By Lorne Bair
Part I: The Crisis
For a few years now, there’s been a crisis* brewing in the rare book industry.** Small, regional book fairs all over the country are disappearing at a rate matched only by that of the (not coincidental) disappearance of brick-and-mortar used bookshops. Why or whether we should be concerned about either phenomenon is a matter of open debate among antiquarian booksellers. Some maintain that the demise is inevitable and that we need simply to adapt to it; if the world doesn’t want bookshops, set up websites; when they no longer want books, sell them ephemera; when they no longer want ephemera, sell them manuscripts; after manuscripts, art (and so on… I don’t know what we get to after art, and I don’t care). Others maintain that it’s our duty to do everything in our power to halt this creeping evil: if we don’t fight for our own existence, who will? My own feelings on the matter remain more or less agnostic. Where books are concerned, we are in the middle of a vast cultural shift. There is a feeling of inevitability around the whole thing and, though no one seems quite certain exactly what the inevitable outcome will actually be, we within the trade are probably least equipped to view the situation with the necessary detachment to make a rational response to it. I’m content with this. I’ve always been a lousy prognosticator, and thinking about the future makes me feel dyspeptic on the best of days.That said, it might be valuable for the uninitiated (a burgeoning demographic) to understand what exactly I’m describing when I talk about a “small, regional book fair” or a “brick-and-mortar used bookshop,” and perhaps to understand how the two depend upon and complement one another - and even to get an inkling of what we’re talking about when we talk about their twin demise.
Believe it or not, there was once a time when even the smallest of American cities could boast at least one modest used bookshop. And this time was not so long ago - certainly within the span of my adulthood, which began (depending on which former girlfriend you talk to) some time between 1978 and 1986. These bookshops occupied an important niche in the biblio-ecosystem: booksellers were to old attics as termites are to the forest floor, clearing out the heaviest and least desirable remnants of past lives and housing them long enough (and long enough sometimes meant decades) for them to be moved along … usually to wind up in some other attic, but in special cases into the hands of some predator higher on the food chain, who might begin the process of moving things still further along, into the hands of a curator or a major collector (a description of how this mechanism works - or might work in an ideal world - can be found in my earlier post regarding the New York Book Fair).
Bookshops were also the main point of entry, not only for aspiring bibliophiles, but also for lovers of the printed word in all its incarnations. I need think only of myself, as a teenager and aspiring writer in the mid-Seventies, hanging out in the cheap room of Allen Stypeck’s Second Story Books on Dupont Circle in D.C. (I still own the rather shabby volume of Balzac’s Contes Drolatiques I bought there in 1975). Or, later, as a practicing (alas, practice never made perfect) poet in Eugene, Oregon, haunting daily the stacks of the wonderful J. Michael’s Books on Broadway - the shop which, incidentally, was the exemplar upon which I modeled my own bookshop a few years later. My own shop, where, at least once a day, I had the privilege of turning some young person on to a book I loved, or even to share my trade secrets, such as they were, with other aspiring booksellers — several of whom are still in the business, despite having been exposed to my advice. Book dealers are by and large a voluble bunch, and most will talk for as long as there’s someone to listen to them (if we seem quiet, it’s probably because, having got wind of our volubility, most of our friends and public have learned not to get us started). Suffice it to say that a great deal of educating, good and bad, necessary and unnecessary, has gone on in bookshops. And until recently there were a lot of bookshops. As long as there have been attics in America, there have been books. That’s a lot of books, and a lot of booksellers and customers were needed to digest them.
