18 February 2009

Booksellers and the Big Crunch

Having just done the California Book Fair I should be in a position to pontificate about the effect of the crunch on trade. Surprisingly it was fairly reasonable with dealers still buying from one another, something I had feared might be completely curtailed; even the public showed some enthusiasm and produced cash, cards and cheques. True, everybody wanted deeper discounts than ever, anything that was ambitiously priced was ignored unless it was God's own copy, breathtakingly desirable, ballsachingly trendy or in effulgent condition.

Some higher end dealers sold very little but there were also reports of a few very high takes. Ephemera seemed to be doing well, prints less so. Some optimists said during the last recession that the book trade was the last to be affected and the first to recover; this time there have been signs that the more modest and user friendly end of the trade is weathering the storm or even profiting by it. The jury is still out but meanwhile here are some interesting but contradictory lead indicators, straws in the wind (no green shoots though!)...

1. Advert in 'Private Eye' 23 January 2009. "The Eye' is a UK satirical, whistleblowing fortnightly with a large and affluent readership. I found this in the 'Eye Needs' classified ads section which is full of the broke, the needy and the redundant looking for donations. Please help an antiquarian bookshop survive credit crunch 119100 01057770. The figures are bank account details in case you are minded to pony up. Not a good sign at all...

2. Thrift shops (charity shops) are reporting higher turnovers-- as much as 10% over last year. Given the fact that in the UK many charity shops charge more for their books than secondhand shops this is a hard one to interpret, but at least the money is going to good causes and is not being wasted by booksellers on Volvos, Real Ale, fine wines, single malts, bibliography, corduroy jackets and Apples etc.,

3. Article in 'The Daily Telegraph' 10 January 2009 - Frugal readers give second-hand bookshops a lift. The thrust of the article was that booksellers had a bumper year in 2008 'as cost-conscious readers cut back on buying new titles.' One shop, Barter Books in Northumberland, reported a 10% rise and Richard Booth in Hay reports an 'excellent year.' (One caveat to bear in mind is that turnover in second hand bookshops very much depends on the quality of books bought; I know of a seller who took £40K in 2007 and £150K in 2008 because he hit a stunning collection in his area, if the economy had been more buoyant he could have taken more.) Booth even supplies a slightly risible list of the Top Ten Used Books:

1. Kilvert's Diary 1870-1879, by Francis Kilvert
2. On the Black Hill, by Bruce Chatwin
3. Pride and Prejudice, by Jane Austen
4. Self-Sufficiency, by John Seymour
5. The Origin of Species, by Charles Darwin
6. The Famous Five, by Enid Blyton
7. The Mabinogion, translated by Lady Charlotte Guest
8. To Kill a Mockingbird, by Harper Lee
9. Food for Free, by Richard Mabey
10. On the Road, by Jack Kerouac
Given the randomness of book buying by dealers such lists are going to be site specific, subjective and highly unreliable but they may have some significance. King Richard's list has a Welsh bias. Our top seller is '84 Charing Cross Road', when we can get copies (£1 offered for clean examples.) At the bottom I append US giant Powell's 'Top Ten Used Books' ** list which reflects more American concerns. A spokesperson at Booth's said "We are having a great year. Despite the downturn, sales are up significantly. There are a number of factors. We are selling a lot more on the internet, and I think people are wanting to save money. They are probably not buying new books so much so they are turning to second-hand books instead." Good, encouraging stuff but alot of this info comes from earlier in 2008 before the recession really started to bite... to be continued with other factoids and news of one seaside shop where they are taking money hand over fist...

1. James Bond: The Legacy by John Cork and Bruce Scivally
2. The Sopranos Family Cookbook by Artie Bucco

3. The Blank Slate: The Modern Denial of Human Nature by Steven Pinker
4. A People's History of United States by Howard Zinn 

5. Emily Post's Etiquette by Emily Post

6. Emily Post's Wedding Etiquette by Peggy Post

7. Leadership by Rudolph W. Giuliani 

8. Larousse Gastronomique: The World's Greatest Culinary Encyclopedia by Librarie Larousse

9. When You Ride Alone You Ride with Bin Laden by Bill Maher 

10. What Einstein Told His Cook: Kitchen Science Explained by Robert L. Wolke and Marlene Parrish
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