Bob and Ed navigating the generational shift
By Bruce McKinney
Every person who deals with books faces the end of their career. For most this is something remote, a future sequence of events that culminate in the transfer or disposition of a business or books. Every dealer learns in time to buy cautiously and sell aggressively. Nevertheless, almost without exception, dealers approach the end of their run with tens of thousands of books to sell and no longer enough time to sell them. For many these changing circumstances bring a series of decisions and steps that will be difficult, painful and uncertain right up until the end. The adage that it is easier to buy than to sell is as true for dealers as it is for collectors.
I have been speaking with three dealers in Ohio who are dealing or have dealt with these end of career issues. They are Robert Emerson who three years ago merged his inventory and business with Ed Hoffman of Columbus, Ohio to form Emerson-Hoffman Rare Books, Nelda Bridgeman [BookPhil] of Hilliard, Ohio and Susan Heller of Cleveland who has been doing business as Pages for Sages for more than a quarter of a century. Both women have blown out the candles on three score and ten and are not subscribing to Fulton J. Sheen's admonition that Life begins at 80. They're moving on. For Bob, at 85, he now moves ahead continuing to price, catalogue and sell knowing that many of the uncertainties of his life are resolved. For Nelda and Susan disposition lies ahead.
All three are making a life in books, in the state that is home to Sherwood Anderson's Winesburg, the birthplace of writers Ambrose Bierce, O Henry, Harriet Beecher Stowe, Langston Hughes and seven Presidents, to Erma Bombeck, Bruce Catton, Hart Crane, Zane Grey, William Dean Howells, Dard Hunter and Arthur M. Schlesinger. It's a place that has always taken its writing seriously, a fitting place to be committed to the printed word.
For each books will always be an important part of their lives but the day-to-day struggles with the minutiae of selling must give way to life with more room to deal with the realities of aging. They are all in transition from front row center to back bencher. Their situations, strategies and experiences provide useful perspective for every dealer will someday face similar issues.
Nelda Bridgeman is 72 and for many years ran BookPhil on Main Street in Hilliard with her husband Stanley. A dozen years ago they parted company, Stanley to places west while Nelda continued in the book business. The decade since has not diminished her ambition although the years have slowed her a bit. She plans to sell or liquidate the business and move to Port Townsend, Washington where she'll be near both the ocean and medical care and can work on two books she would like to write. "After all these years handling other people's books it's time for me to add a few of my own." She describes her current bookshop inventory as "scholarly" and filling three buildings: about 45,000 books in all.
Susan Heller: Scaling back a lifetime commitment
She has at one time or another sold her material on ABE, Alibris and Tom Folio but not much is listed today. To move she needs to sell the inventory because, while she has received satisfactory prices in her store and on listing sites, at the current rate of sales "I'll need to live to 500 to see the last book sold."
Robert [Bob] Emerson is now in partnership with Ed Hoffman of Columbus. In the partnership he is the senior man, born at the outset of the halcyon twenties. He retains a sharp mind and an engaging smile that make it impossible to guess his age. The binding seems too fresh to be 85. Three years ago he packed up the inventory he and his wife and partner Dorothy had built together over forty years at three locations in New York and Connecticut and contributed it to the partnership with Ed. Dorothy, Bob's senior by 3 years, has suffered from Alzheimer's for a decade and now lives in a long term care facility. In Bob's active mind their union, love and partnership endure. The decision to join Ed in Columbus was made in part because the Emersons did not have children. Their agreement provides the income that pays for the institutional care that Dorothy needs. Ed is the son they never had.
Susan Heller lives in Cleveland and works from home as she has for more than 30 years. Her husband Haskell, a physician, became ill in the 1960s, and spent his subsequent career examining patients for the V.A., a career path that provided less stress but also less income. Susan, who graduated college in 1955, was first an elementary school teacher, later a substitute and in the 1960s a part-time writer for the Savannah Morning News. Toward the end of the decade she settled into a life with books. In the beginning she advertised wants in Bookman's Weekly, locating material for acquirers. In time she became an opportunistic buyer focusing on good value and fine copies more than on any one category. This made it possible to frequently acquire material and in time her home became a cloister of chapels to the many categories of material she acquired over the years. Haskell died in 2002 and Susan's life has been in transition since then.
Looking back each can trace a series of decisions that in time culminated in "bookseller" after their names. For each the road ahead is less clear although for Bob many of the decisions are now taken and he's very happy to have them behind him.
Selling a bookshop outright or liquidating inventory present complex problems today because the surging electronic world has fundamentally changed the economics of bookselling during the years these dealers built their businesses. For them both the value of their inventory and how it sells have changed. Many books have declined in value as listing sites have exposed significant volume where only a few copies are demanded. Worse, emerging electronic selling methods require different skills than those relied on to build their businesses and these new skills are difficult to master later in life.
Peter Howard of Berkeley, still buying collections and inventories.
Today's bookseller has many options for selling inventory one book at a time. Those that can often display books at shows. The audience is traditional, wants to see the material and speak to the seller. Those with shops also continue traditional bookselling although everywhere lower traffic is reported. Many dealers issue catalogues although these too are fewer. In fact every form of traditional bookselling now competes for time and dollars with evergreen internet listings that, once posted, are baited hooks on lines maintained for years.
