The Christian Science Monitor asked me to write a short piece on bookselling back in 2002. The context at the time was the continuing struggle of our small business to survive the tides and vicissitudes of our age. There were and are hundreds of articles easily findable on the internet about the difficulties of bookselling–even a few I have caused to be written–but at that time I had been working on a poem about the ‘Perfect Bookshop’ and though a poem was not what the newspaper wanted, I decided to rework the effort into a prose statement on the subject. The result can be found here: www.csmonitor.com/2002/1108/p11s01-coop.html (The perfect bookshop weathers the storm).
I have put aside my hopes of re-establishing a bricks and mortar bookshop for the present. Not from a lack of interest or desire. More from the chastening of financial realities and the physical strain such an effort would call for. Still, I dream of my bookshop at night–sometimes in the day as well. I am a bookman at heart and soul. Most of what little I have learned that is not commonplace is about books and bookselling.
The thought arises with the question, “would I ever do it again?’–what would be my perfect bookshop now? Not a fantasy shop of all my best wishes and intentions, but an actual shop that might stay afloat on a sea of troubles. It’s more than a single essay could encompass, but I would enjoy the process of defining the possibility out of the vagaries of my still persistent dreams.
When I started the Avenue Victor Hugo Bookshop in 1975, I had been selling books from a pushcart on the street for several years and doing a lot of dreaming–unrestrained by realities I had yet to encounter. For instance: if you choose a spot because the rents are low, it is likely the foot traffic will be correspondingly small. You must have insurance, and insurance must be paid every month or quarter–period (there is no friendly person at the other end of the phone line who will give you a dispensation just because they like books). Employees have their own worries and troubles and don’t respond well to delayed paychecks.
Almost as overwhelming is the body of literature about bookselling which advises very specific approaches to the business based on hundreds of years of hard won experience and the mundane facts of publisher’s discounts, profit margins, and promotional costs, without ever mentioning the physical needs of food and sleep, much less sex. Sex is, after all, a big part of bookselling. Didn’t you know?
And politics. In our age, politics seems to trump almost all the senses–especially common sense.
My own history is a case in point. I am a libertarian. Libertarians are an ancient political sect with an absolute antipathy to slavery and an equally stringent belief in the golden rule. In other words: don’t tell me what to do, and I’ll treat you with the same respect with which you treat me. Along with my love of fiction, poetry and history, I sought to be a resource for libertarian literature when I started my shop. About twenty percent of my very limited funds for book-buying were guided by this political want. It was disastrous.
There are not enough people who even know what the word ‘libertarian’ means much less the interest necessary to carry such an expense. Given the unusually large student audience in Boston, and the prevailing academic political ideology of our times, had I chosen instead to be a conduit for socialist literature I might have found some success. But politics often trumps clear thinking.
I still believe that any business must be guided by a prevailing philosophy, but I should have restrained my desire to proselytize beyond my love of literature. It was bad enough that I was insisting on carrying a substantial weight of poetry–a section everyone wants to see in a shop but few make use of. Even fewer people read the likes of Karl Popper or Friedrich Hayek, than poetry. When the Random House rep came in he used to shake his head at me, not merely as a fool, but for the terrible waste of effort.
What saved us the first few years was science fiction. We sold more of that than any other. Science fiction and mystery amounted to about half our total income. Another quarter of our expenses were covered by the classics. The paperback revolution of the fifties and sixties was just ending, and almost any great work was still available brand new for just a few dollars.
The other salvation was something done out of necessity and in total ignorance. I was then as I am now a habitual buyer of used books. To fill out the sparse shelves as my budget for new titles ran out I brought in most of my own collection. These were my favorites–Nevil Shute, Raphael Sabatini, Robert Louis Stevenson, C.S. Forester, Rudyard Kipling, Robert Heinlein, Poul Anderson, Mark Twain, Harlan Ellison, George Orwell, Flannery O’Conner, Raymond Chandler, Elmer Kelton, Frederick Brown, Frederick Manfred, Arthur Conan Doyle, and a few hundred others. And we sold them quickly. My collection of old Blue Book magazines disappeared in a few weeks. My Argosys were gone in days.
I found my way by doing what worked and was comfortable. We sold back issues of Playboy magazines until my older daughter began to wander the aisles. I had a sudden epiphany. We sold comic books until about the same time. Whatever your own perfect bookshop might be, it must meet the measure of your own life. You can’t be doing something you wouldn’t want other’s to do. And you can not be selling something you would not be proud to show your children.
So, given what I have learned, what would I do? Quidnunc?
Firstly, I would have to ignore or control my fear of technology. If the internet has actually made the physical book into a door-stop, all my conjecture is moot. I must befriend the reality far enough to make it useful without being used by it.
Secondly I would have to ignore or control my worry about politics. If the public wants to control my business and tell me what I can sell, all my conjecture is again, moot.
Thirdly, I must set a budget. How much might I have to spend? More importantly, what would I want to spend? Whatever else I conjure, I’ll have to cover the cost of it for at least a year or two. It generally takes a business about three years to establish itself. Income from the first two years might pay for a third. A little debt financing might be helpful. (A kind and equally foolish relative perhaps?)
Let’s figure out what I might need.
Books. Shelves. Space. Time enough.
Being omnivorous, I would like to have books in most categories. My priorities would be fiction, history, biography, poetry, drama, and the arts. I suppose I am rather fond of essays as well. And I must have enough of them at a price to sell and make a profit.
Shelving is best made of solid wood. Forget metal or the composites (more on that later). When you have figured what your budget might be for books, you will be able to calculate how much shelving you’ll need.
The space must be adequate for the shelving itself and the room between the shelves for two average human beings to pass without incident or the necessity of intimate relations. My proposition that sex was a part of the perfect bookshop was not made with consideration for narrow aisles. And the cost of this space is relative to the location, the location, and the location–with an allowance for utilities.
The time you will need is dependent on the time you think you have, multiplied by a factor of at least two. Whatever time you cannot cover yourself will have to be covered by others. They will want to be paid reasonably for their effort.
When you have estimated the last three elements, you will undoubtedly go back and recalculate the first. After all, whether rent is ten dollars a square foot or 100 dollars a square foot, is going to alter your conception of the books you carry. If you want to run the store on weekends only, you can’t cover the cost of prime real estate during the rest of the week.
Remember, the proposition here is for a ‘perfect bookshop.’ Not a money mill (as if any bookshop could be that.) This is an ideal as envisioned by a bibliophile. A book lover. Remember. There is sex involved.
(to be continued)