Sunday, July 31, 2011

A Very Fine Day and A Chair

Yesterday was one of those summer days you wish you could stick in the freezer and defrost in January. I got up before the fog had lifted, not only from the lake, but the street too, had some coffee and a bagel, and coaxed Eric out of the house by 6:30 for an estate sale. “They” always blame women for being late, but I’m here to tell you that women do not corner that particular market. If it were up to me I’d have been gone a half hour earlier. As it was we were numbers six and seven in line which was fine. The usual crowd milled about the front of the house which sat on a lovely winding country lane in the city replete with two lakes and enough mosquitoes to treat everyone to dengue fever. One guy had a box of Bounce fabric softener sheets which he swore would keep the critters at bay, so he passed them out and all the sale-goers ended up smelling like laundry!

My friend Darwin was there and I met a nice lady from Richfield who was a friend of his, so the time passed pleasantly until we got in to the see the “1000 books.” Whether or not there really were that many is up for grabs, but there were certainly a lot. The vast majority resided in the garage which, as it turned out, was where they belonged. We did find one nice modern reprint of an Ohio county history and atlas out there, so that was a nice score, but otherwise ….

Inside, prices soared like eagles for stuff you had to see to believe. I bought one nice two volume art set in a slipcase which was overpriced at $25 but should nonetheless fetch a decent price on my secret site, three books for the antiques mall, and a three volume religious set and a New York history and genealogy for online. We gathered up our meager items and began wending our way through the crowd to the check-out when Eric spotted a CHAIR – solid maple, Windsor-style made by Nichols and Stone. It’s smaller than the one we just sold and not nearly so pleasing in its configuration, but not bad and a better size for the booth. SOLD! (Hear that, Cheryl?)

The highlight of the sale though was a chance to see something rare and wonderful. In this modest, cramped ranch house filed with wall-to-wall kitsch resided the Doves English Bible published sequentially by subscription from 1903-1905 and considered a masterpiece for its fine typography. It’s a five volume set originally issued in limp vellum, but residing in Akron in hard cover, volume I of which was published a year after the vellum. Price -- $2200. The estate sale woman sized me up as the bookiest person in the place and gave me the hard sell, including a print-out from ABE by a seller who’d priced his set at $20,000. Of course she felt that piece of paper was the final word on the subject , but I questioned it to myself then and I question it now. I did some research, which proved to be fun, and found auction comparables for the vellum. One vellum set sold at Christies for slightly over $3000 American and another vellum set was estimated at $4-6,000 by Swann in pre-recession 2005 and came with each volume nestled in its own felt-lined box stamped in gold. Sadly, the realized price didn’t even reach the lowest estimate. Still, what a memorable treat to see and handle these fine volumes.

You’d think anything that followed that would be like a baloney sandwich after crème brulee, but the day just kept on getting better. Eric took the whole thing off, so we got to play with the regular people who’ve enjoyed enough Saturday leisure to take it for granted. We bought pleated shades for my office windows and a doorknob for the office door, had lunch at Panera (spicy Thai salad with chicken and endame) –and then headed to downtown Akron for an exhibit of altered books at the Akron Art Space. Though I was disappointed at how small the exhibit was, it got me so cranked up all I can think of is playing with my papers again. The best works were a fold-out book protesting the war in Iraq, and a truly stunning indictment of incest all tarted up in black lace. Another one I liked was this huge expanse of shredded book pages and polyurethane that spilled down from the wall to the floor like a monochromatic shag carpet. I know – there’s something big here we’re not talking about, but we will another day. Right now I just want to let those images tumble around in my head like Chinese gymnasts.

On the way home we stopped at the antiques mall and installed the chair. My favorite clerk at the check-out desk showed me one of my tickets indicating that I’d sold a set of deluxe auction catalogs for $68.

“I love the way you always do this when I come in,” I tell her.

“It’s because you’re so nice and I want you to do well,” she says.

Truly, truly a day for preservation -- maybe in amber.

Wednesday, July 27, 2011

Helping, HELP!!!!, and The Help

The next time I take a notion to go to the Hartville Flea Market at 6:30 a.m. on a Monday morning please -- somebody, anybody -- remind me how much I hate it. We went once last year and though the only book I bought was a hardcover copy of my favorite cookbook, I did get a wonderful old photograph and a card table that looks like a painting and stands on its little easel-like legs charmingly folded against the wall in my dining room. It wasn’t books I was after anyway – I know a lost cause when I see one – but I thought maybe I could get display furniture for the antiques mall to replace the sold stuff, or at least a chair for people to sit. But no such luck. I’ve come to the conclusion that Hartville is the same as the dreaded Litchfield only with nicer walkways.

I’d hoped to post yesterday, but it was a day of phone calls from long-lost people, including a guy we didn’t buy books from due to their terminal commoness. I casually mentioned that he could try selling them online and – guess what – I created a brand new shiny bookseller to add to the critical mass. From now on I am NEVER, however casually, going to suggest any such thing. Turns out he has a new twist on the same-old/same-old. Instead of going to library sales three hours early and jockeying with the Cleveland area crazies for the honor of plastering himself to the door before the opening bell this guy goes to library sales only on bag day where he can fit 25 books in a grocery bag at twelve cents each. As he spoke I thought of my friend who has spent an entire lifetime in this business and now struggles due to the influx of sellers who are not serious about books and only want a down-and-dirty second income with the least expenditure of time and capital. I will spare you a rant, but it’s disturbing to think I contributed to this.

