When I was growing up, I was unsure I what I wanted to do with my life, but one thing I did know was that I didn't want to be in business. My Dad was a minister and, in my family, "business" was somewhat looked down upon (one of my friends calls businessmen, "money grubbing merchants"). I ended up heading in the direction of teaching Philosophy, doing a couple of degrees in the subject and then working towards my PhD, which is what brought me to Philadelphia. Somewhat by chance I ended up taking a year hiatus from my thesis in order to work for a printseller, but at the end of that year I discovered that i) I couldn't stand the guy I worked for and ii) I loved working with antique maps and prints. So, the only option seemed to be to start my own business, which I did with my partner Don Cresswell in 1982.
What I loved about this career was being able to work with all the wonderful maps and prints that I came across. I was able to research them, write them up, and then tell other people about them. That was great! The one part I was uncomfortable about initially, however, was the fact that I was trying to sell them and make money. Somehow this didn't quite seem "right." I felt almost apologetic when I sold something and made a profit.
Not surprisingly, however, this feeling didn't last too long. First off I realized that people loved the fact we were allowing them to find and purchase antique prints and maps. These were not things that people had to buy, like light bulbs, but things people wanted to find and acquire. If we weren't out there finding great things, fixing them up, and putting them out for people to see, they wouldn't have the opportunity of owning these great old prints. And, of course, the shop had to make a profit or we wouldn't be able to perform this service. It really did take a while, but eventually I became comfortable being a businessman.
I have not lost my philosophical bent, however, and I am always interested to think about the whole process of selling prints. One thing I realized was that the attitude of our shop wasn't on "selling" prints, but rather on educating people about how wonderful our prints were, which would then lead them to purchase the prints. This is a bit of a subtle difference, but it is real.
For instance, when we are looking for a new employee, we never look for someone who can "sell"; we always look for someone who i) can appreciate our prints and ii) can communicate what is interesting/special about them to the public. The prints sell themselves; our job is to find them, make sure they are stable, put them out where people can see them, and then educate people about why they are special. That is why our web site and catalogues tend to have extensive descriptions about the items listed, why our web site has so many "informational" pages and an on-life reference library, and why we provide historic descriptions for almost everything we sell.
Our shop was founded because of my and my partner's love of antique prints and maps, and we both believe that if you can communicate what is special about these prints, the business will be successful (tell it and they will sell). There was an interesting example of this at the Philadelphia Antiques Show this last weekend, concerning chromolithographs.
As I have written in an earlier blog, I really like American chromolithographs of the sort that were intended to have the appearance of oil paintings. We usually have a good inventory of these prints and I always take a few to antique shows with me. Unfortunately, they tend not to sell very well at those shows. What usually happens is that people look at them, assuming they are oil paintings, and then when they ask me about them and I explain that, no they are chromolithographs, the people immediately lose interest. To me, that is what is so great about them, but for people who were assuming they were oils, it seems to just be a turn off.
For the Philadelphia Antiques Show this year, I decided to feature a whole section of our booth on these chromos, so I hung 10 of them all together and put up a sign explaining what these were. Amazingly enough, it worked! I probably don't sell even a single chromolithograph at but one in five or six shows I go to, but at the show (so far) we sold seven of them. I do not think it was just that we happened to have a good selection, nor that they were all hung together, but I think it is because when people approached these prints, the sign made them realize right from the beginning that they were looking at prints. That way there was no downer of being mistaken as to what was being looking at, but instead the clients could simply appreciate the prints for what they are.
One thing I have found over the years is that almost any print or map is interesting if appreciated in the right way and one of the fun things about my career is for me to learn about these prints and then be able to tell others about them. When it works, not only is it a success for us as a business, but it is also very satisfying.