The Rare Book Trade - Fresh Carpets
By Greg Gibson
Recently, on the Internet discussion lists of the two biggest bookselling trade groups - IOBA and ABAA - I’ve been reading disheartening reports. Sales are down. Postage is up. And the big listing sites like AMAZON, ABE and Alibris are raising fees, reducing service and enforcing increasingly byzantine procedures aimed at making it easier and more profitable for them rather than the book dealers who patronize them. Sounds like the way gun nuts talk about their Second Amendment rights. Python coils, and all that.
Louis Collins, however, is doing just fine.
He’s been in business since the 1960s and it’s obvious that he’s got a few things figured out. His trade isn’t dependent on the location, size, or contents of his shop. And, though he does own a bricks and mortar operation on Denny Way in Seattle (known, unsurprisingly, as Louis Collins Books), the shop is closed to the general public. Still, business is good, and Louis feels little or no pinch from the three nasty A’s. What’s his secret?
He told me, “30-40% of the books I sell on Amazon and ABE are the only copies online. With Alibris, the percentage is even higher. Something like 40-50%. No other copies online.”
This, in itself, is not an earth shaking accomplishment. Many of the books I list are the only copies on the Internet. But they are esoteric and expensive, and it could be inferred that I’m the only one foolish enough to think these items have the kinds of values I assign to them. Sales results tend to support that supposition.
But most of Louis’s books are in the $20-30 range.
Here are the first few searchable keywords for books on Louis’s website:
aung san suu kyi
britain in pictures
tibetan book of the dead
Most of these terms are unfamiliar to me. Without Googling it, I don’t know whether “Abkhasia” is a medical condition, a rare animal, or a country on the Black Sea. But Louis might sell me a book about Abkhasia, possibly for under $30, and there will not be any other copies competing for my attention.
This suggests (to me, anyway) an alternative strategy for booksellers feeling crushed by AMAZON, ABE and Alibris. Instead of slugging it with our colleagues for the next "Girl" book by Larsson (650 matches, last time I checked) or whomever, only to see it languish on the Internet, along with its dozens of similarly priced competitors, one’s time might be better spent exploring more esoteric fields… being a little more open to what might be a “good” book.
Louis has spent 40 years carving out a niche, but there are still niches to be carved.
I’m not suggesting that anyone give up what they’re doing and devote themselves to the geography and politics of the Caucasus – “Abkhasia”. It just seems to me that some of our frustration is self-generated. We're trapped in our own ideas of what's "good."
Speaking of self generated frustration, a jogging accident outside my hotel landed me in the emergency room at Swedish Hospital inSeattle Saturday morning. The duty nurse told me my timing had been perfect. It was still early on a weekend morning and people hadn’t started hurting themselves yet. They had me back to work by lunchtime, all fixed up with crutches and a leg brace and pills. Life was "good."
The Seattle Book Fair was good, too. By the time I got back from the hospital the Seattle Center was full of eager shoppers. Of course, they didn’t buy anything from me, but they never do. So this fair “met my expectations.” People with real books - Andy Nettel, for example, of Back of Beyond Books just across the aisle from me - was writing up slips all day.
I spent a little under $10K, some of it on WWIT purchases – “What Was I Thinking?” – and some on genuinely neat stuff like this big Hawaiian poster.
As always, the aforementioned Louis Collins ran a smooth show.
He is a man of many secrets, most of which he keeps in plain sight. I believe his secret for keeping this fair humming is wide aisles, good lighting, and fresh carpets.
There’s just something about that fresh carpet smell…
(Posted on Bookman’s Log. Presented here by permission of the author.)