Our series profiling the next generation of antiquarian booksellers continues today with Gabe Konrad, proprietor of Bay Leaf Used & Rare Books in Sand Lake, Michigan.
How did you get started in rare books?
I don’t think my story is unique among booksellers. I started collecting when I was a boy - buying used from a shop a couple of blocks from my childhood home. Over the years collecting evolved into scouting, and then selling. I used to publish a ‘zine, Æoleus Butterefly (named after a brand of bike pedal from the turn of the last century), that focused on vintage bicycles, touring and racing. The ‘zine evolved into a magazine of similar content, On The Wheel, and a couple of books. All the while I was selling scarce bicycle books to my subscribers. It was my first attempt at a specialty. The thought of opening a used bookshop, however, was always in the back of my mind. I was in the Army during the Gulf War and I kept a notebook with my plans for opening a shop. It was very detailed, right down to the design of the store’s sign. Unfortunately, that notebook was lost to the sands of Saudi Arabia or Iraq, but my passion for fine books never faded.
When did you open Bay Leaf Books?
My wife, Melanie, and I opened our shop in early 2007. The jump from thinking about a shop and actually opening one was actually pretty quick. I had seen an old friend of mine at a library book sale, John Rau of Mecosta Book Gallery in Mecosta, Michigan, who has been one of my mentors in the trade. Talking about the old days really brought those old feelings rushing back, and Melanie and I sat down to plan the opening of a shop in a year or two. But books just began appearing, boxes of them filling every spare inch of our house. Then an affordable storefront became available and five months later we were open. It was a real crash course in retail sales. Kind of like diving in head first - head first into a brick wall. It really was all John’s fault - I mean inspiration...
What do you specialize in?
Specialize is a strong word - I would say that I have a special interest in several areas. One of the things I love about this business is that it allows me to follow my whims - to a certain extent. If bookplates are piquing my interest, I’ll pursue it. African art and ritual, punk rock, art, poetry, martial arts, radical politics. I have a special interest in all of these. The day will come when I settle down with one or two of these and truly carve out a niche for myself, but at the moment I’m having too much fun with the variety.
I understand that you maintain an open brick-and-mortar shop in a small Michigan town of about 500 people. What’s your secret?
The secret is I’m an idiot. So, you can scratch the “bright” off the “Bright Young Things.” In fact, you should get rid of “young” as well. Just call this installment “Thing.” Yes, we’re in a tiny village with a minuscule year-round population. There are several little lakes around here, so the summer crowd is decent. Unfortunately, Michigan summers only last about two-and-a-half months. I wouldn’t suggest it to anyone. At the end of each winter I seriously consider moving to a more populated location, yet we’re still here. Idiot.
We really are running two separate businesses here. One is the open shop with general stock. We’re heavy on the non-fiction side, but stock a lot of popular fiction, classics, and a massive section for kids and young adults. And then there is the “antiquarian” side of the business which we traffic via catalogues, shows and the internet. We have some pricier, oddball material in display cases, but this is really for the museum effect that so many people are after when they visit a used book store. They ooh and ahh, but rarely buy that material. It’s all part of the experience.
Both facets of the business take a tremendous amount of time and it’s a constant push and pull between the two.
What do you love about the book trade?
The holy trinity - books, buyers, and the trade itself! Buying and handling books, the hunt for books, is the most exciting part of the experience. It’s why most booksellers do what they do - the thrill of the conquest, teasing out a book’s importance, and passing it on. I love my customers... for the most part. Bookshops, like bars, tend to draw in the nuts, and I do tire of hearing about how little green men are living at the center of the earth or how this or that politician is, literally, a demon sent from hell, but most customers are great. I love talking with artists and architects, professors, train engineers, gardeners - everyone has a great story to tell and we all have a love of books in common. And then there’s the trade itself. Booksellers are remarkably generous with their knowledge and it never ceases to amaze me that a relatively low-level dealer like me can pick up the phone and have the ear of some of the best booksellers in the country. It’s true that we give each other little discounts, send books on spec, etc., but the collegiality, the advice, and the understanding that we’re all in this together is priceless.