I didn’t expect to be able to post today because my friend Mary Lynn was supposed to be here from Dayton for a nine o’clock breakfast which usually stretches to noon. I talked to her Monday night and the gig was on, but here it is almost ten-thirty and I haven’t heard a peep. I tried to call her cell phone, but ended up having to leave a message. Of all my friends she’s the only one as crazed about time as I am. If the time is set for 9 a.m. and she walks in at 9:02 she will apologize profusely for her lateness. So yeah, I’m a little worried.

I just thought of something. Here I am blogging away about selling books, but rarely do I talk about reading them which of course I do and have done my entire life. I am currently reading, though I know I’m late to the party since the movie’s due out soon, Kathryn Stockett’s The Help. If you have not done so, get thee to a bookstore (oh, that's right, we don’t have many of those  anymore) and buy a copy. Well, get online and buy one then. By now the penny sellers should be paying YOU for the order.

As a former writer I am stunned by Sackett’s audaciousness. Here’s this pretty, young, blond Caucasian author writing in the voice of a middle-aged African American maid working in the pre-Civil Rights South, an act which should send alarm bells reverberating from sea to shining sea.. She did grow up in a privileged southern home which employed “help”, but even so, it’s a leap to try assuming such a voice. You either get it right or you fall into the danger zone of offensiveness. Stockett, I’m happy to report,  is standing tall – the woman totally NAILED it. The task isn’t just about capturing speech patterns, idioms and inflections –any writer with a good ear for dialogue could do that –its about living in the skin of your character and understanding the world as she does. And not in a surface way either, but deeply and truly. It’s a monumental task – and not for the faint of heart – which is why I mention this dazzling ahivement.

Well, it’s now almost eleven and still no Mary Lynn. I called her cell phone a second time and, again, it rang and rang, so I left another message. Wait – hang on! Phone!

Thank God, it was Mary Lynn. It seems she forgot to mention one small detail – she’s coming NEXT week. Even her son the doctor whose Cleveland apartment she stays at when she's here thought it was today. So I’m not going crazy and mixing up dates, she’s fine, and I can now get to work sprucing up eleven books for the antiques mall. Eric bought them over the counter at the store yesterday – all from the early 1900’s, all fairly common, but saleable in the booth and all in pretty darn good condition. When I get done with them they’ll be things of beauty.

But before I get to that there’s blueberry muffins, fruit, and coffee calling my name. I’ve been up since five. I think it’s time for breakfast.

Saturday, July 23, 2011

Rambling in the Rain

I should be standing  in a line in Akron for an estate sale as we speak, but woke up to both pouring rain and the thing I try never to mention -- fibromylagia -- back with a vengeance. Eric said he knew when he was the first one up that I'd be a creaky mess, so he even made my coffee before he woke me. To be fair, he didn't exactly use the words "creaky mess", but he knew we weren't going. He could of course have gone alone, but the thought of that is as welcome to him as a coiled snake on the front porch. Why this is I don't know, but there you have it. I actually did consider dragging myself out the door and even looked up the sale online, but the pictures proved so underwhelming I practically fell asleep looking at them. Show me shelves of books with shiny, brightly colored dustjackets and unless I'm looking for something to read I'll happily remain in my pjs. I'm still in them actually and may well remain so, but I'm also determined to work awhile today no matter what. ABE graced me with enough high end orders yesterday after a week of miserable sales to inspire some serious listing.  Besides, we can go tomorrow even though any good books -- if there ever were any, which is highly doubtful -- will be gone. But with any luck I might snag a piece of furniture at a pittance price.

I have to tell you -- this furniture phenomenon has me quite baffled. Every time I buy a piece for the booth, I sell it. I'm beginning to think I might have a flair for it, though it's probably too soon to call it anything  more than a trend. So far though I sold the French table, the barrister bookcase, the Windsor chair and now a side table with a drawer. Yesterday's sale of the latter, while great,  impels me  to get to the mall tomorrow,  however, as I know from experience that everything that had been displayed on it will have been dumped willy-nilly about the place, adding to everything else that gets strewn around in the natural order of things. Be that as it may,  it ain't happening today though.

As you know, I've harbored a vocal fear that  I'll somehow morph into an antiques dealer, but I think maybe I'm over it. What I'm doing is just buying stuff that ENHANCES the books, so if it sells, great, and if it doesn't then the booth still looks nice and I have some eye-catching display space for special items. Thanks to that little side table,  I sold my signed  first edition of  Carl Sandburg's novel Remembrance Rock a couple weeks ago. I'd  had it online about a year, took it to the Akron antiquarian show in 2010, and brought it to the mall in March. At first it was just shelved with the fiction, but when I got the table I showcased it on a little stand on top and -- bingo! -- it found itself a home. So I think I'm on the prowl tomorrow for a chair and some sort of small table or chest for display. I doubt I'm  going to cart either one home though, as none of the weekend's sales look great and they're scattered around over too many miles to make it worth chasing them all down.

