Midway through 2016 the world is decidedly different than it was as recently as a year ago. Domestic violence in the United States, Europe and Africa, slowing growth in many parts of the world, Brexit, the rise of isolationism, and the presidential election in the United States are spelling hard times for the world of collectibles. I asked six dealers the following question, “Looking back five and ahead five years, where have you come from, where are you now, and where will you be?
I spoke with John Doyle of Crawford Doyle in New York, Bill Reese of the William Reese Company, Jim Cummins of New York, David Lilburne of Antipodean Books, Bob Haines of Argonaut Book Shop in San Francisco and Fran Durako of Kelmscott Bookshop for their perspectives. All were generous with their time and elaborate in their answers.
David Lilburne has an open shop as do Argonaut Bookshop, Kelmscott Bookshop, and Crawford Doyle Booksellers. They all have seen declining store traffic. All six sell online, often selling on many sites including their own. They have all issued catalogues at some time and four, Bill Reese, Bob Haines, Jim Cummins and Fran continue to do so regularly. They all issue e-lists and Bill Reese also publishes four-color bulletins to showcase visually appealing material.
They all have done, and most plan to continue to do, shows. The disappearance of rare book retailers is an old story and today book fairs, over the occasional weekend, approximate the feeling of the open shops that once were the principal incubator for new collectors.
Most spoke of the past in positive terms and the present in acceptable terms. “It takes more work to sell books for what is generally less money.” This is how David Lilburne describes it. John Doyle, who has a used and collectible retail presence in upper Manhattan, describes the business today as “okay but only because this is my second career and the first paid well.” Jim Cummins, who lives in the rarified air of exceptional collectibles, calls the world we are in today “different, more difficult but ultimately fine. My son has joined the business and I’m optimistic.”
I mentioned to Fran that David has cut prices on what used to be a robust category for him, books priced from $10 to $100. Today they are all $10. She added, “Abe and other online sites have negatively affected this category so I may have to do that myself at some point.”
Several mentioned that libraries are increasingly the recipients of what dealers used to sell but no longer sell efficiently. “Library fairs have become a phenomena. They price aggressively and attract bargain hunters.” For libraries it’s an appealing business, for booksellers not so much.
Dealers selling at the top seem happy to be there. “We [Bill Reese speaking on behalf of his organization] have, for ten years, been aggressively cutting prices on slow moving material while sharpening our focus on unique copies of exceptional books. The top of the market remains firm. Our challenge is to keep the less expensive, less rare inventory competitive so we review and re-price as necessary.” Browsers remember what they have seen and describe dealer stock as fresh or passed over. “Fresh” is important.
Bill also mentions, and this applies generally to dealers we spoke with, that making direct solicitation remains important. We try to understand our collector’s objectives and quote them appropriate material. We also visit collectors and institutions and bring material for their consideration.
It is also true that everyone sells material that aren’t gems but fit well in collectable sectors. Bob Haines singles this out as an important strategy. “We issue e-lists of appealing Gold Rush and California history items and do well with them. Having the right material, appropriate descriptions, and attractive pricing is important.” For many collectors e-lists are an acquired taste. They are becoming important but their best days are in the future.
All these dealers are continuously experimenting and evolving. They have to. The rules of the game are quickly evolving.
In a significant reversal, where once it was the bookseller who introduced the fledgling collector to the field today it is increasingly at auction where meaningful material is first purchased. For dealers, figuring how to work themselves into the auction house – collector conversation is a high priority. Dealers have experience, inevitably decades in the trade, and bring an educated perspective. Convincing collectors to pay them a fee for their opinion – often to say “no” is an acquired taste. For myself, for most purchases over a few thousand dollars I rely on expert opinion. Finding appropriate material is the goal, avoiding inappropriate purchases equally important.
The interaction between object and buyer will continue to evolve. Formulas that once worked are now regularly tweaked and augmented. Printed catalogues that for a few years seemed in decline this year seem to be staging a recovery. The shows will continue to attract audiences. And listing sites will find ways to improve cost efficiency. These dealers are adjusting and seem to be in a good place today.
When I asked a leading auction figure about the typical age of bidders a few years back I found them to be both younger, about ten years less that book collectors who buy from dealers, and also more plentiful. So it turns out the next generation is in the game and they are buying. The challenge for dealers then is to connect with this younger audience and, given the wide range of experimentation underway, I think they will.