A panel of antiquarian booksellers spoke one evening while I attended California Rare Book School at UCLA. One of them brought up the fact that while the internet has broadened a bookseller’s potential customer base (anyone in the world can buy a book from your website; only people who live near your shop can enter it), it has also diminished the community that builds up around a bookshop. More people buy books online than come into a shop, these days, or so it seems. Not to mention that there are fewer and fewer open shops, as operating a business online allows for lower overhead costs.
If you are one of the lucky few dealers to have an open shop, or, even luckier, you have an open shop that has been in your family for generations, you know the bookshop community whose loss these veteran booksellers lamented. First, there are regular customers. The kind who come to you because of your ability to provide them with books they like. Then there are the looky-loo customers, the kind who buy only occasionally but seem to drop by for a visit almost daily. They enjoy the conversation and stimulation (or, conversely, the hiding place) that a bookshop provides. Then there are the scouts who stop by regularly, skimming the shelves for treasures that have somehow escaped the crafty shop owner’s eye. There are also those who come by to sell books to the shop owner. From what I’ve been told, one could get a good education about bookselling by hanging out in a bookshop and relentlessly interrogating the owner. I know that’s worked for me. 😉
While the internet has made books of all kinds more available, selling books on the internet has its disadvantages. A person ordering a book from a website or listing service like ABE doesn’t get much sense of the bookseller’s personality. More importantly, a bookseller has a harder time offering a book directly to a customer when he hasn’t met and talked to that customer and sized up her personal likes and dislikes. The sense of community, of the denizens of dustjackets and the believers in biblioholism gathering in one place, seems lost when business is conducted via the internet.
But is it really lost? Or has it just got up and moved? Since I missed the Golden Era of bookselling, I don’t have the right frame of reference to say for certain. I think, though, that bookseller blogs, while they can never replace person to person interaction, can facilitate a place for booklovers to read, share, and discuss their bibliophilia.
I haven’t touched my website in months. (Too busy working on that Dante catalogue, going to Rare Book School, buying books, and planning for upcoming book fairs.) Arguably, I ought to be putting more time and effort into developing the site and listing books for sale there, and that’s on my agenda once I finish the catalogue.
I have, however, been selling books through my blog, though unintentionally. Sometimes I’ve blogged about a particular book and a reader sends me an email asking to buy it. Sometimes I send a direct quote to readers who have asked me to keep them in mind for particular kinds of books. Other times, customers have approached me with books for sale because they’ve read my blog and know I’m a bookseller. Lately, it seems I’ve had more sales to people who read my blog than to those who stumble across my neglected website. I know that’s a pale shadow of the type of community that exists around brick and mortar bookshops.
But wait; there’s more.
In addition to customers who buy books, I have developed email correspondences with several faithful readers of this blog. We’ve written to one another about books we love and hate, about unsolved biblio-mysteries, about print and type, about Dante-themed jewelry, about Laura Ingalls Wilder, and about family and children and pets. I’ve discovered an entire Laura Ingalls Wilder community online because of my blog. These epistolary communications do not replace the type of community that once existed in the bookshop around the corner. They do, however, facilitate a new kind of bibliophilic community. Sometimes, that community can feel as good as having someone step into your shop. I like to think that communicating with one’s customers almost solely by email hearkens back to the days of customer Helene Hanff and her British bookseller, Frank Doel, and their long correspondence as portrayed in Hanff’s well-loved book 84 Charing Cross Road.
Case in point: When my family visited the Laura Ingalls Wilder Homestead earlier this summer, I was contacted via email by a lady who stumbled across my blog. Would I, could I please take some photos of the Homestead and send them to her? She and her daughter had visited the Homestead the week before and had somehow lost their digital camera after the visit — and all their photos of a place her daughter really wanted to capture on film. I was taking photos anyway, so I emailed back to her, “Sure. I’ll send them when I get home.” I finally got the photos mailed them a couple of weeks ago.
This week, I was pleasantly surprised to find a package in my mailbox. In it was a lovely picture drawn for me by her daughter and two shirts for Tom and Huck from her home state and a handwritten letter. That is above and beyond the normal email correspondence of those who order from a website. In fact, I daresay, it’s akin to what a bookseller in an open shop might experience from a customer she knows well.
I don’t know enough about technology to know how blogs may shape the future of bookselling or any other business, or even if they will shape the future at all. I do know that my blog has brought a new type of customer, an involved and engaged customer, to my business. I also know that it has brought me a greater sense of fulfillment to have become aware of so many other bibliophiles and booksellers.
It’s late and this is merely a hypothesis. I’d be interested to hear from any other blogging booksellers or any of you who read the blog or who are customers. Can blogs provide a sense of bibliophilic community? Or have I, upstart that I am, completely misunderstood the concept of the type of community that builds up around traditional bookshops?
And, as always, thanks for reading! See you in the stacks!