Estate sales on the whole have not been wonderful around here all summer and neither have auctions. I went to those two auctions that were okay early on, but since then there's been a paucity of books. A guy called earlier in the week wanting to sell me 24 Hardy Boys books from the 30's, the thought of which makes my teeth hurt. I was also offered a collection of Reader's Digest condensed books enhanced by many oversized Reader's Digest  "special" books, and several large cartons of older Harlequin romances. Mercifully, it was all via phone, so I didn't have to find a tactful way to say no in person. Rejecting books people love makes me feel like the grinch who stole Christmas. I always tell them it's the market, not the enjoyment quality of the books,  and that I, too, have beloved favorites that wouldn't fetch enough to buy a can of Pledge to keep the mall booth clean. This is actually true, as as I have a whole shelf of BOMC biographies of the American ex-patriates in France -- Scott, Zelda, Ernest, Gertrude, Alice, Martha Gelhorn, Gerald and Sara Murphy, et al. which remind me not only of past reading pleasure, but also the early years of  marriage prior to the arrival of the dear little wild things!

Am I rambling? Yes, I think I am. So on that note I am going to snap a preview of the Magical Makeover -- just the desk and the fabulous purple chair. I probably should wait until I can do the grand  reveal, but I think maybe after all this verbage I owe you a little something more.  I know it's not much, but work with me here!

P.S. New Picture with rug

Wednesday, July 20, 2011

Of Books and Nooks

I had hoped to post yesterday, but couldn't for a wonderful reason. Eric took the day off and progressed significantly on the Magical Makeover. As I write this I am sitting at the new black desk perched on the fabulous purple chair like the Queen of Everything -- which is not to say that the transformation is complete. The good news is he fairly easily removed the built-in desk, patched the wall, painted the wall, and assembled the desk. He even disconnected AND reconnected (that's the important part) the jumble of scary electronics which consists of  computer, monitor, speakers, printer, external hard drive, cable box, and some sort of back-up thing that sits on the floor and gathers dust. All that remains is to paint the built-in wall cabinets, lay the rug, buy two black frames for the cool art I bought on ebay and two pleated shades. Happy, happy! And I'm even happier yet because I successfully e-filed my Ohio sales tax forms this morning with a minimum of swearing.

But good as all that is, it's not what I want to talk about today. My mind has been on e-readers ever since Sunday when I dropped by the antiques mall with a box of books and encountered a  nice  forty-something  woman browsing in my booth. She asked if I had Eleanor Roosevelt's etiquette book which I did not -- either there, here, or at the store, though I should have it somwhere considering the tremendous number of books we bought at auction last winter owned by a university librarian who was a HUGE Roosevelt fan. Anyway, I told her I didn't have it and we moved on to a variety of other book-related topics.

"I probably shouldn't admit this," she said. "But I bought an e-reader."

My gaze fell to the old cookbook she was holding, picked up at another booth.

"Oh, it doesn't mean I won't buy books anymore. I just don't want to buy fiction and stuff that clutters up the house after you run out of shelves. Old books are totally different. I'll always buy them."

Immediately I remembered two other people saying the exact same thing to me -- one is my friend Cheryl and the other an Ohio customer who buys from my website. Both of them have the Kindle, but both still buy collectible books. The woman in my booth, however, bought a color Nook and her husband bought the Kobo which of course is affiliated with the late, great Border's, but will still be viable even when Border's reaches it's last chapter (probably by the end of the week),  as Kobe does maintain its own website from which ebooks can be purchased. But here's the interesting thing -- this woman  has no intention of buying ANY e-books. Her sole motivation was to save on library fines by downloading ebooks from the library. In six months she hasn't spent the first dime on new books. I called the Medina library to get the local skinny on the topic and learned that Medina patrons are among the biggest users of e-readers in the Cleve-net system.  The Medina library is part of a larger Cleveland consortium which pooled its money to buy more e-book licenses than it could have otherwise. At first thought it would seem that they would only need a single copy of each title and from that could zap it out to however many people wanted it. But such is not the case. E-books are bought just like any other book -- copy by copy. If they have five copies and six people want it the last one goes on the waiting list. Patrons get three weeks to read the book and then -- poof!-- all gone!

Interestingly enough, almost all e-reader brands are compatible with the books at the library -- except for Amazon's Kindle. Why am I not surprised? Coming from the company that's so greedy it considers itself above paying sales tax in areas where it maintains a warehouse (physical presence), it's to be expected. In fact, amazon is dumping all its affiliates in other states, also to avoid sales tax. You gotta love the fact that Barnes & Noble is not only welcoming these former affiliates, but assuring them they THEY will collect and pay the tax and all the affiliates have to do is jump on board.

