Bookselling In A Time Of Coronavirus
- by Susan Halas
CLOSED. Booksellers all over the world are feeling the impact of the corona virus shutdown on their businesses.
The whole world, including your Hawaii correspondent, is working from home. At Rare Book Hub we reached out to some booksellers for comment. Those who responded included some friends in the San Francisco Bay area and other locations including Mexico and UK. Here are their responses, somewhat edited.
Alexander Akin- Bolerium Books - Social Movements, San Francisco
Before the shelter-in-place order, I was already taking precautions in the shop, using disinfectant wipes on shared surfaces, etc. Because I have family and friends in East Asia I saw a lot of this stuff coming early; the positive side of that was that the shutdown didn't catch us by surprise.
Fortunately the vast majority of our business is online and via the mail, so closing the shop to customers was not a huge problem, and we have a large space with three rooms, so that social distancing for the skeleton crew working on mail order has been possible.
Since mid-March, the only people working in the shop are those who can walk there. Luckily we have been in a position to keep paying everyone, even those staying at home. I have been cataloging from my house and bringing the material to the shop - gussied up in my mask and gloves - where I set it aside in a separate room for a "quarantine" period, just to be safe, before anyone else touches it.
There was a sharp drop in sales at first, and most of our library customers are out of the picture at the moment, but the shop has seen a surprising boost in individual orders recently, with even more purchases per week than usual - though generally for cheaper stuff.
The extraordinarily hard-working skeleton crew is having trouble handling that much packing, but trying to get more staff to come in and share the workload would be risky, so instead I've cut back on my cataloging from home.
Longer-term, I think that people who haven't been following the course of this pandemic in Asia are going to be surprised at what a long process recovery will be. In comparison to the competent and disciplined responses in places like Taiwan, Hong Kong and Singapore, we have been hobbled by complacency, denial, and the sort of botched preparations that result from a false sense of superiority.
Our shop relies on the postal service as our lifeline at this time, and that's under pressure. One big challenge I foresee is a significant collapse in business with libraries and museums, possibly for a couple of years, due to reduced budgets that fall victim to the broader economic downturn.
During the last recession, we lost our largest customers and it brought the shop a lot of trouble. Since then, we've tried to structure things a bit differently, and for the time being at least, it's holding us over without any loss of jobs.
The main ways we restructured were by trying to develop new customers all the time, and to be tolerant of the hassles of dealing with the services like AbeBooks, Amazon, etc., which are often the first contact "civilian" customers have with us. Abe in particular has been off the charts recently. People are stuck at home and looking for inexpensive stuff to buy.
San Francisco, CA 94110
(800) 326-6353 (415) 863-6353
Chris Volk, BookFever.com, Ione Ca, near Sacramento- Online booksellers
Right now sales are actually good, but I really, really don't expect them to stay that way! With libraries and physical bookstores closed and people stuck at home they are relying more on us online sellers for reading - but as the unemployment and other financial disasters take hold, "disposable" income will become a thing of the past for many people - ...the average sale price for our online sales is down - and the antique mall where we have a booth is closed - and Bouchercon, (World Mystery Convention) where we sell a lot, has been cancelled. This year it was going to be almost in our backyard - in Sacramento - which means that our expenses would be a lot less - Book fairs and book festivals are being cancelled - so when all these factors are taken together, I expect our total annual sales to be less, even if the online portion is higher...
On the other hand, we are spending less by necessity - although we have been using Instacart for grocery delivery, which means that we are paying more... and our postage costs are a lot higher than usual - cheap books cost as much money to ship as more expensive ones, so postage is a lot bigger chunk of our sales!
As someone who is used to thinking in terms of the long tail when it comes to bookselling, it seems almost absurd to draw conclusions based on only two months since Covid-19 arrived in the United States and just a month of "stay-at-home" orders. Yet, so thoroughly has the world been upended, that each week seems almost like a year.
The two immediate trends that we have seen is that our sales are up and our average sales price is down. While we are still selling some higher end books, many of our sales through the online marketplaces are reading copies, versus collectors' copies. Overall, the increase in sales is more than offsetting the decrease in average price. Partly, of course, this is driven by the stay-at-home orders, where people now have more time to read. And this is just a small thing, but it seems like more buyers are taking the time to send us an email to thank us personally after they get the book.
…. I am not optimistic about the near-term future….On the other hand, there are innovative new projects coming along which might help fill the gap. IOBA has scheduled its first virtual book fair for May 15-17 (the website is not yet open to the public but it will be at www.iobabookfair.com).
