Rare Book Monthly

Articles - March - 2011 Issue

31 Laid Off at Powell's - But What Does It Mean?

Powell's03-11

Powell's main branch, their "City of Books."

Powell's Books, the large Portland, Oregon, retail store and online bookseller recently announced that it would be laying off 31 employees. This represents 7% of its unionized workforce. This number somewhat masks actual decline in employment according to a union representative who estimated a reduction of around 40 more employees over the past year due to attrition. Management concluded attrition was insufficient considering the decline in sales. Between attrition and this layoff, the drop in union employees over the past year would amount to over 15%.

 

Our focus here at AE is on older and collectible books, while this is primarily a story about new books. Nonetheless, the long-term implications for the collectible book trade raise questions.

 

In a press release, Powell's stated that "changing consumer behavior" is the primary cause for the downsizing. In particular, they pointed to the declining sales of new physical books, many of those sales now going to electronic editions. An email sent to employees was more blunt:  "Sales for this fiscal year are down and we expect this trend will continue. The largest decreases have been in new book sales. We see this as a clear indication that we are losing sales to electronic books and reading devices. Given the company's declining sales, combined with industry data on the rapid growth of electronic book sales, we expect to see continuing erosion of new book sales over the next few years. While we believe we can compensate for some of the loss with solid used book sales and growth in gift sales, the erosion of new book sales will continue to take its toll."

 

In addition to the lay off of 31 union employees, Powell's told its non-union workers that, while not being laid off, they will be subject to a one-year pay freeze as of July 1, and almost immediately company contributions to their 401k (retirement) accounts would be suspended for at least a year. Unionized workers not laid off will retain all current benefits.

 

Those in the old book trade may be able to take some solace from the claim of "solid used book sales." However, the press release included a statement from Powell's President Emily Powell that is particularly prescient, while at the same time vague:  "I feel it is critical to make some very difficult adjustments at this time, to address our current reality and to prepare the company for success in the future, a future that looks very different than our business today."

 

Certainly, Ms. Powell is correct that the future be will be very different from today. The problem is, no one knows exactly what it will look like. We can anticipate some changes, such as continued loss in sales of hard copies to electronic ones, but who could have foreseen this five years ago? We can predict based on trends we see, but technological changes represent hard to anticipate breakthroughs that can totally change the paradigm. Will there be more technological advances in the book field in the years ahead comparable to the development of the electronic reader? Undoubtedly.

 

What we can logically predict is the number of copies of printed books produced will continue to decline, perhaps at an accelerating rate. There will be fewer copies printed of future important books, fewer copies available for collectors. That part of the equation doesn't sound bad for those in the book trade. However, the other half of the equation is will future generations, particularly those who grew up reading electronic copies, have an interest in collecting printed editions? This question applies not only to books published in the future, but to all of those from the past lining our shelves. Whoever knows the answer to this question probably knows what the future holds in store for the book trade.

 

Perhaps the question is even larger than books. What (if anything) will people of the future collect as more "things" become electronic? Will people who love books be content with having a large electronic library, or will they want something they can touch? You might be able to build an interesting collection of electronic books in your field, but there is no rarity, no exclusivity in that. It can be duplicated with a click of a mouse. Will such ease of duplication dissuade or encourage collecting, and if it dissuades it, will people look for physical copies to collect or simply not collect books at all?

 

This question may depend on to what extent people see books as physical things. Records, tapes, even CDs went through this change sooner than books. Some people do collect old records, and vinyl is still produced in small quantities, but this does not appear to be a particularly vibrant field. Some people do appreciate old album art and plastic disks, but to most these seem to be simply older means of conveying sound, rather than something to be appreciated in themselves. On the other hand, you can now get digital art, electronic screens one can hang on the wall with a work of art - even the Mona Lisa if you so desire. The reproduction may be good, but I have seen little evidence that such electronic art is making serious inroads on the collecting of physical paintings. Where do books fall in this line between music and paintings, appreciated as physical objects or not so much appreciated? I don't know, though it will probably determine the long-term value of those bound volumes of paper currently resting on our shelves. The collectibility may rest on something as simple as ability to display. Paintings can be displayed fully on the wall, records, with their narrow spines, barely at all. Books on a shelf fall somewhere in between.

