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Posted By DMB

“Every bookshop is a condensed version of the world.”
                                Jorge Carrion, Bookshops. A Reader’s History

When a used bookstore has the kind of sale I had in our recent downsizing, where everything must go, it will work pretty much like this: after weeding the books one must keep, the sale starts at 50% off retail, sometimes now with the way things are, 60%. After an interval of a couple of weeks or a month, depending on deadlines, the discount rises: 60% to 70% to 80% to 90% over whatever period one has. Then the slush will be packed up and donated to the Sally Ann or some charity sale. Maybe even the university sales if one is pressed for time or just lazy; or, if one doesn’t recognize those sales as the natural predators of the book trade, as I do. The university sales get all their books free – it’s a good cause, think donors – and they are housed and the sale is run in free premises paid for by the taxpayers – including any bookseller who makes enough to pay taxes. They are managed and run by alumni volunteers and university library staff, all funded by the taxpayer and the figures we hear floating through the grapevine here tell us they are taking in between $75,000 and $150,000 each, every year. Multiply that by four or five and you’ll get some idea what the University sucks from the livelihood of the booktrade here every year. Then you needn`t wonder where all the used bookstores have gone. Steve Temple the most bitter of the whining booksellers, would probably say something like this: “Not money from the livelihood of the trade, but food from the mouths of the bookseller’s children.” For years Temple would rant “One day Toronto will have no bookstores and it will serve them right!” he would bitterly prophesize. Turns out Temple called it right. Now there’s hardly any used bookstores left in Toronto, proving Temple’s perceived whining was in fact prescient.

I, of course, am no longer, nor have I been for almost fifteen years, a used bookstore. I am a big fancy antiquarian dealer with expensive books in an isolated office. There’s nothing wrong or sinful about this, it’s just that I always only wanted to be a bookseller. I wanted a store that had all those lovely old rare books but also those cheap $5 and $10 books which are equally lovely inside. Books every civilized store needs to carry, but which simple economics won’t let me any longer sell. Ironies abound: success stole my dream of the perfect used bookstore; my insistence on staying in the central downtown meant my shelves couldn’t afford to hold the books they were built for.  Shelves I taught myself to build in spite of no technical skills, built well too. Lovely shelves, made for the books they bore with such dignity. Later, I bought old valuable glass-doored 18th and 19th century cabinets and filled them with valuable treasures, but it was always the 4’ x 8’ stained #2 pine ones I stopped to caress. And re-stained the nicks and scratches. For they were the ones which told the story.

The bitterness you sense here is real, but my bitterness is not the chagrin of the downtrodden who has been exploited and robbed of his proper share of the pie, mine is based on the knowledge, honed over fifty years, of just how important bookstores are to any culture that pretends to be civilized. And now the used bookshops are mostly gone as you will find out when you try and dispose of your unwanted books. Be prepared to give them away; but you will be ill-prepared for the worst part. Which will be finding someone who will even take them, even for free.

The university sales are, of course, despite my accusations, not the only culprits: soaring rents, no slums – the traditional place in all North American cities for used bookstores – and several other contributing factors have all caused the demise of what one famous writer describes as the cultural measure of any civilized country – its used bookshops. This writer stated that the degree of civilization of any country could be measured by the number of used bookshops it could sustain. I’ve always loved that quote, it sustains me.  

My latest move (surely this time, my last!) was only across the hall, since we had to relinquish one of our two large suites, so we could pay more for the remaining one. But it turned into the worst of all my six moves, a horror show. This was because it necessitated getting rid of half my stock, an excruciatingly painful situation for a man who has spent fifty years believing that in buying books he was buying security, his pension. Not to mention also saving civilization, as the writer said.

Before the sale, I pictured in my mind the crowds of impecunious young readers streaming in to enhance their young libraries with carefully chosen really important books from a fifty year, carefully curated, stock; along with the smarter of the half-dozen young dealers who I keep an eye on, mentoring, lecturing, passing it on as I can – who should, as I had done in the early days, begged and borrowed whatever money they could to grasp one of the rare opportunities to quickly enhance their lifelong stocks with something significant – that they wouldn’t otherwise have been financially able to absorb in a lump.

