One afternoon in the mid-1990s, I found myself in Dauphine Street Books in New Orleans, staring hungrily into a vitrine containing costly literary vertu — a first edition of Joyce's slender and fragile Pomes Penyeach, a signed copy of Lynd Ward's textless Madman's Drum: A Novel in Woodcuts, and an utterly faultless copy of Percy's The Moviegoer. From behind the thick glass these and other toothsome unobtainables mocked me: my job at the local Harrah's Casino, where I labored as an impressment specialist, a position meagerly remunerated at, if I remember correctly, $6.30 per hour, a wage entirely inadequate to the pursuit of the only book-related activity as pleasurable as reading them: collecting them in desirable editions.
I wiped the drool of bibliophily from my chin, turned away, and began to wander the cramped shop's towering aisles, looking for the books-on-books section — if I couldn't have the books I wanted, then I could at least read about them.
But the section, a shoelace-level half-shelf in a stuffy corner of the shop, had nothing tasty to offer. I was about to leave when I noticed nearby a tall volume stuck in head-first, spine to the wood. I pulled it out. Manly Banister's The Craft of Bookbinding. It was $3.50.
Bookbinding became the third book-related activity in my life, in addition to reading and collecting. The hobby lasted a couple of years, until I back-burnered it when I took a job at BookPeople, Austin's big indie shop (though not as big as the city-like Powell's, which evidently has its own suburbs); I worked many hours there, too many to have any time or energy left over for other endeavors. Some years later I left BookPeople (just a few weeks before the general manager murdered her lover's husband, but that is another essay), returned to avocational bookbinding, and decided, when the savings evaporated, to try and make a go of it as a pro. I labeled myself, at first, The Itinerant Bibliopegist and travelled from bookshop to bookshop in Austin, carrying my tools in a gravid wooden box. I looked very silly. That angle didn't last long, and I was soon laboring exclusively in my studio apartment.
The craft, as I practiced it, comprised both binding and repairing, the latter in far more abundance. By chance, my first restoration jobs were from booksellers who dealt in early manuscripts and printed books. Before long I was working on books, valuable ones, that had no business being up on the bench of a ham-fisted tyro like myself: firsts of Galileo's Sidereus Nuncius (in the shop for spine repair), Harvey's De Motu Cordis (paper mends), Colonna's Hypnerotomachia Poliphili (rebinding), not to mention a 15th-century book of hours, which needed a leather clamshell box to protect it. I remember not doing a very good job on that and never heard from that particular dealer again.
Working on all these valuable books, and seeing how much money these antiquarian dealers were getting for them, I thought, Hell, I could do this, and thus forthcame a new book-centered activity: dealing. And it worked out at first. Then it began not working out. Then the trade foundered completely, ending in a magnificent bankruptcy. I wrote a few short pieces about the business and its demise.
Then, in 2010, with the guilt-sodden luxury of a (cash-only) fresh start, I resumed antiquarian bibliopoly, though I had come to loathe it, at least the selling part: librarians ducked my sales lines by not returning phone calls and emails, collectors bitched about prices, and dealers were just plain sneaky. Not all, of course; there are plenty of fine people in the extended bookmongering college. But still, it is a career I am looking forward to shucking someday, hopefully in favor of a fifth bookish activity, writing. This will probably not come to pass, though — a minor novel every four years, along with a scatter of essays and short stories passim, are not profitable enough to live on, at least if you're an eh ink slinger like moi.
Of the five book disciplines, writing, for me, is the most rewarding. It is also the most challenging, maddening, dilatory, depression-launching, futile, and addictive. I did not start writing till my mid-30s, when I composed a fairy tale for my girlfriend as a birthday present. I'd been reading the Brothers Grimm, and I had noticed that 19th-century European fairy tales all tend to have a few things in common: total implausibility, amputation or other bloody practices, meaningless and sudden endings, duplicity, and snowy innocence quickly hammered into dark cynicism. It seemed possible to put together a sendup of the genre containing these elements, and The Corkmaker's Tale, the beginning of my writing "career," came to be. It was followed by a novel (which I thought of as a series of fairy tales strung together), titled Fever Chart, that had waited in a slush pile for 14 months before I got an email asking if the manuscript was still available. "Yes, by god!" I wrote back. "Ye-e-e-s!" The book did not do well. It did not "earn out," meaning it didn't make back the money poured into it. I still feel bad about this. And I was sure it would kill any chance of ever publishing again. But no. McSweeney's took pity on me and consented to take a chance on The Parallel Apartments, which is due out on February 11.
I suppose there are other activities involving books that I could try — custodianship of them, defacing them in the name of art or collage, stacking them in the manner of a footstool, stealing them — but none of that really appeals. Maybe I could eat one. Perhaps a children's book, which can be thought of as the veal of books. Marinate, bread, then fry in bacon fat. I'm joking of course. But I have known people, scary people with bullet scars and unpopular haircuts, to whom such bibliophagy would be attractive.
But for me, five bookish offices is plenty to choose from. I don't think I'll ever need another.
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Bill Cotter was born in Dallas in 1964, and has labored as an antiquarian book dealer and restorer since 2000. He presently lives in Austin with his girlfriend, the poet Annie La Ganga. His previous novel, Fever Chart, was published by McSweeney's in 2009. His latest novel, The Parallel Apartments, is out from McSweeney's in February.
Books mentioned in this post
Bill Cotter is the author of The Parallel Apartments