Amazon has, however, announced this week that a new Kindle will be debuting shortly which will allow college students to rent downloadable textbooks, a phenomenon likely to take a big bite out of online sales for used textbook dealers. Last fall Auctionbytes conducted a survey of used book sellers which indicated that only 22 per cent thought e-readers had cut into their bottom line. I'd bet the fabulous  purple chair that number has risen greatly because  since then amazon posted earnings which showed that e-books outsold both hard and soft cover books combined on their site. The only saving grace is the fact that older titles are not as readily available in the e-book format and the cost of  new books in e-book format rivals that of paperbacks minus the shipping cost. Not long ago I noticed that a favorite author's new book had gotten uncharacteristically bad reviews on Barnes and Noble. Turns out, it wasn't her book that had readers' bookmarks in a knot, but the cost of the downloadable book at $12. Somehow they had gotten the idea that it was supposed to be $8.95 when they pre-ordered only to be charged at a higher price when it arrived.

The bottom line is, like it or not, this technology is not only here to stay, but is bounding forward like a cheetah on speed. What it means for booksellers remains to be seen, but, once again, I don't find myself in a state of panic even at the height of a sluggish summer. As you might recall, I had grave misgivings about e-readers, but right now am actually flirting with  the notion of buying a Kobo for library downloads to reduce my constant fines. At this point I'm only batting my eyelashes at it, but I do think the day might come when I cozy up to the idea.

As much as I can't believe I'm saying it --  I do believe that the Nook can lie down peacefully with the book.

Saturday, July 16, 2011

Pollyanna In the Headlights

In the evening of the day I wrote the last post about pricing I went to that funky little rural library book sale I’ve mentioned a couple times in the past. Though I bought exactly five books – yes, count ‘em, FIVE – that isn’t really what this post is about. I’m more focused this morning on several changes I saw which could be notable. The first was a markedly shorter line that didn’t grow much until the last fifteen minutes and even then proved lackluster. No, forget lackluster. Let's be honest -- it was  DISMAL. Many of the dealers from that area had already quit coming a couple years ago when they banned scanners, so their absence isn’t the issue here. What’s disturbing was the lack of library patrons, especially given the fact that this library believes in rock-bottom pricing. In the old days, even minus all the Columbus dealers, the number of library patrons and their kids could have formed an impressive and enthusiastic Conga line. This time you  couldn't have scared up a square dance.

The second disconcerting thing was the large signs everywhere warning that the sale is in jeopardy due to the lack of volunteers. Again, this has never been a problem in the past. Never. And we’ve been going to this sale since 1997. Every time someone checked out, the volunteer at the table warned that it might be the last sale and pleaded with people to save it by volunteering. The third shocker was the books themselves. Years ago you could haul some pretty fine things out of there, but in the past three years or so to get anything of consequence required eagle eyes and due diligence. But, that being said, the problem was not due to scarcity. On the contrary, books jammed the shelves, spilled out of boxes onto the floor and required two rooms to contain them. They still have the two rooms, but that’s about all that can be said about that. Trust me -- there was no spilling involved last Thursday.

In addition to us there appeared to be three dealers present. One was an experienced seller who has been around at least as long as we have and is a regular; another was a long time ebayer, again around as long as we have, but relatively new to this sale; and the third was a newcomer who, if he doesn’t already have a scanner might want to consider one and steer clear of sales which ban them. He bought – and I am not exaggerating – sixteen plastic tubs of cheap paperbacks, most of which were pocket-sized, and none of which have any real monetary value. All I can say is good luck with THAT. I didn’t talk to him, but I did talk to the other two and both seemed deflated – so much so that I could feel my own spirits plummeting to a hard landing before we even got inside. Both bemoaned the difficulty of finding desirable stock, but that’s not particularly new. What’s new is that both admitted to sharply decreasing sales, especially the ebayer whom I met the last time I was at this sale and haven’t seen since. He was definitely disillusioned back then, but compared to now he was downright chipper.

Ebay, it seems, has raised prices yet again and burdened sellers with even more inane rules and regulations. As he sees it, they are also pushing hard for free shipping and have designed their rating system in such a way that a seller who doesn’t offer it stands a high probability of getting zapped by the buyer no matter how little he or she charges. While it made me glad that I left ebay last summer, just hearing about it brought back a tidal wave of the tension and depression that triggered my abrupt withdrawal from “fee-bay” in the first place. It’s important to note here that the seller who shared all this with me is no dummy – he’s a book guy and a savvy one – but he’s also working a full-time job and then putting in four hours every night after work selling books to pay his kids’ tuition. He’s getting the job done, but just barely.

“It used to be so good I actually considered quitting my day job. Am I ever glad I didn’t. I’m working harder than ever before to make so much less money and the fees are killing me. I’m looking at $125 a month at ebay and that’s without selling or listing anything new and I'm talking about before the new changes. By the time the final value fees are added ….” His voice drifted off.

“I’m still making SOME money,” he said a moment later. “But it isn’t fun anymore. These days I dread going to sales.”

Before I could respond, the door opened and the sale began. As I perused the shelves I felt an overwhelming sadness for him, for my bookseller friend who is looking for a job in a bad economy, for all of us for whom technology gave in abundance and then took away accordingly. But now, a day and a half later, I already feel in myself a resurgence of the light, hope, and excitement I felt before I went to the sale. If you’ve been around for awhile you know full well that I’m as capable of doom and gloom as anybody. I whine, I moan, I fret, I wail, I gnash my teeth and rend my garments. I even do that thing that begins with a "p" that isn't preveracate, but sounds something like it. A reader once reminded me of  that word, but I STILL I don't remember it. What I do know  is this:

Nowhere ever were we guaranteed sameness. Life is all about change, so all we can do is strap on our ugly tennis shoes and get moving

Bemoaning the good old days is a waste of time. They’re over. Believe it.

