08 November 2008

Booksellers Come to the Crunch

This is the recent cover of a catalogue from the waggish Parisian dealer Bruno Sepulchre. He has cleverly dug up a mid 19th century cartoon from Gavarni (Paul Gavarni -the nom de plume of Sulpice Guillaume Chevalier born 1801 or 1804 in Paris – November 23, 1866). It shows a mournful looking speculator in stocks ('boursicoteur') obviously reduced in circumstances, looking at rare books he can (presumably) no longer afford to buy. Gavarni has him say (my translation) 'I would have done better buying books!'

Booksellers have been grumbling since Gutenberg and they don't appear to have upped their grumbling much since the great Crunch began in September 2008. Internet sales, especially of high ticket items, are slightly slow but this is offset (if you are a Brit) by the fall in the pound-- effectively books bought from the UK are over 20% cheaper than a few months ago. Ebay seems to have slowed down, it has always been full of cheapskates, hagglers and bottom feeders but even some of these guys have zipped their wallets tight for the duration. A genuine signed 'Audacity of Hope' would perk them up but not much else.

There is a theory (hinted at by Gavarni above) that books are a good place to put your money in a recession. This may have some validity if you are buying the right stuff at favourable, not to say cheap, prices and there are a few cool customers doing just that. The trouble is that no one really knows what will sell years down the line. Some concentrate on classics (Hound of the Baskervilles, Wind in the Willows etc.,) some on landmark books in great condition, some on quirky stuff--erotica, books written by madmen, quack medicine, transport, education, conspiracy theory, illustrated rarities unknown to World Cat etc., Good luck to all of them. Ordinary books have become slower to sell, a pity because they are mostly what you find. It takes a very deep recession to stop beautiful and rare books from selling.

Auctions have held their own but there are occasional reports here of good books going for low prices or not selling at all. A sale bombed at the Drouot in early October and it is known that French dealers are complaining more volubly than ever. At the Howard Colvin sale of architectual books (Bloomsbury 27/9/08) some healthy prices were achieved with very little unsold. This is a collection that had been formed over 30 years ago with impressive books bought in 'book sweeps' at what his friend John Harris says now seem 'ridiculously low prices.'

At another recent Bloomsbury Sale (30/10/08) there were slightly more buy-ins than usual (3 collections in a row at one point --Whitbread, Orange and Booker Prize books, possibly with immodest reserves.) Many books, especially literature, sold near their low estimates. However many books did well, including a world record price for Fleming's 'Octopussy' -- some unfortunate end user paid £360. The copy was mint with the 10/6 price but equally mint copies could be had at the same time on Ebay at circa £100. There are however copies on ABE (Books Tell You Why again!) at over £400, a certifiable price. This is a book still in good supply in first edition and excellent condition. It was sold by the cartload at 20p when Margaret Thatcher was on the throne. I still have a few somewhere.

Who knows? I'm slightly foxed. My suspicion is that it will get a little worse. One guy I know selling art books talks of the recession becoming a slump, meanwhile on Bloomberg earnest pundits say that we have hit bottom and further lows are unlikely. Second hand paperback sales are entirely unaffected, Folio Society books still sell well at a tenner each, Bond still has plenty of punters with platinum cards...a quantum of solace there.
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