Thursday, April 25, 2013

Cooking Up Change

(Okay, let’s see how long it takes me to recreate the blog post I just finished and was ready to upload when I accidently hit the delete button with my elbow. On the clock – ready, set,GO!)

Technically, I’m on vacation.  That is, if vacation means sitting in front of the computer swilling black coffee while rain drums relentlessly against the window pane. My books are offline and will be until Monday, but I am working like a speed demon continuing the job of weeding and pruning my online inventory. I began this last year, as you may recall, but got distracted by buying the collection-on-the-truck and getting ready for the book fair. Today, however, I picked up the pace in earnest due to a few events of the past two weeks and a couple realizations.

The first thing to dawn on me (again) is that the prices of even nice books are being set by the people who know the least about them. Of course many established dealers (me included) have old stock that’s seriously inflated but, that aside, some of these new prices are still truly ludicrous. Having just finished the Akron book fair it’s clearer than ever that online pricing is crazy on both ends of the spectrum. Anymore even the better sites are so strewn with shoddy listings the pages look like fire sales. It seems to me these days that quality books don’t even belong on the third-party  sites anymore. Their  emphasis is on pricing – never mind condition, special attributes, research etc.. All they care about is moving the product. I’ve decided that unless a collectible book is extremely specialized it will never be introduced to the internet except on my own site. As hard as it is to get anything good these days I’m much less inclined to fork over high commissions on  three-figure books.

My second epiphany is this: to stay profitable I need to be ruthless in dumping old stock. There’s no point in keeping a listing for which I cannot reasonably expect to get $20 and I don’t even want too many of those. With rent to pay on multiple sites, commissions which often are based on the purchase price INCLUDING shipping, sites which refuse to pay a decent shipping price (I’ve ditched all of those), acquisition problems, escalating prices for inferior books at sales, and the cost of mylar jackets and shipping materials, it’s impossible to win on the low end even if I discount my time. Besides, the only truly controllable thing on the list is supplies and that’s where I draw the line. I know I’m on the very high end when it comes to time and money spent on repairs and wrapping materials, but that’s a choice I will not compromise. Being the bookseller I want to be requires more of me, not less.

I haven’t been out to any traditional book sales since last fall, so I’d sort of forgotten how they can make me as sour as an old pickle. This time even my favorite library accomplished  it. The night of the preview for this usually good event we were third in line which was great except for one thing --  five seconds before the sale began the lights went out and it was canceled. That meant  we had to haul back up there the next morning (far) in a monsoon, but at least we landed  fifth in line. For awhile. After the scanner stampede not so much. It didn’t matter – I know that, but I am fed up to the eyeballs with rude, crass behavior which I can hardly relate to this profession. We ended up being  the only people in the specials room, though a fat lot of good that did. The books were fewer in number, not nearly as desirable as in the past, and priced much higher than normal. I understand that the Friends need to make hay out of whatever they get, but that didn’t mean I loaded up. I bought just a couple things there and found one very good ephemera item in the regular room. On the way home we bought five books at an estate sale, one of which was better than the best from the sale.

Onward then to Bookstock last Sunday, a Michigan charity sale that can go either way. One glance and it was obvious that both donations and quality were way down while prices held steady. But that’s not what got me all riled up. The crowd was not nearly as big as normal and it seemed that most of those wielding scanners were newbies. Not only were they champion sprinters, but had no compunctions about  mowing down competitors. On the bright side though, the feeding frenzy was short-lived  once the reality of $4 (and higher) hardbacks hit like a tidal wave. They couldn’t fathom such a thing, especially after they’d paid $20 to get in! The good part was that after they’d rummaged through the tables and stirred up the stock they left behind a first American edition of The Alice B. Toklas Cookbook from 1954 which I found  lying face-up on a table.

But here’s some examples of what we overheard in line. It might help you understand why I am so disheartened by the state of online bookselling in 2013.

Exhibit A: “I just stick my  earphones in my ears and listen to my music while I scan. Easiest damn job I ever had.”

Exhibit B: “I travel all over the country buying books. The worst people  live in Connecticut.” 
When asked how long he’d been in business this one  replied,  “Six months, but  I’ll tell you, I’m fast – in and out. All I want is 50 good books today and I’m gone.”

