Wednesday, June 25, 2008

What’s It REALLY Worth?

I was out on the road for a week and returned to find a very nice article in the Boston Globe about HUBERT’S FREAKS.

The article was brought to my attention by a colleague, who also told me that a copy of Benjamin Franklin’s “Maritime Observations” was coming up for auction at Christies. This is an important item in the history of science and, because of its maritime component, he wanted to let me know about the sale. Essentially Franklin’s treatise documents his discovery, in 1785, of what we now know as the Gulf Stream. The pamphlet was estimated to sell at $15,000-25,000. I guessed it would sell at around $35,000. In fact, it went for $80,500 with the auctioneer’s 20% premium.

Tracking the blatant “rich getting richer” course of the Bush economy, the escalation of high-end material has taken over every area of the high art world, including rare books. The rarest of the rare sells for increasingly grand sums. Everything else founders or sinks. Perhaps the strongest example of this at the Christies sale was tragic genius Alan Turing’s 1936 paper “On Computable Numbers.” This early and important item had a well-established value of about $20,000. However, the copy at this Christies sale brought $182,500, including the premium.

This highlights another aspect of today’s weird market. More than ever before, the sales venue has a significant impact on the selling price of an item. Turing’s paper might sell for $20,000 at Bloomsbury or Swann, and $180,000 at Christies. So what is it really “worth?” Has value become a function of venue?

Inevitably all this takes me back to the cancelled Phillips sale last April 8th. It’s getting on three months and the mystery buyer announced by Phillips has yet to emerge. I can’t help but wonder if the people at Phillips misjudged the current market, only to realize their mistake at the last moment. Auction results over the past decade have demonstrated that, for all of Arbus’s work, it is only the icons that bring strong sales numbers. Results over the past few years make it clear that Christies and Sothebys are where the real money gets made. Did Phillips think they could buck this trend with Bob Langmuir’s collection of funky, fascinating, but off-brand Arbus material?

In HUBERT’S FREAKS Steve Turner counsels Bob Langmuir not to over-pitch his goods, to let the buyer “sell it to himself.” At this remove it looks more and more as if Steve Turner took his own advice when he was trying to find a taker for the Hubert’s archive. Charlie Scheips and Joseph Kraeutler, the photography experts at Phillips, sold it to themselves.

Saturday, June 7, 2008

Alive and Well

Last night I did a gig at the Dire Literary Series, a long-running (they’ve had over 80 readings) forum for young writers organized by poet Timothy Gager. It was held at the Out of the Blue Gallery at 106 Prospect St., People’s Republic of Cambridge. The Gallery was an eye-popping mélange of far-out art, some of it horrible, quite a bit very loveable. They’d hung a children’s art show that night, and the walls crawled with dinosaurs and super-heroes.

My Big Box bookstore readings typically draw crowds of three or four people, two of whom are derelicts temporarily dwelling in the store’s spacious aisles. So I was surprised to see that there were a couple of dozen attendees at Out of the Blue, and even more surprised to learn that each of them had shelled out $4 for the privilege of hearing us read.

Emcee Gager warmed the crowd up by reading a few of his funny, gritty, slice-of-life poems, alternating with his own brand of good improv comedy, playing off the audience, getting them relaxed, making them feel involved. They were already getting their money’s worth.

He was followed by a poet named David Lawton, who did something that I found remarkable. Rather than read his poetry, he ranted it, rapped it, declaimed it, crooned it – all off the top of his head, without ever once sticking his nose in a manuscript. The poems were strong and smart, but what really impressed me was Lawton’s performance – in the old bardic tradition - bringing us news from faraway places sung by a minstrel in cargo pants.

Next I did my bit out of HUBERT’S FREAKS which, since I was probably twice the age of anyone else in the room, at least proved that people had been trying to write things since before they’d been born.

Last up was novelist Mike Heppner who read a bit from a work in progress about going to a reading with a girl who kind of annoyed him. The guy giving the reading in the piece was a burned-out case and Heppner got into a very funny riff imagining this guy's life, which started reminding me of my own, especially the part about his poor weary liver feeling like a pulled muscle.

The whole reading had a young, funky energy to it that put me in mind of Freebird Books in Brooklyn, where I’d read a couple of months before. Same age-group, same sense of humor, same confusions, same freshness. Then, with the synchronicity that sometimes accompanies such events, I got an email from Freebird this morning. They’d just discovered an artifact from the old Hubert’s Dime Museum, and Charles Hutchinson, one of the proprietors, had written an eloquent essay about Hubert’s, with a link to the YouTube video of our old pal Jack Dracula talking about Diane Arbus. (Check it out at )

Everybody in my business talks about how the publishing industry is a sinking ship, how retail bookstores are a thing of the past, how books themselves will soon be replaced by Kindle and its spawn. But a couple of nights at places like Freebird and Out of the Blue are enough to give me hope.

This stuff won’t go away. It’s too much fun.

Monday, June 2, 2008

Google Me Gregory

Well, we finally got the website for HUBERT’S FREAKS finished. I took it for a test spin this morning and I liked it – a wonderfully, unhealthy, lurid look to it, and plenty of features, including photos not in the book, a video of the amazing Jack Dracula talking about his love life and his association with Diane Arbus, and three audio samples of Charlie Lucas’ grind tape, a recording he made in 1965, and piped out to 42nd St. in hopes of luring customers down to Hubert’s Dime Museum. It’s amazing to me - close to miraculous, really - how effectively internet technology can deliver the feel of another time and place. Check it out at

All this computer aided time-travel put me in mind of things webbish, and of Google in particular. (It has long been a fantasy of mine to write a crime novel in which one tough-guy character asks, “Who the hell are you?” and the other replies, “Google me, asshole.”) Long ago, in accordance with advice I gleaned from some “How to Publicize Your Book on the Internet” book, I set up a daily Google search for “Hubert’s Freaks,” “Diane Arbus,” and “Gregory Gibson.” Now, whenever a new review or news item comes out on the internet, Google finds it and sends it to me. Thanks to blessings of Google, I feel right on top of things.

But blessings sometimes come with curses. In this case, it’s my alter-ego, Gregory Gibson. Seems the “other” Gregory is a truck driver in Virginia. Last summer he sped through a red light and hit another car, killing a teenaged girl. He was headed for prison but the girl’s family asked that he be shown mercy. The judge, impressed, sentenced him to home incarceration and community service. Gregory wept and begged forgiveness. The newspapers, impressed, picked the story up, and now Google delivers it to my electronic doorstep, in its every iteration.

It’s a moving drama of redemption and forgiveness. I certainly wish the best for the girl’s family and for the truck driver. But, dammit, I do NOT relish waking up every morning to news of my criminal trial, to recounting my act of heedlessness that resulted in the death of another, to the recitation of the pain I caused that family, or even their high-minded mercy. Not to mention my wretched attempts to let them know how sorry I am for what I’ve done.

In some mystical way that relentless, blind Google spider has “called my name” and every morning I am dragged by proxy into a bit of the hell that these people are trying to live through.

I intend to be more careful with miracles in the future.