Despite the boost in short term sales, I expect sales to start slowing down fairly soon. I think the devastating effects on our economy - and the global economy - of the pandemic, whether it is directly health related, the high unemployment rate, or the effect it is having on students, has not yet trickled through to everyone.
We could be facing severe supply chain disruptions which would result in price increases on basics like groceries. Most of our customers are not wealthy: they are people who appreciate and value books, whether to read, or to collect those which are meaningful to them, and so they chose to spend some of their "disposable" income on books. Going forward, disposable income might disappear - or uncertainty might lead to an increase in savings.
But as long as the post office continues to deliver, we will still be in business. With a huge backlog of uncatalogued stock, we do not have to worry about running out of inventory - and we have put on hold our 3-4 month trip across the country we had been planning!
Chis Volk & Shep Iams
Vic Zoschak - Tavistock Books - Alameda, First Editions, Rare & Collectible
The San Francisco Chronicle headline for Thursday, 16 April 2020, read thusly: “Worst month in retail history.” This headline described March 2020; the figures for April 2020, with most of the United States under a “shelter in place” mandate throughout the month, will, no doubt, be worse.
First, let me outline my business circumstances, as my situation may, or may not, mirror yours. Tavistock Books is a sole proprietorship with one employee. While I have had a storefront on Webster Street in Alameda since July 1997, my business has never depended on walk-in traffic. I early-on embraced the on-line aspects of bookselling, having a website for my business even before I had a shop. All of which is to say, my focus has been, and will be, on-line sales. Further, from the beginning, I focused on collectibles, not “used books”…. even my front window has imprinted thereon: “First Editions, Rare & Collectible”.
…..Even before the Bay Area issued its “stay in place” order, had closed the shop entirely to the public. We did not want to risk infection. So, as much as I’m able, even working from home.
Closing the shop has had significant consequences, which, in the short-term, can be weathered.
While the business does not depend on walk-in traffic, whatever component of that we had was now cut-off. Also, a primary benefit of having a store-front was the opportunity to buy inventory that walked in the door, as well as buying from scouts that would bring material to the shop. Both of these sources are unavailable during this crisis.
In response, I’ve stepped up my efforts to add inventory via on-line sources, e.g., eBay & through ABE wants. I did this because you can’t forget: buying today turns into sales tomorrow, and I definitely want ’sales tomorrow’.
The process of cataloguing new material has been slowed … I personally still try to meet a goal of cataloguing 5 items a day, but if I’m not in the shop, this, of course, doesn’t happen. Some colleagues are more fortunate, in that they can continue to work from home…(but) with my inventory & reference material at the shop, that’s where I need to be for cataloguing to happen.
I continue to emphasize the on-line component of sales. Tavistock Books has a presence in most on-line venues. We continue to issue e-lists, and keep ourselves in front of possible buyers. I quote items directly to past customers. Speaking of which, I’ve noticed an uptick in bookseller FS posts on the divers list-servs… colleagues who never did so in the past are doing so now, on a daily basis. Any port in the storm.
What about book fairs? Here in California, the local Sacramento Book Fair, scheduled for March 28th, was cancelled. Melbourne, this July, was cancelled. With some infectious disease experts saying it might be 2021 before large gatherings are again ‘doable’, I’m wondering whether book fairs will happen again this year?
What about customers? My business has three primary categories: the trade itself; institutional clientele & retail buyers. A month into this situation, and I’ve noticed the biggest drop-off in institutional sales. Like most of us, the bulk of the librarian community is working from home, and it’s a time of year when budgets have yet to be determined for the coming fiscal year. And with the pandemic, there’s lots of uncertainty in this regard.
It’s also my impression that the trade is being cautious in its buying, and understandably so, again, given that uncertainty thing. As to retail customers, seemingly that component has yet to fall off, but who can predict buying habits in a protracted economic decline?
And my one employee…? Samm is an hourly worker, who, due to ’social distancing’, isn’t working the same number of pre-March-16th hours. I do what I can to help her financially, but my resources are not Gatesian. I’ve applied for the SBA loan, as well as the PPP program through my bank, but haven’t yet gotten any funds. I’ve even asked my shop landlord if they can help. So far, their silence in response is deafening.
There’s no denying it’s anxiety inducing…. for me personally, I find myself scouring the paper each morning, reading the latest death tolls, and I can’t help but wonder if I’ll be a statistic anytime soon?
