Sir Isaac Newton and Gottfried von Leibniz.
By Renée Magriel Roberts
I would like to wave a magic wand and turn every unlisted book in my shop into a database entry before it's too late, before my home and my books become a story on AmericanaExchange. Miriam Zobel's experience (see A Specialist Inventory to be sold as a Single Lot at Auction in last month's issue of AE Monthly) is certainly a moving story, as well as a cautionary tale.
Spend a working lifetime building up your inventory, especially in some more important but not particularly valuable areas like education and psychology, and in retirement open your shop to the cherry-pickers (I don't know how much Miriam sold her better books for), and finally, at public auction, sell the rest of the your 90,000-some-odd inventory for $1,000, just slightly more than 1 cent.
Of course, she did make a few mistakes along the way. First of all, she actually owned the books she was selling, unlike the myriad "sellers" who fabricate listings, steal other people's listings, or create hyper search engines that appear to be searches of existing inventories, when in fact they are multiplying other dealers' prices by a considerable factor and then presenting them for sale to the unwary buyer. She bought quality books as a service.
She was also a dealer with a clear social conscience, not just catering to a few. People who specialize in fields like education and who develop a service to assist Ph.D. candidates are not looking at books in the same way as others who might be attracted to more superficial aspects of books.
When I look at the boxes and boxes of general stock books not yet listed for sale, I feel like I've created my own Zobel-like environment. The life (and in many cases the value) is draining out of my storage boxes, and I don't have the time and energy to stop the flow. I'm choosing to devote the energy I do have to maintaining my life and my energy, rather than that of my good used stock.
On the other hand, as Bruce McKinney pointed out last month (see The Declining Value of Inventory (AE Monthly)) really good stuff not only sells, but increases and will increase in value. We are seeing strong sales in the Cistercian choir books, printed with the Plantin/Moretus presses, that we took on this month. Nothing stopping modern first editions, collections of 19th century political pamphlets and letters and 19th-century biographies -- these are all going strong. And it is certainly a lot less work to sell one book for $2100 than a bunch of books for $22 each, even factoring in photographs and increased customer contact.
So, with this in mind, we're continuing to improve the value and the quantity of our truly rare stock and have all but ceased buying general stock. We're also buying in the specific areas in which we are familiar, rather than interesting items in which we have a thin coverage. What this means is that there are more conversations, and consequently more networking, among collectors and dealers in our chosen fields, and more interesting assignments. Over the next few months, for example, we will be inventorying and then placing a collection of early materials related to the abolition of slavery, a relationship developed entirely via word-of-mouth.
Good stuff sells and is worth preserving.
It would be nice if I could focus on these things, but the reality of daily life in a bookstore is much more complicated. First, there are the daily orders which we push out. We've added FedEx ground services and UPS Mail Logic (both discounted in certain ways over the United States Post Office), but each with their own shipping fine points. There is no quicker way to lose your shirt than to pay insufficient attention to accurate and timely shipping matters.
It would be nice to go through my entire inventory and get rid of the books that are taking up room on the shelves and listings in my database, that have no particular value, but the physical reality of doing that is horrendous. At the same time, if we don't do it, we continue to make numbered boxes that take up room and that will eventually force an expansion of very expensive warehouse space.
In the microcosm, there are the daily follow-ups of all sorts, mainly from customers. Scheduling photographs, hauling books to the bindery for repair and rebinding, watching over auctions (both ours and others), answering the telephone and fax and email -- I'm sure you know the score, but with time limited each of these items sometimes appears to be happening in slow motion, where I'm listing each task in its minute sequences in advance, as I'm going through them all. It seems that before I can simplify and come up with the equivalent of the fundamental theorem of calculus for a bookseller, I will have to go through an encyclopedia's worth of minute bookstore building and maintenance detail.
This is not the first time that I've longed for simplicity. When I was interested in pursuing a study in pure mathematics, I remember discovering the fundamental theory of calculus, brilliantly taught by a professor at Boston University's School of Engineering. After an entire semester going through the historical development of calculus (and that meant endless pages of algebra), he finally disclosed Newton and Leibniz's work.
"Why had he waited?" I asked. "That would have saved us a lot of time," I said, looking at notebooks full of meticulous calculations and the simple expression he had chalked on the board.
"If I had written it out at the beginning of the year," he said, "you wouldn't have appreciated it."
So, when I make that sublime discovery, you know the one which enables you to go triumphantly to Christie's, sit in the audience with a knowing smile and without a paddle, and retire to high ground, I will do so with all the intense appreciation of one who has built a business from endless piles of books, and struggled with every aspect of their valuation, description, storage, marketing, delivery, and acquisition. I can only hope, that like Mrs. Zobel, I will retire having made some contribution to knowledge and the preservation of increasingly rare print materials.
Renée Magriel Roberts can be reached at email@example.com.