Recipes for Recovery
By Bruce McKinney
The book business, like the stock market, was a growth business for many years. Auction realizations increased and listing sites proliferated. Higher prices and the expectation of further increases justified the effort and cost to create listings and pay for online visibility. Both participation and prices at shows increased. Catalogues grew fat with ever more complex descriptions. And then the music stopped as liquidity, the driver of economic activity, declined in 2008. A year later real estate prices have stabilized and the stock market rebounded but the economy feels very different. The once almost invisible divide between essential and non-essential purchases has opened into separate markets and purchasing assumptions for the things we have to have and the things we want to have. Books, manuscripts and ephemera fall more into the second category and the effects are being felt around the world.
A year into the downturn it is clear that the field of books, manuscripts and ephemera is not going away but midway through 2009, we now know that someone stole the punch bowl. The causes of the decline are many and not the focus of this article. I'll mention them and move on:  decline in stock market and real estate prices;  growing supply of what we thought were rarities;  the rise of online inventory,  the increasing availability of online full text versions; and  the seeming decline in absolute numbers of buyers and collectors. Taken together, these factors are shaping a new reality. That booksellers are holding their own through the decline tells you a great deal about their resilience. To get past the downturn though, the words often used in the rooms of AA seem particularly prescriptive: you cannot continue to do the same things and expect a different outcome. The current environment demands adjustment, experiment and innovation. To understand what book dealers are doing to recover I asked a representative group about their situations and strategies. My questions: What does the path from decline to recovery look like? How do we get there?
I spoke first to Lee Kirk of Eugene, Oregon. She is a lifer, been in the trade for 40 years. The downturn in the market is distant thunder on her Main Street. "I've seen trends come and go. The first time I listed on Abe in 1997, I put up 50 items one night and had 8 orders the following day. That did not last. Neither will this downturn. Something always happens."
"Until then and even after I'll do what I do now. I listen. I buy. I sell." It sounds easy but it's not. She walks around with the wants lists of roughly 350 collectors, libraries, archives and museums in her head. "I like to talk to people and I'm a good listener." In the downturn, the work is full time and the income part time. "My real reward is to be both busy and effective at matching buying ambitions with material." She lists online but considers her listings "an open window through which potential customers can understand both what I sell and who I am. My goal is always to begin a relationship, not just sell an item." Her advice: "Price aggressively and be focused on your clients."
I next spoke to John Bruno of Flamingo Eventz. He organizes shows for the antiques and collectibles fields. "I know more about what isn't than what is." Show attendance is down and print advertising for shows is not working. My online promotion works but the audience online is looking for different material so as I shift to online promotion I am also adjusting the mix of material offered. The net is a more visual form."
Recipes for Recovery
John Bruno: Be up to the challenge
"In doing this I'm finding there's a clear distinction between history and nostalgia. Older collectors think about history, younger collectors feel nostalgia. The online audience is younger and their nostalgia translates into comics, videos, reel to reels, and images that were new 35 years ago. Collectible it turns out is what stimulates memory and pleasure. A book collector may think of the Civil War, the new collector the memorabilia of Martin Luther King."
"For my shows to succeed I focus on maintaining a clear view of both the exhibitor and the attendee. I can see them both. My job is to get them into the same room. If can keep them both in sight Flamingo will prosper."
Another show organizer, Myron West, speaking on behalf of the Rocky Mountain Map Society, recently suspended the Rocky Mountain Antique Map Fair that had been scheduled for September 18th and 19th. This would have been the 9th annual. Its focus was more toward the traditional collector. Without a transition to the new collector, such events will struggle. This fair and others may suffer for a while.
I asked Dan Weinberg of the Abraham Lincoln Book Shop for his view. "The current market is tough. We peaked ahead of the 200th anniversary of Lincoln's birth . The run up was brisk and exciting, the downturn in the economy disappointing. In the past few years, we have focused both on building an online presence and on creating opportunities for collectors to visit our shop in Chicago. The most innovative step we have taken is to create 'Virtual Book Signings.' In this presentation anyone online can join our in-shop author presentation and request a personally inscribed copy of the author's book. It works and it's gratifying to be extending the bookshop-author-collector experience in a new direction."
As to the business generally, "while I'm personally pessimistic about the future of run-of-the-mill material I continue to see strong interest for the best examples. The great pieces are of course difficult to buy while the lesser material is ever harder to sell. This means we constantly have to refresh the inventory. Collectors won't continue to visit online or in the shop if the material is unchanging."
