Mirror of Justice

A blog dedicated to the development of Catholic legal theory.
Affiliated with the Program on Church, State & Society at Notre Dame Law School.

Friday, February 18, 2011

The Endurance of the Used and Rare Bookstore

A long time ago, I was fortunate to work part time for about a year at a used and rare bookstore called McIntyre and Moore Booksellers (they were on Mt. Auburn Street back then, not way off in Porter Square).  Present circumstances excepted, it was the best job I ever had.  I learned a little bit about how to judge a book's value as well as how to repair beautiful but injured old books.  I also discovered things that I know I would never would have come across -- a first edition of T.S. Eliot's "Murder in the Cathedral," an early edition of George Santayana's "The Genteel Tradition at Bay," and even -- for the first time -- a used copy of Harold Berman's "Law and Revolution," as well as lots and lots of other odds and ends.  The beauty of the store was its physical orientation to books -- books needed to be touched, felt, fixed, glued, stacked, flipped through.  The must of their oldness and used-ness had to be smelled, their collected dustiness inhaled.  Part of the fun was to see and touch again the discolorations and brown spots that were the marks of prior readers, or to see a 100 year old inscription, and then another one about 50 years later, on a 200 year old volume.  Some rare bookstores have the air of a holy shrine; you enter and can almost hear the Gregorian chant.  Those can be great too, but my store was more earthily tactile, though some of its books could be quite valuable.

When I worked there, the shadowy fear was always that the giant chains -- Borders, Barnes & Noble, and the like -- would choke the life out of these little stores.  It was at least in part because of the market pressure of these big mega-stores that my own store opted to relocate.  But with the news of Borders's bankruptcy (B&N isn't doing all that well either), I can only imagine that stores like mine -- most of which have managed to survive just fine -- are feeling some...schadenfreude isn't exactly right, but I bet they're feeling a little pride.

The received wisdom is that on-line giant Amazon has made the physical mega-stores obsolete.  You can obtain much more from Amazon than you can from Borders, and it's easier to do so.  Yes, Borders allows you to browse through books, which you can't do the same way on Amazon, and that means you have to have a better idea of what you're looking for on Amazon.  But why hasn't the same market force which crushed Borders dampened the fortunes of the used and rare bookstore?  After all, you can get as good or better deals on Amazon as you can at any of these stores.  The selection of course is infinitely better.  As for rare or extremely valuable books, stores like mine might still have an advantage, but not enough people can afford to buy these books to keep the little stores afloat.  Is it the inherent physical pleasure of books that explains why the little stores -- much smaller operations than Borders and the like -- continue to survive and even prosper?  What is it that accounts for the endurance of the used and rare bookstore?    


DeGirolami, Marc | Permalink

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I would suggest that personable owners and staff can go a long way toward developing loyalty among shoppers.
Bernard Black, for example: http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Black_Books

Posted by: Michael Cain | Feb 18, 2011 11:51:45 AM

Michael, maybe for some, but that wasn't the case with the owners of my old store -- see here for more thoughts along those lines: http://prawfsblawg.blogs.com/prawfsblawg/2011/02/the-endurance-of-the-used-and-rare-bookstore.html#c6a00d8341c6a7953ef014e86285f42970d

Posted by: Marc DeGirolami | Feb 18, 2011 12:06:38 PM

Few things are more pleasurable to me than browsing in a bookstore. However, when you know exactly what you want, it simply makes no sense to go to even the best new or used bookstore. I recently decided it would be fun to read a couple of old potboilers that were scandalous in the 1950s. (I won't admit what they are, but of course by today's standards they are tame.) I also thought it would be fun to see if I could find a copy of a book that I had loved as a kid, Miss Pickerell Goes to Mars, by Ellen Macgregor. We have a great store in New York—The Strand—that sells used books, but I just checked, and they only have one of the books (the most notorious potboiler). I got all three through AbeBooks.com for $14.97, and that included shipping.

Not so much here, but on dotCommonweal and Vox Nova, people tend to recommend religious books I want that are either very expensive or out of print. (It is amazing how often the publisher is Oxford University Press.) The only practical way to find uses copies is online. Before we all had Internet access, my parents used to run a small used and out-of-print book business. They did book searches for people looking for out-of-print books, and it was all done by mail, newsletters, and catalogs. The whole business of used books (physical ones) has been dramatically changed by the Internet, and now of course a lot of older material that is in the public domain is available free for the Kindle, the Nook, and so on.

Posted by: David Nickol | Feb 18, 2011 12:07:42 PM

Oh, Marc, if you haven't yet had the pleasure, the next time you visit Minnesota you HAVE to visit Loome Theological Booksellers: https://www.loomebooks.com/index.cfm?

The main theological collection is in a beautiful old former Swedenborgian church. Books are organized in interesting theological categories, stuffed into bookshelves crammed into every nook and cranny, including the upstairs choir loft. Because of the shape of the church and the idiosyncracy of the categories, you find yourself moving along curved walls of bookshelves, with no idea of what you'll come across in the next bank of books. I've made a couple of discoveries of writers I've come to love (like Rosemary Haughton), just by picking up random books that looked interesting, that I never would have known to look for.

Yes, they have a robust website, but the physical experience of being in that store is something you can't experience virtually. And it's in a beautiful Mississippi River town, about an hour from Minneapolis. (Ask Patrick Brennan about what he's found there sometime...)

Posted by: Lisa Schiltz | Feb 18, 2011 12:27:34 PM

David and Lisa, thanks for both excellent comments.

Lisa, that sounds absolutely wonderful. Can't wait to visit.

Posted by: Marc DeGirolami | Feb 18, 2011 12:33:04 PM

Marc, you would have to know the excellent series Black Books to know that my reference to Bernard Black is entirely consistent with your experience. Do check it out on Netflix. Idiosyncratic personalities can flourish in a bookshop and add to the experience. And I think that many employees at Borders or Barnes & Noble would like to add more "individuality" or a "sense of place" to shoppers' experiences, but the corporate setting makes it more difficult.

Posted by: Michael Cain | Feb 18, 2011 2:24:30 PM

I think Amazon actually helps small used bookstores. The Amazon marketplace feature has created a nearly perfect international used book market. It let the smallest goodwill store or tiny shop reach all of Amazon's customers. We buy used from them, saving money off of new; the small stores get a new world of business. And amazon takes a small cut of the sale price, so it makes money, too. The only ones who lose are the big chain stores - like Borders.

Posted by: Julie | Feb 19, 2011 9:46:11 AM