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Competition and Survival

November, 2004
By John Huckans

In a recent column Paul Minet talked about the difficult competition facing antiquarian bookshops in the U.K. — especially those serving the lower to middle market. Oxfam and other charity shops which enjoy the advantages of reduced rents, partially rebated “rates” (i.e. real estate taxes), volunteer staffing and a constant supply of donated books (amounting to a massive subsidy unavailable to private booksellers) have contributed to the ongoing sea change in the world of second-hand bookselling or at least that somewhat romantic model based on our memories of Booksellers’ Row, Charing Cross Road or the novels of Christopher Morley.

Here in the U.S., or at least the northeast, there are a few charity shops — Bryn Mawr and a few others scattered about — but nothing comparable to the Oxfam network and similar shops seen throughout the U.K. American booksellers are dealing with a slightly different sort of uneven competition. Many of us have noticed the proliferation of library book sales — nearly every city, town or village has one these days and they’re eagerly anticipated by readers and collectors alike. This past summer our village library had its most successful sale ever — more donations than in past years and with most cloth bound books selling for $1.50 or less, even with five or six volunteers taking money full tilt all day on Saturday, there were thousands of good books left over for Sunday’s “bag day” when people bought grocery bags for a dollar each and filled them with their selections.

In a business where the competition pays no rent, taxes, or staff salaries and sells inventory costing nothing, it’s indeed quite remarkable that there are still a few secondhand bookstores hanging on. But booksellers being a resilient, resourceful and intelligent lot (around here at least), a few have been able to meet the challenge head on. The nearby village of Hamilton in conjunction with the Colgate University Book Store, held an outdoor book fair this past summer. Under tents set up on the village green, the university library and bookstore, the village library and several booksellers from the area came together for the second of what might become a successful annual event. The booksellers saw this as an opportunity to clear their shelves of commonly available, slow moving titles and at $1.00 each they appeared to be outselling the university bookstore or either of the libraries. Dross disposed of, space gained, job done.

Another way booksellers are learning to adjust to new market conditions is in being more selective when buying from private sources. Moreover, in situations where the owner wants to dispose of an entire library, many booksellers are offering considerably less than in years past, pointing to the realities of the low end of the market as determined by values set at the ubiquitous library book sales. Whether or not astute booksellers find “sleepers” at these sales is not the point — the average reader has been spoiled and is increasingly unwilling to pay a bookseller a bit more for a good used book that might possibly turn up at next year’s library sale.

As the cost of browser-friendly retail space continues to rise in both North America and the U.K., bookshop owners may decide that the up-market, rare book side of the business makes more economic sense. One such of my acquaintance makes a comfortable living from a few feet of shelf space in the corner of his living room — a better living, in fact, than when with the help of an assistant he ran a bookshop open to the public six days a week. His style of bookselling, although now lacking the sometimes-interesting social contact that comes with running a traditional antiquarian bookshop, sounds considerably more appealing than the data-entry drudgery that on-line bookselling has become — think back to Chaplin’s “Modern Times” and the iconic assembly line scene.

*

Shifting gears a bit, an advantage British booksellers have over their American counterparts is their single-payer or national health care program. Years ago the very idea of “socialized” medicine was anathema and stigmatized as being inherently sub-standard, but the American health care system, as it presently stands, is seriously damaged and with every temporary fix only seems to get worse. One bookseller in our area, with but one child remaining at home, pays in excess of $950.00 per month for his health insurance and that does not include deductibles and co-payments. And although I have no way of knowing, I suspect many independent booksellers find themselves in the same situation or go without health insurance altogether.

We read in the newspapers and hear on the news that with each passing year more American employers are becoming less able to offer decent medical coverage to their employees and are either forced to lay off workers in order to pay the rising premiums for those remaining, stop offering health insurance altogether, or, as in the case of a local manufacturer of pet supplies, cease all manufacturing operations and subcontract to suppliers in the Far East. All this is a matter of business survival, not so-called employer greed.

According to a report I read not that long ago, the health insurance component of every automobile manufactured in the United States exceeds the cost of steel used in the very same unit. In Detroit the figure runs in excess of $3,000.00 per vehicle, while across the river in Windsor, Ontario (where workers are covered by the Canadian health care system) the figure drops to a tiny fraction of the amount — mainly coverage for dental, cosmetic, and similar elective procedures. To the best of my recollection, lack of single-payer health care in the United States is seldom mentioned as being one of the reasons for the accelerated loss of American jobs to overseas competition. And continuing to saddle employers with rapidly rising health insurance premiums will, in future, make it even more difficult for American business to compete with nations that already have national health care.

For some folks the concept of a single-payer system for any vital service may seem a little bizarre until reminded that public education is one such example. Our small village, like many others, has an excellent public school system that we are happy to support with our tax dollars even though our children have already attended university and graduate school. If our local schools had been modeled on the existing medical care system we would surely have been presented with periodic bills from the Latin, French, and Spanish teachers, the geometry teacher, the English teacher, the music teacher, the history teacher, the physics and chemistry teachers, (subject to co-payments and deductibles of course) and on and on and on. And, of course, we would have been billed separately for the use of the library, classrooms, gymnasium, athletic fields, auditorium, or any other facility or service (such as specialized testing), not covered by direct payments to the education providers (i.e. teachers or librarians).

To carry the analogy a bit further, in Spain, where we lived for a while, and in Canada and the U.K., which we visit fairly often, there remains the option for private, fee-for-service medical care, just as in most countries some people opt for private education. Choice is good. In the United States, however, we don’t have a choice and with each passing year an increasing number of people, both the employed and the self-employed, live in fear that serious illness will bring about financial ruin.

Nuts and Bolts:

With this latest issue (vol.21, no.1) we begin our 21st year — allowing for the few month’s shortfall caused by our publication schedule change in October of 2002. You may notice incremental changes in this magazine in the years to come, but it will always remain the book trade’s affordable alternative.

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