Business as usual is a formula for failure. The old model can no longer carry the full freight indefinitely.

We each need to make a concrete plan for ourselves -- and be ready to change it.

The old adage about thinking outside the box has never been more crucial. Had anyone told me last year that I’d be the doing the stuff I’m doing now I would have scoffed. But I’m doing it with every fiber of my being and mostly having fun.

New endeavors generate excitement. A few of my ideas have already crashed and burned, but a couple others seem promising, at least for now. If they work out I will be able to do this in a much less stressful way. Goodbye Alibris. Goodbye Biblio …

Looking to a brighter future motivates. I, too, am working harder than ever for less, primarily because of escalating fees and the cost of inventory, shipping, and hardware.  But I still wake up excited – at least most of the time.

And, finally, it's  all about survival of the fittest. There is no way on God’s green earth that the current number of “booksellers” is sustainable. Some will survive, most won’t. Which group I will be in remains to be seen. But I know one thing – I won’t go down easily.

Pollyanna may be the deer in the headlights, but at least she's running.

Thursday, July 14, 2011

Pondering Prices

I should have been here by now I know, but there’s this pesky thing called work that occasionally needs my undivided attention. So yesterday I hunkered down and began attacking the contents of the office closet. I whine continuously about how few books I have stockpiled when in fact the office closet is stuffed, and the guest room closet pictured above is not exactly empty. There are also books on the shelves in the garage (not too many though) and some in the basement requiring repair. And we won’t even DISCUSS paper. I think what happens is we tire of looking at the books we’ve had kicking around awhile and begin to mentally dismiss them. These days the outcome of such lassitude can go either way – you miss your moment, or they improve with age.

Here’s what I mean. When I came back from the Case Western sale in late May I researched prices on every book I kept to put online and outfitted each one with a slip of paper with their intended prices inside. Now, just six weeks later, I take them out to list only to find that in a few instances they’ve already gone dramatically south. But the opposite also proved true. A few which I priced low have shot skyward and, in at least two instances, artificially so. The fact of the matter is this – booksellers continue to multiply like bunnies, but come at this crazy endeavor with varying degrees of knowledge and appreciation for what they sell. The pulsing desire is to push the product, so it stands to reason that sometimes very good books get the short end of the stick while lesser ones soar like eagles. A perfect example is a gun book I’ve sold several times. When I looked it up in May it was offered as low as $25 even though my records indicate that I sold it three times at $35, the last time being in January. Reluctantly, I marked the slip with $25, but noted that if it had not risen by the time I was ready to list I would either have Eric take it to a show, or I would take it to the mall. Amazingly, this book now lists at $65 to $100!

Cause for rejoicing, yes? Mmmm… not really. Though it’s tempting to jump in at $65 and try to score I will not be doing it. First of all, it’s truly NOT a $65 book, as there have since been several written on this specific model that are much better. To act as though I have the definitive book on the subject when I most definitely do not makes me feel creepy and unprofessional. But for argument’s sake let’s say I set my scruples aside and jump in at a “low” $65. My window of opportunity is probably less than the time it takes to respond to an order. So now there I am in a couple weeks relegated to page two of the listings which is probably where I deserve to be. In the end, I’m pricing it at $35 even though it appears that I am doing the very thing I rail about – lowballing other sellers. But in this instance what appears to be undercutting really isn’t.

Not long ago I read in Americana Exchange about a long-time seller whose listings I run across on ABE continuously. Though he holds an inventory of more than a hundred thousand books he actually went through every last one and repriced them to conform to today’s averages. Earlier this year I attempted to do likewise, in hopes of streamlining my listings. I need to continue this project when time allows, but the difference between what he did and what I want to continue doing is huge. He “caught up” with current prices, which I guess is good, as it will more than likely trigger sales, at least in the short run. But the fact remains that the market is as fickle as a teenage boy. As I write this, at least a portion of his prices have already become obsolete. I can’t recall whether or not he installed that software which lowers prices incrementally, but I suspect he did. If so, then he can still compete. But I would also add that my long-time bookseller friend who is seeking a job did this too, only to find it less than sustainable over the long haul.

As for me, I want to go through the same laborious process, but just as I began it. My goal when I first undertook it, was, and still is, to clean out the “dead wood”. In some instances I WILL lower prices, but in others I will move the books offline and into one of our two physical locations. The remaining books (they’re the ones gasping for breath ) I will donate to the bookstore in town run by Project Learn, a literacy program. It’s interesting to note that my online inventory has dropped to an alarming 5000 items which seems impossible considering that we’ve been in business 14 years. But here’s the thing. When you look at what little I have now and consider that in the span of two years alone I bought the entire contents of a bookstore in Indiana and the two giant Elmer collections, it’s evident that my sell-through rate has been fairly astonishing.

