February 2, 2014
When I was a book buyer for Book Soup, my favorite buying session was to purchase remainders for the store. A remainder is a book that is either going out-of-print, or has been returned to the publisher due that it got damaged or weak sales. These books became a source of passion for me, because I saw them as objects that were mistreated, ignored, and unloved, when clearly it deserved a certain amount of attention from customers as well as the sales force in a bookstore. So I feel that I’m the last man standing with respect to these books. If I turned down a title it would be sudden death for that book, and every meeting I have with a salesperson from a remainder company, I bear that in mind. If I say “yes” to a title, then it can live a little bit longer.
Through out my buyer occupation I came upon the greatest people in the book business, which for me was the reps or salesperson for a publishing house or distributor. I first met Hella Haasse, when she called my office out of the blue to see if she can get an appointment with me. The other interesting thing about remainder reps that they are consistently traveling, and most travel from the West to East coast and from the North to the South. Consistently moving with the largest suitcase possibly made to hold the book samples. My first impression of reps is that they were another version of Mr. Haney from “Green Acres, ” owing to their encyclopedic knowledge and the amount of books they have to carry with them.
Hella impressed me, because she was tiny, and had to load and unload this huge package of books by herself, but one can see she treat it as a second part of her skin. I felt I came up in the presence of someone who was selling something extremely personal. Bookselling in general is an act of intimacy between buyer and seller, and eventually bookseller to customer. It has a unique bond, a relationship that is based on one’s personality or character. You really can’t learn the trade, you need to be yourself, which naturally takes you into the world of books.
A remainder rep has to take a book apart before their journey due that it is impossible to move so many titles across the continent. The horrible thing is that my office is upstairs, so she has to lift the luggage of books as she walks up. I volunteered to help, but it seems she takes great pride in doing the work herself.
Hella had a series of folders, mostly book covers and its few pages. They are divided by subject matter. Right away I avoid the cooking and children books. I called upon to see fiction. The first book she showed me was a British edition of “Ulysses” by James Joyce. For our bookstore, 20th century classics seem to sell the best. So the wholesale price for this title will be $2.98, but we can sell it for $4.98. Other then that, Hella is beautiful. When she hands me the folder to look at the covers, she never takes her eyes off me. I find myself as a cocktail, where the literature soothes me, but her eyes stings. After we finished our buying session, I ask her if she wants to get coffee before she jets out to her next sales meeting. She said yes.
I took her to Dialog Cafe on the corner of Holloway Drive and Palm Avenue off Sunset Blvd. I do a lot of my buying meetings here due that it's quiet and the owners here are wonderful people. Remainder reps are an interesting occupation, because they have to be knowledgeable about many subjects, and physically strong to carry the load of books. I can’t imagine a person doing this for a long time, because it must cause havoc on their social or family life, but alas, all of them like the life on the road. To consistently travel, it is like they are chasing the sun around the country. Hella’s work clothes strike me as simple but feminine. It had an odd combination to think of, because on one level bookselling is a performance, and a salesperson has to think of her or his appearance in front of a buyer or customer. Which makes me feel a tad ashamed because I find myself attracted to her, but I try not to make it obvious. But I have a hunch that people in her position know right away.
She bought me the coffee, and we sat down to talk about Joyce, who weird enough I have never read. She, it seems, is an enormous fan of his writings, but finds “Ulysses” a minor work compared to “Finnegans Wake.” It wasn’t till after she left, that I realized that the only personal information she gave out about herself was her devotion to Joyce, for whom she thinks a lot about. What does that tell me about Hella?
Talking about a writer or books is very intimate. Yet it can disguise or mask our feelings. Perhaps it was a sales technique on her part, but I doubt that. Booksellers, on both sides of the fence, are pretty much devoted to the printed page.
After our coffee I had the greatest urge to kiss her on the lips, but we hugged instead. I offered to help her with the luggage of books, but she said she can manage it. I walked her to her car, and we hugged again, and then she left.