Artists made this book. The boards are covered in tanned leather
worn smooth by more than two centuries of handling and the oils
that come naturally off the human hand.
The spine is stiff and straight, detailed in gilt that was
applied by a steady hand. This gold retains its luster 226 years
The paper used for the pages was handmade from cotton or linen
rags that had their own history. This paper is thicker than today's
mass-produced product, more like blotter paper, and a shade off
from clean white.
Run your fingers across the page and feel the letters on your
fingertips, the impressions made by handset type pressed into the
paper sheet by sheet. Riffle the pages. The binding is tight; not
one page is loose even after centuries of use.
Now smell the book. Its years of sitting on shelves collecting
dust, the decades when it could only be read by daylight or smoking
candles or even smokier gaslight, its connection to the natural
world of animal leather and flax all combine to create a slightly
acrid, musty odor.
For $1,000 you can own a copy of this work of art, John A.
Graham's "A Descriptive Sketch of the Present State of Vermont, One
of the United States of America," published in London in 1797. The
State of Vermont was five years old.
"Everything's a treasure in its own way," says Sonny Saul
looking around his Pleasant Street Books in Woodstock, where
Graham's book is just one of many treasures for sale. Saul's smile
betrays his cynicism. He's put in 25 years in the used book
business. Today's fad may be tomorrow's flop.
Saul continues: "Bookselling is all market driven." Prices of
books, like almost anything else for sale, are determined by an
algorithm that takes into account the book's availability and
demand for that book. What's a treasure to someone who appreciates
the fine details of bookmaking or the acuity of Graham's
observations of Vermont's early development is of no interest to
someone whose passion is astronomy. To succeed in the business of
bookselling, Saul says, "is a matter of getting the right book into
the right hands."
But the irony of bookselling these days is how incidental the
actual books feel to the commercial exchange.
Saul opened shop in Woodstock in 1986 with his mother. His
mother lived in the brick cape out front, where he now lives, and
the book and card business grew in the small red barn behind the
house. Early on, Saul diversified, carrying coins and baseball
"I made more money selling baseball cards than I ever made at
anything else," he says. Then he was robbed. He gave up the
baseball card business and regrouped strictly as a bookseller.
He admits that he didn't know much about bookselling at the
start. Fortunately, he had a couple of mentors, other booksellers
who offered him discounts on large quantities of books they were
having trouble selling. Trolling through the boxes to see what
treasures he might uncover was exciting. Meanwhile, these castoffs
of already castoff books filled his shelves and taught him that he
still had more to learn to succeed in the business.
"If this was going to work," he says, "I had to get smarter
about it. I would sell fewer books, but they would cost more. It's
easier to sell a $1,000 book than a $100 book. And it's easier to
sell a $100 book than a $10 book." As counterintuitive as that
sounds, it reflects the algorithm: in a manner of speaking, $10
books are a dime a dozen because they are so abundant.
Saul's inventory became more selective. More of the books he
acquired had gilt on their spines, or they were rarer, or they were
autographed, or they filled out categories, such as cookbooks, that
have always done well as used books.
But as Saul was learning one way of doing business, the business
in general was evolving into something else altogether. Book
selling has been upended in the digital age.
"I used to be able to go to other stores and buy books. You
can't do that anymore," Saul says. He misses traveling around to
other shops and picking up a copy of a book like John Graham's,
feeling the substance of a solid book made by artisans who spent
their lives perfecting their trade. "I don't do shows much either,"
he adds. In part that's because there are fewer shows and fewer
booksellers selling at shows.
Two weeks ago the semi-annual Vermont Antiquarian Book Fair in
Burlington drew only about 40 vendors. In years past, that show
would attract nearly 100. Saul misses the opportunity to mingle
with his peers, to pick over their inventory hoping to find that
special book he knows one of his customers wants.
He spends much of his days online, cataloging acquisitions,
searching web sites for books to buy, listing books he has for sale
on other websites, and contacting customers via email with
suggestions of books that might interest them. He might buy a book
online, handle it when it arrives in the shop and then sell it
online, handling it a second time only to ship it.
Unfortunately for Saul, that buyer never enters the shop, never
picks through the other books filling the beautifully hand-carved
bookshelves, and never finds three other books that catch his eye.
Those three books-that little margin-multiplied by all the browsers
Saul and other used booksellers have lost to the internet, to
Kindles, to video games, to a society-wide loss of interest in
reading can make all the difference in a store's success or
Last year Saul moved several soft armchairs into his shop and a
baby grand piano. With a cheerful floral rug underfoot, he created
a venue. A musician who teaches, he brought his piano students into
the shop for their lessons. On Tuesday evenings, he hosts events,
some musical but some also political. Income from the piano lessons
ensures that he eats even when the book business is slow. Those
lessons provide financial stability that lets him take risks in the
"I can afford to be patient," he says, explaining that he will
buy a book or piece of ephemera worth thousands of dollars and just
hold it until the right buyer comes along. To make his point he
opens a drawer and pulls out a four-page, handwritten letter by
Louis Armstrong. Armstrong liked to type, so a handwritten letter
is rare, and Saul is offering this treasure for $8,000. He points
out the markings above and below many of the words on the first
"That's original orthography," Saul explains. "He marked the
page so the reader would slow down and read it as Armstrong would
have read it." It's syncopated prose, the verbal riffs of a master
of the blues. Perhaps not right away, but eventually someone will
recognize this prized letter for what it is, Saul believes. After
all, it is also the work of an artist.
Nancy Price Graff of Montpelier is a freelance writer and
Photos by Nancy Price Graff