How COVID-19 is Affecting Antiquarian Booksellers

A screenshot from today's ILAB webinar on COVID-19 and antiquarian bookselling.

Earlier today, the International League of Antiquarian Booksellers (ILAB) hosted a 90-minute webinar to discuss how the COVID-19 health crisis is affecting antiquarian booksellers around the world. ILAB president, Australian bookseller Sally Burdon, moderated the lively discussion, which included panelists Brad Johnson of the United States; Mario Giupponi of Italy; Pom Harrington of the UK; Ryu Sato of Japan; Hervé Valentin of France; and Sibylle Wieduwilt of Germany.

Most of the booksellers are in the same boat, with lockdowns keeping staff at home and shops closed. A nearly complete shift to online bookselling has helped many to keep fairly “normal” working hours. In Italy and Germany, where Giupponi and Wieduwilt operate in tourist centers, business is certainly slower, but Wieduwilt said she is staying busy online and issuing catalogues, which clients have more time to read now. “Business is a bit slower, but the mood is good,” she said. Tokyo, Satu said, is struggling because Japan has been wavering on its emergency status. And in the U.S., Johnson said transitions have been rough because decisions have been made on a state-by-state basis, but he closed early (in California) and was able to equip staffers with material to work from home.

How are booksellers faring economically? Harrington said that after the initial shock of the virus and the closures, there was a slowdown across his bookselling channels, but then, in the past ten days, business has picked up, and he even sold two books via social media in the past week. Collectors are beginning to acclimate to the new ecosystem. Some booksellers reported buyers asking for immense discounts at this time, but the book market, they agreed, remains strong, particularly in light of decreased auction activity, and there is no need to sell short. 

Aside from selling, the booksellers said they are spending their time reconnecting with clients, learning the technologies/social media platforms that can help them find new customers remotely, and cataloguing their stock. Johnson said adding photos to older stock listed online has been a worthy task.

Of course, there have also been many difficult “housekeeping” issues to attend to as well, such as furloughing staff members, inquiring about rent waivers, navigating difficult shipping and export license queries, and checking on insurance (which Harrington suggests all booksellers do).  

For collectors, one of the biggest takeaways may be the ongoing discussion about upcoming book fairs. Valentin mentioned that the Paris Rare Book & Fine Art Fair, which had been scheduled for later this month, has been postponed to September. However, the exhibitors are setting up a virtual book fair to open on April 23, with exhibitors contributing a list of highlights for potential buyers to browse. When asked about Firsts, London's rare book fair, still scheduled for June, Harrington said they are waiting to hear from the government what restrictions will be in place in June, and until then, no decision has been made to cancel or postpone.

It is impossible to predict how COVID-19 will impact the future of the antiquarian book trade, but the panel felt that while the short-term shift to online bookselling and virtual book fairs can work, people do enjoy seeing and touching books in open shops and at in-person fairs. That face-to-face interaction is much missed.

A recording of the webinar was made, and can be accessed here.