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A Slow Bookshop

May, 2011
By Anthony Marshall

Finally I’ve taken the plunge. Many months ago, I ended my association with Just before Christmas I withdrew from the Australian bookselling site And in January this year I summoned my son John to rejig my website, so that it would no longer be possible to browse or order any of my stock online. And he did. Which means that I am no longer an internet bookseller. It’s over, finished, done with. And I am delighted. I can’t help wishing that I’d taken the plunge years ago. But to everything there is a season –  and a reason.

From the fact that I have traded on the net for about thirteen years, you may infer that I am no Luddite. I started selling books online in 1998. I know this because my database records every book ever listed by me, and the first book catalogued for the net bears this date: August 30, 1998. Good heavens! A mere two months before my second marriage, and a month before the publication of my first book. Practically a lifetime ago! Since then, 13,584 more books have been listed on my data base, of which approximately 2,500 remain “live” – or they would be if they were available on line. This suggests that, in the course of thirteen years, I have sold around 11,000 books online. That is to say, around 850 books per year or 16 books per week or 2 and a bit books per day. Pretty good? As a shopkeeper I have to say: Pretty pathetic. If I sold only two books per day in my shop, well……you know what I’m going to say.

Nevertheless, those were good days, back in 1998. Not many people were selling books on line and those that were, at least in Australia, were, I think, mostly professional booksellers. I had to pay a good deal of money to get started. I bought a whole database system called Flexidex, supplied by Paul Anderson of Sydney, who has been (and still is) the guide and mentor of many Australian booksellers in matters technical. How exciting to own an MS-DOS database with all the bells and whistles available in 1998! And it did the job.

Having listed my books on such sites as Bibliocity, Bibliofind, Interloc (remember them?) and Alibris, suddenly I found that I was selling books that had languished for years on my shop shelves. Within weeks I sold a four volume set of The Mennonite Encyclopedia (1955) and the nine hefty volumes of The History of Italy and Her Invaders (1892) by Thomas Hodgkin (this rather rare at the time – before The Folio Society did their reprint). Both went to the United States. And many other volumes followed, single spies or in battalions. What a bonanza! Pent-up demand swept all before it. It was as though a log jam had broken. Dead stock in my shop suddenly resurrected and started bringing in money. Good times, indeed. And it was fun. Something different, a new challenge, in the humdrum life of a secondhand bookseller.

But everything changes. Pent-up demand falls away and the law of diminishing returns kicks in. Big fish gobble up little fish. Book search engines and bookselling sites that began as little cottage industries sold out to big business. I began to feel that I was no longer selling books on the net for my benefit, but for the benefit of the big fish who took a nice cut of every sale I made. And who, I thought, really couldn’t care less whether I was selling baked beans, buttons or books on their behalf. No, I didn’t choose to become self-employed in order to work for Amazon. Or anyone else, for that matter.

Furthermore, in the first decade of the new millennium it became clear that every man and his dog could get in on the act of being an online bookseller. Why not? Any tomfool can sell books on the internet. It requires little capital outlay, little knowledge, little in the way of customer service or business skills: and the risks are minimal. If you are operating from your back bedroom or your garage, it probably doesn’t matter if you do or don’t sell any books for a while. And if all else fails, you can always try to flog your books to the local bookshop. Last month I received a plaintive e-mail from someone who said that I had given him some advice two years before about setting up an internet book business. (Not very good advice apparently as he was now giving up). Would I be interested in buying up his stock as (my italics) many of his books were the same titles as he could see on my shop shelves? The world is full of optimists! Including the young woman who offered me three boxes of the most scrofulous and toxic books you could imagine. When I turned them down flat, she said with a sigh: “Oh well. I’m not surprised. I couldn’t even sell them on E-bay.”

As the years went by, and the internet became awash with books, many at utterly ridiculous prices (ridiculously cheap or ridiculously expensive) I began to feel that this way of selling books was not for me. Yes, I still sold books online, but far fewer than in those heady early days. I began to resent the time spent cataloguing and tracking down and packing books for online customers: the paper-work and the e-mail work, the answering of stupid or vexatious or footling questions from prospective customers. 

I also made the remarkable discovery that, if I moved certain books into the shop, from the store-room where they had been carefully reserved for months awaiting sale on the internet, these same books would quite often sell within weeks, or even days, to real live people who came into the shop. I was clearly underestimating my ability to sell books over the counter.

The internet certainly brought some new customers to the shop. People who lived in Melbourne or in the state of Victoria would sometimes phone or e-mail: “I’m interested in a book you have listed on the internet. Can you please reserve it for me? I’ll come in at the week-end and have a look at it.” Which they did, and they often bought other books besides.