In the end, my feelings about pricing boil down to this. I do not, and never have, considered books to be pork bellies, the market for which zooms all over the board at supersonic speed. My intention is to be fair to my customers, resist temptations to be opportunistic, and sell good books at fair prices. Consider for a moment the amount of money, time and effort is takes to acquire a decent inventory. Books cost more than ever before, as their popularity online has erroneously convinced all venues – library sales, estate sales, private sellers, auction houses etc. – that practically anything between two covers must be worth a fortune. Then there’s the lines at sales which snake through entire buildings, down sidewalks, and wrap around corners, which of course mean that our amount of wait time to get a reasonably early glimspse at the offerings has grown exponentially (three hours is the norm around here). Then after we buy the books we must schlep them, clean them, research them, list them, shelve them, wrap them, pay commissions on them, and ship them,  often for less than actual cost.

How, given all that, can we afford to sell our books at the whims of a capricious market that’s increasingly dominated by people who don’t even read? 

Monday, July 11, 2011

Reprise: Are We Having Fun Yet?

Okay, I did it. Got up at 5:30 Saturday morning, painted my face, did my hair and was out the door to the world’s cheesiest estate sale in an hour flat. It was held in a junky part of Akron, but it was a beautiful day and I don’t actually hold its location against it anyway because I once bought The Marshall Stillman Boxing Course from a falling-down house in Barberton. That is one truly rare item which taught me not to be a house snob. What was wrong with this house was that it was the size of a Cracker Jack box, only minus the prize inside. But the minute the door opened a gazillion people flew through and congregated in front of the “paper collection.”

Immediately the complaints rose as thick as the mist of Brigadoon.

“I wouldn’t mind that old Akron bike license, but no way am I paying THAT!”

“If you don’t want it I’ll take it. Oh -- I see what you mean!”

“Thirty dollars for THIS?”

And that wasn’t even me! I picked up a nice oversized booklet commemorating the 50th anniversary of Firestone Rubber with its original envelope, but it was priced right at retail. Finally I let the crowd have at it and went off to see the “Victorian children’s book collection.” This consisted of several ratty books printed on cheap paper and priced like the Crown Jewels. Also sharing the same lady-bug-sized room was the “toy collection” which had brought in a plethora of toy dealers (all male) whose conversation channeled what I’d already heard downstairs at the “paper collection”. Nonetheless, I dutifully crawled around on the floor, between the feet, and behind the boxes and boxes of newish evangelical Christian books, only to find one decent Ohio title – Cherry’s Ohio and the Western Reserve in excellent condition and nicely underpriced.

Somewhat cheered, I then headed back downstairs to find the paper collection deserted. Piece by piece I went through it but, again, everything I might have bought was grossly overpriced. I did find two Wadsworth High School commencement booklets from the 30’s (exceptionally nice) for $5 each, so I grabbed those and then ran headlong into a dilemma. Did I dare spend $20 for a 1940’s children’s book about the circus which opens up to form a big circus ring? The odds were good that by its very nature many of these didn’t survive.

But no.

Well, maybe.



Definitely no.

Oh, all riiiiiiight!

I snatched it up and had another look at the Firestone commemorative. I have a customer I could quote it to with a 75 per cent chance that he’d take it and I’d make a tiny—not TIDY, tiny -- profit. But in the end, I said no and meant it. The last thing I want to do is encourage these crazy pricers any more than I absolutely have to.

As it turned out, the cherry drop-front desk Eric dragged me over to see in the first place turned out to be a cheap knock-off, so even that was a bust. And to add to the pleasure, the dishwasher broke Saturday, sales online remained slow all weekend, and even the antiques mall emerged from its white-hot week like an overheated southern belle in need of a stiff mint julep.

About the only good thing I can report is that the Magical Makeover is right on track. Oh, and the dead dishwasher only cost $168 to fix.

Friday, July 08, 2011

Are We Having Fun Yet?

Well, THIS is disappointing! Those of you who have been around since last summer when I revived this blog after two years of silence may recall my elation when my neighborhood held a nighttime garage sale that exploded into one giant street party. Medina’s Finest were screeching through bull horns about not blocking fire hydrants and writing tickets faster than they could pull them off the pad. So of course after that much fun and frivolity I was revved up like the engine of a Lamberghini for this year’s extravaganza. All day Wednesday I practically hung out the window of my office (the Magical Makeover remains in progress) watching as cars and trucks showed up hours in advance. But it didn’t take long to realize that there weren’t nearly as MANY cars and trucks even though the weather was so good it’s like we’d borrowed it for the day from Nantucket.

Six o’clock was game time, so Eric rolled in the driveway at a quarter ‘til and we were out on the street in ten minutes flat. It’s not that I expected to buy all that much. Last year I bought a basket, a huge bunch of ribbon for gift baskets and a vintage booklet about the Panama Canal and Eric bought a big kite to fly with Tyler and some other guy thing that I can’t remember. No, it wasn’t at all about buying stuff because I don’t even LIKE garage sales. What I like is the energy of this particular one. In case you didn’t pick up on it, I’m something of an excitement junkie. So imagine my let-down when we could actually stroll unimpeded down the street. If I’d wanted to stroll unimpeded down the street I’d have put on my ugly tennis shoes and taken a serious walk. No! This was supposed to be party-time. As it turned out, I bought a basket, one roll of ribbon and a white turkey platter to replace the one just like it that I broke last Fourth of July and Eric bought a blah rocking chair for the porch of the store. We were back in our kitchen making spaghetti for dinner in just under forty-five minutes, he having spent a whopping $20 to my $5.25.

