Announcing Redux Books
A New, Online, Low-cost Bookshop for Classicists
[UPDATE: The next Redux Books sale will take place from July 14th at 9 a.m. EST and run until midnight on Sunday, July 18th, 2021].
In 1815 the English historian and abolitionist William Roscoe, a lover of Italy and a friend of the Classics, was at the age of 62 forced by bankruptcy to sell his book collection. He had used it to compose, as an independent scholar with no access to university libraries, his Life of Lorenzo de’ Medici and Life and Pontificate of Leo X. He was so affected by the sale that he wrote a sonnet, “To My Books, On Parting With Them,” which has ever since kept its small but beloved place in the hearts of lovers of good books. Books were his “friends,” his “kindred spirits,” his
loved associates, chiefs of elder art,
teachers of wisdom, who could once beguile
my tedious hours, and lighten every toil.
Why is it that this sort of thing still appeals to so many people? Why are books still around? People have been predicting their demise for decades. Almost any science fiction movie you can think of envisions the human future, utopian or dystopian, without books. In a world of slick technology the book does not look like much: no touchpad, no buttons, no bluelight glow. For those of us who are Classicists, the internet offers the text of almost every author, fully searchable, with links to dictionaries, commentaries, and images no single volume could hold. Even diehard technophobes like myself spend more and more of our time in front of a screen. Still the book is not done yet. In a world of superficiality and distraction nothing competes with it for focus and depth. To the mind the covers of a book are like the blinders that govern a horse’s eyes: we go further into ideas, and with fewer distractions, within such channels.
This is not to say that book culture, particularly in the world of Classics, is not under siege; it most certainly is. Once in his office I was admiring a professor’s book collection (half a dozen Ad Usum Delphini editions!), and he said his collection was due almost entirely to the fact that his office looked out to the rear end of the university library. “I see when they’re dumping books into those dumpsters there,” he said. “So I go over and look, and well, there are the books on my shelves right now.” I knew what he was talking about: I got half my book collection when a Queens neighbor died. Her children came and tossed all the books in the dumpster, whence I got them. The other half came from Regis High School, a Jesuit school in New York City. The administrators decided that their old books made the building look stuffy and they wanted more of an “open concept look.” The Latin teachers alerted their students, and a small group of us saved thousands of books; we left many more, but were told that they would be sold off, so they would eventually find homes. They didn’t, of course: the book buyer found that the books were in Latin and Greek, for which he said there was no market. To the dumpster they went. Administrators told the teachers ex post facto, of course.
For years a group of my friends who still read books would lament our age’s biblioclasm, and tell stories of saving a stack of books, or finding a home for a box here or there. But no one thought much about doing anything more than reacting to individual events as they arose. Until a few years ago Rob Sobak (now a professor at Bowdoin College) and Adam Gitner (who now works for the Thesaurus Linguae Latinae and has written for this journal) came up with the idea that became Redux Books.
Sobak had worked for several years as a bookseller before going to graduate school in Classics and becoming a professor. He knew how useful certain books were to scholars, and also what little use booksellers would put them to. Because of the way tax law works, certain books which have substantial value but might be difficult to sell (such as academic books) can simply be written off as losses in order to reduce reported income. Such books are then sent to the pulper. One of Sobak’s friends in the book industry, Troy Casa, saw a huge load of books from the collection of W. Kendrick Pritchett, longtime professor of Greek at the University of California at Berkeley, being treated this way.
Practices like this, coupled with the general decline of used bookshops, convinced Gitner and Sobak that academia needed an entirely different way to move books from teachers to students. They came up with the idea of running a “pop-up” bookstore at the annual conference for the Society for Classical Studies. They sent out word to Classicists to bring unused books to the conference, where they could be donated or sold on consignment. They got Jason Pedicone of the Paideia Institute (whom they knew from graduate school) involved to handle logistics like tax compliance and paying for long-term storage. Any profits from booksales would go to student scholarships at the Paideia Institute. Troy Casa agreed to fly in for the conference and work building bookcases, cataloguing books, and selling them at the event.
The largest contributor to the book collection was Sarah Nolan, whose husband Albert Henrichs, a professor at Harvard for more than forty years and a world authority on Greek religion, had passed away the year before. Nolan wanted Henrichs’ books to find homes in the field of Classics.
The conference was somewhat crazy, as a massive snowstorm prevented people from getting there, but the booth was a success, matching $6,000 worth of books with new owners at the conference, which paid for the booth, the bookcases, the cost of moving the books, and left a substantial remainder. That remainder would get eaten up by moving and storage fees over the next two years, however: the books and bookcases were moved to a storage unit in Brunswick, Maine, to await the next SCS conference. But the costs involved in getting the books to San Diego made the project impossible, and a new plan was adopted, to sell at the SCS meeting only when it was held in the Northeast.
