Are Rare Bookshops an Endangered Species?
The standard brick and mortar general rare bookshop is, for the most part, alas, a thing of the past. The Internet is now the world's general rare book shop; that and rising rents have driven many book shop owners to close their retail spaces.
The reality is that it is increasingly difficult to find affordable retail space for a book shop in a lively location where there is actual foot traffic. Finding a space that won't break your budget and that is not so far off the beaten path that you require Google Earth to locate it is a major challenge.
All of us in the trade have book interests that we specialize in but these books have traditionally been part of a more general stock that appeals to the explorer and helped with cash flow. Now, the trade has, by and large, become Balkanized. The specialist's general inventory has been shed in favor of a more niche-marketing approach: If you can't have a little something for everyone, have a lot of something for a smaller client base.
One of the difficulties with this approach is that collecting interests tend to change over time with collecting in a popular genre declining and other areas ascending. If your stock is all tied up in the English Romantic poets, for instance, you are likely watching an entire new generation of readers walk past your (virtual or actual) shop. Collectors of this material are aging and have likely already built their collections or are near to completing them. That the books are an important part of the Western literary canon is, alas, beside the point if up and coming collectors don't have the subject in their heart.
(I am reminded of a story about the great L.A. rare bookseller, Jake Zeitlin who, when asked what area he specialized in, declared "Whatever the last collection I bought was about!" The man was nimble and adjusted to changing collecting tastes with enormous flexibility).
How can book sellers new to the trade and who enjoy interacting with the public in a retail space drive people to their shops?
My sense is that there will come a time when a rare bookshop becomes something so rare in itself that it becomes an object of interest to the general public, seekers of the old and venerated simply because they're old, have lasted, and are not ephemeral as so much of modern culture has become, those seeking the hip, new thing, and those rejecting the superficial new for the old and profound.
These retail spaces will, by need, have to become destinations in and of themselves, and likely a mix of books and art, and/or books and subject-related material. If, for instance, you have a fondness for rare books on firefighting (a delightful and intriguing genre of collecting, BTW), then perhaps you conceive your shop as not just THE center for firefighting books and related collectibles but rare books and collectibles related to fire in general, including fireworks. Design your space as a retail theme-park, as it were - look, touch, buy - a space that people will drive out of their way for. When they enter your shop, no matter where their eyes land, make sure that they will see something fascinating and be drawn to it. If you've creatively merchandised your wares, they'll buy it.
This model has already proven to be a wild success in another area of retail commerce. The model is that of the Apple stores.
The day of the gentleman/woman bookseller who gives little thought to actual business has ended. It is no longer a viable approach to be simply knowledgeable about books and hope that the money will follow.
But I'm less concerned with what I'm thinking than with what is on your mind. As a collector, what do you want to experience in a rare book shop? As a dealer, what are your thoughts on the rare book retail experience and the future? Your feedback will be integrated into a future post.