Recipes for Recovery
By Bruce McKinney
The book business, like the stock market, was a growth business for many years. Auction realizations increased and listing sites proliferated. Higher prices and the expectation of further increases justified the effort and cost to create listings and pay for online visibility. Both participation and prices at shows increased. Catalogues grew fat with ever more complex descriptions. And then the music stopped as liquidity, the driver of economic activity, declined in 2008. A year later real estate prices have stabilized and the stock market rebounded but the economy feels very different. The once almost invisible divide between essential and non-essential purchases has opened into separate markets and purchasing assumptions for the things we have to have and the things we want to have. Books, manuscripts and ephemera fall more into the second category and the effects are being felt around the world.
A year into the downturn it is clear that the field of books, manuscripts and ephemera is not going away but midway through 2009, we now know that someone stole the punch bowl. The causes of the decline are many and not the focus of this article. I'll mention them and move on:  decline in stock market and real estate prices;  growing supply of what we thought were rarities;  the rise of online inventory,  the increasing availability of online full text versions; and  the seeming decline in absolute numbers of buyers and collectors. Taken together, these factors are shaping a new reality. That booksellers are holding their own through the decline tells you a great deal about their resilience. To get past the downturn though, the words often used in the rooms of AA seem particularly prescriptive: you cannot continue to do the same things and expect a different outcome. The current environment demands adjustment, experiment and innovation. To understand what book dealers are doing to recover I asked a representative group about their situations and strategies. My questions: What does the path from decline to recovery look like? How do we get there?
I spoke first to Lee Kirk of Eugene, Oregon. She is a lifer, been in the trade for 40 years. The downturn in the market is distant thunder on her Main Street. "I've seen trends come and go. The first time I listed on Abe in 1997, I put up 50 items one night and had 8 orders the following day. That did not last. Neither will this downturn. Something always happens."
"Until then and even after I'll do what I do now. I listen. I buy. I sell." It sounds easy but it's not. She walks around with the wants lists of roughly 350 collectors, libraries, archives and museums in her head. "I like to talk to people and I'm a good listener." In the downturn, the work is full time and the income part time. "My real reward is to be both busy and effective at matching buying ambitions with material." She lists online but considers her listings "an open window through which potential customers can understand both what I sell and who I am. My goal is always to begin a relationship, not just sell an item." Her advice: "Price aggressively and be focused on your clients."
I next spoke to John Bruno of Flamingo Eventz. He organizes shows for the antiques and collectibles fields. "I know more about what isn't than what is." Show attendance is down and print advertising for shows is not working. My online promotion works but the audience online is looking for different material so as I shift to online promotion I am also adjusting the mix of material offered. The net is a more visual form."