Cataloguing books, shipping orders, interacting [digitally] with customers, are all a welcome diversion from these morbid thoughts, but nevertheless, the thoughts constantly hover in the background. I look forward to the day that puts all this in my rear view mirror, but who knows when that will be possible? Humans don’t do well with uncertainty.
Long-term, well, that’s for another day. I believe this pandemic will most certainly affect future social interactions, and consequently the book trade, but exactly how that will play out I can’t really predict.
Alameda, CA 94501
John Windle, San Francisco Antiquarian Antiquarian Bookseller
Business so far seems fairly steady though obviously it's all virtual. It's a bit eerie to go to my shop to catch up on mail, bills, inventory etc. and not have one phone call or even see anyone in the building! So I would say that for now momentum from the Christmas and early season book fairs is carrying us forward. If it goes on another (say) six months all bets are off.
Like other booksellers we are sending out quotes and preparing specialist lists and anecdotally I'm hearing that printed lists are doing well as people have lots of time to read them!
I have made a couple of decent acquisitions from sellers who badly needed immediate cash but I'm not seeing any panic selling on a big scale yet. That may come if things get worse, especially if there's a second wave and all the Fall fairs up to Christmas are canceled. We shall see.
I did not apply for any Government assistance, as I think it's unfair (perhaps even immoral) to take money you don't yet need when there are those who desperately need cash just to buy food or pay the rent. I don't judge those dealers who do -- they know what their needs are and I don't.
I do intend to keep my staff on at full salary for now -- if the time comes when that is no longer feasible we'll see how best to work it out.
John Windle - Antiquarian Bookseller
San Francisco, CA 94108 USA
Celia Sack, Omnivore- Books on Food, San Francisco
I'm slightly embarrassed to say business has been really good - more in the new books realm. I'm lucky I had a decent online store before this all started, because I was easily able to ramp up my selection of cookbooks and even create a "Quarantine Quenchers" page. Because so many people are now cooking most nights of the week, there is a high demand for all kinds of cookbooks, from quick and easy meals to lengthy bread-making projects. It's encouraging to see so many people cooking right now, and their loyalty to my shop is heartwarming.
Omnivore - Books on Food
San Franciso, Ca. 94131
Stephen Gertz - Booktryst, McMinnville, OR
I work alone from home. I go out maybe every other day or so for errands. While I’m not anti-social I’ve never been a particularly social person. That’s my default position, so stay at home order in Oregon is not a strain. And it hasn’t affected work or acquisitions (which I get directly from collectors or trade colleagues).
I am, however, being very careful with business (and personal) spending at this time for cash flow reasons. I do not have a brisk business, i.e. no everyday sales; I can go for a couple weeks w/o selling a book but when a sale is made it tends to $ make up for the dry spell. I do not depend on internet sales. Most if not all of my sales are directly to a client. Booktryst is a rare book boutique. I’m not trying to conquer the world, just earn a decent living now that I’m a card-carrying senior citizen.
I have a couple of collectors who have held off on buying until the market (and their portfolio) shakes out.
Stephen J. Gertz, prop.
McMinnville, OR 97128
www.booktryst.com/p/hey-rare-book-guy.html with links to his wonderful blogging archive.
Heather O'Donnell, Honey & Wax, Brooklyn, NY
Like everyone else, I'm sheltering in place, cataloguing back stock, determining who might still be in a position (and mood) to buy, and factoring in the cancellation of regular events and fairs.
Last week, I joined forces with three other booksellers around the world to produce a collective quarantine catalog, At Home with Books. And it's been fun to see the community come together for the virtual cinema launch of The Booksellers, which can now be streamed online to benefit the ABAA Benevolent Fund or the RBMS Scholarship Fund, I look forward, though, to seeing books and collectors in three dimensions again.
Like many of you, I’ve spent hours commiserating with stir-crazy friends this month. Many of you already know Ben Kinmont (http://www.kinmont.com/) (California), Simon Beattie (http://simonbeattie.co.uk/) (Buckinghamshire), and Justin Croft (https://www.justincroft.com/) (Kent), but for those who don’t, they are great company.
Each of us has contributed ten items to this group effort. We're committed to seeing that orders are fulfilled in the order they are received, no matter which bookseller you contact. Given that we are four people working across eight time zones, we may take a little longer than usual to confirm availability, but don't worry: we'll be in touch as soon as we can, and we're going nowhere. (Really.)
