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2015 Bookseller Resource Guide
Special Report

The Americanist

NP: What are the most significant changes you have noticed in bookselling over the last fifty years?

NK: Well, the Internet, of course, both for selling and research. The disappearance of “brown” books and general bookstores and the gradual disappearance of scholarly booksellers. Bookstores used to be full of books that were assumed to have certain value. With the Internet you can go and look a title up and there are one hundred and fifty entries. It’s no longer a $20 book; the competition on the Internet, particularly among those who have little or no money at stake (those that buy at charity or library sales) reduces the price down to an idiotic level where you have one-cent books! This means that there’s a much smaller body of contemporary material that is saleable. So the sales opportunities on the Internet have destroyed the sales opportunities! [Laughs] You can look up thousands of titles—often solid, scholarly items—that you know very well in days gone past a bookstore would have put these on the shelf for a modest, but meaningful price. Now, now they go down the scale. They may start at $50 and end up at twenty-five cents. [Laughs] That means you might as well throw the books away—they’re unsalable! This is the law of unexpected consequences—simply by the unconscious function of the Internet this huge body of books has been rendered unsalable.

Then there’s the cult of the dust wrapper and other venial sins. Well, it’s out of all proportions. There’s a certain amount of chicanery that goes on. Dust jackets are sent to experts who can make a worn dust wrapper look like new. And, of course, as a result of this ability, there are a lot of forgeries, which sometimes take an expert to recognize. But over and above all that, it’s disproportionate for a book to be worth $150 or $200 without the dust wrapper and $2000 with the dust wrapper. What it does is create pseudo-rarities. The modern literature trade is artificially propped up in the current age by creating these dust wrapper rarities, which, if you can sell them at the price being asked, keeps certain dealers in business.

Then there’s the disappearance of auction venues for non-megabooks. Even the small auctions only want high-end books. If they don’t think a book will bring $100–$200 they’ll throw it on the picnic table and sell it to whoever is there, which sometimes is disadvantageous to the consigner. In other words, everybody wants to get rich! [Laughs] The trade has lived for years on auction lots. You take a five or ten or a dozen decent books, which individually might only bring $30–$40 a piece and throw them into a lot and that way you can have a lot which meets your criteria for value. This is done less and less. More and more, auctions give emphasis to single high-priced rarities, which means that they cease to be a source of stock for a large swath of book dealers. Book dealers would traditionally be heavy buyers of such material as it, generally speaking, doesn’t appeal to the civilian. It’s seldom he [the civilian] wants a big lot of this and that—he doesn’t want to buy ten books to get one, whereas this can be a profitable enterprise for a dealer. There’s just been a bigger emphasis on the big book, the expensive book, and this drives a lot of collectors out of the market. People who traditionally collected this, that, and the other were happy to pick up books here and there. Very often in the course of time they would raise their sights and get more interesting and valuable books as their collection developed. I think it’s hard for them to get started these days.

NP: As you look back on the era that you sold books in, do you wish you had been part of the previous generation or were you happy to sell books when you did?

NK: Well each generation feels that the one before them really had access to the really good books and in a sense this is absolutely true. Books that I could pick up for $10 or $15, forty or fifty years ago have just disappeared. They’ve all been scraped up by dealers, collectors, libraries, and so on. And of course there are the ravages of time that destroy or degrade books just by virtue of what happens to them—fire, flood, war, and so on. Think of the tons of books that were destroyed in Europe during the war. But good books are, to some extent, finite. As the fashion decrees that something is worth buying, they tend to disappear and what’s left tends to become expensive. But there has been a gradual opening up of new fields of collecting. When I first went in, there was little or no attention given to books about women, women’s history, and so on—this was a pretty arcane subject. But we’ve seen in the past decades this become a major collecting era. Same thing with Afro-Americana—that too is now a major collecting area. And other areas will mature which we may not even think of today. When a scholar writes a book, or prepares a bibliography, this provides a framework for collecting. And this happens all the time. That’s one sense in which the trade will continue to flourish after a fashion, if scholarship, technology, booksellers, and collectors fasten on to these opportunities and develop them.

NP: What are some of your favorite memories of the bookselling life?

NK: Looking back, at eighty-six, I would say book fairs in cities big and small, here and abroad, my son’s auctions, which were always great fun, finding rarities in attics, garages, chicken houses, bottom shelves and top shelves, sharing a life and livelihood for over fifty years with my smart, beautiful wife, and pursuing a profession, with time off for fishing, of course, which enabled me to raise two lovely girls who now have children of their own.

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Nate Pedersen is a contributing writer at Fine Books & Collections. His website is natepedersen.com.
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