Monday, 14 September 2009

What do we do with our Books?

Shelley Cox posted an interesting query on the ExLibris-List on Tuesday. As she explained, she has "several thousand" books, and her partner has "over 6000":

I am not talking about very rare or specialized collections, which might have some considerable monetary value, individually or as a collection. I am talking about the general collection that any booklover of any kind might accumulate over 60-80+ years of life. Most of these books might have been bought at a general interest bookstore, and … include best sellers, general non-fiction, popular science, how-to books, cook books, and books on special topics like literature, economics, psychology, etc.

Having reached the stage of planning wills and trying to figure out where these books might go, Shelley and her partner "have no idea of how to proceed."

Our local library heavily weeds its shelves and would take only a tiny percentage, relegating the rest to the book sale at $.50-$1.00. As far as I can tell, even the largest research libraries are no longer interested in these titles, even if they do not have them on the shelf. The kind of bookstores that sell used books like this are slipping away, and few bookdealers have the time, energy, transport, etc., to wrangle a large book collection. Is there some organization that would help struggling libraries who do want books? … I've been asked variants of this question a hundred times or more and have never known how to answer this. Surely someone here would have some ideas?

Well, a few people did have ideas—dealers, charities—which you will find if you look in the exLibris List (just Google a chunk of the above text).

Having been a book-collector for a long time I have also "been asked"—and asked myself—"variants of this question a hundred times." Like Shelley, I have not really known how to answer.

For more than a decade I worked in a series of second-hand bookshops in Hobart and Melbourne; as a result I knew almost everyone in the "Trade" in these cities. And as a result of constant traveling, exploring and systematic book-shopping, book-catalogue-reading, etc, I was familiar with almost every bookshop of any pretension from Adelaide to Brisbane.

But times have changed. I haven't worked in a bookshop in years, many of the shops I knew have closed, and these days I buy almost everything online. So what I was particularly interested by about this query was the comment: "The kind of bookstores that sell used books like this are slipping away …" They certainly are.

In fact, even when I was working, cataloguing stock for the internet, the rot had already set in. And the rot—as far as the dealers are concerned—was caused by amateur dealers on the internet. For book buyers, especially for collectors like me, with interests that are not parochial, this last decade has been a paradise of new buying opportunities. I bless the internet every time another Eliza Haywood volume turns up (like today). But for the dealers … the last decade has been cruel.

When I first visited the bookshops of Melbourne, Prahran was the Mecca. It took two days for me to do the rounds. Now it is all-but deserted and, for me, there isn't a single shop there I'd want to visit. I spend just as much now as then, but not locally. I keep hearing about more shops closing, and every time I do I feel a little guilty.

(The latest very sad loss was a tiny place in Cheltenham full of cheap sci-fi paperbacks, with a mix of other books. I never knew the name of the shop, there was no point remembering it because the proprietor didn't have a phone or a web-page to look up. That was the beauty of the place: no margin added to cover such things. Well, without warning, it is gone. And no indication of where.)

And as each shop closes, there are fewer dealers left to help sift and recycle Shelley's general books for another generation of readers. And as the numbers decrease, the remaining dealers are so over-supplied by all the would-be sellers that they can be more and more selective about what they take and what they pay, that the situation becomes increasingly desperate for dealers and sellers alike.

So, what will become of all the gzillions of general books that Shelley mentions? Nine-tenths of them will probably be pulped. There is not, in fact, anything useful, uplifting, worthwhile, or satisfying to be done with them.

Ten years ago a standard $20.00 book—what was standard shelf-filler—was worth about $2.00 to a dealer. Now it is worth nothing, a liability. You can still sell such a book on eBay, and you can get your $2.00, but you have to ignore what you paid for the book, all your time, and your overheads (mortgage anyone?). In other words you have to ignore the fact that you loose money on every sale. You'd be better sending them to be pulped. (That people, nevertheless, keep selling books for $2.00 is great for the remaining buyers, at least until they have to consider what they will do with their books when they die …)

Funnily enough, there is a "lesson from history" on this subject. One of the reasons so few eighteenth-century books survive is that paper was quite expensive. If you needed a fire-lighter, or a pie-base, or a piece of paper to stop your curling iron burning your hair, or if you need something to use in the toilet, you used whatever scrap-paper you had at hand, and that "scrap" included books. Just consider a world in which toilet-paper was not to be had at your local grocer and you will understand why so few books survive. Although we pulp our paper before re-using it, the principle is much the same.

So enjoy your books while you have them, but you might just have to accept the fact that, when you are dead, your books are likely to become bum-fodder.*

*Public Advertiser, Tuesday, 17 April 1753: "This Day at Noon will be published, Price 6d. Bum-Fodder for the Ladies. A Poem, upon soft Paper. Printed for the Author, and sold at the Pamphlet-shops at Westminster-Hall, Charing-Cross, Temple-Bar, and the Royal Exchange."


Doc-in-Boots said...

Unless you 'recycle' the books. There are many options. See this Etsy shop: But hopefully these things will cycle and as a new generation begins to find paperbacks and hardbacks of interest again, the little shops will pop up again - or their online equivalents will find a way to make money.

Patrick Spedding said...

Well, not to be too pedantic, but the etsy link you give is to recycled book covers, pretty ones at that. No doubt the pretty books are not in danger of the sort of recycling I am taking about.

Most of the worthwhile books I have in mind are—frankly—pretty dull to look at. I can't see more than a tiny fraction of them continuing to awakening the interest of readers and collectors. Especially when so much of the contents of these books are now available online.

Nobody ever had 5000 books because they were endlessly reading them all from cover to cover. Collections such as that belonging to Shelly and her partner are full of books for reference, not strictly speaking utilitarian (though she mentions cook books and such), but useful.

The supply of these useful books is already significantly higher than demand, and demand seems set to continue to shrink as we increasingly turn to the internet for information we once wanted to have in books on our shelves.

And, as long as technology favours hobbyist sellers (like on etsy) then buyers will continue to buy from the hobbyists (who are cheaper and, collectively, offer a greater range of books), rather than either the little shops or their online equivalents that you mention.

So, smaller demand, increasingly supplied by hobbyists. Most booksellers will give up and most of the general books people like Shelly own will have no value. To paraphrase my favourite essay: These "worthwhile" books will be drawn towards the pulp mills by a force as persistent as gravity.

Doc-in-Boots said...

True, they are prettier recycled covers, but there are other people recycling less pretty, whole books into new objects.

I would draw a distinction between Etsy hobbyists and bookselling hobbyists, though. On Etsy, objects are generally made - there is an investment of resources and time and most objects are competitively priced in accordance with the more commercial sellers. Etsy soap is not necessarily cheaper than supermarket soap, but people pay for the 'uniqueness' of products, as well as the goodwill factor of dealing directly with the maker. The hobbyist selling books is rather different in these respects.

Books for reference are surely also suffering in the current climate since information has moved progressively online. I find myself using actual dictionaries and encyclopedias and other reference books far less now that I can go online and find more up-to-date, varied information. Yes, at times such information is 'dodgy,' but it's not as though reference books are foolproof.