On Being a Bookseller

Talking with other booksellers who came of age before the internet, I find that most of us share similar stories: we started as collectors; we haunted used book stores; we read dealers' catalogs; we shadowed, or formally apprenticed with, established figures in the field; we loved to share stories with other collectors and dealers. When our collections outgrew our homes or interests, we began dealing, slowly at first and perhaps only duplicates, but the excitement of making sales, traveling to shows, and meeting new customers cemented the deal. We were booksellers!

I used to own two other companies, both library/education-related, that kept me on the road at professional conferences several months each year. I planned each trip with an extra day or two before the event or afterwards in order to hit the used book stores in town. My favorite companions were David and Susan Siegel's Used Book Lover's Guides to different regions of the USA. Each guide gave the name, address, phone number, specialties, and explicit directions to out-of-the-way used bookstores in each town, large and small, within driving distance. 

As the 1990's progressed, it became more and more common for me to arrive at an address and see a sign on the shop, "CLOSED." By mid-decade, the Siegels stopped publishing their guides, the internet had fully arrived, and anyone with a computer and access to eBay had become a bookseller. Technology evolves, things change, and one adapts to the times. The Wonderland100 site provides potential access to more customers than a shop on 5th Avenue in NYC would have in the old days. I'm not complaining (too much).

But bookselling in the modern era has lost a couple of vital human components.; foremost among them is a lack of personal interaction between buyer and seller. The internet has stripped away the minutes (and sometimes hours) that we'd spend talking about books, collecting, great finds, and the ones that got away. Back when, bookselling was as much a means for us to develop friendships and share passions as it was to make a buck. The world wide web has reduced all that to mere transactions.

Which brings me to book fairs. I'm delighted that you found my web site (and even more so that you're taking the time to actually read my blog!), but there's nothing like attending an antiquarian book show, meeting and talking with dealers, holding a book in your hands, and making a purchase (or not). With so few used book stores around, book fairs have become increasingly important to the trade and it's important that both dealers and customers continue to support and attend these functions. I just set up a booth at the Akron, OH fair this past weekend and purchased several remarkably rare and desirable items for VERY reasonable prices...better purchases than I've made on the internet in months. I could see them, and smell them, and verify that they were really as described, rather than ordering from an unknown source with an unknown track record. 

Plan on attending. Look up a local fair at www.bookfairs.com and mark the dates on your calendar. We'll be attending at least three more this year: the Florida Antiquarian Book Fair, April 20-22, in St. Pete, the Movable Book Society convention, September 27-29, in Kansas City, MO, and the Cleveland Antiquarian Book and Paper Show in October (date to be determined). If you're close by, please stop in and introduce yourself!

In anticipation of the Florida fair, I was invited to be part of the Rare Book Cafe to talk about pop-up, movable, and novelty books. My segment starts about 8 minutes in, but the entire program is worth watching. The thrill of the moment led to a couple of misstatements on my part, but hey, that's part of the fun of live television. Enjoy!



Collecting Little Golden Books

Back in 1988, at the very beginning of my bookselling odyssey, I placed a small advertisement in our local paper to purchase old and rare children’s books. I received a single response from a gentleman who had acquired his neighbor’s collection following her death and was interested in selling the lot. His neighbor, an elderly woman who had never married nor had children, had purchased a single copy of each Little Golden Book (LGB) as it appeared, starting in 1942, read it once, and put the pristine volume on a shelf, never to be read again. It was a nearly complete collection with special editions featuring jigsaw puzzles, band-aids, Kleenex tissues, paper dolls, adhesive tape and dust jackets, as well as a nearly complete run of standard Little Golden Books, from number 1 through number 600.

I purchased the entire collection (much to my wife’s chagrin) and was delighted to rediscover of so many of the titles. I was born in 1947, smack dab in the middle of the Baby Boom, and these were the books I had as a youngster…these were the books I learned to read with. Really! I remember the moment I broke the code, four years old and awake in bed at night and looking at The Golden Egg Book (a Big Golden Book), a personal favorite and a story my parents had read to me over and over again. Studying the words, something clicked, and I suddenly understood the connection between letters and sounds, sounds and words, and words and story. I could read!