The battle between traditional and electronic selling now goes on every day, the outcome as certain as buffalos stampeding toward a cliff. Dealers continue to close shops and shows are fewer and farther between because buyers increasingly obtain better selection and lower prices on line and at auction. These days most new book dealers start on the net and seem disinclined to move beyond it. For them catalogues, shows and retail shops may never be part of the equation. For such sellers it's simply a question of how to describe and price and where to offer. In time their career questions may include how to incorporate auctions, both traditional and eBay, into their buying and selling mix but this is not how they have started. Opening a shop seems a remote possibility. In any event the number of book sellers increases even as the number of bookstores decline. Competition and transparency too increase and prices decline. This is the world that booksellers at the end of their career sell their inventories into today.
The listing sites seem to be embracing the Dylan lyric "If you are not busy being born you are busy dying," focusing on the first possibility and ignoring the second. There should of course be an option on listing sites to categorically signal price reduction consistent with a business closing but it might raise havoc with other sellers who would be standing by while prices were publicly slashed. It happens on Main Street every day but we haven't yet seen it on the listing sites where a close-out sale would be visible in a way not seen before. Could Abe and Alibris host such mayhem? Probably but I'm not sure they're ready to do it. Certainly in time it will happen.
In any event to stage a public online going out of business sale all material needs to be online and that's a problem for folks at the end of their career. Nelda has 1% online and Sue 40 % and neither is going to be able to post a significant portion of their unlisted material.
One alternative is to hire an auctioneer to sell on site a lifetime's accumulation in a few days. It's been done before. Such an event should attract a large crowd and be done quickly. Material can also be sent to catalogued and uncatalogued auctions. Many local and regional houses will take such material on consignment although they may not take it all. Serious material will be attractive to sellers of every stripe but deciding how to handle it very tricky. Auction houses are open to discussion and many will send representatives to evaluate and negotiate. In our directory of auction houses 109 are listed. Based on location and level the material seems appropriate for Baltimore Book, Waverly, Cowan's, New England Book, and possibly Books by the Falls, a new service in Connecticut. Swann looks seriously at these opportunities as well. Documented sales will do much better than undocumented and shelf sales. A group of ten titles that is documented can be seen across the net. An undocumented lot can not.
One time honored approach to liquidating inventory is to sell it to one of the firms that makes a business in such acquisitions. Powell's of Oregon aggressively buys entire inventories, will send its own packers and arrange the shipping. It's a clean solution but they accept a reality that many sellers have trouble with. Some books will never sell while others will sell only after several markdowns. Many books will never make it onto the selling floor. They're too common to warrant any effort and will go directly from the incoming trailers to the disposal boxes. Today about a quarter of all purchased material goes directly to pulp.
The writer Larry McMurtry has for many years acquired bookstore inventories. Today he has 325,000 volumes in his company Booked Up in four buildings in Archer City, Texas. Peter Howard of Serendipity Books in Berkeley, California has 425,000 books and a cautious but continuing appetite for stock, a celebrated history of acquisitions and several approaches to it. Allan Stypeck of Second Story Books with locations in Maryland and Washington D.C. is also buying as is Bob Fleck of Oak Knoll. Alibris has been an inventory buyer and may be so again. They recently had a change in ownership and it's unclear if they have also had a change of heart. There are of course always others none of whom are knowingly omitted. I simply don't know their names and would list them if I did.
Bob Emerson has shown us one way to resolve these sundown issues. Nelda and Susan will follow a different path. If approached by someone to buy their businesses lock stock and barrel they will no doubt seriously negotiate. They have more to offer than just books and can expect their businesses to be worth more than the sum of the parts. But they approach retirement as bookselling is changing, values are in flux, traditional shops are closing, and inventory is flowing onto the net. In time the process will settle down, the uncertainty will pass, and we will all again remember that books are an essential part of our lives. In the meantime they will sell or dispose because the clock waits for no one.
However these ladies in Ohio deal with it we know this. They will deal with it or their heirs will. They are emotionally connected to their ways of life and to the books that arrayed around them have been a source of comfort, consolation, camaraderie, independence and income. Left unresolved these books are also trouble.
On the next page I provide links and telephone numbers to all members of the book community mentioned in this article. Included with Susan Heller's link is a letter from her detailing her material.
Contacts [with links]
Nelda Bridgemen, BookPhil. Telephone 614 876-0442. email@example.com
Susan Heller, Pages for Sages. Telephone: 216 283-2665.
Click here to read "An Open Letter about the inventory of Pages4Sages
Robert Emerson, Emerson-Hoffman Rare Books. Telephone 614 262-0059. www.hoffmansbookshop.com
Baltimore Book Auction. [Chris Breedy]: 410 659-0550 firstname.lastname@example.org
Books by the Falls. [Kathy Novak]: 203 520-4001 email@example.com
Cowan's Auctions [Wesley Cowan]: 513 871-1670 firstname.lastname@example.org
New England Book Auctions [Lief Lautamus]: 413 665-3253
Swann's [Jeremy Markowitz]: 212 254-4710, ext. 27
Waverly Auctions: email@example.com
Powells. Kirsten Berg: 800 878-7323
Booked Up. Larry McMurtry: 940 574-2511
Serendipity. Peter Howard: 510 841-7455
Second Story Books. Allan Stypeck: 301 770-0477
Oak Knoll Books. Bob Fleck: 302 328-7232
Alibris. 800 722-5784