So now I’m wishing for a good estate sale, but apparently that’s not happening either. The Akron paper shows three, two of which are not even in the ball park. One of them says books, but I’m getting weary of this particular company. Always they have books and always they’re “priced reasonably”, but what they mean to say is that they're actually junk which they have to price high because in the estate sale game you work with what you have. At any rate, my desire to slap make-up on my face at six o’clock this morning and wait for hours to inspect this high-priced junk waned considerably. So that leaves us with one more sale tomorrow.This company, too, goes wacko if they get an old book and from the sound of things they don’t have very many, so it will no doubt be Wal-mart quality at Tiffany prices. I vote for not going, but Eric wants to look at some non-book stuff for the store so I’ll probably colorize myself after all and go along for the ride. The deal is though that we have to go to The Nervous Dog for breakfast afterwards because I bought a groupon coupon for it, and then stop at the antiques mall so I can reload my shelves after a very satisfactory week there. Which, I might add is a  good thing, because once the holiday ended, buyers seemed to slouch off the internet like it bored them out of their skulls.

On a brighter note, Eric installed a new light fixture in the ceiling of my office and painted the new closet door. He is also – and this is huge – taking off the ENTIRE DAY tomorrow, so we can work on the office unimpeded for hours at a stretch. That is, of course, provided that I go to the estate sale. The immediate progress of the Magical Makeover it would seem hangs on the end of a mascara wand.

Tuesday, July 05, 2011


Finally – the great driveway chalk mural HAPPENED! We had a blast, but I must say that it  didn’t turn out at all as expected for a variety of reasons. I had pictured everyone working on it en masse, but Tyler, our seven year old grandson, wanted it to be a project for him and me only, which as it turned out, was a very good thing. The two-year old dynamo required the undivided attention of the remaining three adults just to keep him from heading off to Akron!

The real downside though was the glow-in-the-dark chalk. I expected a much better product from Crayola, so was very disappointed on every level. Not only do you have to mix this stuff up (it’s rather lethal looking), but it also has the glow life of a lightening bug which means you have to make it right before you want to use it while still allowing 25 minutes set-up time. It comes with shallow plastic trays in ridiculous designs for drawing and doesn’t even provide enough gunk to fill them to the top. For $10 we wound up with five pieces of crumbly chalk (it promised eight) that disappeared almost immediately. Had I not bought regular sidewalk chalk too this project would have been over before it began. As it stood, after the fireworks Tyler and I drew three bombastic roman candles at the end of the driveway and were rewarded twice by passersby who commented on their neon-quality. But to tell the truth, Tyler’s hands glowed more than the driveway did which didn’t exactly send me into paroxyms of joy.

But I still loved crawling around on the concrete with this funny little kid who provided nonstop running commentary, as well as great design ideas. During the fireworks a long single line of geese paraded right next to us across the yard and into the lake where they huddled in terror until the sky stopped exploding. Right afterward Tyler drew the lake and suggested I make some geese. By the time we covered all available space the Fourth of July had been faithfully captured in chalk and my knees looked like two ripe tomatoes. Unfortunately, the glow chalk also failed to show up on camera, so you can’t see the finished product.

Believe it or not, I hardly gave more than a glancing thought to books this whole weekend (okay, so there might have been SEVERAL glancing thoughts), but both online and mall sales hummed along nicely in the background despite my inattention. To my surprise, the mall outstripped online, but online wasn’t bad at all. Here’s the big news though. Remember the chair I bought for the booth a couple weeks ago? I mentioned that I’d priced it, but didn’t care one way or the other if it sold. Well, guess what? It sold! So now I’m back to having nowhere for people to sit. I must say though that this was one really cool chair. I wish I’d snapped a picture while I had three chances to do it, but I didn’t, so you’ll just have to take my word for it. I’m beginning to think that if books really do go belly-up someday I may have a hidden flair for antique furniture! Who knew?

But as good as all that is, the important thing is we had a satisfying weekend with our family -- perfect weather; cute kids; great food, especially an east Indian blackberry and watermelon compote in ginger syrup; a trip to Medina’s Big Toy which Moira helped build back in 1993 when she was a senior in high school; wonderful Medina fireworks; a wide-eyed baby who LOVED them; and the fanciest driveway in the neighborhood.

But the very best gift of the holiday was what my daughter said as we climbed the stairs to bed with two tired little boys.

“You may not have gotten $10 worth of chalk, Mom. But you more than made up for it in Gran-worship!”

Friday, July 01, 2011

The Power of a Letter

My thoughts today are focused on letters – not the letters of the alphabet, but the result of arranging those alphabetical letters into a charming and old-fashioned thing called personal correspondence. You know how much I love finding packets of letters such as those I shared with you some time back tracing an early 20th century romance in Akron. What got me to thinking about it again is a challenge extended by fellow bookseller Kristian Strom in his recent blog post. Having spent an afternoon with a noted writer from Kansas he was struck by the fact that this fellow actually gets letters – real, honest-to-God-and-Emily-Post letters delivered in the mail as though it were the 1940’s. Not only did this make Kristian long for letters of his own, but motivated him to revive the lost art of correspondence by challenging his readers to join him in a 21 day stint of writing and mailing personal letters to friends, family, and favorite authors. While I didn’t formally sign up for the challenge – I don’t think I know 21 people to send letters TO – I am definitely going to send at least one. By the time you get to the end of this post you’ll know the recipient.