As an adult, I brought a different sensibility to my new collection and an interest in understanding the place of this remarkable series of books in publishing history. Prior to the introduction of Little Golden Books, picture books for children were expensive, even by middle class standards (most retailed for between $1.50 and $3.00 apiece), and were very often given to kids at Christmas and for birthdays.   It took a serendipitous combination of circumstances, events, and individuals to give birth to the Golden Books empire: Georges Duplaix and Lucille Ogle at the NYC-based Artists and Writers Guild; Western Printing and Lithography in Racine, WI; Simon and Schuster publishers in New York; and an influx of tremendously talented (and hungry) illustrators and writers from Europe just prior to the advent of World War II.

Utilizing a binding method first developed in Europe, the French-born Duplaix proposed a series of twelve books of uniform structure, staple-bound and featuring 42 pages of color and black and white illustration. Each title was printed by Simon and Schuster in an edition of 50,000 copies (ten times the number of a standard children’s launch from a premier publisher such as Harper and Bros.) and was priced at just 25-cents, well within the budget of families of modest means. Astoundingly, the first printing of 600,00 books sold out almost immediately and more than 1.5 million Little Golden Books were sold within the first five months of 1942.

Part (and only part) of their success was merchandising. While standard booksellers stocked children’s titles sparingly (and usually in anticipation of the holiday rush), Simon and Schuster promoted the Golden Books line to potential retailers who had never before handled kid’s books: drug stores, news stands, grocery stores, and toy stores. Parents who had few books in their homes and who had been reluctant, perhaps, to enter a bookstore, now had easy access to attractive (and educational!) children’s books at venues they regularly visited at a price they could afford.

In addition to pointed promotion, Little Golden Books offered a sturdy, quality product produced by outstanding writers and illustrators. It’s amazing to examine a list of LGB contributors and see how many are regarded as major players in the field of 20th century children’s literature: Margaret Wise Brown, Gustaf Tenggren, Richard Scarry, Edith and Thatcher Hurd, Garth Williams, Eloise Wilkin, Tibor Gergely, Mary Blair, Elizabeth Orton Jones, Alice and Martin Provensen, Feodor Rojankovsky and many more.

Just a few years after the first twelve titles appeared, initial printings for new Little Golden Books had skyrocketed to 150,000 copies each. From a collector’s viewpoint, this raises the question: “Just how rare are Little Golden Books?” There’s no easy answer to that one. Like any children’s books published in the 1940’s and 50’s (and especially those thought to be ephemeral due to format and price), there are fewer and fewer collectible examples to be found on the open market. The key word here is “collectible.” Dust jackets from earlier titles tend to be lost. Various inserts (decals, paper dolls, jigsaw puzzles) are almost always missing. Simple bindings suffer wear and bruising. In addition, the intended audience for many Little Golden Books trends very young…active crayoners, page-tearers, and droolers. All things considered, it’s amazing that any LGBs survived in collectible condition!

Over time, the price of Little Golden Books changed from 25-cents (from 1942 through the early 1960’s) to 29-cents (through the late 60’s) to 39-cents (through the late 70’s) and so on. The subject matter changed too, from classic children’s stories adapted from fairy tales and nursery rhymes, to television and comic strip adventures, to Walt Disney-related titles, to contemporary culture.  Formats expanded as well: Big Golden Books, Giant Golden Books, DeLuxe Golden Books, Little Golden Records, Ding Dong School Books, Golden Funtime Books, Little Little Golden Books, and more.

Collectors have multiple resources at their fingertips. On the web, a good timeline of Little Golden Books can be found at:


as well as a solid introduction to LGBs at:


and an expanded Wikipedia link at :


There are several useful guides to collecting Little Golden Books. I like both Rebecca Greason’s Tomart’s Price Guide to Golden Book Collecibles (Radnor, PA: Wallace-Homestead, 1991) and Steve Santi’s Collecting Little Golden Books (Iola, WI, Krause, 2003). Both were published some time ago and price estimates are therefore questionable, but the bibliographic information is voluminous and solid in both.

Finally, anyone interested in Little Golden Books should own a copy of Leonard S. Marcus’ Golden Legacy (NY: Golden Books, 2007). Published in celebration of LGB’s 65th anniversary, Marcus fills this wonderful tribute with an extensive history, profiles of authors and illustrators, cultural commentary, and incredible illustrations.

Happy hunting!