Hmmmmm. Really? Define “good.”

But there you have it -- the state of electronic bookselling in 2013. As much as I detest it maybe in a preverse way this stuff does me good. It’ll either change my online game or I’ll go offline permanently and sell only at the mall and the book fairs.

Either way it beats a state of stasis.

(P.S. it took an hour.)

Tuesday, April 02, 2013

Fair Trade

 The last time I wrote I was in a smoking hot lather over the breaker from the estate sale and the remnants of what were once gorgeous books. But the past couple weeks have been so busy getting ready for the Akron Antiquarian Book Fair and then – finally!—exhibiting my books at the fair this past weekend that my mood has elevated considerably. Friday and Saturday, in fact, I floated around the John S. Knight Center like an iridescent bubble. Never mind that my feet were screaming from having worn heels for two days and flying around that cavernous space countless times in them -- I was in book heaven! Not only did we sell a lot of stuff, both books and ephemera, but we also sold some pricey things, including the $700 Frank Lloyd Wright portfolio of 100 drawings pictured below. That one departed first thing out of the gate which gave me a few momentary qualms until I realized that the reason it had been under the bed for so long is because I wanted it to sell at the fair. It would have been a nightmare to ship and  of course the buyer would have been from  Outer Mongolia which would have incurred postage so high a mortgage would have been required to pay it. All it took was the mental image of me lugging that thing to the post office, beautiful as it may be, and – zap! – no more angst.
For the last three years at the fair I enjoyed the company of my booth neighbor, Jim Best, The Bookman of Kent, but this year a bum knee kept him from setting up. He did show up to man the front desk and give his talk about the worth of old books, but he couldn’t possibly set up and break down a booth even with help. I thought it would be weird to have a vast gaping space next to us, but as it turned out, we didn’t have one. Two very charming young people who opened a book and antiques store in Akron four months ago had the confidence,  knowledge, and  style to set up an eye-catching booth featuring both books and what is known in the antiques trade as "smalls". I have a hunch they did well too. Eric and I between us bought enough stuff from them to have paid the lion’s share of their booth rent. Of course we wanted to give them a boost, but we also genuinely liked what they had, so it was a win/win. Their business is Books and Bits and I have a good feeling about it. Young people like those two are what we need, not only in our aging organization, but also in the book business as a whole. I so hope we can nurture them to take an active role once they get in the groove with their new store.

Speaking of young people, one of my best sales was to a young person, probably in her early 30’s. She selected a $125 book about the history of Cleveland and a VERY rare item that's a cross between a book and ephemera about the Cleveland Discount Building priced at $175 and asked me if I could do better if she bought both. I easily lopped $25 off the Cleveland book, but gulped at the idea of taking less for the rare one. While I was thinking about it she began telling me how much she loves old books and paper and how it’s her goal to build a significant collection of Cleveland history. Call me a pushover, but just like THAT, everything in me shouted, “DO IT!” Young collectors are the lifeblood  of this busines and there standing right in front of me was one who recognized something special when she saw it and really, REALLY wanted it. I discounted it by another $25 and made her day. But you know what? It made mine too.
 As if that wasn’t enough warm fuzzy for the day a second one came along about a half hour later. Last year I bought a four volume leather bound  set  of Don Quixote published in 1795 in Dublin, Ireland. They were very nicely kept and I really loved them, so I set them back for the fair. But once again my heart kind of sank when a man picked them up and headed in my direction. Maybe I really didn’t want to sell them after all!

“These are SO great,” the would-be buyer said. “II’s my birthday and I want to get them for a birthday present.”

I gazed at him and immediately recognized “that look” – the exact one I no doubt had  the day I bought them --  and a sudden rush of happiness enveloped me. One again, it was okay. I put them in a bag and wished him a Happy Birthday.

I’ve thought about all this for a couple days now and I think it helps explain my growing disinterest in selling online. Of course I will still be doing it, but for me it’s about the people. Nothing can compare to seeing that delight I know so well myself and knowing that my work made it happen. It’s also knowing that the books or paper I just sold will be appreciated and cared for.

In these electronic days that’s no small matter. I need what I do to have meaning too -- and, thankfully, the fair reminded me that it does.
(First picture was taken in my booth. I am sitting in the foreground with my back to the camera)