Ever since I was a kid I loved letters and practically welded myself to the mailbox in hopes of getting one. For years I had two penpals, a girl named Astrid from Sweden and another girl named Bridget from County Clare, Ireland. I acquired the first one through the kid’s page in the Akron Beacon Journal and the second was a niece of my Irish grandmother’s Irish friend, Nan Rainey, who if she had been British would have given Mary Poppins serious cause to polish up her resume. But it wasn’t until I was in high school that I acquired the ultimate penpal. I apologize if I’ve told you this story before, but I don’t think I have, and if I did it’s one of my better ones anyway, so pour a cup of coffee, take a break, and settle back.

It was Christmas 1968 and I was a reluctant member of the Future Teachers of America. I say reluctant because I had no intention of being a teacher. As soon I could get an education and break loose from bondage I was off to New York City to write the Great American Novel. My mother, however, believed that my career choices were limited to just three jobs – teacher, nurse, or nun. Seeing as how I’m not patient enough for the first, too squeamish for the second, and not nearly holy or quiet enough for the third, I didn’t give a nansecond's notice to any of them. To keep the peace though I did join the Future Teachers of America, but only for the Christmas party which was enough to get my membership duly noted in the yearbook and my mother off my back.

As it turned out, I needed one meeting AND one service project to make the yearbook, but as luck would have it, the party presented a made-to-order option so easy it was almost cheating. Pages of the Akron Beacon Journal adorned with festive red and green garland shrouded the blackboard that frigid afternoon, each filled with the names and addresses of local guys serving in Vietnam. Most of the Future Teachers got pretty jazzed over the idea of keeping up the morale – so much so that they tried out all the last names with their own to find the one that sounded best just in case there should be a romantic conquest involved. After all, in those days one of the big attractions of teaching was having the summer off to spend with your future kids. I, of course, was off to the Big Apple, so there was no WAY I wanted to snag a husband from godforsaken Ohio of all places. Besides, I had a boyfriend who was making me crazy enough. The way I saw it, practically anyone would do, so I sauntered over to the boards, planted my short self in front of the first page I saw, and only briefly mulled over the names at eye level. Eric struck me as a good name – solid, dependable, the kind of guy deserving of a package of cookies and a letter from a teenage girl with literary aspirations. So Eric Kindig it was. I pulled out a pen from my bookbag and crossed the name off the list with a deep sense of satisfaction. Whew -- off the hook!

Immediately replies poured in to the Future Teachers, but not for me. By the time I’d given up on it I didn’t even care because almost every single letter my friends received was invariably stupid and/or vacuous. When the burning question is “what are your measurements?” (mine were something like ten-five-ten) you know you haven’t missed a darn thing. But then one day in late January I returned home from school to find a letter so thick it was actually a packet. My mother was ironing and I was standing over the heat register in my plaid Catholic girl uniform skirt (which I always kept fetchingly rolled at the waist) reading the letter. Even as I write this I am back in that dining room in south Akron in the tall ugly white house which the city ultimately, and mercifully, demolished for urban renewal.

But the letter! Oh my God, to this day I can remember the blood shooting through my veins like a shower of liquid meteors. The guy could write! The guy had a college degree! The guy read books! Currently he was reading Michner’s Hawaii and pondering the travesty of the missionaries attempts to squelch the native culture. The guy cared about people too! Pages and pages told the story of the wandering children of war, especially the little Vietnamese soda girls whom the soldiers taught to swear and then laughed when they innocently repeated it. The guy also had a girlfriend. A considerable section was devoted to the girl back home who was a REAL teacher with a passion for her work, unlike me who was an out and out fake in the teaching department. In fact, he had just returned from an R&R spent with the lovely Pat in Hawaii which was why he was so late to respond. I guess that part didn’t make a big impression.

“Mom,” I said. “I’m going to marry this guy.”

Of course she laughed. And rolled her eyes. And told me I was off on yet another one of my “tangents”,  which on the surface was probably true.

Except that it wasn’t. Two and a half years later I did marry him. We met January 17, 1970, my freshman year in college, got engaged February 6, 1970, and got married June 20, 1970. I was nineteen years old to his 26 and we had never even exchanged pictures, much less talked about romance. As you know, we celebrated our 41st wedding anniversary last month.

So, in the end, I never did move to New York City. In fact, I ended up only about twenty-five geographic miles from where I started, but in other kinds of miles it was more than halfway around the world. I didn’t become a novelist either, but for a long time people actually did pay me to write stuff, and I’m still writing stuff here. The important thing is that a letter, written on pale pink stationery in schoolgirl penmanship, changed my life in ways I could not possibly have imagined. I suppose some people would say that I gave up my dreams too soon. But they would be wrong.

I am, and always will be, a woman of letters.