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Voting With Your Feet...

September, 2010
By John Huckans

Or Feats Don’t Fail Me Now, as the late Lowell George and friends probably sang more times than they really wanted to. The words of the song have little or nothing to do with the subject of this piece, but the music is evocative. When people become frustrated by the constraints of modern living (whether from their jobs, the government, or other forces beyond their control), they sometimes seek refuge in aggressively passive behaviors that, collectively, can have a lasting effect on society as a whole. There are examples aplenty.

We’re old enough to remember when mandatory cross-busing in the 1960s and 70s was seriously proposed as a remedy for racial imbalance in the schools, or de facto segregation as it was called at the time. Much of the middle class, up to that point, seemed more or less content with urban life, but the idea of involuntary participation of their children in a social experiment added impetus to the post-war boom in suburban and country real estate that continues to this day. People in large numbers voted with their feet, or to be more precise, their cars, station wagons, and micro-buses—the arrogance of bureaucratic institutions has the tendency to arouse the latent libertarian in many of us. Whether cities have ultimately benefited or been injured by this social experiment, I must leave to others to decide.

And that old saw about the inevitability of death and taxes is only partly true. No matter how hard we run with our cross-trainers or regardless of how much organically-grown arugula we eat (unless we grow it ourselves, do we really know...?), death will have the last laugh. With taxes, though, there’s some wiggle room.

States such as New York, long famous for high taxes and a constantly growing menu of taxable items and services, seem to have an ongoing program of encouraging productive businesses and affluent retirees to move to more taxpayer-friendly parts of the country. If you’re from New York, have you ever had the feeling that the people in charge of the state’s finances are really inventive types who could easily win the gold in any Olympic foot-shooting contest? Our own mailing list includes more than a few “snowbirds” from New York who have changed their legal residence by spending at least six months and a day of every year in Florida or some other low-tax southern state. We’re constantly made aware of this common practice because of the hard time we have keeping up with the change of address notifications received toward the end of the year and in late spring of the year following.

And one of the amusing ironies of living in New York is that the public service employees unions (NYSUT, CSEA, etc.) representing a relatively well-paid part of the New York work force with pension plans better than most, are usually quite vocal in advocating increased public spending for their own civil service jobs, yet when it’s time to retire many of them become part of the snowbird migration, flying off to new digs in low-tax jurisdictions while leaving others to worry about the economic consequences. One of the casualties of New York’s difficult situation is our own beleaguered and visually-impaired governor who sees more clearly than most and has paid the political price for his candor—in the process showing that an entrenched bureaucracy and not our elected representatives control the state’s finances. If the people in charge of New York’s fiscal arrangements don’t take the governor more seriously, all the happy-talk of the development agencies notwithstanding, Detroit may be the metaphor for what lies ahead. (On the national level unusually high levels of unemployment remain a problem and some analyists say employers worried about next year’s higher taxes and future medical insurance costs aren’t sure if and when they can afford to hire new people).

So why do we stay in New York ? In my opinion some of the best things we have going for us include geography and climate. Do I hear a snort of disbelief ? Because of computer technology New York’s financial industry could relocate in whole or in part to Canary Wharf, Dubai, Hong Kong, or almost anywhere else, but we’d still be left with incredibly beautiful land, abundant water, and the changing seasons, while generally free from the natural calamities that affect other areas—hurricanes, tornadoes, earthquakes, major flooding, oppressively-hot summers and the like. All we need is a week or so in Jekyll Island every year and we’re good to go.

Booksellers have been voting with their feet since the end of World War II. Howard Mott and Herbert Reichner were among the first of the high profile rare book dealers to move from Manhattan to the pastoral delights of the Berkshires and beyond, conducting most of their business by printed catalogue, telephone, and appointment. Increased rents and commuting time may have been among the reasons for leaving the city, but one of the unexpected benefits was that foot traffic sometimes increased. Howard’s son Rusty remarked the other day that people living around 20th Street tended to stay within their comfort zone (nowadays that would include the Upper East Side above 50th) and avoid mid-town where the Motts were located, yet thought nothing of driving 150 miles to visit them while on a weekend drive in the country. It does make a lot of sense—what better way to decompress at week’s end than to tour the Berkshires and take in a concert at Tanglewood while fossicking for old and rare books.

Southern New Hampshire, only a few hours from the Berkshires and not far from Boston, also has a lot to offer booksellers and others with itchy feet looking for substantive change and a more rural lifestyle. The climate, in some parts, is similar to central New York, but with the advantages of no state income tax, no state sales tax, lower real estate taxes (compared to New York), as well as the reputation for being a happy hunting ground for bibliophiles—it shares “booksellers’ gulch” (the upper Connecticut River valley) with Vermont.

The history of bookselling along 4th Ave. in lower Manhattan, well documented in Mondlin & Meador’s Book Row (New York, Carroll & Graff, 2004), is remarkable in that not only do most of the shops no longer exist, but Shirley Solomon (Pageant) is still on 4th St., and the Strand remains as a kind of Gibraltar that cannot and will not be moved. Let’s hope the Strand never gets Trumped.

