Thursday, June 25, 2009

Serious Books, Serious Bookshops

My initial forays into serious bookshops happened my first year at college, 1982. The Union bookstore at the University of Kansas, while filled with the usual textbooks and t-shirts, also had excellent, scholarly books on a host of topics, from various publishers. Military History, medieval, Greek and Roman Loeb classics, and even a book on a Russian Viking that I still own to this day.

Later that year I discovered J. Hood, down at the bottom of the Hill on Mass Street. It was my first real venture into a real used and rare shop, and their stock represented exactly what you'd think a university town used and rare shop would have.

Do these kind of places have a future?

Recently in the Guardian online newspaper out the the UK (Do make their book section a stop on your regular web browsing - you won't be disappointed) discussed this very point. Titled You Can't Be Serious, Andy Beckett discusses the decline in publishing serious non fiction across the board, and especially in regards to shops. It touched on a number of important issues in books and bookselling I'd like to bring out further, along with some other issues I feel are related.

Serious books have always been harder sells, as the article points out, and they are not getting easier. There are recent examples of serious books having great success. However, the majority of the more serious, challenging, and scholarly titles have small audiences, sell more slowly, and require more from the reader. Not a formula for a beach read. Demand from libraries is declining as books budgets are trimmed to cover online resources costs, while bigger book chains go for titles with wider appeal and most small bookshops pull back or fall away. Both big and small shops face declines in sales as well.

Serious publishers themselves are facing more direct challenges in addition to declining sales. University presses are undergoing what amounts to an economic culling as states cut back support and universities re-prioritize their expenses. University presses are vulnerable because many do not make money or make little. Many universities want to put them on a profit basis, but unfortunately that was never the rationale for their existence in the first place. The schools seem to value expensive sports teams over academic endeavor. Smaller independent publishers in the US, without subsidies available in some other countries, suffer from a shrinking market as much as any other publisher and any grants or collaborations they have sought in the past are gone or harder to achieve.

The book industry is undergoing perhaps the most profound changes since the mechanization of printing nearly 200 years ago. A changing and struggling economy, internet challenges such as digitization and Amazon, and the ever increasing variety of media to occupy our free time are major factors in that change. The article points out that such a decline in serious books has happened before, and other works, such as Reluctant Capitalists by Laura Miller (mentioned by me before) confirm this. But this time change is occurring across the breadth and depth of the industry, and that has even more serious implications for the future. We are facing a new world.

The good news is that in this new world serious books will not go away. The old world has useful lessons for serious booksellers and book publishers if one takes both a broad and deep view. Like species, certain types of books thrive in specific environments. Whether selling new books or used, success in scholarly bookselling is about the books, about the people, and about the location.

For the books, it's not just what is new or rare or expensive. It is knowing which are the better books, who publishes them, and how they fit (or don't) with other books in the field. Sometimes the best books are out of print, or are just being published, often by a small publisher. It can be a challenge to find them, learn about a new publisher, to keep up with any given field and to learn its history and the printed milestones. But knowing those milestones provides a map of sorts, a tool to help shape stock, and make it better. I personally think that specialization is very important and that selectivity is key. These are even more important if one does not specialize and/or is selling new books.

People are not just buyers, but sometimes sellers and sometimes advisors. Bookselling, to me, is an industry where you are rewarded for what you know, punished for what you don't, and presented with opportunities to learn every single day. Readers offer to teach a bookseller every day by what they buy, by personal conversation in a bookshop or by email, through their online discussion groups, and more. Taking that information and continually shaping services and stock to a chosen clientele is perhaps the most important thing booksellers of serious books can do, both as a service to a community and as a sound financial effort.