I had already decided which ones I would offer better deals to, offer shelves to cheap, quietly and privately offer extended credit to (contrary to the usual convention of cash and carry). In other words, I was to curate the dissolution of my beloved stock as carefully as I had cultivated it as I built it. Always, in the back o my mind, I remembered the terrible things I had heard about Peter Howard’s Serendipity Books after he died. With two daughters neither of whom knew or cared about books, his stock had been decimated, dumped. Some rescued by old friends and colleagues to continue some scheme or plan. It was through some of these friends that I heard some of the horrible stories; I’m sure there are lots of others of which I’m unaware. But what happened was that the greatest, most important stock of modern literature in America (probably the world) went up in smoke. Peter had said things before he died. He understood and accepted that this was how the trade works; the books, as long as they go back into the flow (“You must enter the stream,” says Jim Harrison) will survive, even flourish for the next wave of canny scouts, but still…

I also agree with that view as the true basis of the collecting philosophy, but it still pains one to notice on your shelf some ludicrously obscure item and find yourself thinking every time, “Who will recognize what that really is?”

But in the end, you have to believe that some will. The world doesn’t stop with us. 

Posted By DMB

It mostly didn’t work like that. The world has changed, and I got a taste of how extreme the changes in what I thought I knew all about have affected my world.

First, the passionate young collectors didn’t pour in because they no longer exist in my experience. This to my mind is the crucial and most disturbing aspect of the disappearance of the city’s used bookstores. For without used bookstores how do young natural collectors learn they are collectors? It is in used bookstores where, by buying general used books for reading, that beginners start to educate themselves to build a significant library. All collectors begin there too. Without those natural schools the young have no territory to learn. And no guides to lead them, for that is the social function of the missing used booksellers.

What I did get were the usual bargain hunters who only ever came to my yearly sales and now only asked why the books were only 50% off when at the last sale they had been 70% off. These people never mattered to the trade, so this was neither unexpected or bothersome. But the missing young dealers who should have been there to enhance their own futures, that did bother me. Three or four showed up, bought a few books and left.

Some of my regulars came and during all this we sold several quite large sections of various genre sections to a few institutions. We sold our entire children’s section to an institutional client, a sale which was necessary and happy in that it was one of our oldest and best clients, but painful in that children’s books has become my favorite area and one in which I have been buying heavily for quite a while. With the major discount it meant that I lost not only my entire favorite section but sold a large percentage of it at what I had probably paid for it (now you can see why booksellers have a reputation as incessant whiners, nothing pleases them). But at least it was one of our favorite institutions who is delighted with their coup and will continue to pursue the subject so in the end everyone will benefit.

But the sale didn’t improve with the increased discount scale; it degenerated. I had several older regulars who were in most days, smart collectors who plucked out real sleepers at 70, 80, and finally 90% off. At 90% off I started buying my own books my disillusionment and despair now severe.

At one point I got so irritated at the lack of perception by my customers, especially the young dealers that I started rating the books I bought myself. It went like this – at 90% off retail. I retained:

$250.00 books = 28 at $25.00 each
$200.00 ‘’        36 at $20.00
$150.00 ‘’        62 at $15.00
$100.00 or less = 293 at $10.00 or less each.

These figures differ from the October 13, 2017 blog because before I made my final decision I again looked at my books carefully and added books I had ignored the first time. Of course, with the increases maybe I’m just admitting I also have lost the “scout’s eye” on which all real booksellers depend.

Where were any people with the eye? I kept all those books, all books I had pulled off the shelf not knowing their prices but because their aspect meant I would have checked them in any store. I was left disillusioned, not just at the public but at the young dealers.

I’ve been amassing more evidence ever since, the details I now see that I overlooked earlier, ten times as depressing as they had been. I now see that the state of the trade is so much worse than I had imagined. Just by studying the missing stores I had concluded things, but I now see that the trade is even changed from the days when I started. Since Debra is now mostly in charge perhaps my increasing disillusionment is not so relevant, but as I see more and more of the newer and younger dealers who ignore or simply aren’t aware of what I always thought was central to all book collecting and dealing, I came to realize that not only will my business in the near future be very different to what I built over 50 years, it’s only relevance to me will soon be the name. In spite of the fact that it will be run by someone who I trained for 30 years.

