Milou Bookbinding, which I launched as a one-man business in June of 2000, following the arrival of a new credit card and a Texas sales-and-use-tax license, seemed, if not doomed to fail, then sure to impoverish. (I see now that both were inevitable.)
But it would be self-sovereign poverty, an improvement over non-sovereign poverty; the latter distinguishable from the former by the presence of A Boss. I was tired of Bosses. The notion of calling my own shots and having my own shop (actually a well-lighted card table in one corner of my girlfriend Annie’s and my efficiency) and plying a satisfying handicraft for money was a delicious one, and unquestionably worth the risk of its ending in magnificent failure.
Business started out with some promise. My first customers were dealers and collectors of early printed books (generally pre-1700). Such books are often worth a dealer’s investing a few hundred bucks to mend and prettify. I reattached boards and re-sewed headbands and subtracted antique mildew or the occasional antique food- or bloodstain. Occasionally I’d get to handle some pretty cool books. Once I had a copy of Galileo’s Siderius Nuncius. I was sure that Vinnie, our cat, would, as a demonstration of power and enmity, daub the book with tinkle when I had my back turned. But he did not. Meanwhile, business steadily got better.
Within a couple of years I had worked on enough early books where it seemed like a good idea, and a logical business assay, to try dealing rare books myself, angling for damaged or weathered − but restorable − books, then restoring and selling them. To finance this venture, I accepted a few of the five hundred thousand low-interest credit-card offers that came in the mail every day. With these cards I bought rare books. I got a new DBA: Milou Rare Books.
Maybe failure, destitution, and crowded efficiency apartments gummed with antique horse glue and peppered with leather dust were not my destiny. Thank you, Discover. Thank you, Barclay’s. Thank you Citibank, Bank of America, Capital One, Advanta, and Chase. Et alii.
Through my slowly fledging, credit-card-financed rare-book and restoration business, I managed to sell or repair (or both) just enough books to stay abreast of the monthly payments and keep the already-breathtaking card balances balanced.
Whenever the low-interest promotional period of a card would expire, I’d simply pluck another card offer out of the many thigh-high hills around the apartment, transfer the balance to the brand-new card, to which was always attached a brand-new promotional period. Then, in a few days, the original card issuer would call or write with a new low-interest offer. Of course, I’d accept it, and immediately buy more books.
I began buying costlier, rarer books. Actual profits were realized. Fuck bookbinding! I Am A Rare Book Dealer Now.
And My Credit Card Balance Is Bigger Than Your Mortgage. Before too long, I had a balance that would’ve taken the collective breath away from a Debtors Anonymous symposium. Still, I kept up with the payments. I was never late; I always paid more than the minimum (mostly); I kept good records.
One day, the card offers stopped coming. One by one, my cards’ promotional periods ended, accelerating the interest rates from sometimes as little as 0% to as usurious as 38%. At the same time, I made some really bad buys. One book I bought—-and spent a month fully restoring—-turned out to have been stolen, years before, from the very library I was planning to sell it to. I gave the book to them. A fairly critical happenstance which forced a series of delinquent payments the extent of whose damage was soon made manifest in the form of late and over-limit charges, punitive-interest spikes, and spirit-dissolving credit reviews.
Critical, but not catastrophic. Not like the next “purchase.”
I was going to tell you the details of a catastrophically rotten investment I made in my rare-book and restoration, but I thought better of it, just now. Instead, let me just assemble a skeleton of facts for you, to which you may hitch as much meaty detail as your imagination allows.
Some bones: I was swindled out of $15,000 by an Eastern European in the course of a rare-book transaction. My insurance did not cover the loss. The FBI did not return my calls. Interpol did not write me back. The man I tried to hire to investigate, a mighty capable-looking bloke named Marin, declined my case. Hindsight declared me a business idiot. Foresight saw a period of great penury followed by total ruin.
I tried to put off the inevitable. I fire-saled inventory to pay bills, usually at ghastly losses. I sold reference books, tools of the trade, vellum and gold leaf and utterly irreplaceable sheets of pre-1700 paper. Even so, I couldn’t keep up with the juggernaut of bills. Those that I neglected first were, perforce, the credit cards, upon which the larger part of my business had always teetered. The interest rate on one flea-jumped to 38%. It did not take long for customer service representatives to begin calling to check on my welfare and enquire after my missing payments. The enquiries turned to demands, which were often salted with characterizations and threats. My debtor’s guilt-shame grew so large and unmanageable that it eventually broke away from my psyche, formed its own self, and moved into the efficiency with my girlfriend Annie and me. HumiliaTor, I call it. Imagine a pig-leather Michelin Man with a giant ant head and limbs like two-stroke weedeaters. During the day, HumiliaTor humiliated. At night, while it dozed peacefully in the tub, I’d peddle sundries on eBay, and compose rich esprit d’escalier as I played the telephone collectors’ long, scolding telephone lectures over and over in my head. The bankruptcy lawyer I’d hired, Mr. H, advised me to never, ever speak to collectors, unless I enjoyed abuse and the following malaise. I’d been a collector once, I told Mr. H. A very polite collector, too, I added.
“You must’ve sucked.”
I had sucked.