Last year I attended the Colorado Antiquarian Book Seminar in Colorado Springs. This is a seminar where some truly talented and successful booksellers gather to teach up-and-coming dealers every aspect of buying, researching and selling antiquarian books. Trade secrets were shared, every question was thoroughly answered, and lifelong friends were made. While I had been in business for years prior to going to CABS, the week I spent in Colorado was transformative, and I was able to do this because I received a scholarship from the Independent Online Booksellers Association (IOBA), a trade organization to which I belong and, now, serve on the board. How great is that! Who wouldn’t love a trade where everyone wants everyone else to succeed?
Favorite rare book that you’ve handled?
Yeah, my favorite books are the ones I’ve been able to sell! I have a lot of interesting titles, but once they’ve sat on the shelves for a while they begin to lose their luster. But the books that clients are excited about, that move quickly, those are a lot of fun!
I do like books that have been altered in some way - Grangerized, accessorized, whatever. I recently sold a copy of Fluxus Codex by Jon Hendricks. Not a particularly scarce or expensive book - you can still get a fine copy for a few hundred dollars - but this copy had an original (unsigned), Fluxus-style collage on the rear pastedown with spray-painted stencil letters, Shakespeare postage stamps, a bus pass, etc. I laid in an archival tissue guard, and “poof” it was gone. Wonderful stuff.
What do you personally collect?
When we opened Bay Leaf Books, pretty much everything I owned went into the shop, but that rectified itself pretty quickly. I collect books published by The Legacy Press in Ann Arbor, Michigan, who specialize in titles related to the history of bookbinding and papermaking, and books on Goju-Ryu karate. I have an interest in provenance and tracking books through private and professional hands, so I collect bookplates from a select group of American designers and bookseller labels from around the world - and I created a poorly maintained website. I’m also gathering books that include any history of bookseller labels and binders’ tickets.
Thoughts on the present state and future of the rare book trade?
The changes in the book world speak directly to the two-pronged approach of our business. On the one hand, the advent of megalisters, penny sellers, e-books, big box stores, and online retailers have devalued the printed book dramatically and made it incredibly difficult for used bookshops to keep their doors open. At the same time, publishers are printing fewer paper books and there is a lot of competition for popular titles on the second-hand market. As far as popular fiction and non-scholarly non-fiction, I only see this getting worse and I can envision a clash between the lack of inexpensive books and a demand for them. Supply and demand will, I think, eventually raise prices, and when e-books have cornered the market, those prices will increase as well. Not everyone can afford, or wants, an e-reader, and when people can no longer afford to read books, we’ve truly got problems.
The rare book trade, on the other hand, seems to be in pretty good shape. While the number of open shops is diminishing, there’s an increased interest in fine books and ephemera and a new wave of booksellers coming along to keep the traditions alive. I can point again to CABS, which is helping develop some exceptional young booksellers, as well as the IOBA striving to improve the online selling experience for buyers and sellers alike, and the ABAA, America’s bastion of fine bookselling. All of these facets are coming together to create a wonderful pool of sellers and dedicated collectors.
Any upcoming catalogues or fairs?
I’ve found that I like experimenting with catalogue formats - and our next catalogue will be no exception. I like to keep the content and format pretty close to the vest, so I’ll just say it will cover modern art and be out sometime in July. Our upcoming eLists will include poetry, bookplates and radical literature. Folks can email us at firstname.lastname@example.org to be added to our mailing list.
I just returned from the Ann Arbor Antiquarian Book Fair, which is a fantastic event. People complain about the decline of regional shows, but Ann Arbor is thriving with great attendance, community support, and a top-notch lineup of booksellers - including many ABAA and IOBA dealers. This fall we’ll be sticking with mainly regional shows including Chicago, the Michigan Antiquarian Book & Paper Show in Lansing, and back to Ann Arbor for the Kerrytown Book Festival. A schedule will be available on our website.