be one of the few businesses where the product seems to be shrinking while the dealers are increasing.
Meanwhile book collectors have changed. Nowadays they come in and go out so fast, buying very heavily for a few years and then getting bored. Where are the in-depth collectors that booksellers of my father’s generation used to have? They didn’t just want the surface; they wanted everything and were willing to collect over a period of twenty or thirty years. Some of the collectors today burn out like shooting stars.
As for the booksellers, a colleague said to me recently that he felt the trade, and the American trade specifically, was less gentlemanly than it used to be. This is probably accurate, with so many people coming in from different fields and everything becoming more competitive. The ABAA has drawn up a code of ethics for its members, but you can’t tell someone to be morally upright. It’s become more difficult to join the ABAA, although you still have to watch out for fair trade laws in the US, which can make it difficult to keep undeserving people out. But we now have more stringent requirements for membership and applicants have to write an essay on how to conduct an appraisal in the field with which they are most familiar. Every bookseller should at least know how to collate a book and how to use a reference library.
As for the future of the trade, I don’t have any idea what direction it’s going in – I have enough trouble figuring out what direction I’m going in. Neither of my children is likely to come into the business, which doesn’t bother me or my father – a family business must stop some time. My wife is a bookbinder, but she also has good instincts for book buying. When she goes on trips with me, she turns up some wonderful things. I was told by my parents when I started that probably I would never be rich but I would be able to have a reasonably nice lifestyle and be able to travel a lot. So far they’ve been right.
Interviewed for The Bookdealer in July 1995
Today most of our business is by direct quote to customers, which, increasingly, is with my favourite special collections librarians. I would guess that the majority of sales are made to institutions, followed by the trade. Because of the internet we get far fewer visitors than we used to. We like to hit the road for a week or two at a time on scouting trips, but apparently others do not. We still issue the occasional printed catalogue, although many fewer a year than in the past. Our last was our 80th anniversary catalogue. Gradually we eliminated exhibiting at book fairs, except for Boston at which we have exhibited at all 40 iterations. New York, London, Seattle and both California fairs are all off our schedule these days.
My parents died in the mid-90's, but our business is still conducted by appointment from the same house they lived in. In my interview I concluded by saying that my parents told me that I would probably never be rich, but I would be able to have a reasonably nice lifestyle and travel a lot. Now, at age 72, I can still say that's true. I’m my own boss, and I love what I do, so I have no intention of ever retiring until I fall off my perch.
Afterword added in 2017