The world of publishing and bookselling has been in such turmoil in recent years that it’s tempting to assume that the business must have experienced better times in the past. When I recently browsed through issues of The American Bookseller (published 1870’s and 80’s) what struck me was the familiarity of their anxieties and problems. The journal served “the Trade” through the last of the nineteenth century, covering everything of interest to booksellers, literary and music publishers, newsagents, and stationers. The typography is quaint but the content is startlingly contemporary.
Copyright and trademark, especially international agreements, were contentious issues. The quality of popular writing is lamented. One reviewer complains that many women authors are shockingly forthright in their intention “to write what sells” rather than what is properly uplifting. Sometimes business is good but the constant feeling and worry is that it isn’t as good as before.
It surprised me to read that the practice of discounting from the stated retail price is already disturbing the tranquility of booksellers. No one knows how to stop the publishers from giving price breaks to their biggest customers or how to discourage discounts offered by individual booksellers. Price discipline is weakening, threatening the viability of bookselling in small shops. Any shop owner experimenting with discounts, one commentator concludes, is playing a hopeless losing game. “It would only enable the large dealer to crush still more remorselessly the small dealer.”
Happily, “of making books there is no end”, nor of people who love them and want to share them in the community of readers. I mostly buy books in stores rather than order online, but that’s not always possible. When I do need to buy a book online, however, I always now order from a real bookstore. I have a short list of stores that I’ve found in travel around the country and particularly like – Lowry’s Books in Three Rivers Michigan, Bookstore1 in Sarasota, Maria’s in Durango, and Skylight in LA – and I am happy to give them the business. If I’m using an aggregator site like Abebooks (not ever the other A site) looking for an out-of-print title, I carefully search through the seller descriptions to identify a professional bookseller with a physical shop.
I enjoy so much just browsing in a bookstore and fairly wallowing in the variety and quantity of choices. They can’t survive, though, without customers. I will do what I can to keep them going and encourage other booklovers to do the same. It would break my heart to live in a world without bookstores.