So, I can only guess at how other businesses will be affected.

I shall have much more to say later on these subjects for the implication seems to expand daily.

And the end of my sale. After a depressing couple of weeks at 90% off, rescuing my own very good books, I had to decide how to end it with some 4 or 5 thousand good books remaining. I thought of sending out a last notice announcing free books (I was getting very close to my legal deadline) but it was too depressing. I knew what to expect. All those pure bargain hunters who never considered actually buying a book would stream in when they were free. The last time I’d done that on Queen Street, I’d had colleagues up the street phoning me to complain that people were bringing them my free books to sell them (this after begging free bags from me to carry them). I decided these people were not getting my books. I called a few of the young dealers who had come to the sale and told them to come in for free books. (One young dealer who I called didn’t return my call and missed out entirely. I wonder if he ever wonders why I called him.)

The young dealers arrived and took bags of free books and I felt better they were going to real book people. Then I called an old friend long in the trade who I suspected might be having difficult times in the current situation and gave them the remaining 3,000 to 4,000 books. These were still very good books, it should be understood – for years I’d had no room for dross or cheap used books. Many were modern first editions in the $45.00 to $70.00 range, bound French books, much Canadian literature, now in the doldrums, and modern but interesting general literature – like the pretty leather Collins Classics, leather Everymans, and pretty gift type books, handsome full leather odd volumes from 18th century sets and such things.

I found my instincts were right. After the initial pain at seeing so many very good books go out the door, I found I felt really good. Not only had I saved my books from unworthy people, I had helped some friends. But mostly I had respected the books. And as always, I soon forgot those books and started buying more. For the flow never stops and the surprises and pleasures of the new discoveries never ends. Which is what bookselling has always been and always will be.

NOTE: Please forgive the repetition between this blog and the October 13, 2017 one. I’d like to give a reasonable explanation, but the truth is that I’d forgotten I’d written the previous blog. I never look at my website, it’s true, but still… This from a man who when young considered himself to have the best memory of any bookseller in Canada. To add to that I must explain that the difference between the figures in the two blogs was that I found another stock of previously pulled books which I’d also forgotten. Perhaps it is better that Debra is taking over. You will note I’m sure that the sentiments in both blogs are the same. 

Posted By DMB

A friend recently asked me when I would add anything new to my Blog which made me realize that at least one person was looking occasionally. I had forgotten that some people actually read such things; in my enthusiasm for writing whatever I wanted on a blog originally started to inform a few friends and clients about my general state of health, I had abandoned that motive and was having fun spouting my opinions. Obviously, I am a computer illiterate – in fact Norm does everything – I just scribble it and he puts it up. I’d forgotten blogs are to read.

First my absence: I’ve had more health stuff, much of it involving over two months in hospital, a very humbling experience which taught me several unpleasant lessons. I went in for an oxygen flareup but while there they discovered at least three new diseases, one of which necessitated a major operation. This in turn caused me to need to arrange my affairs, the most compelling part of which was that Debra Dearlove and I finally married after a perhaps too short engagement of only thirty years. Naturally Debra will not be changing her name – who would change a name like that – nor will she – as she made plain – obey – in fact that wasn’t even in the ceremony. On top of that she’s taken to informing people that marriage, at least so far, isn’t all that great. Not only am I a dud but she doesn’t recommend honeymoons conducted in a series of hospital rooms with the only views other hospital windows instead of beaches and sea.

But I’m out now and making the comeback. Starting back slowly to do some work and have a life again. My biggest problem right now is functioning under the 2 hours of oxygen limit which my tank provides. Which means that anywhere I go is limited by that time limit which added to travel time constricts me. But I expect to learn the tricks to get around that as well.

The worst, for a bookman, was missing the recent Old Paper Show. I spent all that day sulking and grinding my teeth at the thought of all my books being bought by my competitors, books which rightly should have been mine. But soon I’ll be back out there again teaching those people how to do it properly.

Now back to ranting.




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