Henry Lewis is the owner of Gunstock Hill Books (308 N. Guadalupe St., 505-983-0088) and one of the organizers of the second annual Santa Fe Antiquarian Book Show, which takes place 4-9 pm Friday, Oct. 3 and 10 am-6 pm Saturday, Oct. 4 at El Museo Cultural, 1615-B Paseo de Peralta ($6-$10).
SFR: How does a person go from being a book collector to a bookseller? Assuming that one actually does lead to the other.
HL: I had been collecting for many years and going to book shows and just thought, this is something I could do. I enjoy it. I enjoy the people, especially the other dealers. I’ve seldom met anyone in the book business who wasn’t nice. The decision to go from [dealing books] out of the house to having an open shop was hard. You have to have a lot of courage to do it. The Internet has taken a lot of business away from open shops. Especially in Santa Fe, with the rents being what they are. But I wanted more contact with the public. I didn’t want to be sitting in a basement somewhere wrapping packages. I wanted to meet people because that’s the way you really make a reputation. That’s also the way you learn.
How has the Internet affected the business?
A lot of people are selling books these days. Maybe a lot of people who shouldn’t be because they don’t always know what they’re doing. But the Internet makes it very easy for people who have Internet skills—buyers and sellers.
I buy books online when I know exactly what I want, but you can’t browse through books on the Internet.
There’s nothing wrong with buying books on the Internet; it’s good if you know exactly what you need and if the condition isn’t critical. The Internet is good for readers to get books to read, but if you’re a collector, it’s a little more difficult. You still may know what you want, but there are so many people who don’t know how to describe books properly—you’ll see books listed as first editions that aren’t or described as being fine when they’re not. There are certain conventions that booksellers have used for years and those terms don’t mean the same thing online.
I see a lot of books listed as ‘mint condition,’ but because books are published and not minted, I always assume that’s not the right term.
The term they should be using is ‘fine.’ Fine means something. Fine, near fine, very good, good and reading copy—which means a collector would never want the book—are the terms that people need to look for. I regularly have to send books back that I’ve bought on the Internet because they’re not described properly for collectors. But at the end of the day, it’s so much more fun to look through a bookstore. When I travel, that’s the first thing I do, look through the phonebook for the bookstores. There’s nothing quite like holding a book in your hands and knowing exactly what it is that you’re going to get. Plus there’s the fun of picking up a book that you didn’t think you needed or wanted until you saw it. Then you think, ‘Will I ever see another copy of this book again in this condition?’ It’s almost like falling in love. There’s a magic to shopping for books.
It’s probably odd to non-collectors to realize these books aren’t going to be read.
A number of the books I have here will probably never be read by the people who buy them. Either they have read the book before and want a better copy or a first printing or something like that or they have heard of the book and, even if they’re not going to read it, they know why they want to have it. That can be just as meaningful to someone.
What should people look out for when looking for collectable books?
The most valuable thing is not only the first edition, but also the first printing of that edition. Publishers sometimes ran out of materials midway through the first run of the book and had to change something, so that first issue or printing will be very important. There’s also history, though. Cormac McCarthy’s Blood Meridian, for example: The publisher printed about 5,000 copies but only sold 1,800 when it first came out. They remaindered the rest of them, put a mark on them and warehoused them. When he started to gain popularity, they put those original printings out. It’s one of the few instances where a remainder is nearly as valuable as the original. Knowing about books is kind of like being a detective. There’s no way to know everything, but if you know the clues, you can learn a lot.
Why did you and the other booksellers decide to put this book show together?
We wanted Santa Fe to be known as a literary town. The more booksellers you have around, the more people come to your town looking for that kind of atmosphere. Santa Fe is well known as a music and art town, but not a literary one. We’ve got so many authors living around here, but I think it’s just not visible how literary Santa Fe is. We wanted to change that, so we invited sellers from several states last year for the book show and it was such a success that we’re doing it again this year.
On the night before the shows, do you guys all look through each other’s stuff and get all the goodies for yourselves?
Sure, we set up as fast as possible. We like to joke that if you’re not selling books, you should be buying them. But it’s not about competition. It’s about buying what you know your clients are looking for.