The Book Keeper

Yesterday's used-book dealer was a far-flung librarian of Babel. Success on the Internet may make tomorrow's a desk-bound day trader.

Many dealers could tell similar, if more modest, Internet success stories. Yet many would also agree that the experience raises serious questions about long-term independence and stability. Some dealers argue that the anonymous Internet free-for-all poses a potentially disastrous threat to the centuries-old customs and culture of used-book selling. In barely six years the Internet has brought more changes to the used- and rare-book business than it had seen in the previous several hundred years, and at this early stage of the relationship it's probably too soon to tell whether the World Wide Web is keeping stores alive or killing them off--or, worse, slowly killing them off even as it is keeping them alive.

 

David Dale ran his Bookdales as an open shop in the Twin Cities for more than 25 years, but in 1999, with his Internet business booming and store traffic down, he moved to a smaller space around the corner from his old location, cut his retail hours to Saturday afternoons and now spends most of his days jockeying books on and off the Net. He also lists books through ABE, but he devotes most of his time and energy to hawking stuff on eBay.

Peter Lochner

Dale figures he sends out 30 to 40 packages a week. "All things considered, I'd have to say the Internet has been a good thing," he says. "It certainly broadens the horizons. If you can just find the one guy who's looking for a book you've had around forever, well, that's a beautiful thing when you're sitting on tens of thousands of books."

Dale admits that ten years ago he never would have imagined that he'd end up sitting in his closed store selling his books on the Internet, but says that he continues to enjoy the work nonetheless. "The big thing is that this is still mine," he says. "I work for myself. I do it when I want, how I want, and if there are any rewards they're all mine."

Dale works alone (or with his wife Joyce) and, for him, the solitary nature of the job and the long hours remain a fair tradeoff for the independence. Of his fraternity he says, "I think at heart we're all immigrant Norwegian farmers following a plow up and down the fields." That may not sound like a life of brass bands and roses--nor of easy Internet millions--but Dale's point is this: It beats working for the Man.

 

The average used- or rare-book dealer lives surrounded by questions and answers, the accumulated wisdom and pitched afflatus of dead geniuses sharing shelf space with all manner of mid-list failures, hacks, crackpots, and blockbusters blown back to earth. A used bookstore is equal parts curiosity shop and museum of humility, the publishing industry's dead-letter office, posterity's pit stop or graveyard. Beyond the obvious and versatile question of Why--Why doesn't this book sell? Why was this one ever published?--is a broader, more philosophical question. Why has a given shop, and by extension its owner, been chosen by the universe as a vessel for these mysteries, and the site of their endless, ultimately fruitless investigation?

Book lovers and industry observers have rightfully bemoaned the demise of so many independent bookstores over the past decade, but such talk has too often failed to recognize that during that same decade used bookstores--most of them truly, fiercely independent operations--have continued to proliferate. There are more than 30 used bookstores currently operating in the Twin Cities, and on any given day virtually any one of them will be like a cross between the Library of Babel and Heraclitus's river. (Heraclitus was the guy who said that all things are in flux and thus you can't step in the same river twice, a statement that is truer of used bookstores than of anything else I can think of, because, to doctor the original a bit, for every book that goes out the door "other and yet other books are forever flowing in.").

According to some industry estimates approximately 98 percent of all the books ever published are out of print, and those volumes spend their long retirement circulating among the used bookstores of the world, changing hands dozens of times or simply gathering dust among the other books on the crowded shelves. Somewhere along the line all such books failed the test of a fickle marketplace, but many of them are glorious failures, great, neglected novels, obscure treatises on everything from dowsing to rainbows, books that have fallen out of fashion or were simply ahead of their time.

Used-book sellers are the custodians of such repositories, and every one puts his own stamp on his store. There are as many different types of used-book dealers as there are stores: You have pirates, procurers, polymaths; curators, collectors, connoisseurs. There are shops that are archaeological digs of vertigo-inducing disorder, crawling with cats or noisy with the racket of birds, and others as neat and quiet as any library, with displays and inventory worthy of a museum. There are gargantuan clearinghouses and modest paperback exchanges. But from the proprietors of the humble to the humongous, I'm prepared to swear to God on a $30,000 deluxe Barry Moser-illustrated PennyRoyal Press edition of the Bible (30 copies printed on Twinrocker paper, whatever the hell that is) that I've never met a used-book dealer who couldn't be making more money doing something else.

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