The regional book fair, though a more recent phenomenon, has served a less ubiquitous but perhaps similarly useful purpose. Slightly “better” books, those needing a special (read: better-heeled) audience to appreciate them, have always been a hard sell in the hinterlands. That’s not a knock on the hinterlands, mind you - it’s simply a matter of mathematics. Even in the most culturally advanced localities, I would venture a guess that no better than one in ten thousand people can be properly called a “book collector.” When one’s entire metropolitan region is comprised of just a few thousand souls, you don’t need sophisticated math to see that there aren’t many bibliophiles to go around. Book fairs provide, first, an audience, and second, a context in which less common books can be appreciated. So whereas a used book dealer in Pocatello might hesitate to put a rare and expensive 19th-century book on the life history of the caddis fly out for sale among his stacks of Louis L’Amour paperbacks - realizing correctly that such a gesture would serve only to confuse his regular clientele - the book fair provides an environment where such a book, if priced realistically, might actually find an enthusiastic buyer. And in the course of a year, it’s not unreasonable to expect the backwoods bookseller to amass a few dozen to a few hundred such gems. The regional book fair becomes his way of getting them into the hands of real customers at prices that make the time and effort of properly cataloguing and conserving them worthwhile.
Regional book fairs have also served an important social function. The country bookseller (and this is even truer in this age of basement-dwelling database-listers) lives an isolated existence. Book fairs give him an opportunity, a few times a year, to get out of his hovel and into the world, among his peers. Though not generally pretty, this is not an entirely bad thing; for in addition to all the questionable behaviors normally associated with lonely men and women visiting a strange city with fresh and unencumbered wads of cash in their pockets, much useful trading of information goes on. Less experienced dealers get to rub elbows with others who’ve been in the trade for decades. Questions get asked and answered; mistakes get made (we all learn best from our mistakes!); books, catalogs, and specialties get seen and distributed. As aspiring bibliophiles once received their education in bookshops, booksellers aspiring to something more than Louis L’Amour paperbacks often received their first exposure to the antiquarian realm at their local book fair.
In the early 2000s, of course, this entire dynamic began to shift. Brick-and-mortar bookshops, under pressure from higher rents during the real estate bubble and competition from the internet, began to shutter. For a very brief period, this actually caused a number of small, local book fairs to flourish, as erstwhile shopkeepers, finding internet-only selling to be perhaps less meditative (or less profitable) than they’d anticipated, began looking for ways to sell their better inventory. Bibliophiles, too, suddenly deprived of the pleasure of poking around their local shop, began seeking out their local fairs. It looked as though a new era of book fairs might be on the horizon - but it wasn’t. It took about five years, but the internet, to put it bluntly, killed whatever market still existed for the sorts of books that have traditionally been bought and sold at regional book fairs: the slightly out-of-the-ordinary, the out-of-print, the middling-rare. On one hand, the ready availability of digital texts has reduced the imperative for scholars to build private libraries. On another hand, books once thought uncommon (when the only way to procure them was through one’s local bookshop, or at a book fair) are now, thanks to the vast profusion of titles for sale on internet bookselling sites, readily available to anyone with a computer. So, like bookshops, book fairs have begun disappearing, silent victims of the Internet Terror.
Should anyone care? Well, again, it’s probably not for me to say; I’ve got an awful lot at stake in this mess and can hardly be counted upon to give a disinterested answer. In the big scheme of things, I suppose those stakes are pretty small. Maybe best if I simply propose a few questions and leave my readers to discover the answers on their own.
The first question is the most obvious: how does one find a book one doesn’t know about on-line?
Second: without bookshops, where does a fifteen-year-old go to learn about old books? The internet? Really?
Third: without book fairs, where does a novice bookseller go to learn about rare books?
Fourth: if fifteen-year-olds are not learning about old books; and if novice booksellers are not learning about rare books, who is to carry on the rare book trade after the current generation of collectors and booksellers dies?
Fifth: if there is no one left to carry on the rare book trade in say, thirty years, what will happen to all the old books?
Sixth: do you have an attic I could borrow?
*I use this word “crisis” advisedly, specifically upon the advice of my old friend Kevin Heubusch, who once took me to task for my office answering machine message: If your call is urgent or if you have an emergency, please reach me on my cell phone at… “Really, Lorne?,” Kevin asked. “Is there any such thing as a rare bookselling emergency?” I had to concede the point.
**This word, too. I hear it a lot in this context, but I’ve never been invited to the factory where they crank out Shakespeare First Folios.
Stay tuned for Part II, “The Trip” – coming soon, and illustrated!
(Posted on Minivan of the Revolution. Presented here by permission of the author.)