Meanwhile, the books increased in number, as a number of professors at Bowdoin offered unused books from their collections. There was talk of putting the bookshop online but Paideia had no staff in Maine to package and ship the books, and storage in New York City would be even more expensive. As it was, the costs of storage threatened to turn the whole project into a loss.
This is where I enter the story. In October of 2019, my wife Catherine and I purchased an old hotel in Alligerville, New York, with 4200 square feet of run-down space. We had/have a (still somewhat nebulous) idea of running a Classics-themed AirBnB in the house (in addition to raising our three children there). We definitely had some room. And so I suggested that Redux books could eliminate its storage costs and move here. We could run an online bookshop from the home — maybe even someday turn it into a real bookshop. In the meantime, between the Redux collection and our own, we’d have one of the best private Classics libraries in the state.
All we had to do was find the time to actually start up the business. Quarantine provided some, as several Paideia employees have been able to help with getting the books onto Shopify. But between my wife and me we have three kids, two old cars, three jobs, three tenants and an old, broken-down house where nothing works. How can we run a bookshop? Well, here’s our solution: Redux began conceptually as a pop-up bookshop for SCS conferences. We’re going to keep it a pop-up bookshop, but now an online pop-up bookshop. Every time we have a reasonable amount of stock catalogued, we’ll hold a sale, and during that limited time we’ll put aside time for bookselling. For this first run we’ve set aside July 10–13, roughly the dates of the Roman Ludi Apollinares, as our first popup. We still have only a small percentage of our stock available online, but in a certain sense it’s better to release the books in small chunks over time anyway. One of our advantages is that as a single-themed bookshop, buyers can actually rewardingly browse through the books as opposed to just searching. (And you can browse within your chosen subfield, like “Latin poetry” or “Greek drama.”) But you can’t realistically browse more than a few hundred books in a sitting. So if we are continually adding five or six hundred new books for each sale, it will be worth people’s time to come back and keep looking through the new titles.
And we do intend to make it worth shopping and coming back, if you’re looking for Classics books. We intend to have not only the most comprehensive collection of used Classics books available in a single place, but to have them at the most buyer-friendly prices. Our policy has been to search online for other copies of the books we sell, and beat the lowest price available, often quite substantially. Mary Lefkowitz’s survey Women in Greek Myth sells for $24 new from Johns Hopkins University Press, and used copies range from $16 to $38 on Amazon. We’ve got it for $12. The Medieval Latin reader entitled The Other Middle Ages sells new for $29 on Amazon, and used copies range from $22 to $49. We have a like-new copy for $15. We also attempt to adhere to what I’ll call a “just price” system. Oftentimes academic books are scandalously priced. We have a like-new copy of Greek Texts and Armenian Traditions. It sells for $154 from the publisher De Gruyter, and used copies are available online from $96 to $120. These prices are outrageous. Yes, it’s a nice, good-looking academic hardback, on acid-free paper and likely to last for decades or even centuries. It’s not without value. We’ll price it at $20.
We have a lot of stock right now, but we’re hoping to make these book sales a permanent part of the Classics landscape. If you have a collection of Classics books that need new homes, and you like what we’re trying to do here, consider donating them to Redux Books. If you’re interested, send an email to [email protected]
There’s still something about books. They are artifacts, a tangible link with the past. As I have gone through each of our books and shelved them, I’ve felt a connection with the entire world of people who have been dedicated to the Classics: the people who have written and translated and commented and printed and sold and bought and cherished these books. In their pages I find dedications, marginalia, little notes tucked between leaves, names of scholars I’ve heard of: Henrichs, Moses Hadas, Bernard Knox. These books have been the witnesses and companions of people’s lives.
As a general rule, none of us have any experience with a bookshop dedicated almost exclusively to the Classics: we’re used to there being a few odd Classics titles stuck onto half a bookshelf in the back. Now we’re going to join the low prices associated with used bookstores with the wide selection of titles that actually exist about the Classical world. Books may be a quixotic enterprise nowadays, but that makes it all the more appealing to us. For thousands of years book culture has been a crucial element of the Classics. And we want to see the Classics live.
The Redux Books site will go online at the Paideia Institute Shopify store at 9 a.m. on July 14th. Books will not be available until then.
John Byron Kuhner is former president of The North American Institute of Living Latin Studies (SALVI) and editor of In Medias Res.
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