The old saying is still true: location, location, location. For serious books and serious bookshops, I still think a storefront in important. The contact with the community, the opportunities for both selling and buying, and the discipline of running an open shop are important advantages, not to be overlooked. However, location now means more than just the physical premises, but where the business fits in the new and changing geography of bookselling. Amazon is not going away. The recession may dribble to an end, but job recovery will still be slow. Price pressures are greater than ever and not all of your market resides in one community. The internet, with all its mixed blessings, is important terrain to map and navigate for a bookshop. It is not only selling, but presenting the shop and its stock to specific communities to get on their maps. Finding both online sources - forums, listservs, websites - and actual live events - association meetings, shows, fairs, festivals - provides superb opportunities to interact with a select community. In short, walk in traffic is not just off the street, but off the internet as well.

It is not easy. These are challenging times. Small changes in the market can have major adverse effects for even a well-run small, focused bookshop. Selling serious and important books is perhaps one of the hardest and most challenging tasks for booksellers currently. But as Tom Hanks said, it's the hard that makes it great. Otherwise everyone would do it.

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More after the jump...

Tuesday, June 23, 2009

Myles of Books, Part the Sixth - of Sharks and Cousteau

On the other side of campus sat the shop of Grant Murray, Midnight Stand Books. The Stand was one of the regular routes for Topher when he was buying books for the shop. Grant had a tendency to buy a bit more than he could afford, and a couple times Topher was able to take advantage of deals Grant would offer him, and even pick up a few books for himself.

20 minutes later, Topher found a good parking space just down the block from Grant's shop. As he walked up to the door, he went by the long front window. Grant's sign was on an awning above so the window gave a clear view into the shop. Or rather it would have, if books had not been stacked against it across half its length, like colorful wood shavings in a hamster's nest. Occasionally Topher would see something that looked interesting buried in the stack, but since the width of was as great as its length, Topher usually passed on digging it out. The shape and arrangement of the mound did change every so often, so someone must have decided to go to dig towards China once in a while.

Topher pulled open the door and stepped inside. The smell of books and must and dust came to him, not overwhelming but heavy. The shelves, like the window, were thick with books standing, stacked, and shoved on top, all they way to the top of the high ceiling. Most did not look like they had been touched in some time. Here and there a chair or an ottoman stood, piled with old newspapers, books, or fan magazines of some sort. In between them and piles of books on the floor were short step ladders, far too low to reach the higher parts, yet ready and waiting to help the hopeful.

In the middle of the shop sat a tall, cluttered desk, currently occupied by several stacks of books, a battered electronic cash register and a pile of papers. The only partially clear space was directly in front of the owner of the shop, Mr. Grant Murray himself, clad in his habitual t-shirt and, probably, university logo-splashed running shorts thankfully hidden by the desk and surge of books spilling from under it. He was bargaining mildly with another bookish denizen of the town, Ned Pack.

"Hey Topher, what's up?" said Murray leaving his earlier conversation in mid-haggle. Ned looked over and smiled broadly, and leaned back against the desk.

Topher smiled back at both men. "Not much. I've been in the shop all week, and missed my old routine."

Ned nodded. "I know the feeling. If I don't bring my books into some shop to be whined down to poverty every so often, it doesn't seem normal. So your shop is going pretty good? You organize those mysteries like I told you?"

"I did, I did. All the New York mysteries are in one group, with the rest by author. Works pretty well. You have to bring me some more if sales keep up," Topher looked at the books on the desk. "But it looks like you're selling all your books to Grant here."

Ned smiled and shook his head of slightly overgrown afro curls. "I wish," said Murray. "These here he brought are good stock, but nothing to retire on. He's holding those back. Hell, I bet we won't get those until he gets mashed at the dump going through those bins."

"At least they'll be cheap then. I bet we'll pick them up for a dollar a book." Topher said with a grin.

Ned shook his finger at the two bookmen. "No way, I'll have them buried with me first. See, Grant, that's the thanks I get. Teach this guy how to find a good book on the street, show him the good sales and the resale shops, and he's already doin' a vulture over my books. You I expect it from. Owning a bookstore taints a man, I swear."

Murray raised his hands . "Fine, fine, we'll pay two dollars for them and you can go to your grave in spacious comfort. Now how about three dollars each for these? That'll be eighteen dollars total, or twenty-seven credit."

