Thursday, February 21, 2008


Today I received a box of copies of “Bronze Inside and Out” which I can sign and sell to those who want personalized signed copies. I need forty bucks up front plus five more if I must mail the book. (I know some people are close enough to swing by the house.)

BUT the box was sent by a new competitor to UPS, called DHL. They have no delivery system in Montana -- they just take it all to Billings and mail it. It arrived with the box broken open, no bill of lading to tell me how many copies should be inside, no insurance, no addressee, and no post office box number. The post office is not supposed to deliver packages with no post office box number in towns where people get the mail at the post office rather than through home delivery, but the postmaster is on my side. He figured it out though it was marked “return to sender.” Just the same, he tells me that this practice of using the post office to deliver packages is one of the reasons the post office is losing money.

All this makes me think about the days at Scriver Studio when we were shipping and worrying about packing some very strange objects: like a moose head. Bob’s theory was that if the crate looked fragile, most people would be careful, but that if it looked armored and fortified, the handlers would feel free to throw and drop it, stand on it, and spill water on it. So we built strong but open-sided crates with heavy-gauge plastic sheeting around the actual head. I drove them down to Great Falls, steering right around behind the airport to the loading dock and then spending a LOT of time filling out papers. At the studio we had our own 4-copy recording system to create a bill of lading that showed contents, value, insurance info, times and dates, cost of shipping, and other details that I don’t remember anymore. We never had problems.

The sculpture was trickier, esp. in the days of shipping Hydrocal™ castings which were as fragile as china. Once I ran across a letter from Jeanette, Bob’s second wife, after she was living in LA, giving him detailed advice about how to pack them. Basically, they were immobilized in puffed rice. Popcorn was too oily. We’d clean out the supply of puffed rice in every small town nearby. Sometimes the castings were suspended in a web of string, but the string tended to stretch, allowing the figure to bump on the sides of the crate. And we packed in Zonolite, inhaling asbestos all unawares, and it was dusty stuff. On our end we had a constant supply of compressed air, piped through the building from a compressor out in the foundry that held the air in what Jeanette claimed was “her” propane tank (because she bought it to replace the old oil tank), so that it always smelled of the oniony additive that indicates a propane leak. We never would have detected a real propane leak. But what about the guy faced with all that carcinogenic dust on the other end?

The bronzes were a different problem: they are so heavy and some pieces have so many sharp points that they could destroy packing from the inside. Thin parts, like “blankets” or “flags” could bend. We bought a lot of cheap foam rubber and wrapped them in that with bungee cords. Or later we evolved a system that David Cree Medicine had to teach the Montana Historical Society crew when it came up to truck Bob’s estate to Helena. It was a custom plywood box equipped with rope handles, rather like a coffin, just big enough for the casting. Then the bronze was immobilized from side-to-side movement by adding small wooden “bumpers” screwed to the bottom. The biggest danger to an art bronze is scraping and scratching the patina, so sometimes the bumpers had bits of old inner tube between the bumpers and the bronze. The box had to be kept right-side-up, which is part of the reason for the handles so that lifters wouldn’t try to roll the box.

I’m always interested when I get books from the private booksellers who work through Alibris or Abebooks. Some just use boughten padded envelopes, which have evolved from messy shredded paper to bubble wrap, and almost everyone wraps the books themselves in plain white paper before putting them into the mailer. When I’m doing it, I sometimes repeat the mailing address on that plain white paper so that if the envelope is torn open, the address will still be there. Most people put a business card or a fancy little bookmark in between the pages of the book so it could be at least returned to the sender. Some insure, some do not. Few track unless the book is very valuable. Some have invented their own way of packing with recycled corrugated cardboard and newspaper wrappings, which tend to be inky.

There’s a certain kind of woman who loves to send “care packages.” I am not that sort and rather dread receiving them since they have more to do with the fantasies of the sender than the receiver -- some of whom don’t really know me. So foods I can’t eat, objects I never use, books I would never read, and so on arrive and I must invent tactful ways of responding as well as finding some new receiver victim.

But what I ponder more than anything else when it comes to shipping is what will happen as time goes on and this petroleum-fueled delivery system becomes more and more expensive. Even now I often pay twice as much in shipping as for a book, esp. when I order from Britain. Probably the book problem will be solved by the Espresso machine, which is sort of like “Beam me up, Scottie.” That is, the directions for printing the book are sent via the Internet and the book prints for you while you enjoy your cappucinno. (Everyone seems to assume these machines will be in coffee shops.) But that's if you insist on a paper book instead of an ebook, which means no autograph.

Even then how will anyone get books signed by the author, except by going to the author’s book-signing? Driving to my house takes gas, too! And what if the author can no longer afford the gas to drive to a book-signing? Can I get away with sending a gum-back bookplate that I sign, the way Whisky Prajer does? (His are custom-designed: very nice.) A good entrepreneur might speculate that the value of signed books can only go up.

1 comment:

Whisky Prajer said...

The bookstore I worked in used corrugated cardboard folded over once across the width of the book, then pinch-stapled shut on either end. We had a booming international phone-order business and very few complaints about books received (with the exception of our use of industrial staples -- very difficult to wrestle open, particularly for the elderly).

Autographed books are definitely a speculator's market. I remember attending a reading in Toronto. The author had a reputation for being a bit of a recluse, so out of deference I constrained myself to bringing only his most recent book for him to autograph. The line-up for his table was a revelation: many people had brought entire libraries for this guy to sign. A signed pre-pub (the hardcover-sized paperbacks that get sent to tradespeople and newspapers), I was told, was especially valuable. The author didn't seem at all phased by any of it. I felt a little peeved, but watching him calmly soldier on in the face of this weird hybrid of oblation and mercantilism helped me shrug it off. I got his autograph, thanked him for writing and publishing, then left for home figuring the autographs I valued most were from people who were generous enough to befriend me.