Books, manuscripts, maps and ephemera are real but their world has, for years, been losing locations on Main Streets, High Streets and Broadways around the world. Why? Parts of it are,  changing tastes,  rising prices,  thinning markets,  the Internationalization of these markets, and  the aging of core buyers and collectors. These changes have remade the field into a more event based business with a succession of collector/collecting shows and auctions to capture the attention of the everyday market.
The decline of shops has long been understood to be a disaster because many, possibly most collectors today, received their introduction to the field by browsing the shelves of the used and rare book shops that not so long ago, were found nearby.
The Internet of course is remaking commerce, aggregating many fields on-line, while undermining the shops and businesses that emerged in the final decades of what historians will someday call “the end of the traditional retail period.” For book dealers, their clients increasingly interact on line, pursuing best or most appropriate copies over those nearer by. These days the traditional methodology slips away, older practitioners continuing as their fathers and grandfathers did, their children now living deeply in an electronic world that, beyond communicating, increasingly shapes our understanding of the book and its materiality to our lives. And it is their generation that will remake the field.
Here is what I think will happen.
Collectible paper, be it books, manuscripts, maps or ephemera, is a distinctive niche but only a niche in the world of commerce but it should be able to support a reimagined location in the electronic ether that combines our understanding of the world we leave behind with the world, with its increasing capabilities, it now becomes.
The good news is that shops will return to a Main Street if not to the same Main Street they were once a part. But they will return because they are remembered and wished for, if not in quite enough numbers to support actual locations much anymore.
How will this happen.
It is now possible to create alternative realities online and the world of old and rare books will either be its own reality or a part of another or other larger realities. Books, one hopes, will be able to support their own world.
In such a reimaged world there will be dealers, collectors, auction houses and libraries. They are already part of indexed listing sites, be they eBay, Amazon, Rare Book Hub, OCLC, ILAB, ABAA, ABA and others. Indexed sites are the norm. What will now happen is that the world we remember will be projected as the starting point of an electronic one with increasingly supernatural capabilities.
If the world of books is reimagined as a village there will be dealers and their listings. There will be auction history as reference for valuation and probability of reappearance and several hundred auction houses whose listings contribute to the never-ending flow of upcoming auction lots. And eZines such as Rare Book Monthly and Weekly Auction Update. And libraries and collector presentations will be here as well with options to share, acquire and sell as preferred. And because would-be buyers have unique interests their search terms will reconfigure the village to mute the less relevant and hoist high the most relevant. Someone browsing this world will instinctively understand the scale and importance of subjects, something that is difficult to access today.
And perhaps the form of collectible will be a defining search term. These days ephemera are rising so being able to recast the village to rank dealers according to their ephemera holdings would be quite useful. Who will I visit and what will I browse? The question will be: who has what and can I open a conversation. So think for a moment what the ABAA Fair in New York would be like if, in an online re-imagination, we could see who’s bringing what and map out a plan to meet. It’s within their power.
In this reimagined world every firm and entity will have the option but not the obligation to answer questions by phone, facetime or email. Some will and others won’t. So why will some organizations do this? To build rapport. I’ve been fielding members’ calls for fifteen years and value these interactions above all others. Hearing people’s questions first-hand as well as how they frame their questions helps define the changing expectations that will be met in this new world.
Essentially this is an understandable 3D place that reconfigures based on subjects, searches and perspective; one that changes form in response to questions and is unique to each participant. In other words, an engrossing experience.
So if looking for auctions, auctions then assume center stage while comparables and research lurk nearby, the searches already done in background anticipation, they then waiting for the click that says “show me what you got.”
So you woke up this morning thinking it would be just another day. Nope! Welcome to the future.
The bad news is we can’t hold on to the past. The good news we get the chance to shape the future.
With this article 10 images are posted. They have been identified and sequenced by Paul Yu. The final image, created by Mark West, is one showing the world of Alice in Wonderland, in this article a metaphor for the imaginary world we will someday inhabit. Mr. West is an illustrator and musician working in London, England. Links are provided at the end of this article.
The 10 image set portrays the setting of the sun on the world we have known and the sunrise of this world reconsidered. Many people will have ideas about what this world should look like. Please send them to me and we’ll include them in follow-up articles as we add features to this emerging concept.
The good news is that the world of rare paper, already on the net primarily as databases, will soon move decisively to become an integrated world and its strangest aspect may be that it will be designed mostly by people with grey and white hair.
About Mr. West: Mark West is an illustrator and musician working in London, England. This illustration was originally created for a club night called 'Wonderland' which raises money for www.wyce.org.uk helping communities in The Gambia, and it features every scene and character from Alice In Wonderland and Through The Looking Glass, in event order from bottom left. For more information please visit www.mixedcasesspaces.co.uk
Whether you agree or disagree we'll appreciate your perspective. RBH members can directly post while they are signed into their account. Others can sign-up for a free account and then post. To join click the Become a Member link in the upper right corner. Alternatively you can email me at email@example.com or call me at 415.823.6678.