But there was a downside too to having an internet presence.  People who browsed my internet listings would sometimes remark: “Oh, I see you don’t stock any children’s books.” (Or books on mythology. Or psychology. Or whatever.) The fact is, I didn’t list children’s books, or psychology or mythology books on the internet because I didn’t need to. I could sell them with perfect ease in my shop.  Similarly with several other categories of book.  And the fact that I listed only books priced at $20 or more gave a wrong impression of my stock: in my shop books priced at under $20 easily outnumber books priced at above $20. So my internet listings were in some sense counter-productive. Or counter-informative. They gave a completely skewed view of my inventory, because the books I listed on the net were not representative of the books sitting on my shop shelves. I can’t prove this but it may well be that certain potential customers avoided coming into my shop, in the belief that it was some sort of graveyard for largely weird and undesirable specialist books, priced only for the carriage trade with more than $20 to spend.

There were other problems associated with internet dealing. When buying books, I got lazy. I would buy weird and undesirable books which I knew were unsuitable for my shop but I’d buy them anyway saying: “Well, I can always sell them on the net.” Actually I couldn’t, not many of them. And the storeroom, and my internet inventory, became ever more bunged up with hopelessly speculative purchases.

Most of all I began to resent the hum of the computer and the flickering of the monitor on the shop counter. Who can tell me that my eyesight is being improved by my staring at a computer screen for hours on end, that my health is not being compromised when my head and my body are being bombarded by the electrons or particles or whatever you call the malicious little rays that zap you when you’re working online? And who wants to come into a bookshop where the bookseller is hunched like a hobbit before a flickering monitor, absorbed in his freakish fantasy virtual world when he should be at his desk ready to welcome you, if not with open arms, at least with a smile or a nod of the head and perhaps a word of greeting?

I swithered and dithered for some time. Would I be foolish to abandon internet selling after I had invested in it so much time and money and effort? Then one day, a young woman in her twenties came into my shop. “Do you have a hardback copy of The Grapes of Wrath?” she said. I said that I didn’t and as a matter of fact, although secondhand paperback copies were common in Melbourne, it was often quite hard to get hold of a good hardback. “I can offer to look out for one for you and let you know, “ I said. “But it could take some time. You might do better to have a look on the internet.” She looked at me hard and raised her eyebrows. “Have a look on the internet?” she said. “Where’s the fun in that?”

I could have kissed her! Indeed, I may well have, such was my delight in hearing from a young person what I, an old fuddy-duddy, have long felt. And I know intuitively that there are legions of people still in the world, like her and like me, who are committed to the slow search, who are not in a hurry, who relish browsing in real bookshops: people who do not want the quick fix always and the shortest path, or the lowest price, but are prepared to meander down by-ways and the side-tracks: to be seduced by the delights and dangers of serendipity. To wait and see.

From that moment on, I began to search for reasons why I should – or should not – withdraw entirely from internet dealing. I asked myself: what is it that sets me apart from the common throng of people who sell books on the internet? The answer is very simple. From the buyer’s point of view: Nothing. I am just another accidental bookseller, one of thousands or tens of thousands setting out their wares on the net. Perhaps my descriptive prose is more eloquent, more professional, more seductive than that of the mass, but who cares?

But I know I am different. What differentiates me from the common ruck is the fact that I have a bookshop. A real bricks-and-mortar premises where you can come in and handle the books. And my core business is selling those books over the counter, in face-to-face transactions, to people who have made the effort to come through the door. It is easy to lose sight of one’s core business, not pay it enough attention. I believe that, in the dash for internet cash, I made a grave mistake. I neglected my core business. And I think that many of my colleagues did the same. Last week I went to the closing down sale of Basilisk Books, a wonderful secondhand bookshop only half a mile away from mine. “I opened here in 1997,” John Jensen told me. “And from 1998 to 2001, our internet business absolutely boomed. And we should have stopped then. Since then we wasted too much time and effort on it.”

This is not to say that there is no place for internet bookselling. Of course there is. The internet has made what was once a grossly inefficient market highly efficient. But there is more to life than efficiency and other economic imperatives. There is certainly a place still for traditional bookshops. For “slow bookshops” as I like to call them. Slow meaning good, as in slow food, slow travel and slow sex. A slow bookshop is a place where the bookseller is not glued to a computer screen but can take a few moments to speak to you, answer your questions, make suggestions, preferably with some degree of knowledge or authority. Where books are stocked not primarily for their ranking in the best-seller list but for their intrinsic and lasting worth. In the better slow bookshops you can sense that the books have been selected according to some guiding principle. The atmosphere is calm and bookish and the pace is – well – slow.

And the bookseller, in a slow bookshop, may sometimes be seen reading at the counter. Not a newspaper, or a catalogue, but a real book! The other day my assistant Martin greeted another bookseller in a slow bookshop who was doing just that. “Good morning, David,” he said. “How good to see a bookseller engaged in a bit of product demonstration!” The slow bookseller may also be seen, sometimes, writing real letters, in longhand, at his desk. I have done this myself. And I can report that the recipient of one of these letters opened it and read it in a café in Munich. The proprietor came up to her and said: “Can this be true? Are you reading a real letter? I thought such things were extinct. It’s years since I saw one. Everybody sends e-mails or text messages nowadays.”

