By Renée Magriel Roberts
I would like to wave a magic wand and turn every unlisted book in my shop into a database entry before it's too late, before my home and my books become a story on AmericanaExchange. Miriam Zobel's experience (see A Specialist Inventory to be sold as a Single Lot at Auction in last month's issue of AE Monthly) is certainly a moving story, as well as a cautionary tale.
Spend a working lifetime building up your inventory, especially in some more important but not particularly valuable areas like education and psychology, and in retirement open your shop to the cherry-pickers (I don't know how much Miriam sold her better books for), and finally, at public auction, sell the rest of the your 90,000-some-odd inventory for $1,000, just slightly more than 1 cent.
Of course, she did make a few mistakes along the way. First of all, she actually owned the books she was selling, unlike the myriad "sellers" who fabricate listings, steal other people's listings, or create hyper search engines that appear to be searches of existing inventories, when in fact they are multiplying other dealers' prices by a considerable factor and then presenting them for sale to the unwary buyer. She bought quality books as a service.
She was also a dealer with a clear social conscience, not just catering to a few. People who specialize in fields like education and who develop a service to assist Ph.D. candidates are not looking at books in the same way as others who might be attracted to more superficial aspects of books.
When I look at the boxes and boxes of general stock books not yet listed for sale, I feel like I've created my own Zobel-like environment. The life (and in many cases the value) is draining out of my storage boxes, and I don't have the time and energy to stop the flow. I'm choosing to devote the energy I do have to maintaining my life and my energy, rather than that of my good used stock.
On the other hand, as Bruce McKinney pointed out last month (see The Declining Value of Inventory (AE Monthly)) really good stuff not only sells, but increases and will increase in value. We are seeing strong sales in the Cistercian choir books, printed with the Plantin/Moretus presses, that we took on this month. Nothing stopping modern first editions, collections of 19th century political pamphlets and letters and 19th-century biographies -- these are all going strong. And it is certainly a lot less work to sell one book for $2100 than a bunch of books for $22 each, even factoring in photographs and increased customer contact.
So, with this in mind, we're continuing to improve the value and the quantity of our truly rare stock and have all but ceased buying general stock. We're also buying in the specific areas in which we are familiar, rather than interesting items in which we have a thin coverage. What this means is that there are more conversations, and consequently more networking, among collectors and dealers in our chosen fields, and more interesting assignments. Over the next few months, for example, we will be inventorying and then placing a collection of early materials related to the abolition of slavery, a relationship developed entirely via word-of-mouth.