Rare Book Monthly

Articles - December - 2008 Issue

What Happened to the American Discount?

Currency

Collapsing US dollar from Exchange-Rates.org.


By Michael Stillman

These have been tough times for booksellers, American ones in particular. The advent of intense competition as a result of online listing sites and eBay has changed the face of bookselling over the past decade. Many traditional booksellers, particularly those with bricks and mortar stores, were forced to close their doors. As if this wasn't enough, the collapsing economy, first in America, but now spreading across the world, came at an already difficult time for the trade. Now, as the economy sinks deeper into recession, discretionary spending, a synonym for book buying, slides along with it.

However, through the difficult times of the past few years, there has been one bright side for the American bookseller. The collapsing US dollar has made books sold by Americans relatively cheap in Europe. Strong euros and British pounds enabled Europeans to buy books priced in dollars for a song, or at least, a comparative bargain. Many American booksellers took advantage of this situation to increase their overseas sales, even as domestic ones languished. Don't look now, but something has been happening the past few months that threatens this last refuge of prosperity for the American bookseller.

That once maligned dollar has suddenly gained surprising strength. It has enabled European and other overseas merchants to become more competitive in the U.S. It is part, though certainly not all of the reason that the price of oil, and with it gasoline, has collapsed so spectacularly over the past couple of months. Unfortunately, the flipside of cheaper foreign goods for Americans is more expensive American goods for foreigners. Those incredibly cheap rare and antiquarian books overseas collectors were buying from American sellers just got more expensive. Actually, they got a lot more expensive. The effective price of books sold by Americans to Europeans has been rising rapidly over the past few months, and yet the American booksellers don't get to see one penny of these increased costs. All they get are the decreased sales that come with increased prices.

Back in 2001, you could only buy $.85 worth of books for 1 euro. Three years ago, a euro still only bought $1.15 worth of American goods. It then began a steady climb, reaching $1.31 two years ago, $1.47 a year ago. By this past July, the value of the Euro had soared to $1.60. In effect, Europeans were getting a 30% discount versus three years ago, almost half off compared to 2001. Then the euro began to tumble compared to the dollar. In a mere four months it dropped from $1.60 to $1.25. To put it another way, Europeans saw the price of books offered by American sellers increase in price by 30% in four months, all because of an adjustment in exchange rates.

While the pattern of the British pound has differed from the euro, it too has suffered a stunning decline. A year ago, it peaked at a value of $2.10 per pound. As recently as July it was still over $2.00. Last month, it sank below $1.50. For the British buyer, that's an increase in cost of American books of 35% in four months.

There may be some consolation for the European bookseller here in that their wares are much less expensive for American collectors than they were this summer. However, one wonders how many American collectors can afford to take advantage of these discounts today.

In time this will all change. No one knows when, and it is likely good advice to hunker down for a while. This could be a long winter. The book trade could look quite different when spring returns, but return it will. Prosperity is just around the corner.

Rare Book Monthly

  • <b>Swann Auction Galleries:</b> Luis de Lucena, <i>Arte de Ajedres,</i> first edition of the earliest extant manual on modern chess, Salamanca, circa 1496-97. Sold for $68,750.
    <b>Swann Auction Galleries:</b> Carte-de-visite album with 83 images of prominent African Americans & abolitionists, circa 1860s. Sold for $47,500.
    <b>Swann Auction Galleries:</b> Gustav Klimt, <i>Das Werk,</i> Vienna & Leipzig, 1918. Sold for $106,250.
    <b>Swann Auction Galleries:</b> Man Ray, <i>[London Transport] – Keeps London Going,</i> 1938. Sold for $149,000.
    <b>Swann Auction Galleries:</b> Thomas Jefferson, Letter Signed, to Major-General Nathanael Greene, promising reinforcements against Cornwallis, 1781. Sold for $35,000.
    <b>Swann Auction Galleries:</b> Nicolas de Fer, <i>L’Amerique Divisee Selon Letendue de ses Principales Parties,</i> Paris, 1713. Sold for $30,000.
    <b>Swann Auction Galleries:</b> Russell H. Tandy, <i>The Secret in the Old Attic,</i> watercolor, pencil & ink, 1944. Sold for $35,000.
    <b>Swann Auction Galleries:</b> Ernest Hemingway, <i>Three Stories & Ten Poems,</i> first edition of the author's first book, Paris, 1923. Sold for $23,750.
    <b>Swann Auction Galleries:</b> Walker Evans, <i>River Rouge Plant,</i> silver print, 1947. Sold for $57,500.
  • <b>Bonhams: September 25, New York</b>
    <b>Bonhams, June 12 results:</b> Ernst, Max. <i>Mr. Knife and Miss Fork</i>. Paris, 1932. DELUXE EDITION. Sold for $15,625
    <b>Bonhams, June 12 results:</b> Cage, John. Autograph musical leaf from his Concert for Piano and Orchestra, NY, 1958. Sold for $18,750
    <b>Bonhams, June 12 results:</b> Cage, John. Autograph musical leaf from his Concert for Piano and Orchestra, NY, 1958. Sold for $18,750
    <b>Bonhams: September 25, New York</b>
    <b>Bonhams, June 12 results:</b> Einstein, Albert. Signed Passport Photo for his US citizenship application. Bermuda, 1935. Sold for $17,500
    <b>Bonhams, June 12 results:</b> Verard, Antoine. Illuminated printed Book of Hours. Paris, 1507. Sold for $7,500
    <b>Bonhams, June 12 results:</b> Wetterkurzschlussel. German Weather Report Codebook - for Enigma use. Berlin, 1942. Sold for $225,000
    <b>Bonhams: September 25, New York</b>
    <b>Bonhams, June 12 results:</b> Morelos y Pavon, Jose Maria. Autograph letter signed to El Virrey Venegas, February 5, 1812. Sold for $6,250
    <b>Bonhams, June 12 results:</b> Milne, A.A. Complete set of <i>Winnie-the-Pooh</i> books. 4 volumes. All first issue points. London, 1924-1928. Sold for $5,250
    <b>Bonhams, June 12 results:</b> A 48-star American Flag, battle worn flown at Guadalcanal and Peleliu, 1942-1944. Sold for $35,000
    <b>Bonhams, June 12 results:</b> Locke, John. Autograph Letter Signed mourning the death of his friend, William Molyneaux, 2 pp, October 27, 1698. Sold for $20,000
  • <b>19th Century Shop:</b> Charles Darwin on sexuality and the transmission of hereditary characteristics: Autograph Letter Signed to Lawson Tait. Down, 17 January [1877].
    <b>19th Century Shop:</b> MILTON, JOHN. <i>Paradise Lost. A Poem written in ten books.</i> London: 1667. A very rare example with the contemporary binding untouched and with a 1667 title page.
    <b>19th Century Shop:</b> Hamilton secures the ratification of the Constitution: <i>The Debates and Proceedings of the Convention of the State of New-York, assembled at Poughkeespsie, on the 17th June, 1788.</i>
    <b>19th Century Shop:</b> The social contract “Man is born free, and everywhere he is in chains”: ROUSSEAU, JEAN-JACQUES. <i>Principes du Droit Politique [Du Contract Social]</i>. Amsterdam: Michel Rey, 1762
    <b>19th Century Shop:</b> “The first English textbook on geometrical land-measurement and surveying”: BENESE, RICHARD. <i>This Boke Sheweth the Maner of Measurynge All Maner of Lande…</i>

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