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Bookselling in the 21st Century

Part XIII: Where Have All the Booksellers Gone?

by Craig Stark

#143 5 April 2010

[EDITOR'S NOTE: The following article is an elaboration of a forum note I posted several days ago.]

I went to an estate sale this morning. The ad had mentioned an entire library/room of old books. Nice, huh? Five or ten years ago, a sale like this would have attracted numerous booksellers, and I would've had to work fast grabbing enough books to make it pay off. Today? Today I was the only bookseller there - the only one - and I had the room to myself for almost two hours. And, after a half dozen trips to my vehicle to load everything I found, my back is feeling it.

Last week I did something I almost never do anymore: I went to a used bookstore, mostly because I had some time to kill before another sale. I hadn't been to this one for several years - I'd stopped going, in fact, because I wasn't finding anything anymore, probably because so many other booksellers were grabbing stuff ahead of me? (By the way, this is the only used bookstore of any size left in the million-plus metro area I live in. Ten years ago there were dozens of them.) Anyway, when I got there, I was pleased to discover that I still had a few hundred dollars in store credit for essentially worthless books I'd turned in years back. About an hour later I left with many hundreds of dollars worth of viable inventory, having spent fortysomething bucks. To repeat - this is a used bookstore. The year is 2010.

Several weeks ago I was at another estate sale that featured not only a library of books inside the house but a "book nook" in the back yard, only absolutely nothing there was worth a darn. This time there was another book dealer there, one who has been in the business for many years and had once owned one of those dozens of used bookstores I mentioned above. Funny thing - he was buying lots of books, filling up several boxes more or less frantically, you know, almost as though he was actually finding some hot stuff. Several times I glanced over to see what he was grabbing, and for the life of me I didn't get it. What I could see of it were stinkers one and all. Several days later - this is how puzzled I was - I got on to Abebooks to check out what he'd found. (You can do this if you run a newly-listed books search.) There they were, many of the titles I'd seen at this sale, but guess what? Not a single book was listed for more than $8, and most of them were in the $4 to $6 range. More about this later.

Several years ago, in my capacity as BookThink Editor, it was not unusual for me to spend two, three hours or more doing nothing but answering emails, primarily from booksellers. Today it's less than an hour. For that matter, BookThink forum traffic is down. Amazon forum traffic is down. eBay - in fact, all forums I visit have experienced a significant loss of traffic, especially in the past year.

What's poignant to me - maybe especially to me because I've gotten so much communication from people getting into bookselling over the years - is recalling the enthusiasm so many new booksellers had, some who became good friends, some who for the first time in their lives could actually say that they loved what they were doing, and some who were very grateful to have found a source of income that allowed them to stay home with children, supplement their retirement, and so on. And where are they now? A lot of them have reduced their bookselling activity dramatically or gotten out altogether. I could tell you a hundred stories, and no two would be alike. I don't have any hard numbers, but the rate of attrition seems pretty darn high.

For six months last year my own sales dropped sharply, so much so that I cut back on other things I'd been doing to devote more time to bookselling. By August I had recovered nicely, and the month just ended was the best March I've ever had as a bookseller, the past eight months the best bookselling period I've ever had. I could come up with several reasons for this, but one of the more important ones is that I've been able to find better things to sell both online (mostly on eBay) and at sales. Why? Again, there are likely several reasons, not the least of which I get better at scouting each year, but one very conspicuous reason is that my competition has fallen off dramatically.

Perhaps a similar drop-off hasn't occurred in your area yet, but if not, I'd be surprised if it didn't soon. Referring back to my short account of the longtime bookseller who was grabbing the low-dollar books at that estate sale, my gosh, he's been in the business longer than I have and hasn't figured this out yet? Now I'm wondering how much longer he will last! Oh, and those many booksellers who have left - it's quite likely that most of them were selling low-dollar books too.

For remaining booksellers, this is good news, I think. Looking ahead, I see opportunities for that weren't in play even a year or two ago. If you've survived this recession to this point and have persisted in learning the trade, I do like your chances.

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