A Look at the American Antiquarian Book Trade

by Tom Congalton

Sunday, Jan 15, 2006

At years end, the state of the American antiquarian book trade can best be described as unsettled, and in what has become an increasingly global marketplace; I suspect that the American experience is little different from that of our overseas colleagues.

Although some areas of the American trade remain robust with children's books, American colorplate books, some Americana, and some literary highspots most conspicuous among them, the trade in general continues to undergo a rapid and continuous shift. The ease of finding books on the Internet has contributed to the increasingly rapid decline of the open shop. Those unwilling to adapt to the new circumstances are facing increasing difficulties.

Used versus Rare

The market in relatively common used books, through increasing competition from part time Internet dealers, continues to be a race to the bottom - he who can to afford to sell for the least can sell books. Being a used book dealer has become more labor intensive, as one must sell more books for smaller profits, even to the point of having to calculate in small profits on shipping charges in order to survive. While this is perhaps of only modest interest to the antiquarian dealer, selling inexpensive books has always been an adjunct to many successful rare book businesses, and as this situation continues to develop, I see an increasing differentiation between the used and rare bookselling world.

On the bright side, American dealers describe the opposite for books that can be honestly described as unique, rare, beautiful, and/or expensive. I was struck by the fact that dealers from across many collecting genres, from antiquarian to children's books to modern first editions report similar experiences - whatever is fresh and unusual sells rapidly, with price seemingly secondary to desirability. Conversely, standard works - the staples that have long supported the work-a-day seller of collectible books are selling sluggishly, or not at all.

What seems to have diminished in the book market is the middle, or what once was the common ground between used and rare booksellers. One dealer, who began his business just as the Internet boom began, and is thus untainted by questionable memories of halcyon days, reports that he does a brisk business in books that are either $25 or below, or collectible books that are over $500, but sales of those books in between - standard, moderately uncommon, but still findable titles is very sluggish. Auction results seem to reflect these reports, with sometimes startlingly high prices for highspots, and pedestrian material just limping along.

The Singular Object

As the Internet has provided accessibility to what previously must have seemed the arcane and forbidding world of antiquarian books, there are reasons for optimism as well. There seems to have developed a market in the book as a singular object, or luxury gift item, rather than as part of a larger collection, and price isn't always the object. We received one recent Christmas request from a father looking for a book for his son. Other than being assured that he was making a decent investment, he didn't much care which book he bought, just as long as it cost no more than $150,000! While I'd like to report that this is a daily occurrence, it is indeed an extreme example. It seems that more now than ever, we are being contacted by people looking for expensive gifts, and who mostly seem to have found us through the Internet.

Another relatively new phenomenon we have observed and been told about are customers who are interested in just one or two books that have particular meaning to them. People with discretionary income and who have no inclination to become book collectors, but are willing to pay a substantial sum for a first edition of A Catcher in the Rye or On the Road, a children's book like The Cat in the Hat or Winnie the Pooh, or some other iconic title that had some influence on them.

New Collectors?

The bar to becoming a serious antiquarian book collector has always been set high. A number of factors are required to make a book collector: a modicum of literacy, an acquisitive nature, and disposable income perhaps paramount among them. People in their 20s and early 30s are most often busy forging careers and building families, and the focused and determined collector in this age group, while by no means unknown, has always been the exception rather than the rule. Although talk of the Internet continues to dominate the idle chatter of booksellers at book fairs, discussion of who will be the future collectors seems to be running a close second. The opinions expressed seemed to vary wildly, with the more hidebound among us hoping they expire before their increasingly graying clientele does.

Others find room for optimism. As young people, bombarded by images from television, the internet, video games, and graphic novels become increasingly visually oriented, some dealers seem to be reporting a much higher incidence of sales in visually and graphically stimulating material, perhaps accounting in part for the reported robust sales of colorplate and children's books, with even several antiquarian dealers reporting that typographically interesting ephemeral material has enjoyed a boost as well.

Would You Like Fries With That?

What seems increasingly clear is that the rare book business has gradually become a service rather than equity industry. Formerly booksellers were free to, and often would cultivate an eccentric, even curmudgeonly aspect. If your inventory was desirable, you didn't have to be. One's greatest strength was the depth of one's inventory and the equity it represented (or as many of us referred to it, our "retirement fund").

In a market where competition, especially for less expensive books, can devalue one's inventory rapidly, rather the opposite now seems true. Most booksellers must or do maintain some inventory, but it seems that the most successful booksellers are those who actively attempt to "shift product" as rapidly as possible. Like most service businesses, those willing to work the hardest are the most likely to succeed. Those who are the most adaptable and who maintain an Internet presence, issue occasional catalogues, participate in book fairs, actively quote listed wants to their customers, are more likely to succeed than those veteran dealers wistful for the past who are unwilling to adept, and are content to wait for the world to beat a path to their door. We live in interesting times.

This article originally appeared in the December 2005 issue of Rare Book Review.