"Sounds good," agreed Ned. "and let Topher here use the credit. My way of a shop-opening present. I need you to do well so I can retire to a leather chair in a corner of your shop an' lie about my book adventures to tourists."

"Fair enough, " Murray said. "Topher, my treasures await you." He then pulled the stack of books over and piled them on top of an already teetering pile.

Topher raised his eyebrows and then offered Ned his hand. "Wow, that's really nice of you Ned. Thanks. And thanks for all the advice you've given me too. You saved me a lot of mistakes."

Ned shook Topher's hand. "You'll make your own, and big ones too. We all do, man. Just don't get in a rut. That'll be the worst thing."

"No worries there. A lady came in and asked me to look at an old furniture book. I don't know much about them actually. I can look on the web and see if there is a listing for it, but sometimes there is not much information on the book, just price and condition. Either of you know of a good reference?"

Ned and Murray looked at each other. Murray shrugged, his thin shoulders sharply rising under his t-shirt.

Ned turned back to Topher. " How old? I mean, old to a regular citizen, like from the teens or twenties, or old to a bookseller?"

"I don't know yet," Topher said. "She just said old, and many 'neat' pictures. It made me realize I didn't have a much of a clue about furniture books, old or new."

"Hmm... well, I'll do some looking around. I'm not sure. I'll ask Arthur too, and you should if you see him before me. If he doesn't know, try the university."

"Great, I'll do that. And thanks again for the credit. And I promise to do as much damage as i can with it."

Ned laughed and swung his canvas bookbag over his broad shoulders. "That's the way. I'm glad your sales are good, and I'll drop by when I get a chance. Grant, thanks. I'll bring some more stuff in next week."

"I'll try and sell a couple of these before you do. Bring me a Mormon Bible and I'll buy you a steak dinner." Murray said.

Ned turned on his way out the door. "I bring you a Mormon bible, and you buy me a small herd of beef." he waved and headed out of the shop.

Murray said, "He's right you know. Even a rough copy of that book will pay the rent for a year."

Topher shook his head. 'Well, if he does bring it in, call me. I'd like to see it. I doubt I will ever handle an expensive book like that, but it'd be fun to see."

"Will do. So, pick away. If you don't use all your credit, I'll make a note and you can finish it later. Holler if you need anything."

Topher moved off into Murray's shop, navigating through and over the piles and messy spreads of books in the aisles. Blocked by a large yet fragile assemblage in the local history section, Topher found a path the windingly led to the mystery novels. The books there were so wildly shoved and stacked on the shelves, Topher felt he was playing some odd form of tiddlywinks, but was able to pull out a western mystery by Hockensmith, not a first but a nice copy in a stunning jacket. He also found a biography of Jacques Cousteau in great shape, and another of Annie Oakley. With only a dollar left in credit, he figured that was close enough.

Topher placed the books on the counter. Murray looked them over. "That was quick. Good call on the mystery. Firsts on that are doing well. Wish I had a poster of that dust jacket to hang in the shop." Topher glanced around, wondering where amid the shelves and knickknacks on the wall such a poster would fit.

Murray stopped at the Cousteau book, the last of the three. "Now why'n the hell did you take this? Don't get me wrong, I'm glad to have it gone, but it's not gonna be a fast seller."

"That one's for me." Topher said. "When I was a kid his books were always around, and I loved his pictures. Plus he said my favorite quote. 'When you enter the ocean, you enter the food chain, and not necessarily at the top'. When ever I feel I'm over my head, I think of that line."

Murray smiled. "Good enough. When you read it, tell me how many times he got himself bit by sharks. Might come in handy in conversation. You have a buck left for credit. Wanna look at the paperbacks? "

Topher waved him off. "Nah, I'm good. Thanks for these. Drop by the shop sometime if you get a chance." Topher gathered the books and headed out of the shop.

More after the jump...