ABAA members James Bryan and Mary Hill, proprietors of Carpe Diem Fine Books, were featured in an article in the Monterey County Herald this past weekend. The link to the article appears to be broken, so I have posted it below. Congrats, James and Mary!
First editions seize the day at downtown bookstore
By DAVE DE GIVE
Special to The Herald
Posted: 02/06/2011 01:38:57 AM PST; Updated: 02/06/2011 01:38:57 AM PST
Sixteen years ago, James Bryant and Mary Hill were living in Utah when they had the idea for selling books. Hill, previously from Monterey, followed a job that had moved to Utah, but Bryant, who was in the wine business, found that sales were slow in Salt Lake City. Eager for something new, “we took the opportunity to seize the day and start a book business,” said Bryant.
The couple eventually moved back to the Peninsula, and for the past five years have operated Carpe Diem Fine Books in a historic neighborhood in Old Monterey, specializing in first-edition, rare and used books.
The location is fitting for a store that stocks rarities from the past. A segment of Monterey’s Path of History winds its way along Pearl Street, passing Carpe Diem’s 1930s Carmel-stone building before turning up Houston Street toward the Robert Louis Stevenson House, where the famous author lived in 1879.
The location is fitting for a store that stocks rarities from the past. A segment of the Monterey’s Path of History winds its way along Pearl Street, passing Carpe Diem’s 1930s Carmel-stone building before turning up Houston Street toward the Robert Louis Stevenson House, where the famous author lived in 1879.
“Generally our books are from the 1800s to the 1950s,” said Hill. Stevenson, along with Mark Twain and Charles Dickens, make up some of the most popular authors from those early years. The storeowners are quick to point out, though, that when it comes to books, old does not necessarily mean valuable.
“One of the realities is there are a lot of authors from the 19th century that no one cares about any more,” said Bryant. “The value of a book is determined by its scarcity and condition, and ultimately by who cares about it.”
A good example is Twain’s recently released autobiography. Before he died, Twain requested that the numerous personal papers making up his life story not be published until 100 years after his death. It was expected that the four-pound, 760-page, small-print memoir would mainly be of interest to scholars and certain collectors. Accordingly, when the University of California Press released the “Autobiography of Mark Twain, Vol. 1″ last November, they ran a first print of 7,500 books.
“By the end of the year they had orders for 300,000 copies,” said Bryant. “They completely underestimated the interest.”
During the Christmas season, people who wanted to buy the book had trouble finding it. The orders were eventually filled in subsequent printings, but a copy from that limited first run, which had a list price of $34.95, now fetches about $3,000 for a book in good shape.
“The condition of a book is critical,” said Hill. “You can have two books side-by-side and the condition of each book could make it a $40 book or a $10,000 dollar book.”
While Carpe Diem does have expensive books, not every item requires a large investment from customers, and it’s not just collectors who like the store. “I think people, by just looking at our store, think it might be expensive,” said Hill. “But we have books that might be as low as $5 to $7, or many from $10 to $15.”
A display case holds some of the more valuable books sought by collectors, such as a first edition of Twain’s “Huckleberry Finn.” But the store has a diverse range of works to fit every budget, such as “The Complete Bolivian Diaries of Che Guevara,” a six-volume leather-bound “History of France” or a black, leather-bound copy of Herman Melville’s “Moby Dick” for $25. “It’s not hard to get a copy of ‘Moby Dick,’” said Bryant, “but these are nicely bound and suitable for gifts.”
Hill’s interest in history and literature has resulted in one wall of the store dedicated to California history — from the Native Americans and Spanish exploration to more recent state history, as well. There’s also an extensive children’s book collection, and items like “The Compleat Beatles” — a two-volume compendium of the band’s sheet music.
In the back of the store there’s a walk-in vault used to store some of their older, more fragile books. The vault was one of two installed when the building was originally built in the ’30s.
“This building was built to be the Monterey Herald,” said Bryant. It’s now sub-divided into several different businesses. In the stone archway a few doors down from the bookstore, the chiseled sign for “The Herald” is still visible underneath the awning of the East Village coffee lounge, the location of the building’s second original vault.
In the age of Amazon.com and Kindle readers, Carpe Diem still manages not only to survive, but also to thrive. Bryant and Hill regard the Internet as a competitor, and they do have their own website, but their ability to offer their expertise to customers is one of their strengths. “The Internet is where people will often go to look,” said Bryant. “But sometimes online, people don’t know how to qualify books.”
Their multifaceted approach to doing business is key to staying afloat. Before they opened up the retail store, they focused on private sales by appointment, something they still do today. They also sell to institutional customers, or out-of-area customers either online or by telephone. When one avenue stops producing, another often picks up. “Our business has been continuous,” said Bryant. “But the different elements have shifted.”
One of their favorite ways to sell books is through the numerous book fairs they attend throughout the year, where they are often both buyers and sellers.
“The book fairs have become important because as bookstores have closed, people have less opportunity to look at books,” said Bryant. He thinks the Internet is a great way to compare prices for many products, even for new books, but their customers don’t always want to rely solely on the web. “Because of the differences in edition and condition, older books are not like apples or widgets. Older books are not fungible — one copy of Huck Finn is not the same as another copy.”
They’re currently preparing for one of the highlights of their year, the Antiquarian Book Fair in San Francisco.
“This is actually a great show,” said Hill. “It’s international — probably 40 to 50 of the sellers are from Europe.” She said it’s also an opportunity for them to meet some of their out-of-area customers face-to-face. “It’s a chance to, in one spot, to see 250 of the world’s most reputable book sellers showing what they believe are their best books.”
Two years ago at the San Francisco Fair, an East Coast vendor brought a historic broadside of the Declaration of Independence with an asking price of $1million. It didn’t sell, but Hill and Bryant hold it up as an example of the unique items that can be found at the fairs. Last year at the Los Angeles show, a vendor offered a complete original “Birds of America” by John James Audubon in the same price range.
“It’s called an elephant folio — it’s a very large edition, it’s the original hand-colored edition of the ‘Birds of America’,” said Bryant. “Very few were actually produced. All the birds were life-sized, so the books are 3 or 4 feet tall.”
This week the couple will be choosing and packing up their own favorite treasures to bring to the San Francisco fair.
“It’s fun because we get to see lots of things — we get to buy things, sell things and see old friends,” said Hill. “It’s a lot of work, but it’s a lot of fun.”
Carpe Diem Fine Books will also be exhibiting at the 44th California Antiquarian Book Fair Feb. 11-13 in San Francisco (www.sfbookfair.com