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. 

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