01 March 2009

Booksellers and the Big Crunch 2

More uninformed and subjective notes on how the recession is affecting the trade in rare and used books. It's funny but as a retailer with a shop in the dead centre of London I am now continually asked by concerned friends 'How is it going?' Like someone inquiring of the health of a patient with a long, lingering and potentially fatal illness. I usually reply something on the lines of 'mustn't grumble' 'keeping my head above water' or 'not too bad.' It is not a good idea if it is going well to boast about it (apart from inviting the wrath of the Gods, it tends to annoy) and if it is going badly you don't want to bring people down, or accelerate the process by spreading the news. Considering we are in the middle of the worst financial crisis since the South Sea Bubble it is actually going pretty much as normal, possibly with slightly more poor days than 2007 and 2008. Confidence is generally low, especially among American dealers, and there is talk of a coming serious 'buyer's market' with sellers overwhelmed with 'borassic'* collectors trying to raise money. If I see hoards of impecunious book collectors advancing on Charing Cross I will let you know. The last time it happened was when the shop on the corner took a large 'books bought' ad out in the Daily Telegraph - but that's another story...

Even the internet is still just about holding up. My theory is that its use for retail is still growing fast and that is making up for slower sales -two and a half paces forward two and a quarter paces back.

Some notes.

1. Reports are coming through that 2009 book auction results are 30% down on the first two months of 2008. A difficult one to call as it depends on the quality of goods offered and it is likely that owners are holding back from consigning really good books. If I hear of further drops I shall start going more frequently, but lately I have found the process of viewing, bidding and clearing tiresome.

2. A high end American dealer reports (in an interview) that nowadays 3,4,5 days can go by without him getting a single internet order. He has 8000 books on the web and should sell about 4 a day (1 per 2000 per day). It used to be 1 per 1000 per day but has now migrated to 1 per 2 thousand and may be heading towards 1 per 2500. This is very general - if you have cheap books well selected and attractively priced and you are on Amazon, Alibris and ABE it can be much higher and they will know you well at the post office. Looking at this genial dealers stock online I found that even for relatively common books he is usually the most expensive - this might explain poor sales. Confronted with a list of books in similar condition the buyer chooses from the least expensive end of the list - a strange, perverse quirk and hard to explain.

3. I read an article about how to survive the recession (Harvard Business Journal). It used the Muhammad Ali - Foreman fight 'The Rumble in the Jungle' as an analogy. Ali apparently won by being able to absorb more punishment than his opponent and by being more agile. The Harvard bloke said these are the 2 qualities needed right now for financial survival - absorption and agility. Sounds fair enough. I have written the two words on a card and stuck it on the mirror so I see them every morning. Got to remember that absorption does not mean being able to absorb a ton of bad books. These are best avoided with some clever foot work. Basically you have to box clever...

4. I was in a shop the other day in a town which I shall call Seatown, a name out of 'Mass Observation.' The shop, not large, had plenty of punters and in the half hour I was there the guy took about a £100 and I then spent £65 which he rounded down to £50. The prices were very modest but the stock was very good and well chosen and there was what appeared to be plenty more of it coming out. The secret is that Seatownman has always been modest in his pricing and hasn't suddenly turned into a decent type after being a bastard all through the boom years. He is well known throughout the large extended coastal community, turns no one away, listens to the tales of the 'talking wounded', the bores and bullshitters -even makes a cup of tea for some of them. He is not going to end up with a Camargue or a Cayenne or a Cadillac but he is also not going to go broke and can buy his round, even take the occasional extended holiday.

5. There are no green shoots visible but people are now getting used to the recession. In the initial shock people zipped their wallets tight, went home and avoided non essential shops. That may be over, unless like an earthquake, there are further shocks...

*borassic = financially embarrassed, broke --rhyming slang where borassic lint = 'skint' = broke.
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