As ever, please direct inquiries to firstname.lastname@example.org, not to the entire list.
Honey & Wax Booksellers, ABAA
Brooklyn NY 11215
Lynn Deweese-Parkinson- Tijuana, Mexico
Specialist in Mexico and Bull Fighting material, Poohbah of the long running Biblist
The most important thing with the pandemic is that it is not very prevalent in Mexico. It seems much scarier in the US. We have the advantage of a relatively rational administration and certainly a far better medical system. Our open shop/co-op is closed as a non-essential business so my book selling is basically shut down for the duration, and nobody knows how long that will be. ... I expect we'll probably be able to open the co-op store on the 1st of May. My only other source of income is social security. But though we are poor for Gringos we are rich for Mexicans.
I have not been selling online or mail order for a number of years because crossing the border has become increasingly burdensome, so my entire business is the open shop. Of course even if it could be open, tourism is non-existent. There are small business loans available, but I have neither need nor desire to go into debt.
We are sharing the burden of crossing the border with a friend/neighbor. She goes one week; we go the next. We pick up each other's mail and there really isn't anything else we do on "the other side/el otro lado" as the US is called in Tijuana.
People have been coming here from San Diego to buy toilet paper. Mexicans are not hoarders. That is a 1st World problem I think. Our markets are running a bit short of "imported" goods, we notice mostly pasta from Italy. We don't really buy much from the US, but those things are in short supply.
I haven't really noticed any effect on the Bibliophile group. A few more folks have had trouble with the annual fee, but I have always been generous with "scholarships" for bibliophiles in need.
The biggest problem we have is the beach closure, really a pain living on the beach and not being able to walk on it. The dog does not understand, nor frankly do I.
Lynn DeWeese Parkinson - Poobah of the Biblist
Carl Williams, Rare Books and Manuscripts, London
Quite naturally perhaps when your existence revolves around selling literature and graphic art, you start to see current events through your stock … The almost unconscious looking for meanings and truth and lore in the most arcane of objects that are in your hands has defined my time in lockdown. I find myself blurring the lines between what is catalogue-reality and what is lived-reality. My world of books is largely at home on the eleventh floor of a tower overlooking one of London’s last big street markets but it is also in ‘Blue Mountain School’ (a concept store in Shoreditch) and a basement full of consignments for my next catalogue of antique erotica. The latter, in these times may as well be inThe Land of Far, Far Away.
I suppose one positive benefit of the lockdown is that it has sharpened and reawakened my sense of touch with my stock,... like the after effects of cataract surgery when the colours that had dimmed around you spring to life. This case of ‘Cabin Fever’, contracted by the great hiding away from The Fever has had a side effect of throwing this, often gregarious, bookseller into travelling into the backcountry of the rich inner geography that so much of the books and realia that he deals in is located.
Carl R. Williams Rare Books
IG: carl williams
Rare Book Hub
Bruce McKinney Publisher, California
Mike Stillman - Editor, Rare Book Hub Monthly, Texas
Susan Halas - Contributor to RBH Monthly, Hawaii
And then there’s us at Rare Book Hub. According to our publisher, Bruce McKinney, although some auction houses are shut down our RBH site is still active and very much in business and our editor Mike Stillman is still hand at work and happy to receive members' catalogs.
Out in Hawaii I will turn 77 this month. I was already leading a semi-isolated life, so actually it feels as if the rest of the world has joined me. Never very large, my book business is now conducted mostly on eBay with an occasional larger sale to private clients.
Business is anything but brisk, but despite the lockdown and catastrophic unemployment, there is business dribbling in, but not much. Fortunately I have an active Hawaii Real Estate license and the first quarter was very encouraging, so I don’t have to depend on my revenues from the antiquarian trade to get me through the current crunch.
For me the sell side is very quiet, very low end and totally random. On the buy side I think this emergency might last for quite a while, so I bought a massive lot of FIRSTS Magazine. When they arrive expect to sit this one out improving my bibliography skills.
Wherever you are, stay safe and stay home, and let us know if we can help you.
There is a sidebar to this story that gives links to other media coverage of bookselling during the Covid-19 epidemic. Please make a note of the ABAA’s Benevolent fund. You don’t need to be a member to ask for help and you don’t need to be a member to donate. www.abaa.org/about-abaa/benevolent-fund
Rare Book Hub
Bruce McKinney - email@example.com
Mike Stillman - firstname.lastname@example.org
Susan Halas - email@example.com
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