We’re all in the middle of a bookselling revolution and I think the foot-loose independents stand a better chance than the highly-capitalized chains of being among the survivors. Luke Johnson, formerly of the UK’s Channel 4, tried to rescue Borders and keep it as a presence in the high-traffic areas of England’s major cities but apparently has thrown in the towel. In Deadline London, he is reported as having told the BBC “I bought Borders thinking we could turn it around...(but) believed wrongly we could reverse the downturn in High Street book sales. It’s a great sadness that we couldn’t. In my opinion, the High Street book store is doomed...” And in their most recent earnings report, Barnes & Noble reported annual earnings of .64 per share versus $1.33 for the previous year.

If the future for mega bookstores with their need for expensive, high-traffic locations seems uncertain (after their investor-owners decide to shift their capital to the Next Big Thing), the main losers will be people who expect to have a bookstore near where they live or work. Increasingly, anyone wanting a bookstore experience will need to hunt for one (and that may involve some serious travel time), the bookstores will not come to them. Booksellers are in the business of trying to make a living selling books, not in the business of providing comfortable places for people to hang out with their lattés and laptops while previewing books they may buy later on Amazon or at a charity book sale.

Nowadays booksellers are voting with their feet because readers are voting with their wallets. Our website administrator, Don Crossman, a reader and one-time collector of better sci/fi and fantasy literature, called my attention to some of Amazon’s recent sales figures. In less than three years, sales of digital or electronic books have exceeded hard cover sales by a substantial margin—143 e-books for every 100 printed books sold according to Amazon, reporting for the 2nd quarter of the year. (Paperbacks were excluded from the figures). The phenomenal rise of this Recent Big Thing may be explainable by the fierce competition between manufacturers of electronic readers, Amazon’s price cutting on the Kindle, and loss-leader sales of some popular titles, etc., with the result that even Amazon’s earnings have taken a hit according to the most recent report.

One of the reasons for the decrease in sales of printed books may be the way they are priced—$27.50 seems to be standard for nearly all newly-published popular best-sellers these days, including most “as-told-to” autobiographies of pop-culture figures, light airport fiction and the like. In Don Crossman’s opinion, if most of those books eventually moved to Kindleville, we should strongly consider giving thanks for the trees spared.

To further complicate matters, the Wylie Agency has ruffled Random House’s feathers by announcing it will market electronic editions of certain titles by Updike, Rushdie and others directly through an exclusive arrangement with Amazon, completely bypassing the original publisher. Currently, writers generally receive about a 25% royalty from their publishers for sales of electronic books, but some authors are hoping to get as much as 50% from electronic books sold under the new marketing scheme.

Higher prices for hard cover or cloth-bound books of a more serious or substantial nature might be sustainable, while in a perverse sort of way, if lighter fare is increasingly sold in electronic format, printed versions of the same titles will become relatively scarce, and in some cases might end up on the want lists of future collectors.

This past weekend the friends group (of which we are members) of our village’s public library held its annual book sale, and I noticed for the first time that “no scanners allowed” signs were much in evidence. The purpose is to discourage the newest twist on an old practice of scarfing up and setting aside great heaps of books, keeping them out of the hands of other buyers. Later on, after the initial crush, the books would be sorted more closely, and either bought or left behind.

Nowadays (since 1970) books are published with bar-coded dustjackets, helping speculators with scanners tuned in to pricing-information on Amazon automate the process. Not much help with an 1883 Life on the Mississippi, but there you have it. How sad that the cold-blooded practice of a few speculators-behaving-badly has resulted in some of the volunteers making booksellers generally feel unwelcome. At the same time another volunteer lamented that she’d lately noticed an overall downward trend in sales to booksellers, a group that formerly had been among the major buyers. Maybe this is a result of general conditions in the trade or perhaps some of the dealers have gotten the message and are voting with their feet. How all of this sorts itself out remains to be seen.

Dahlia Update

Our New Dimension and Lucky Number varieties are in full force and have greatly exceeded expectations in both size and color. Peaches ’n Cream and Akita have yet to bloom as of late July. The great thing about dahlias is that the more you cut for for display purposes, the more they produce. Stop cutting and they stop blooming, leaving behind swelling seed pods that need deadheading.

Unlike Asiatic hybrid lilies or Oriental hybrid lilies (not the same thing), plants that bloom for a very short period leaving behind withered stumps that beg removal, most of our dahlias are in full-bloom from early July until frost, and even without the flowers the plant is not unattractive.

I’m thinking that before prompting complaints that this has no place in a magazine about books, I’d better stop now.

Also of Note

Paul Minet returns, commenting on his stepped-up reading program while dealing with some health problems. Welcome back Paul.

Here at BSM we continue to soldier along, encouraged by messages (backed up by new subscriptions and renewals) of support from friends both old and new, and our spreadsheet currently indicates a breakdown of approximately 60% “A-List” and 40% “B-List”. If those figures become reversed I think you would agree that we should take it as a sign to seriously consider going on to other things.