Not everybody, mein Herr. Not everyone has given up on pen and ink. There is room in the world for the slow letter sent by snail mail as well as for the e-mail and the text message. For the old-fashioned phone call as well as for Skyping. For the acoustic guitar, as well as the electric guitar. Indeed, I see my bookshop, now it lacks the amplification conferred by the internet, as an “unplugged” bookshop. And if you are a hand-crafted Spanish guitar, played by Segovia, why ever would you yearn to be a Fender played by Jimi Hendrix?

By coincidence, this year sees Alice’s Bookshop celebrate its 25th anniversary. I have been at the helm for 19 of those years. It is difficult to quantify the goodwill which has built up in this time. Of one thing I am sure: many of my customers go out of their way to support my shop, to patronize it, to keep it going. Some of them tell me so directly, others by implication. Recently the Rare Books Librarian from one of our universities made his annual foray into my shop, in search of booty.  “Tell me, Richard,” I said, “Why do you bother to come in, when it would be so much easier to sit in your office and order things online?”  “Very simple,” he said. “Here I come across things which I never knew existed. Or which just appeal to me, by the way they look or feel or smell. There’s no substitute for coming into a real shop and browsing.”

As far as I know, he is the only rare books librarian who regularly leaves his ivory tower to trawl round Melbourne’s bookshops. And though he has never said so explicitly, I sense that he’s pleased that some of his annual budget goes to supporting bookshops like mine.

If you feel aggrieved because you are unable to gain access  to my stock except by coming in person to Melbourne, I say: Relax! My stock is no great shakes and you will surely have a worthwhile slow bookstore within closer range. Spend your time and your money there. Think globally, buy locally!

But I am well aware that there is a fine line between a slow bookshop and a dead bookshop. Booksellers who have shops in rural or out-of-the way locations often have good reason to bless the internet. Online sales may well be subsidizing the shop or at least tipping the balance in favor of its commercial viability. All praise to such businesses. These are simply slow bookshops with wings.

 I am utterly optimistic about the future of slow bookshops. Unlike many booksellers, I am not of the opinion that young people do not read books any more. My shop often swarms with young people, many of whom spend money with me. This is partly because I have the good fortune to be in a university suburb populated by students and young professional or creative people. But it is mostly because I actively work at drawing young people into my shop, and always have. My outside tables and trolleys are always stocked with some $2 and $3 and $4 books, aimed specifically at my student clientele. I am not so precious or pompous a bookseller as to feel that I am above dealing with such things. Besides, it’s good business. Slow does not have to mean unbusinesslike. Nor should it ever.

And children are always welcome in my shop. Some who came in as toddlers or schoolchildren 19 years ago are now young adults: and they remember their early visits here with affection. True, the baby-boomers of my generation may be discarding books, down-sizing, cultivating non-attachment, but there are plenty of young people who are starting out on their journey of building a library or a collection, or simply filling a bookcase.

Nor do I believe the book is dead. No doubt many people will switch to e-books, digital downloading or whatever: many already have. Bravo and hallelujah, I say. If this means that there will be fewer books, I mean books as physical printed objects, then that can only be a good thing. There are far too many books in the world. I mean this, seriously. The world is swamped with books, most of which we secondhand booksellers could very well do without. I welcome the arrival of e-books, if it means that most books will be published electronically. Let them serve whatever purpose they have been brought into the world for, and then let them be deleted. Let them disappear back into the virtual ether whence they came,  and – in most cases – good riddance! I am confident there will still be enough printed books to keep all the slow bookshops in the world going for many decades to come.

I have no desire whatever to engage with e-books. If a book is worth reading then it’s worth reading in printed form. For me, the printed book is simply a brilliant invention. With many built-in advantages over e-books. I had amusing confirmation of this last year, whilst walking in England along the South Downs Way, from Eastbourne to Winchester, with three of my cousins.  Alan, recently retired from his job with an oil company, scoffed at my carrying, as books for the seven day hike, three fat paperbacks in my pack.  “Why lug them along when you can have one of these?” He showed me his neat little e-book gizmo, called I think a Kindle. “It’s got 150 books loaded into it and it only weighs a few grams.” I shrugged and said I still preferred to read a real book. “Of course. You’re a bookseller,” he said. “You would say that.”  Three days later, he sidled up to me and inquired sheepishly if he could possibly borrow one of my paperbacks. The battery of his Kindle had gone flat and couldn’t be recharged and he needed something to read. Oh, the Schadenfreude of it!

Someone once said – it may well have been Dorothy Parker – “Everything in life is so much better without batteries.” As far as books and reading go, I heartily agree. But I also agree with Robert Louis Stevenson: “ Books are good enough in their own way, but they are a mighty bloodless substitute for life.” We readers and book-lovers need to remind ourselves that we too inhabit a virtual world much of the time, “turning our backs on the all the bustle and glamour of reality.” In my slow bookshop, I face my customers and engage with the world, with life. Yes, I love my books. But deprive me of the bustle and glamour of the people who come in to buy them, and I can tell you, I would give up bookselling tomorrow.

 Anthony Marshall is owner of Alice’s Bookshop in North Carlton, an inner-city suburb of Melbourne, Australia. He is a member of the Australian and New Zealand Association of Antiquarian Booksellers and author of “Fossicking for Old Books” (Melbourne, 2004).