Saturday, February 19, 2011

advice for booksellers

I cannot live without books.
–Thomas Jefferson

We talk of food for the mind, as of food for the body: now a good book contains such food inexhaustibly; it is a provision for life, and for the best part of us; yet how long most people would look at the best book before they would give the price of a large turbot for it!
–John Ruskin
When I moved to south Florida from the DC area, it didn't take me long to realize that one thing I would be missing, constantly, would be decent bookshops. Sure, we have the ordinary Barnes & Nobles and Borders (fewer, it seems!). And there are a sprinkling of alright independents (not nearly as many as you'd think). But the vast desert of asphalt and concrete that stretches from south Miami to the north end of Palm Beach County, that houses well over five million people, has fewer decent second-hand bookstores than any major metropolitan area I've ever visited. When I moved here a decade & a half ago, there were maybe six or eight; now there are three or four. At the end of this month, there will be one fewer.

I discovered what was then the best of the pack, a shop in Ft. Lauderdale owned & operated by R--- H---, soon after moving here. I was delighted by his deep collections in modernist poetry, in art criticism, in British history, in – surprisingly – Marxist theory. His books were modestly priced and decently arranged. There was a kind of quiet comfort to the shop – three stories of labyrinthine shelves – that made browsing for hours a positive pleasure. I gathered eventually that R--- H--- had inherited the business, and much of his stock, from his father; and alas, it did not grow – when I bought all his books on David Jones, they weren't replaced with other, as delicious titles. But there was always something there for me to not resist buying.

Several years ago, R--- H--- decided to get out of the brick-&-mortal retail business, to retire upstairs to a single floor of his shop where he could concentrate on high-end internet sales & appraisal work. I understand he's doing just fine. The shop proper was taken over by a woman who'd been his assistant for some years & by a new face, an overtanned Canadian refugee who manned the cash register; the store was redubbed – imaginatively indeed – "The Book Shop." What followed was a half-decade slide into mediocrity. The always elastic organization of the place became positively anarchic. The pricing went mad – who wants to buy a Verso remainder, easily found on the internet at half cover price, at two dollars off? The place began to cater to the despicable south Florida "home decor" market. One overheard conversation:
Home Decorator: So how much do I have now?

Overtanned Canadienne: You've chosen $12000 or so. I think that's something like forty shelf-feet worth. Would you like this nicely-bound set of 19th-century medical encyclopedias?

HD: Ooh, that's nice. But no, we've filled the cases.

OC: How about these (holds up a mint boxed set of Emily Dickinson's letters)? Or these (ditto Joyce's letters)?

At the end of this month, however "The Book Shop" is going out of business. I made a valedictory visit this morning, picking up a handful of things at half price – the Library of America's 20th-c. poetry anthology, some Laura (Riding) Jackson, Isaiah Berlin, Chantal Mouffe, etc. I can't say I'm sorry to see it go, given that every visit there in the past few years has been such a painful experience. Worst perhaps was the afternoon (maybe just a "bad day" for the OC) when a young man came up to the register with a stack of books & asked if he could negotiate down the price of one of them.
Young Man: If you don't mind me saying so, I think a lot of your prices are way too high.

Overtanned Canadienne: Where are you gonna do better?

YM: Well, on the internet; I mean, if I want a particular book, I'll always go online – when I come into a brick-&-mortar shop, I want to be surprised by something I didn't know I wanted, at a price I can afford. Times are changing for used bookstores.

OC: Don't tell me how to run my business!

YM: I'm not telling you how to run your business, I just thought –

OC: Get out of my shop! Right now! I don't ever want to see you here again!

Me (silently): Ouch.
I'm not losing any sleep over The Book Shop's demise. I too will go online for particular titles, & when I want to browse aimlessly, we have here in Boca Raton one of the finest second-hand shops in the southeastern US, the always-expanding Bookwise.

But for the overtanned Canadienne, if ever she decides to go back into bookselling, a few tips from someone who's probably spent more free time browsing in bookstores than she's spent reading books:
•Please don't talk so loudly. I know loud voices are par for the course down here, since it seems half the population grew up in Long Island or New Jersey, but nobody wants to hear you rant over your cell phone about your last bad date, the problems you're having with your tax lawyer, or whatever. Especially when the acoustics of your shop are such that you can be heard loud and clear in every corner.

•Try to figure out some semi-logical, semi-coherent pricing structure. Half cover price is a good place to start, tho of course you can make exceptions for books which are rare or scarce or only available at astronomical prices. But I'm not about to pay 75% of cover price for a remainder I get at a fraction of that from the Labyrinth catalogue. (Yes, your customers do get catalogues...)

•Don't talk trash about your previous customers – yesterday's, last week's, or the guy who just walked out the door – in front of people who are currently browsing. This should be logical, I think – no-one wants to speculate on what you'll be saying about him or her a hour from now.

•Try to learn something about books yourself. When I hear you chat incessantly about movies, Broadway shows, and television, & your only reference to actual reading material involves the authors of the more popular stretches of the Oprah Book Club, I'm unlikely to have much faith in your skills at buying, pricing, & sorting what you might get in.

•Addendum to above: Ex library books with stamps, perspex sleeves, etc. are, for collection purposes, worthless. Don't try to convince me otherwise by pricing them sky-high and marking them "rare." Sorry – these are "reading copies." Mid-century Soviet editions of Marx, Lenin, etc. are by no means scarce, so stop pricing them like the Holy Grail. Cheap reprints of big art books are not comparable in value to their trade publisher first editions.

•And above all else, keep your goddamned bichon out of the shop. The canonical animal for a second-hand bookshop is a cat. Period. Two cats, tops. Nobody wants a hyper, yippy little animal underfoot (even if he is "cute"), especially one who wants to have sexual congress with customers' legs. I suppose many of us have fantasies about sexual encounters in used bookshops – but I'm pretty sure not many of them involve toy dogs.
One rumor has it that R--- H--- may be reassuming the helm of this foundering vessel. Who knows? In the meantime, requiescat in pacem, Book Shop.


Jennifer Low said...

You never told me about the dog.
Isn't there a scene in a movie in which Jack Nicholson puts a small dog in a garbage chute?

Mark Scroggins said...

As Good as It Gets, 1997, the one with Helen Hunt. As JN shoves his gay neighbor's dog down the chute, he says ""This is New York, pal. If you can make it here, you can make it anywhere!"

Jere Hodges said...

As ever an entertaining read.. though I'm sure that was the least of your goals when you wrote it.

Well said.

Anonymous said...

I am pretty familiar with this particular story. And you have it exactly right. I am sad to see this one go--not that I have whole afternoons to browse through bookstores these days. I went browsing for books for an hour or two last night on the internet, and, needless to say, it's not nearly as pleasurable.