 

Rare Book Monthly

  • <center><b>Galleri Bygdoy Allé<br>Sales Exhibition Catalogue 47<br>Part III<br>Antiquarian Temptations:<br>Rare Books, Atlases & Maps,<br>Photos & Manuscripts</b>
    <b>Galleri Bygdoy Allé:</b> PIETER MORTIER. “Le Neptune Francois ou Atlas Nouveau des Cartes Marines. Levées et Gravées par ordre Exprés du Roy…” Paris, 1693.
    <b>Galleri Bygdoy Allé:</b> MARC CHAGALL illus. SHAKESPEARE. “The Tempest.” Large folio. Monte-Carlo, 1975. Signed by the artist.
    <b>Galleri Bygdoy Allé:</b> JOHN SPEED and followers. “A New and Accurate Map of the World.” Hand-colored engraving. London (1626 – 1627 – circa 1650) – 1676.
    <center><b>Galleri Bygdoy Allé<br>Sales Exhibition Catalogue 47<br>Part III<br>Antiquarian Temptations:<br>Rare Books, Atlases & Maps,<br>Photos & Manuscripts</b>
    <b>Galleri Bygdoy Allé:</b> MATTHÄUS SEUTTER. “The Colossus Series.” Set of 4 prints, contemporary hand-colored engravings, each c. 57x49cm. Augsburg c. 1730
    <b>Galleri Bygdoy Allé:</b> (CHARLES LE BRUN). “La Grande Galerie De Versailles, et Les Deux Salons qui L’Accompagnent, peints Par Charles Le Brun premier Peintre de Louis XIV…” Paris, 1752.
    <b>Galleri Bygdoy Allé:</b> G. BRAUN – F. HOGENBERG. “Danorum Marca.” Contemporary hand-colored engraving, 33x48cm. Cologne, 1588.
  • <b>Bonhams, June 29:</b> LIFE OF OSLER, PRESENTATION COPY TO NEPHEW NORMAN GWYN. CUSHING, HARVEY. 1869-1939. <i>The Life of Sir William Osler.</i> Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1925. $1,500 to $2,500.
    <b>Bonhams, June 29:</b> OSLER TO HALSTED MENTIONING CUSHING AND WELCH. Autograph Letter Signed ("Wm Osler") to William Stewart Halsted on medical matters, 2 pp, January 19, 1919. $1,500 to $2,500.
    <b>Bonhams, June 29:</b> CUSHING PRESENTATION COPY TO LUCIEN PRICE. CUSHING, HARVEY. <i>Intracranial Tumours.</i> Springfield, 1932. $1,000 to $1,500.
    <b>Bonhams, June 29:</b> OSLER ON HIS CHILDHOOD. Autograph Letter Signed ("Wm Osler") to Mabel [Brewster] on returning home to Staplehurst. $800 to $1,200.
    <b>Bonhams, June 29:</b> SCULTETUS, JOHANNES. 1595-1645. <i>Cheiroplotheke, seu armamentarium chirurgicum XLIII.</i> Ulm: Balthasar Kühnen, 1655. $3,000 to $4,000.
    <b>Bonhams, June 29:</b> VICQ D'AZYR, FELIX. 1748-1794. <i>Traite d'anatomie et de physiologie.</i> Paris: Didot l'aine, 1786. $3,000 to $5,000.
    <b>Bonhams, June 29:</b> TAGAULT, JEAN. C.1499-1546. <i>De chirugica institutione libri quinque....</i> Lyon: Guillaume Rouillé, 1549. $400 to $600.
    <b>Bonhams, June 30:</b> EDWARD S. CURTIS (1868-1952). Autograph Logs and Journals from his 1927 Alaska Expedition. $7,000 to $ 9,000.
    <b>Bonhams, June 30:</b> EDWARD S. CURTIS (1868-1952). Cañon de Chelley, 1904. Oversized orotone, 17 x 22in in original Curtis Studio frame. $30,000 to $50,000.
    <b>Bonhams, June 30:</b> EDWARD S. CURTIS (1868-1952). 26 cyanotypes, featuring images of Cheyenne tribes from Volume VI of <i>North American Indian,</i> c.1907, made by Curtis in the field. $30,000 to $50,000.
    <b>Bonhams, June 30:</b> EDWARD S. CURTIS (1868-1952). The Vanishing Race, 1904. Oversized orotone, 18 x 24in in original Curtis Studio frame. $20,000 to $30,000.
  • <center><b>Cowan’s<br>American Historical Ephemera<br>& Photography<br>June 25, 2021</b>
    <b>Cowan’s, June 25:</b> [CIVIL WAR] -- [SHERIDAN, Philip Henry]. Personal headquarters flag of Philip Henry Sheridan used when he led the 2nd Michigan Cavalry. Spring - Summer 1862. $20,000 to $30,000.
    <b>Cowan’s, June 25:</b> [EARLY PHOTOGRAPHY]. Half plate daguerreotype of firefighter Walter Van Erven Dorens. [San Francisco]: n.p., [ca 1854-1856]. $15,000 to $25,000.
    <b>Cowan’s, June 25:</b> [LINCOLNIANA]. Abraham Lincoln banner possibly made for the 1864 presidential campaign. $10,000 to $15,000.
