Thursday, February 28, 2013
Mary Hill examines the haul she purchased from a heavy equipment operator the previous winter night. As she flips through A Critical Inquiry Into Ancient Armour, published in 1824 in London, she can’t help shouting, “Look at these things!”
The book is massive, weighing 5 pounds and boasting 80 plates depicting baroque metalized attire. They’re the sort of artwork you might see sold as separate wall hangings.
But here, at Carpe Diem Fine Books in Monterey, these plates are being inspected by Hill and her husband and co-owner James Bryant for completeness alongside two other similarly weighty volumes, together documenting armor “from the Norman Conquest to the Reign of King Charles II.”
Hill and Bryant hadn’t yet priced that set, but anticipate it could fetch $3,000.
In an era when it’s easier to order a book online than go into a store – and any sort of book store feels like an anachronism – the used book business is thriving.
“We are a niche the Internet has helped,” Bryant says. “But it has destroyed low-end books.”
They’ve got a handful of $10 paperbacks, but for the most part, their shop feels more like a carefully curated museum, with the most valuable works stored in glass cases rather than on shelves, or stashed in a back room with exposed brick walls and low ceilings which they call “the vault.”
“WE ARE A NICHE THE INTERNET HAS HELPED, BUT IT HAS DESTROYED LOW-END BOOKS.”
That’s where you can find first editions of some favorites, like Lady Windermere’s Fan by Oscar Wilde (1898, $1,000) or Lonesome Dove by Larry McMurtry (1985, $200).
There’s a signed first-edition 1937 copy of John Steinbeck’s Cannery Row ($3,500), and a 1917 El Gabilan High School yearbook with then-sophomore Steinbeck’s signature to a friend – accompanied by his graduation year, which he inscribed as “never” ($3,000).
Bryant got into the book business when the couple moved to Provo, Utah, for Hill’s tech job in the early ’90s.
That was pre-Internet, when he’d spend hours just pricing books for a bookshop. He was paid in books, which he and Hill took to their first book fair in Burbank in 1996.
“We realized competition is much fiercer down at the $5 and $10 level,” he says, so they honed in on rare, out-of-print works, and Western history books, Hill’s preferred reading material.
The couple moved to an historic Monterey adobe in 1999, and sold books by appointment out of their house. In 2007, they opened the Pearl Street store.
They’ve recently expanded, transforming an adjacent space that used to be a gift shop into an art room they’re calling “the gallery,” where a framed 1870s atlas page shows the Monterey Peninsula. They’re planning an art show in March, when they’ll exhibit work by local artist Mark Farina.
But only about a quarter of their business comes from the store, with equal parts generated by book fairs, Internet sales, and a contract with Stanford University Libraries.
Since Bryant started supplying Stanford’s out-of-print books, the library’s fill rate soared from 25 percent to 90 percent, according to Sharon Propas, who runs ordering there.
“James has done an amazing job,” Propas says. “It’s improved what we can provide… to outsource it was fantastic.”
Bryant makes bi-monthly trips to the Palo Alto campus to deliver rare gems, but mostly to pick up the library’s unwanted books.
“It’s very bad public relations to ever throw away a book,” Propas says.
Customers like Mitch McGuire, who collects pre-Civil War California history books, are in it for the chase. “If your interests are like mine, it’s like a treasure hunt,” he says. Bryant and Hill are in it partly for the hunt, but also for the books themselves. Hill dons white gloves to page through Salvador Dalí’s illustrated Alice in Wonderland to protect the thick pages from oils and dirt.
“He was so creative,” she says as she scours the unbound pages for her favorite image of the caterpillar.
Hill and Bryant say fewer customers have come in browsing through the recession, instead arriving to search for a specific title. But that trend is reversing, they say, and as the world of new book publishing falters to navigate the future, used book sales are thriving.
“There is a need for used bookstores,” Bryant says. “You don’t come in looking for a book, you come in looking. That doesn’t happen online.”
CARPE DIEM FINE BOOKS is located at 245 Pearl St. in Monterey. Open noon-6pm Tues-Sat and by appointment. 643-2754, www.carpediemfinebooks.com