Rare Book Monthly

Articles - March - 2011 Issue

31 Laid Off at Powell's - But What Does It Mean?

Powell's03-11

Powell's main branch, their "City of Books."

Powell's Books, the large Portland, Oregon, retail store and online bookseller recently announced that it would be laying off 31 employees. This represents 7% of its unionized workforce. This number somewhat masks actual decline in employment according to a union representative who estimated a reduction of around 40 more employees over the past year due to attrition. Management concluded attrition was insufficient considering the decline in sales. Between attrition and this layoff, the drop in union employees over the past year would amount to over 15%.

 

Our focus here at AE is on older and collectible books, while this is primarily a story about new books. Nonetheless, the long-term implications for the collectible book trade raise questions.

 

In a press release, Powell's stated that "changing consumer behavior" is the primary cause for the downsizing. In particular, they pointed to the declining sales of new physical books, many of those sales now going to electronic editions. An email sent to employees was more blunt:  "Sales for this fiscal year are down and we expect this trend will continue. The largest decreases have been in new book sales. We see this as a clear indication that we are losing sales to electronic books and reading devices. Given the company's declining sales, combined with industry data on the rapid growth of electronic book sales, we expect to see continuing erosion of new book sales over the next few years. While we believe we can compensate for some of the loss with solid used book sales and growth in gift sales, the erosion of new book sales will continue to take its toll."

 

In addition to the lay off of 31 union employees, Powell's told its non-union workers that, while not being laid off, they will be subject to a one-year pay freeze as of July 1, and almost immediately company contributions to their 401k (retirement) accounts would be suspended for at least a year. Unionized workers not laid off will retain all current benefits.

 

Those in the old book trade may be able to take some solace from the claim of "solid used book sales." However, the press release included a statement from Powell's President Emily Powell that is particularly prescient, while at the same time vague:  "I feel it is critical to make some very difficult adjustments at this time, to address our current reality and to prepare the company for success in the future, a future that looks very different than our business today."

 

Certainly, Ms. Powell is correct that the future be will be very different from today. The problem is, no one knows exactly what it will look like. We can anticipate some changes, such as continued loss in sales of hard copies to electronic ones, but who could have foreseen this five years ago? We can predict based on trends we see, but technological changes represent hard to anticipate breakthroughs that can totally change the paradigm. Will there be more technological advances in the book field in the years ahead comparable to the development of the electronic reader? Undoubtedly.

 

What we can logically predict is the number of copies of printed books produced will continue to decline, perhaps at an accelerating rate. There will be fewer copies printed of future important books, fewer copies available for collectors. That part of the equation doesn't sound bad for those in the book trade. However, the other half of the equation is will future generations, particularly those who grew up reading electronic copies, have an interest in collecting printed editions? This question applies not only to books published in the future, but to all of those from the past lining our shelves. Whoever knows the answer to this question probably knows what the future holds in store for the book trade.

 

Perhaps the question is even larger than books. What (if anything) will people of the future collect as more "things" become electronic? Will people who love books be content with having a large electronic library, or will they want something they can touch? You might be able to build an interesting collection of electronic books in your field, but there is no rarity, no exclusivity in that. It can be duplicated with a click of a mouse. Will such ease of duplication dissuade or encourage collecting, and if it dissuades it, will people look for physical copies to collect or simply not collect books at all?

 

This question may depend on to what extent people see books as physical things. Records, tapes, even CDs went through this change sooner than books. Some people do collect old records, and vinyl is still produced in small quantities, but this does not appear to be a particularly vibrant field. Some people do appreciate old album art and plastic disks, but to most these seem to be simply older means of conveying sound, rather than something to be appreciated in themselves. On the other hand, you can now get digital art, electronic screens one can hang on the wall with a work of art - even the Mona Lisa if you so desire. The reproduction may be good, but I have seen little evidence that such electronic art is making serious inroads on the collecting of physical paintings. Where do books fall in this line between music and paintings, appreciated as physical objects or not so much appreciated? I don't know, though it will probably determine the long-term value of those bound volumes of paper currently resting on our shelves. The collectibility may rest on something as simple as ability to display. Paintings can be displayed fully on the wall, records, with their narrow spines, barely at all. Books on a shelf fall somewhere in between.

 

Rare Book Monthly

  • <center><b>Cowan’s Auctions<br>The Road West: The Steve Turner Collection of African Americana<br>February 20, 2020</b>
    <br>Cowan’s, Feb. 20:</b> Harriet Tubman Cabinet Card by H.S. Squyer, Auburn, NY, 1892. $10,000 to $15,000
    <br>Cowan’s, Feb. 20:</b> Scarce <i>Events of the Tulsa Disaster,</i> First Edition, 1922. $4,000 to $6,000
    <br>Cowan’s, Feb. 20:</b> Unpublished CDV of Frederick Douglass by Benjamin F. Smith, 1864. $3,000 to $5,000
    <center><b>Cowan’s Auctions<br>The Road West: The Steve Turner Collection of African Americana<br>February 20, 2020</b>
    <br>Cowan’s, Feb. 20:</b> California Imprint of <i>President Lincoln's Emancipation Proclamation</i> Broadside, 1864. $10,000 to $15,000
    <br>Cowan’s, Feb. 20:</b> John C.H. Grabill Cabinet Card of Buffalo Soldier Wearing Buffalo Coat, ca 1886. $8,000 to $10,000
    <br>Cowan’s, Feb. 20:</b> Rare <i>What Mrs. Fisher Knows About Old Southern Cooking,</i> 2nd Cookbook Published by African American. $6,000 to $8,000
    <center><b>Cowan’s Auctions<br>The Road West: The Steve Turner Collection of African Americana<br>February 20, 2020</b>
    <br>Cowan’s, Feb. 20:</b> Frederick Douglass Walking Stick, 1888. $3,000 to $5,000
    <br>Cowan’s, Feb. 20:</b> Only Known Slave Narrative Published Independently in California, <i>Life and Adventures of James Williams.</i> $2,000 to $4,000
    <br>Cowan’s, Feb. 20:</b> Rare First Edition of History of Black Literature, Abbé Grégoire <i>De La Littérature des Nègres</i>. $2,500 to $3,000
    <center><b>Cowan’s Auctions<br>The Road West: The Steve Turner Collection of African Americana<br>February 20, 2020</b>
    <br>Cowan’s, Feb. 20:</b> African American Soldier and Medal of Honor Winner Christian A. Fleetwood CDV, PLUS. $8,000 to $10,000
    <br>Cowan’s, Feb. 20:</b> Jack Johnson vs. Jim Jeffries Pennant, 1910 Reno, Nevada. $2,000 to $4,000
    <br>Cowan’s, Feb. 20:</b> Joe Gans Photograph at 1906 Goldfield, Nevada Fight by Percy Dana. $600 to $800
  • <b>Swann Auction Galleries Feb 20:</b> Jane Austen, <i>Sense and Sensibility: A Novel, By a Lady,</i> 3 volumes, London, 1811. $30,000 to $40,000.
    <b>Swann Auction Galleries Feb 20:</b> Virginia Woolf, <i>Kew Gardens,</i> limited edition, signed by Woolf & Bell, London, 1927. $5,000 to $7,500.
    <b>Swann Auction Galleries Feb 20:</b> <i>[Arabian Nights],</i> Calcutta II version, 4 volumes, Calcutta & London, 1839-1842. $12,000 to $18,000.
    <b>Swann Auction Galleries Feb 20:</b> Princess Diana, 6 ALS to <i>Harper’s Bazaar</i> editor, anticipating Christie’s sale of her dresses for charity, 1995-97. $6,000 to $9,000.
    <b>Swann Auction Galleries Feb 20:</b> Jane Austen, <i>Emma,</i> first edition, London, 1816. $15,000 to $20,000.
    <b>Swann Auction Galleries Feb 20:</b> Hirohito & Nagako, Emperor & Empress of Japan, 2 photographs signed, showing Nagako in kimono & obi bearing the imperial seal. $6,000 to $9,000.
    <b>Swann Auction Galleries Feb 20:</b> Princess Diana, 6 autograph letters signed to <i>Harper’s Bazaar</i> editor Elizabeth Tilberis, anticipating Christie’s announcement of a sale of her dresses for charity, 1995-97. $6,000 to $9,000.
    <b>Swann Auction Galleries Feb 20:</b> Sarojini Naidu, complete galley proof of <i>The Broken Wing</i> signed with several holograph pages & an autograph letter signed to writer Edmund Gosse, 1916. $6,000 to $9,000.
    <b>Swann Auction Galleries Feb 20:</b> Fernando Pessoa, <i>Mensagem,</i> first edition, presentation copy, signed & inscribed, Lisbon, 1934. $5,000 to $7,500.
    <b>Swann Auction Galleries Feb 20:</b> Graham Greene, <i>The Basement Room,</i> first edition, Greene’s personal copy, signed with annotations throughout, London, 1935. $4,000 to $6,000.
    <b>Swann Auction Galleries Feb 20:</b> Abraham Lincoln, partly-printed document signed, call for troops issued during America’s first national draft just days before the NYC draft riots, 1863. $15,000 to $25,000.
    <b>Swann Auction Galleries Feb 20:</b><br><i>Les Chansons de Bilitis</i> by Pierre Louÿs, illustrated by George Barbier & F.L. Schmied, Paris, 1922. $8,000 to $12,000.
  • <b>Bonhams, Mar. 6:</b> Helvelius. Two Autograph Letters Signed to Francis Aston, Royal Society Secretary, noting his feud with Robert Hooke, 5 pp total, 1685. $70,000 to $100,000.
    <b>Bonhams, Mar. 6:</b> Newton, Isaac. Autograph manuscript on God, 4 pp, c.1710, "In the beginning was the Word...."?$100,000 to $150,000.
    <b>Bonhams, Mar. 6:</b> Beethoven's Ninth Symphony. First edition, first issue. Untrimmed copy in contemporary boards. $30,000 to $50,000.
    <b>Bonhams, Mar. 6:</b> Lincoln, Abraham. Signed photograph, beardless portrait with Civil War provenance. $80,000 to $120,000.
    <b>Bonhams, Mar. 6:</b> IMPEACHMENT. Original engrossed copy of the first Andrew Johnson impeachment resolution vote. $120,000 to $180,000.
    <b>Bonhams, Mar. 6:</b> Mucha, Alphonse. 11 original pencil drawings for?<i>Andelicek z Baroku,</i> "Litte Baroque Angel," Prague, 1929. $10,000 to $15,000.
    <b>Bonhams, Mar. 6:</b> Einstein, Albert. Annotated Galley Proofs for <i>The Meaning of Relativity.</i> 1921. $25,000 to $35,000.
    <b>Bonhams, Mar. 6:</b> Silverstein, Shel. Original maquette for <i>The Giving Tree,</i> 34 original drawings. $10,000 to $15,000.
    <b>Bonhams, Mar. 6:</b> Roth, Philip. Typed Manuscript with substantial autograph corrections for an unpublished sequel to <i>The Breast.</i> $10,000 to $15,000.
    <b>Bonhams, Mar. 6:</b> Taupin, Bernie. Autograph Manuscript, the original draft of lyrics for Elton John's "Candle in the Wind," 2 pp, 1973. $100,000 to $150,000.
    <b>Bonhams, Mar. 6:</b> HARVEY, WILLIAM. <i>De Motu Cordis et Sanguinis in Animalibus Anatomica Exercitatio.</i> Padua: 1643. $12,000 to $18,000.
    <b>Bonhams, Mar. 6:</b> CESALPINO, ANDREA. <i>Peripateticarum Quaestionum Libri Quinque.</i> Venice: 1571. $30,000 to $40,000.
  • <b>ALDE, Feb. 26:</b> Leon TOLSTOÏ. <i>Anna Karenina.</i> Moscou, 1878. First and full edition of the Russian novel, in the author’s language.<br>Est. 3 000 / 4 000 €
    <b>ALDE, Feb. 26:</b> Mark TWAIN. <i>Adventures of Huckleberry Finn (Tom Sawyer's comrade).</i> New York, 1885. First American edition.<br>Est. 5 000 / 6 000 €
    <b>ALDE, Feb. 26:</b> Walt WHITMAN. <i>Leaves of Grass.</i> Brooklyn, New York, 1856. Second edition gathering 32 poems. Est. 3 000 / 4 000 €
    <b>ALDE, Feb. 26:</b> Karen BLIXEN. <i>Out of Africa.</i> Londres, 1937. First edition in the UK, before Danish translation and American release.<br>Est. 1 500 / 2 000 €
    <b>ALDE, Feb. 26:</b> Ernest HEMINGWAY. <i>A Farewell to Arms.</i> New York, 1929. First edition with $2.50 on the dust and A on the copyright page.<br>Est. 2 000 / 3 000 €
    <b>ALDE, Feb. 26:</b> James JOYCE. <i>Ulysses.</i> Paris, Shakespeare and Company, 1922. First edition published by Sylvia Beach. Est. 3 000 / 4 000 €
    <b>ALDE, Feb. 26:</b> James JOYCE. <i>Dubliners.</i> Londres, 1914. First edition. Nice copy in publisher’s cardboard. Est. 2 000 / 3 000 €
    <b>ALDE, Feb. 26:</b> Franz KAFKA. 8 novels in German first edition, published in München, Leipzig and Berlin 1916-1931. Est. from 300 / 400 to 2 000 / 3 000 €
    <b>ALDE, Feb. 26:</b> David Herbert LAWRENCE. <i>Lady Chatterley's Lover.</i> Florence, 1928. Privately printed first edition. Est. 4 000 / 5 000 €
    John STEINBECK. <i>The Grapes of Wrath.</i> New York, 1939. First edition. Nice copy with $2.75 on the cover. Est. 1 000 / 1 200 €

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