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


Anonymous said...

Self-sufficiency and Foo for Free in the Top Ten? You'd better hope they're saving money to spend on books...

Edwin Moore said...

Ach, you can never sure if there are right times to buy and right times to sell.

As those of us who pretend to work at home but watch Bargain Hunt know, yesterday's bestselling antiques are today languishing in the Sally Army stores. And all this is true recession or no recession.

I picked up a really nice first edition of Steven Pressfield's Gates of Fire a few months ago with a long inscription by SP - I could sell it easily of course but should I? Will it be worth double next year? No idea.

Re charity shops, one of the maddest book selling conversations i ever had was in a Glasgow Oxfam shop about 20 years ago. I was helping organise a book sale for Amnesty International and the old bag in the local Oxfam shop refused to put a poster up as 'it would be advertising a competitor'. In vain I pointed out the obvious fallacies.

It's my impression that people who work in charity shops now are generally nicer than they used to be - possibly because they are often younger, but that book prices have also generally gone up, no idea why. Life is a mystery.

Anonymous said...

So now that I've lost my job, should I list all the books I want to sell on ebay and travel miles to the one remaining post office this side of the Persian Gulf to post them or should I phone a bookshop to make me a pitiful offer for the lot in the "doing you a favour, guv" vein? As a punter, it seems that no time is the right time to sell books.

Unknown said...

re: charity shops .. the obvious difference now is that a lot more of them are aware of ABE and its ilk, and use that to deriving some rather intriguing pricing; whereas previously the sharp eyed punter might be able to do rather well. Oxf*m branches in particular have obviously done online pricing research which previously they'd have had to stick a finger in the air.

Edwin Moore said...

The charity staff may do research but then they often draw all the wrong conclusions - I once queried the price (£50!) of a W E Johns Worrals book and was told the internet price was £60 so £40 was an excellent price.

Maybe it was for a nice first edition, but it wasn't, however, an excellent price for a 70s paperback with an awful stain on the cover - which this was.

My theory is that the prices of bog-ordinary books in charity shops - nice books but non-collectible books - have gone up because of unrealistic expectations on the part of inexperienced staff.

The big Oxfam bookshop in Byres Rd, Glasgow is fine - a few aberrations, but largely decent books at decent prices.

Bookride said...

Thanks to you Edwin et al for these mordant comments. I am never quite sure where the charity lies in charity shops--surely it is more in the giving of the stuff to the shops than the buying. Obviously there is a certain amount of goodwill from the buyer but if the price is stiff (and it often is) that good will is quickly lost. I feel sure they would make more money if they kept on the cheap and cheerful side of things. Our local shop where I live is 'cheap as chips' - 20p for paperbacks and 50p for hardbacks £1 for CDS -it does a good trade and there is a lot of 'keep the change' and added donations.

Didn't know about Pressfield--will keep my eyes peeled for 'Gates'.

Edwin Moore said...

Agree entirely about the good will factor of decent cheap stuff. The Byres Rd Oxfam always has a stack of £1.49 books - nice, clean, and often very recent - and they shift quite a few to people who may also buy the more collectable books.

Re Pressfield, I see on AbeBooks prices of inscribed Gates of Fire sell for between £90- 325.

Hmmm - mine cost me £2.50 and has a nice inscription to a friend of his in 'Miami 2/07' - I'd guess he will go up and stay up.

Incidentally, Pressfield devised the concept of 'phobologia' -

a supposed Spartan 'science of fear' which now pops up in interweb discussions (and sober academic reference I believe) as an authentic Spartan creation!

Tim Mayer said...

There was a very good PBS special about two veneable book shops on the left coast of the USA. One was in California, the other in the state of Washington. I wish I could remember the name of the special, but I live on the right side. I do recall that both stores closed soon after the special was broadcast.
I don't get a chance to browse through the second hand book shops like I once did. I've live in two towns with large Air Force bases (Dayton, OH and Wichita, KS). Both had superb used book stores.

Anonymous said...

There is one particular charity shop in my locality which has a very curious policy regarding books. If it "don't show up on Amaz*n" it gets binned(!). As a result, a casual lift of their bin lid (key required) every now and then is sure to reveal some obscure interestingness therein (Edith Rodwell's 'Coultour's Factory'? Or how about 'Autobiography of a Rascal'?). It is tragic, yes, and I'm too shy to challenge their draconian policy... and yet I wonder if this 'rare' book destruction happens anywhere else?

Bookride said...

Thanks Fodient--in my experience it's the books not on the net that you want most. It seems a pity that this shop is missing out on a good source of revenue. You could do worse than say you would pay a £2 bit for any book not on Amazon or tell them to put any book not on Amazon on ABE at £25. I came across a seller who put not on net books up at $76 regardless-- a price that was sometimes laughably low and more often way too high. I'd like to hear of other charity shops where they are getting wrong...

Anonymous said...

That's really interesting. Yes it really is a shame to see any books binned really - especially scarce books that someone somewhere might be yearning for. It's very doubtful that this charity shop knows of the existence of Abe, let alone sells through it, but I've mentioned various search sites to some of the volunteers and suggested they extend their shelving to include rare items. I shirk from being too direct, as they might twig that I've been eavesdropping or peeping in their bin - and since the staff are a little 'special needy' I wouldn't want to offend them with implied criticism. But yet curiosities still appear in the bin: last week a fascinating little poetry book called 'Persimmon Seeds' by Japanese scientist-flaneur Torahiko Terada. It may have little value, but I find psychologically, having rescued it with my own grubby hands, its essence is amplified tremendously and vivified in the mind. By way of recompense for these 'secret enlightenments' I often donate popular paperback fiction to the shop, which always seems to be well received.

Anonymous said...

re: charity shops getting it wrong... An Oxfam in Newcastle where I helped out awhile ago had two boxfuls of ancient leather bindings donated one morning... and were immediately slung out in the trash without a second thought. According to the senior volunteer they were "just too old" and she described the apparent unreadability of the long-S. Presumably they were pre-1800. She also argued that it was unhygienic to display manky deteriorating books in proximity to Oxfam's Fair Trade foodstuffs. (Oxfam is peculiar in that it stocks food as well as bric-a-brac). I only discovered all this by chance later that day after asking about brown flakes on the floor. The flakes were bits of dry leather. When the trash was investigated in haste they had already gone.

Edwin Moore said...

'The flakes were bits of dry leather. When the trash was investigated in haste they had already gone.'

'twas ever thus alas. In the Sword of Honour trilogy, Peregrine Crouchback gets a position vetting books dinated for the war effort, thus saving rare, beautiful and valuable books being pulped to produce govt pamphlets - a process that happened in non-fiction too.

Fodient, I got a non-Amazon book from Oxfam recently - a wee paperback, Comet Adventures, by an Australian astro photographer (and signed by him, John Goldsmith) for £1.99. It has a charming photo of Stonehenge with a comet above, and includes an encounter with Patrick Moore. Very pleasing!