"So the future is a challenge and I'm reminded of someone whose words I know well, that this is not the first time times have been tough. Abraham Lincoln, in a speech given in 1859 in Milwaukee to the Wisconsin State Agricultural Society, in speaking of the then unsettled times said, 'This too shall pass.' I believe this applies today and I work everyday to make it so."
I also spoke to Bill Ewald of Sacramento. Bill is a show man. The alchemy of material, price, event and place all somehow fit neatly into his personal DNA. When you ask him about shows his voice rises a bit, the tone inflects. "I do shows. You know that. This year I'm doing fewer, last year 10, this year six." I'll probably start to list online. I'm determined to build a new clientele. I have great material but in the downturn not enough people are looking at it."
Recipes for Recovery
Michael Osborne: mending, cataloging and selling
Ed Postal of Barnaby Rudge of Laguna Beach: "Traffic in the shop is down so I'm adding two shows: Santa Monica in September and Seattle in October." He's also selling about $5,000 a month in eBay stores. "If the market won't come to me, I go to the market."
Frank Wood and Scott DeWolfe have gone in a different direction. They have been selling books for several decades. They have seen downturns before but the anxiety level is higher this time around. Sellers are more anxious to sell and buyers less certain about buying. DeWolfe & Wood has responded by diverting some material they might have held for shows, into weekly online catalogues they release at noon EST each Tuesday. Each week twenty or so new items are posted and, with a few exceptions, have been posted every week since their introduction in February. The material is quirky, often unusual and priced to both sell and attract new buyers.
The strategy has been working. It has become a weekly event. They also sell on eBay.
Here are links to the D&W site: www.dwbooks.com and for the weekly catalogue click here. The newest issue has been released early to correspond to the release of AE Monthly. The regular schedule will resume on August 11th.
Philip Core of Wilkensburg, Pa, doing business as Brillig Books, describes the past six months as an unusually slow time. "I've responded by reducing my offers to buy material and continue to have them accepted. Other dealers are also bidding but the offers, out of an abundance of caution, are lower. Philip goes on to point out, "It is not only the lack of buyers that makes for a buyer's market. It is the circumstances of sellers and their need to sell."
"I continue to sell online and occasionally by appointment. My options, other than cutting prices, are limited. However, I did find something that has made a difference: free shipping. It is a positive factor in holding my own with sales volume."
Dayson Engels of Castner's Auction Service of Branchville, New Jersey offered this sobering perspective. "I'm as busy as I ever was but the circumstances are different. Four years ago I'd be asked to sell the contents of a house because the seller was moving to Florida. Today I get the same call but they tell me their house is being foreclosed. Sell the contents. Send me a check."
And then there is Michael Osborne of Columbia, Maryland. Sometimes your book, manuscript and ephemera sales, no matter how much and how many, are not the most important thing in your life. He's fighting a serious illness. For him the question about decline and recovery is about life, not sales.
While mending he is keeping his perspective, writing descriptions of a new collection of architecture books, aggressively pricing and preparing for the Baltimore Antiquarian Book Fair, September 3rd to 6th at the Baltimore Convention Center.
About this material, a portion of the collection of J. Wilmer Smith, who was a practicing architect in the early 20th century and who co-produced Measured Drawings of Georgian Architecture in the District of Columbia, 1750-1820 he has this to say. "Many of the books are from local architects and architecture firms of the time: Upman & Adams, PC Adams, and William Deming. I have some plate counting to do this coming week when I catalog Georgian Architecture of the Colonial Period in portfolio from 1898 and a McKim Mead & White monograph unbound in parts. Last week I cataloged what I believe is the first edition of William Pain's Builder's Pocket Treasure from 1763, which is a pocket sized look at Palladio in text with 44 folding plates.
If you find yourself on Maryland's sandy plains stop in to say hello. Here is his web site: www.michaeljosbornebooks.com.
Taken together, booksellers are a tough bunch. The book business isn't going away but its recovery will be the work of thousands of men and women who assess their situations and take steps to recover and in time prosper. Think of your own situation and remember the words often used in AA: You can not continue to do the same thing and expect a different outcome.
Links to those interviewed:
Lee Kirk: The Prints and the Paper.
John Bruno: Flamingo Eventz.
Myron West: Far West Maps and Books.
Dan Weinberg: Abraham Lincoln Book Shop.
Bill Ewald: Argus Books and Graphics.
Ed Postal: Barnaby Rudge.
DeWolfe & Wood, Frank, Scott and Brandy.
Philip Core: Brillig Books.
Castner's Auction Service, Branchville, NJ.
Michael J. Osborne Books