    <center><b>Cowan’s<br>American Historical Ephemera<br>& Photography<br>June 25, 2021</b>
    <b>Cowan’s, June 25:</b> [REVOLUTIONARY WAR - CONTINENTAL CONGRESS]. [HOLTEN, Dr. Samuel]. An archive of letters related to Danvers, Massachusetts, physician and statesman Dr. Samuel Holten. $10,000 to $15,000.
    <b>Cowan’s, June 25:</b> [UNION PACIFIC RAILROAD]. CARBUTT, John, photographer. Exceptional collection of 27 stereoviews from the series, "Excursion to the 100th Meridian, October 1866." Chicago, [1866]. $10,000 to $15,000.
    <b>Cowan’s, June 25:</b> [ALASKAN GOLD RUSH]. William Steele West and family, extensive archive of photographs, diaries, correspondence, and personal items. [Ca 19th - 20th century]. $8,000 to $12,000.
    <center><b>Cowan’s<br>American Historical Ephemera<br>& Photography<br>June 25, 2021</b>
    <b>Cowan’s, June 25:</b> [TAYLOR, Zachary]. Quarter plate daguerreotype featuring the 12th President of the United States. N.p.: n.p., [ca 1845]. $8,000 to $10,000.
    <b>Cowan’s, June 25:</b> [WASHINGTON, George]. Signed Society of the Cincinnati document. $5,000 to $7,000.
    <b>Cowan’s, June 25:</b> LINCOLN, Abraham. Autograph endorsement signed ("A. Lincoln"), as President. [Washington], 29 September 1862. 1 page, 4to, old creases. $5,000 to $7,000.
    <center><b>Cowan’s<br>American Historical Ephemera<br>& Photography<br>June 25, 2021</b>
    <b>Cowan’s, June 25:</b> JEFFERSON, Thomas. Autograph letter signed ("Th. Jefferson"), as United States President, to Robert Patterson. Washington DC, 2 July 1805. 1 page, 4to, evenly toned, small tear from seal. $4,000 to $6,000.
    <b>Cowan’s, June 25:</b> [EARLY PHOTOGRAPHY] -- [ALCOTT, Elizabeth Sewall]. Ninth plate ruby ambrotype attributed to Elizabeth Sewall Alcott. N.p., [ca 1856-1857]. $3,000 to $5,000.
    <b>Cowan’s, June 25:</b> [WESTERN AMERICANA]. RUSSELL, Andrew Joseph, photographer. <i>Salt Lake City, From the Top of the Tabernacle.</i> [1869]
  • <b><center>Sotheby’s<br>Livres et Manuscrits :<br>de Cervantès à Houellebecq<br>18 – 25 June</b>
    <b>Sotheby’s, 18 – 25 June:</b> Jouve, Paul -- François-Louis Schmied -- Rudyard Kipling. <i>Le Livre de la Jungle,</i> 1919.<br>€ 80,000 to € 120,000.
    <b>Sotheby’s, 18 – 25 June:</b> Cervantès Saavedra, Miguel de. <i>El ingenioso hidalgo Don Quixote de la Mancha.</i> Bruxelles, 1607.<br>€ 30,000 to € 50,000.
    <b>Sotheby’s, 18 – 25 June:</b> Buren, Daniel - Aimé Césaire. Cahier d'un retour au pays natal. Solstice, 2004. 1/140 ex. Avec 1/20 suites d'œuvres originales.<br>€ 4,000 to € 6,000.
    <b>Sotheby’s, 18 – 25 June:</b> [Musique] - Gioacchino Traversa. Six sonates à violon seul. [Vers 1770].<br>€ 3,000 to € 5,000.
  • <b>Swann Auction Galleries Jun 24:</b> C.F. Payne, <i>Micawber, Imitating Norman Rockwell’s “Triple self-portrait,”</i> mixed media, 2002. $800 to $1,200.
    <b>Swann Auction Galleries Jun 24:</b> Brian Froud, media illustration published in <i>The Land of Froud,</i> 1977. Estimate $6,000 to $9,000.
    <b>Swann Auction Galleries Jun 24:</b> Haddon Sundblom, <i>All a Girl Needs,</i> oil on canvas, published in <i>The Ladies’ Home Journal,</i> 1942. $8,000 to $10,000.
    <b>Swann Auction Galleries Jun 24:</b> Adrianne Lobel, <i>My One and Only,</i> 26 scenic concept collages for the Broadway musical, 1983. $6,000 to $9,000.
    <b>Swann Auction Galleries Jun 24:</b> Charles Schulz, original four-panel pen and ink <i>Peanuts</i> comic strip, 1971. $15,000 to $25,000.
    <b>Swann Auction Galleries Jun 24:</b>Jack Davis, mixed media cartoon for <i>Playboy,</i> 1959. $6,000 to $9,000.
    <b>Swann Auction Galleries Jun 24:</b> Charles Addams, mixed media cartoon for <i>The New Yorker,</i> 1937. $6,000 to $9,000.

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