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Sunday, March 1, 2020

Report From the Field

I will be back at this desk come mid-May
During our seasonal retirement travels to and around the Southwest, the Artist and I find ourselves continually drawn to museums, galleries, and bookstores. It is not surprising, then, that we have made two visits to a large bricks-and-mortar(the phrase used to distinguish what I call “real” bookstores from exclusively online sellers) store selling used books in Tucson, an initial exploratory expedition and a follow-up day trip with the store as destination. 

Frankly, the sheer size of the place and the number of book aisles had me overstimulated the first time around, and I couldn’t take it all in. I found three books to buy and left vowing to return often. My second visit, however, dampened my enthusiasm somewhat but in ways that may speak more to my particular interests and values than to the general world of retail. 

Curated collections. Here’s the thing. In indie used shops like mine and those I love to discover (and revisit) along the way when traveling — First Edition Too in Michigan’s Upper Peninsula, Landmark Books in Traverse City, Prairie Archives in Springfield, Illinois, Readers’ Cove in Deming, New Mexico — each owner takes pride in assembling, maintaining, and offering to the public a curated collection of used, rare, and out-of-print books. That’s our basic business model. We spent money, when we must, to make discriminating buys; for more easily found, contemporary works issued in large editions and going through multiple printings, I generally offer trade credit rather than cash. Maybe twice as many romance books would sell faster than some of my 19th-century works on agriculture, but for me a bookstore, like a library, needs breadth and depth.

Book buying and trade credit at Dog Ears Books. If I accept a book for trade credit that I’m going to price at $10, my customer receives $5 credit, and with that credit plus another $5 the customer can purchase from me another book I’ve priced at $10. In other words, my trade credit operates only as a 50% discount on other used books but is calculated on a generous basis. If a book brought to me is one I price at $100, the customer receives $50 worth of trade credit, which for many people works well, because when buying outright, unless the book is very rare and something I can’t resist, I cannot afford to pay out in cash 50% of what I hope to get for a book that another customer may purchase with trade credit, thus paying 50% of my listed price. I’d never be able to buy groceries at that rate.

Personal indie atmosphere. Just as all of us with small indie shops put our own personalities into our collections, most of us also make an effort to make anyone who wanders in feel welcome. “It was personal to me,” the Meg Ryan character said in the movie “You’ve Got Mail,” after the Tom Hanks character who has put her out of business tells her it wasn’t personal, just business. Don’t get me wrong. We are in business. We have to make a profit to stay in business. But, for us, our business is also personal, and the best thing that happens in business like ours is that customers very often become friends, inside and outside the bookstore.

Contrast. The three foregoing paragraphs are my background, which I give to explain (1) my disappointment at not receiving a single smile from any of the half-dozen employees at either the buying or the sales ends of the counter in the book Tucson store and (2) my shock at the offer I received for three bags of very good, very carefully chosen books I’d taken in on my last visit, books I estimate I would have priced in my own shop for a total of between $150 and $175. I didn’t expect paring down my Arizona collection to make room for future purchases to be a get-rich-quick scheme, but I did think I might get $20 cash and somewhat more, maybe twice that, in trade credit. 

These were good books, in very good condition! I wish I’d photographed the lot of them before carrying them down the road for our last good-by. You would see what I mean. I mean, I’m a bookseller and a frequent buyer, and I know what is worth buying. Bottom line? I was told $13.50 in trade or $2.50 cash. Two dollars and fifty cents cash, or about a dime a book, whether hard- or softcover, classic reprint or out-of-print and rare. Wow.

I asked if there were any particular kinds of books they liked to see come in more than others and received a laconic and generic suppply-demand-condition reply. “I know,” I told the young man, adding, “I have a bookstore in Michigan.” Did his eyes light up? Did the ghost of a smile cross his face? No, no acknowledgement whatsoever. We were done.

Well, I found two books I wanted, their combined prices totaling $13, and left the store with fifty cents left to my credit and a set of nagging, unsettled questions in my head. Not only the lack of discrimination in valuing but also the lack of warmth and welcome and, beyond that, the small offerings in certain sections of the store. In my much, much more limited floor space, I probably have twice as much used poetry (I have a section of new poetry, as well) and three times as many foreign language books. And yet — in fairness, I must say — the Tucson store has been full of people both times I was there. It is a popular, lively place, and obviously people love it. A friend of mine who lives in Tucson says she and her husband have “date night” there on a regular basis!

A different business model. Finally the next day it came to me. The Tucson store is not at all about offering a curated collection. It is all about — its business model is — moving product. And move product they do. Books are always coming in (I myself contributed three paper grocery bags full), and books are always going out. The pennies paid for books translate to dollars available for staff, and the staff is large. I doubt job applicants are asked to take a literary quiz, as is the case at the Strand Bookstore in Manhattan, and I don’t know how much employees are paid or what the turnover is, but the business is clearly providing local employment. So their business model is working. I couldn’t operate that way, but I recognize that mine is not the only way of selling used books in a bricks-and-mortar store.

I did not see any special rare books or first editions sections. It’s possible those sections exist, and I simply didn’t find them. The store does have aisle after aisle of contemporary popular fiction, and obviously they do a lot of business with that alone. I’ve always said one could open a store, “History and Mystery,” selling used books in only those two categories, and probably 80% of the people who wandered into the store would leave satisfied. The store in Tucson offers more varied subjects, but my point is that their inventory is geared to most popular tastes, thus what was to me a disappointing number of foreign language and poetry titles.

One employee on the floor who asked if I needed help and pointed out a section I’d been seeking stood out from the otherwise stone-faced staff. This one young man smiled! He made me feel like a “valued customer” (as the junk mailers always assure us we all are), rather than an annoying intruder, but maybe, it occurred to me as I was mulling over the differences in book business models, maybe the contemporary American public, inured to impersonal online buying, expects no more from a face-to-face transaction. Perhaps this public would see a warm smile as something dangerous or suspicious? I don’t know. I live in a very different book world.

There were books at the Tucson store worth going back for and “new” titles are always being added to shelved inventory, so I will go back, but my quest now is to find a small but wonderful shop, filled with a curated collection of used books, and run by a stubbornly independent, book-loving, perhaps mildly eccentric bookseller but one who will recognize me as a kindred spirit. Is there any business like that in the greater Tucson area?


P. J. Grath said...

I think I have found the destination for our next trip to Tucson! See

Dawn said...

Glad you found somewhere!

Linda Roth said...

You found a shop that’s about profits, not about books. No smiles, no chat, no connection, passionless profiteers. I think what you were looking for is very rare these days. Very sad. The same is true in art supply stores—except for one where the clerks were all artists and knew the stock and what to do with it. Now that store has closed down. I think online shopping has taken humanity out of marketing.

Barbara Stark-Nemon said...

If you can return March 14-15, check out the Tucson Festival of Books... It's one of the best I've been to in my Book Festival journeys!

P. J. Grath said...

We've had it on the calendar for a while now, having attended in a previous year. This time around I'll be going with a retired Michigan bookseller friend turned publisher. It should be another good occasion for a "report from the field." Thanks!