by Tom Congalton
Tom Congalton of Between the Covers replies to Jed Birmingham’s essay “The Great Mimeograph Revolution.”
This article is very interesting and perhaps ironically, very helpful to me, particularly as regards the methods of viewing and marketing mimeos. I think you do recognize that if we adopt your approach to appreciating mimeos, as art, rather than as literature, that in some ways you are “selling us the rope that we’ll use to hang you” (or at least raise the prices, making your collecting efforts more difficult — but also increasing the value of your collection — always the double-edged sword of collecting) and it is brave and honest that you make to understand the market and what drives it.
I realize that we (Between the Covers) start from a more static book collecting viewpoint, but as you note, this subject is just a small part of our business, and one that we haven’t had, and don’t have the luxury of studying in the same detail as you do. I appreciate the strides that you and others have made in developing this market, and can only characterize my own status in the market at this late date as an interloper.
You might have noted very few Fuck Yous and no C Journals in the catalogue, which I agree are among the most interesting publications of this genre. That’s because we pretty much sell all that we can get before they see the light of day. We are not completely uncognizant of the art elements of mimeos, and I think you may have interpreted Matt’s statement about “…covers both achingly beautiful and wonderfully wretched” as not acknowledging that, while I think it did rather the opposite.
Our mimeos mostly didn’t come in runs, so we sold them individually. If we had complete runs, we sold them as such, and frankly we don’t have time to patiently accumulate runs. I have a large staff and payroll, and I’m not going to live forever. Also, in effect the fact that Bill Reese “sell runs” argument contradicts the “art” argument. Selling runs, while helpful and more economical for the collector, doesn’t display much appreciation of the contents or focus attention on the artistic elements of the mimeos, which our individual issue approach does, albeit not as much as you indicate we should (and which, as I said, was necessitated by circumstances more than choice).
I understand the “full run as art” argument. And while it is a valid argument, it is an after-the-fact, and in some ways artificial, argument. It is not necessarily true that most mimeos were issued as a totality. In fact in most cases I imagine, rather the opposite was true. They may well represent a cohesive sensibility, but they seem to have been issued based on a white-hot impulse and compulsion to publish immediately, and indeed I find that immediacy to be the charm of many of these mags: the make-do nature of some of them. In some sense this was well expressed as the “wonderfully wretched” element of Matt’s comment.
That as a whole they may represent something greater than the sum of their parts is absolutely true. The argument that it isn’t ethical or intellectually valid to sell these things separately, which were originally and mostly sold separately, is not.
That they “should”, as opposes to “could” be sold as complete runs ignores that. And to harken back to the tired old bibliographical model, it’s like saying that you can’t sell Hemingway first editions individually, because it is ignoring the comprehensive sensibility of the author, even though they were issued separately.
You “could” sell a complete collection of Hemingway first editions if you knew a millionaire or two, but “should” you? Not necessarily. In fact I rather doubt it.
Assuming you are missing an issue of Floating Bear, wouldn’t you rather have the opportunity to buy that issue, as opposed to having to buy the whole run all over again, with the commensurately greater cost (especially taking into account what you consider the new BTC pricing paradigm)?
The “mags as art” is a cool and valid concept and may be good marketing, as well, but it is mostly very much a constructed argument, promulgated by collectors and scholars, not necessarily one that was envisioned or intended by the creators, or that has to be conformed to by the sellers. I accept the criticism that they “could” have been more creatively marketed by us, but not the argument that they “should” have been.
This leads to part two, which I am not in any way personally offended by, but which could be viewed as offensive if one were of a more sensitive nature or if one were to apply it to the general practices of the rare book trade. That is your statement in reference to selling individual mags: “I liken this to those booksellers who detach maps, prints and plates from a book and sell them piecemeal to maximize profit.”
As a rhetorical trope I accept it. But “breakers” are traditionally those who remove something from a whole, which has intended to be bound together by its creator. This is a highly controversial practice and generally considered unethical in the trade. The same cannot be said of these mags.
They are seldom found in complete runs in the wild, at least in my experience, and say what you will, I’ve spent more than 40 years rummaging in bookstores, libraries, and houses. Rarely does one find a complete run, unless the mag only lasted for 1 or 2 or 3 issues.
Selling things that were issued as separate and discrete objects over an extended period of time, is not at all the same as selling something that was issued together in the same binding, at the same time, and with the expressed purpose of being considered as a whole. If all issues of Floating Bear were mailed and bound together, and then broken apart, I would agree with your analogy, otherwise I think it is a specious argument.
At any rate, very interesting and thank you for your attention to the catalogue. We’ll continue to assault the bastions, and be aware, we are very adaptable!