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.

I'm also willing to argue all night that used bookstores are one of the great cultural barometers and democratic touchstones--not to mention cornerstones--of any big city. If you want an indication of a town's character and complexion, or if you want to take its cultural pulse, check out its used bookstores. And in the interest of full disclosure, I'll come right out and admit that I have a vested interest in the subject: I am the co-owner of a used bookstore--Rag and Bone Books--in Minneapolis, but every single thing I think and feel about used bookstores was true years before I succumbed to the treacherous temptation to open my own.

Back in those old days, if there was a network of used bookstores it was one of old associations, word of mouth, and professional friendships forged through rare-book shows around the country, mail-order catalogs, and trade publications like the AB Bookman's Weekly. Which is to say that "network" meant something entirely different. Many serious dealers specialized, cataloged their rare books and obscurities, built up mailing lists, and traveled the book-fair circuit. Many others simply signed a lease on a location (too often in some affordable but out-of-the-way cranny of the city), opened their doors, and waited for customers to find them as the books piled up.

Most small operations could seldom afford the luxury of any sort of advertising beyond the essential (but costly) yellow pages display ad. Back then even the most efficient and business-savvy used-book dealers were often helpless to find buyers for the thousands of out-of-print and obscure titles that crowded their shelves. What were the chances somebody was just going to walk in the door one day looking for that copy of Morton T. Kelly's exhaustive study of glossolalia, Tongue Speaking, or John Swain's grimly self-explanatory A History of Torture? So often used-book selling seemed like nothing so much as a painful form of matchmaking with the longest of odds.

Peter Lochner

 

In many used bookstores, the clerk who sells you a book is probably also the person who bought it, priced it, and put it on the shelves. Often as not a store's inventory is entirely in a dealer's head. The dealer must decide when a book has worn out its welcome, after which he might either mark it down or throw it out. When it comes to inventory, the used-book business is largely a one-of-a-kind world, with merchants having little or no control over the types of books they are offered for sale. Every day used-book sellers engage in the most delicate form of public relations; they must buy books directly from their customers, a tricky and potentially hazardous proposition that is freighted with the psychology of validation and rejection. They are generally at the mercy of whatever customers will bring them through the door, or, if they still have the time and inclination, whatever they manage to scare up in their rounds of the thrift stores and garage and estate sales.

Selling books professionally only provides a convenient excuse for buying more of them, and it's a rare used-book dealer (or rare rare-book dealer) who doesn't discover that the longer she's in business the more books she has: In its first two years Rag and Bone has probably doubled the size of its inventory. You can't sell more than you buy--it just does not happen. It's impossible. Probably a third to half of the stuff you actually pay for, you never sell. People--customers, the people who want to sell you books--often don't understand that part of the deal.

"I go home at night and when I come back in the morning the books just seem to have multiplied," a book dealer in Montana once told me, bemused by the sprawl in his cramped shop, which had reached a level of disorder that would frighten most reasonable people. As a general rule of thumb, most of the weird, academic, and out-of-print books that used-book dealers have coming out their ears are precisely not the sort of titles that the average, card-carrying neighborhood book-club member is looking for. And by the time the dealers do start seeing the books everyone is looking for, everyone is no longer looking for them.

By the time the average used bookstore has ten copies of Cold Mountain and is using it for a doorstop, the next customer who wants to sell it to him will be looking for A Heartbreaking Work of Staggering Genius. Blockbuster authors like John Grisham and Danielle Steele are the used-book-world versions of Eurasian milfoil. All those people who ever tried a diet that didn't work want a used-book dealer to partially reimburse them for their failure. Those three-year-old paperbacks you have sitting around that have "New York Times Bestseller" splashed across the front cover? It's a safe bet that your local used-book dealer probably doesn't want them. Ditto for those travel guides from your 1982 vacation to Mexico. For many years Reader's Digest apparently sent their Condensed Books to every elderly person in America, but most used-book dealers are reluctant to help those same elderly people--or their heirs--recoup that investment. And, finally: Harvey Mackay? No, thank you.

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