A Chill in September: Books in Hard Times
Photo: Megan Smith, Grolier Club
By Bruce McKinney
One hundred and forty souls traveled to New York to eat spinach and listen to a succession of speakers assembled by the Grolier Club of New York to discuss "Books in Hard Times." Seats were hard to obtain. The Grolier is a walled garden, pretty on the inside and difficult to penetrate. They have over the years provided discussions and forums on important matters pertaining to the world of books, manuscripts and ephemera. This conference is in keeping with that tradition.
For an account of the proceedings I rely primarily on Jeremy Dibbell [pronounced de Bell with the accent on the second syllable] of the Massachusetts Historical Society. His more complete account will be published in Rare Book Magazine. The account I refer to is available on Mr. Dibbell's blog:
The title is "Books in Hard Times" Conference Recap.
The Grolier will publish an official proceedings of the conference.
The discussion seemed to track the bifurcated perspectives that co-exist today in the world of books. In a post discussion interview with me Tom Congalton, an ABAA member, spoke of the current downturn as a passing event. He's not altering his prices though he mentions that some negotiation on some books is possible. "I have too many books priced and posted to individually alter them." This perspective is often expressed by dealers who have posted thousands of items. In Mr. Congalton's case he has about one hundred thousand listings on line. About his perspective he mentions that he concurs with Bill Reese and I paraphrase his quote from Bill, "sell the only, sell the best or sell the cheapest." He doesn't feel that very good material will decline although it is unclear how 'very good' is defined.
Priscilla Juvelis who also participated in the dealer panel discussion and who sells literary firsts, especially women authors, 20th century book arts and more, is quoted by Mr. Dibble as saying she's working "twice as hard to sell half as many books." Her description expresses what many dealers are saying today. She too sees the downturn as temporary.
A panel of collectors also spoke and Mark Samuels Lasner's name came up several times in post discussion interviews. He mentioned, during the discussion, "I have half the money, books cost twice as much, and there are four times as many of them on the market." He said that while he's still collecting, he has changed his tactics somewhat, beginning to buy items in slightly different areas than he might have before, and spending less per item. Materials with high exhibit potential or research value are key, he said. He called on the dealers for a large-scale inventory sale, saying "There are books that simply cannot be sold at the prices being asked, not at this particular moment, and perhaps not for years. Why not lower the price?" Several dealers responded by saying that they don't really want to sell everything they've got, because they don't know at this point where the next batch of inventory is coming from.'
A Chill in September: Books in Hard Times
Photo by Megan Smith, Grolier Club
Given that the principal driver of higher prices over the past fifty years has been aggressive buying by institutions and that they face a triad of issues: reduced budgets, internal competition from advocates for investments in electronic presentation, and declining foot traffic - many libraries will scale back further investments in rare books while others will simply sell duplicates, narrow their focus and even in extreme cases sell their holdings. Even single institutions de-accessioning in the United States will undercut the market. While the European market has a substantial appetite for important books the dollar denominated market has been noticeably weaker.
In downturns dealers have historically toughed it out and the strategy has been effective. Good books have always been hard to replace so it has almost always been the right strategy to wait for someone willing to pay up. What seems to be different this time around are three factors:
The auction market is not confirming the value of lesser collectibles;
The market is expotentially more transparent for those with the interest and skills to look. It is increasingly possible to identify more copies and more related material thus increasing the pool of collecting possibilities and making it possible for buyers to at minimum choose and, depending on the style and personality of the collector, to negotiate.
Collections, which a generation ago, were often 'high points,' are becoming more focused on minutely detailed material that is satisfying to unearth but rarely expensive. The market for such collections has yet to be established but, because the costs are low, the net financial risks are also low. Such collections may eventually be given to institutions.
What participants took home from the all day discussion was probably confirmation of whatever ideas they brought. Librarians who brought caution probably went home cautious. Dealers who have decided to ride out the downturn received encouragement to do so. Collectors heard that life will go on. No one really said "you're not in Oz anymore."
All perspectives are to some extent correct. Libraries are facing tectonic shifts, collectors increasing possibilities, dealers serious challenges. It's a new day and the Grolier did as they have done before. They provided an opportunity for perspectives to be expressed and evaluated and as a result we all have something to think about.
Bill Reese's comments are posted on his site: