From Public Books:
When brick-and-mortar publishers and bookstores close, today as in the past, the unsold stock sometimes ends up in an indecorous heap. It’s one thing to know that about one-third of the books published in Europe before 1700 survive only in a single copy; it’s quite another thing to confront waterlogged books languishing on the sidewalk. Without the public funding or institutional backing enjoyed by many libraries, bookstores these days tend to have a hard time making ends meet, and the COVID-19 pandemic has only intensified these pressures. Should a bookstore have to close, we lament the disappearance of its social and intellectual ecosystem, even more than the loss of the books themselves.
Especially for antiquarian and other independent booksellers, there exists a tension between sharing knowledge and running a business. Bookstores sell books and book-adjacent items, of course. But they also may serve as editorial offices, publishing houses, classrooms, and lecture halls, not to mention cafés, play spaces, and reading rooms. Sites of collaboration and exchange, bookstores, like libraries, can help hold a community together.
A number of recent works warn against reducing bookstores to the financial bottom line. Kaouther Adimi’s novel Our Riches, translated from the French in 2020 by Chris Andrews, reconstructs a history of the bookstore that French-Algerian intellectual Edmond Charlot founded in Algiers in 1935. In Bookshops: A Reader’s History, translated in 2017 from the Spanish by Peter Bush, Barcelona-based critic Jorge Carrión weaves together notes from his bookstore pilgrimages around the world with anecdotes culled from books about books and reading. And D. W. Young’s The Booksellers, an earnest 2019 documentary film about the antiquarian book trade, follows a cast of collectors, archivists, librarians, and booksellers as they try to reinvent and diversify their craft, while selling what appears to be a trifling number of books. There’s no wide-eyed optimism in these three works. Their affectionate depictions of bookstores and booksellers instead ask us to consider what we’re in danger of losing.
Can lessons from the past help guide independent booksellers and their patrons as they navigate a book world in flux? Histories of the early modern book market, when both books and the global economy were new, do not provide a definite blueprint for how to deal with the changing technologies of the book or the effects of online bookselling. They do, however, reveal a pliable sense of what books were in the first place. Literary scholars José María Pérez Fernández and Edward Wilson-Lee’s Hernando Colón’s New World of Books: Toward a Cartography of Knowledge and historians Andrew Pettegree and Arthur der Weduwen’s The Bookshop of the World: Making and Trading Books in the Dutch Golden Age show that books, and the book world, have never not been in flux.
This knowledge may offer some measure of reassurance to 21st-century bibliophiles uneasy about the future of reading. It turns out that book buyers have always sought to temper desire with circumspection, while booksellers have aimed to balance parsimony with intellectual largesse. For more than five centuries, equilibrium has remained elusive to both parties.
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Hernando Colón—aka Ferdinand Columbus, Christopher’s son—built in Seville one of the largest private libraries of the 16th century, but he distrusted booksellers. Making a show of defending his family’s name, Colón refuted rumors that his father had been a bookseller in Genoa before his rather more famous transatlantic endeavors. When Colón’s last librarian described the cross-referenced author, title, and subject catalogues, the transcribed snippets, and the book summaries used to organize this collection, he emphasized the usefulness of these tools for sniffing out bookseller fraud.
Compiled in the nearly two-thousand-page Libro de los epítomes manuscript rediscovered in the University of Copenhagen’s Arnamagnæan Institute, in 2019, the book summaries, in particular, made it possible for Colón’s collaborators to spot titles that had little or nothing to do with the works they adorned and to recognize attempts to hawk old publications as new. Early modern book buyers had reason to be wary of unscrupulous publishers and shady booksellers.
Wealthy booksellers were worthy of particular suspicion. In his will, Colón instructed heirs charged with the conservation and expansion of his collection—which consisted of about 15,000 volumes at the time of his death, in 1539—to avoid merchants who dealt principally in large and expensive books, like those that characterized the disciplines of law and theology. Colón faulted such booksellers with overestimating the comprehensiveness of their stock and remaining uncurious about the inexpensive, small-format works of popular poetry and current events that he coveted.
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Andrew Pettegree and Arthur der Weduwen’s wide-ranging coauthored work, The Bookshop of the World, demonstrates that the economics of books is best understood by thinking about print culture as broadly as possible. Building on Pettegree’s previous research on books in the early Renaissance and on the “invention of news,” this new book examines 17th-century Dutch publishing dynasties like the Elzeviers, in Leiden, and the Blaeu and Janssonius families, in Amsterdam. These family firms produced costly and significant books. Joan Blaeu’s Atlas Maior, a richly illustrated collection of maps, and the Elzeviers’ publications of works by Galileo and Descartes stand out. Dutch traders also bought books in bulk from publishers elsewhere in Europe, often paying in cash, and then resold them at a markup at home and abroad. Adept entrepreneurs with an eye for the shifting tastes of readers in both Protestant and Catholic regions, they speculated.
Meanwhile, large and small firms alike jostled for the predictable income and low risk associated with smaller printing jobs. The highly literate and politically engaged Dutch were avid readers: newspapers, advertisements, funeral orations, dissertations, political and wedding pamphlets, posted announcements, and the like—obrezillas and paperwork, one could say. Drawing on publisher and notarial archives, Pettegree and Der Weduwen plot this iceberg of lost printed matter.
Successful Dutch publishers transformed the book market beyond the Dutch Republic, too. They squeezed out local competitors in Copenhagen. They dictated preferential terms at the critical Frankfurt book fair. They were strident players in the production and trade of English bibles. And their success in Paris aroused protectionist reactions. Amsterdam became the metaphorical bookshop of the world, but at a cost.
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Although the buying and selling of books for profit has always been an aim of booksellers, bookstore archives reveal the myriad other activities taking place amid the commerce. Blurring the lines among the different sorts of intimacy and creativity realized in rooms full of books, Paris-based author Kaouther Adimi’s Our Riches fictionalizes the story of Edmond Charlot and Les Vraies Richesses, the bookstore that Charlot founded in Algiers in 1935.
Charlot was an editor and publisher as well as a bookseller. The works of Albert Camus, André Gide, and a host of other prominent authors appeared in the book list he deftly curated. The inventive Charlot—in Our Riches, at least—is bursting with ideas for collaboration, resulting in an “éditions Charlot” book frontispiece painted by René-Jean Clot and an exhibition at the bookstore of Sauveur Galliéro’s sculptures. Adimi depicts Les Vraies Richesses as a ferment.
The bookstore lent books in addition to selling and producing them. In Adimi’s telling, a young man named Riyad is sent from Paris in 2017 by the building’s new owners to clear out the remaining books and prepare the space for a beignet shop. Since the 1990s, when the Algerian government acquired the bookstore from the founder’s sister-in-law, the space had served as a branch of the Algerian National Library—though locals persisted in calling it Les Vraies Richesses. Abdallah, who from 1997 onward had managed the lending library while sleeping on its mezzanine, was known fondly in the neighborhood as “the bookseller.” Evoking the slipperiness of the French word librairie, which now denotes “bookstore” but in centuries past more often meant “library,” Adimi questions whether book lovers must conserve their books and booksellers must sell them.
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If they’re canny and patient, booksellers specializing in rare books also sometimes step into literary history, though they usually arrive late, sometimes by a few centuries. D. W. Young’s film The Booksellers illustrates that the reputations and livelihoods of antiquarian booksellers are more often tied to the books themselves than to the comings-and-goings of poets and novelists.
Yet as once difficult-to-find books appear for sale online at clearinghouse sites, what counts as a rare book is changing. For one, the bar to qualify as rare is higher: annotations or ownership by some noteworthy figure—a book “run over by the right truck,” as one merchant puts it in The Booksellers—add value. What’s more, the boundaries of the book are now more porous even than they were in the first decades of print. This porousness is manifest in, among other things, the variety of the antiquarian bookseller’s merchandise. The familiar hardback is today but one artifact among a surfeit of manuscript notes, corrected drafts, published zines, audio recordings, video outtakes, fancy gloves, curious writing implements, and all manner of literary historical tchotchkes.
To reimagine the bookstore’s stock is to grow the community of collectors and transform the image of the bookseller. Amplifying the feminist legacies of New York dealers like Leona Rostenberg and Madeleine Stern, for instance, booksellers Heather O’Donnell and Rebecca Romney founded the Honey & Wax Book Collecting Prize for an outstanding book collection by a young woman. Collector and filmmaker Syreeta Gates built an archive of early hip-hop because such an archive did not exist, and she needed one for her activist work. The long-term payoff on these investments will not simply be solvency for antiquarian bookstores. As these sorts of nascent collections multiply and, over time, migrate to libraries, the authoritative histories of much more than the book will look different.
Link to the rest at Public Books
PG suggests the variety of business strategies described in the OP illustrates his proposition that the physical bookstore is, first and foremost, a business model.
Like all other business models for a wide range of commercial endeavors, the physical bookstore has strengths and weaknesses. PG acknowledges that physical bookstores carrying a wide variety of inventory have been a successful business model for a very long time.
However, while a long record of past commercial success may indicate a high probability of the physical bookstore continuing into the future, it certainly doesn’t guarantee that will be the case.
To take an obvious example, the use of horses for powering various types of transportation systems had an exceptionally long and successful history through the beginning of the 20th Century. PG suggests this business model for transportation had a much longer history of success than the physical bookstore does today.
The invention of the internal combustion engine put horse-powered transportation systems out of business very quickly. Today, nations that utilize horses as a key part of their means of transporting people and things are uniformly regarded as quite primitive.
For thousands of years of success demonstrating the efficacy of horses powering transport, it’s no long a viable business model.
Just as the invention of the internal combustion engine and vehicles powered by that means did not instantly result in commercial actors putting all their horses out to pasture (or worse), the handwriting was on the wall and the evolution of commercial land transportation was inevitable.
PG suggests that electronic books and digital commerce in physical books (for people who still want them) is inherently superior to the business model of the physical bookstore.
Just as the wealthy still ride horses for pleasure and some US ranchers use them for managing cattle and other livestock in remote and rugged areas, PG is not suggesting that the future will mean absolutely no physical bookstores will exist. He does suggest that physical bookstores will become a smaller and smaller and, essentially, quaint and quirky niche of the far larger world of commercial distribution of written information.