Morgan Brynnan, 56, has a longstanding interest in books. The Gridley, CA. resident started as a library page in 1991, eventually got her degree and became a medical and academic librarian. Along the way she began to sell her own books on eBay, and after a while she thought, “Why don’t I just become a book dealer?” From 2015 to 2018 she ran her own shop Uncommon Works specializing in Spanish Conquest, Mesoamerica and Latin America and went to an entirely online business earlier this year.
Rare Book Hub got wind of Morgan when she started to compile a list of trade courtesies including the fine points of discounts, sending books on approvals, consignment arrangements, referral fees, book show etiquette and similar topics. She posted requests for information to several of the book related list-serves as a volunteer project for the International Online Booksellers Association (IOBA).
In response she received many replies laced with advice like: “Don’t buy a book or other item from a colleague, and then wave it in their face as a ‘Real Bargain,’ or announce on the next trip that you tripled on the turnover of your last purchase.” And in the same vein, “Don’t comment on a colleague’s prices unless asked to. Don’t go into detailed explanations as to why you are not buying the material, unless specifically asked.”
But even more interesting than the trade courtesies (which now are posted in the “Members Only” section of the IOBA web site) are her own experiences as a novice dealer and details of some of the resources offered IOBA and the ABAA (Antiquarian Booksellers’ Association of America) which helped her gain knowledge in her new field.
For example, did you know that both IOBA and ABAA offer mentorships which pair those new to the trade with more experienced pros? Brynnan got lucky. Her IOBA mentor is Chris Volk of BookFever.com, a dealer with years of experience who has long been active in the organization. Her ABAA contact is Vic Zoschak, of Tavistock Books, a Bay Area dealer, who is the current ABAA president. It would be hard to find two more knowledgeable guides. She acknowledged that along the way a great many people have helped her, but she said, “All the mistakes were my own.”
Both IOBA and ABAA are trade groups with high standards. Though annual dues for IOBA are a modest $75 per year the group doesn’t take just anyone. According to the IOBA web site It seeks members “who display professionalism—both in book descriptions and in interactions with customers and other booksellers. We look for sellers who provide accurate descriptions of their books, with all defects noted. We also look for sellers who provide the best possible service to their customers—from packaging to prompt shipping to easy returns.”
The requirements to join IOBA include a minimum of one year prior bookselling experience. In addition, applicants must be an owner/partner/member of an online bookselling business that is not a publicly traded corporation and show proof of a valid resale license or business registration number (if one is required in their locality). Members also agree to abide by the IOBA Code of Ethics. Requirements to join ABAA are even stiffer.
But according to Brynnan the rewards of being an IOBA member are many and she emphasized even non-members can find much useful information in the group’s resources section including:
Terminology - www.ioba.org/pages/resources/book-terminology/
Describing condition www.ioba.org/pages/resources/condition-definitions/
Identifying first editions www.ioba.org/pages/resources/first-edition-primer/
Useful references (all physical books, no online sources cited) www.ioba.org/pages/resources/reference-works/
Bookselling blogs by IOBA members: www.ioba.org/pages/blog/
Access to current and prior issues of the IOBA Standard: The Journal of the Independent Online Booksellers Association www.ioba.org/standard/
Brynnan, like many others starting out in the field, found it helpful to attend the Colorado Antiquarian Book Seminar (CABS). In 2015 she took the intensive introduction to the book trade. For more than 40 years the weeklong course has provided an opportunity for leading specialists to share their expertise and experience with booksellers, librarians, and collectors in a comprehensive survey of the rare book market, both antiquarian and modern. CABS 2020 will be held at St. Olaf College in Minnesota during from July 11- 18th. The address for CABS remains 1604 E. Yampa St. Colorado Springs, CO. For more information see www.bookseminars.com.
As for the financial end, if her own experience is any indication it took about 2 years before she started breaking even and making a little profit. She points to a limited inventory, “I have only have about 500 books online,” which she markets through her own web page, Biblio, Amazon, ABE, Alibris, and Rare Book Hub. Her average book sells for between $20 to $150 with only a handful priced higher.
Looking back on some of the low points of her start up years she recalled, “I bought books that were signed but not valuable, and I bought books that were old and pretty but nobody wanted.”
A highlight of her early years was the sale of the gigantic Macklin Bible, a 19th century multi-volume work printed in elephant folio size and sold by subscription in a very limited edition. She took it on consignment and it sold for over five figures. As luck would have it, the buyer was close to home. It went to “the doctor next door,” she said, “he saw it and bought it before I could even catalog it.”
Another highlight was her first sale to the Bancroft Library, at the University of California at Berkeley, noted for its outstanding collection of Western Americna. “They purchased an 18th century Mexican missal, a scarce item that “filled in some of the gaps in their collection.” The selling price was under $2,000.
In the end what Brynnan particularly likes about being a bookseller is that most in the trade view their fellow dealers as colleagues, not competitors. She finds it a field where “much valuable information is freely exchanged among peers. Academics talk about ‘collegiality,’” she said, “but you don’t see it there the way you do in the book trade.”
Uncommon Works, IOBA