What Are Used Bookstores For?
A review of Shaun Bythell’s bookshop diaries, by way of amateur ecology
(A quick note: the Bibliophilia newsletter has a new name! See the end of this post for more details. And enjoy!)
One origin of bookselling
At the cusp of the fifth and fourth centuries BC, some characters begin to appear who had until then been unknown: booksellers. It’s in this period that the new word bybliopólai (“sellers of books”) first features in texts by Athenian comic poets. According to them, stands selling literary scrolls would be set up in the agora, among the others offering garlic, vegetables, incense, and perfume. For a drachma, Socrates says in one of Plato’s dialogues, anyone could buy a philosophical treatise at the market. It’s surprising that books were readily available so soon, and in the case of difficult philosophical works, even more so. Judging by their low price, they must have been small or secondhand.
-Irene Vallejo, Papyrus: The Invention of Books in the Ancient World
You’re not supposed to try and haggle over prices these days, yet customers do it every day in Shaun Bythell’s bookshop. One day, it’s a woman coming up to the counter with a book priced at 50p who says: “Two questions, firstly can I have a discount because it is in pretty grotty condition, and secondly, can I pay for it by card.” Another day, it’s a car collector trying to cadge a few pounds off of some Rolls-Royce books, unaware that the shop he’s parked his Rolls in front of belongs to a man living barely above the poverty line. The few times Bythell actually does give a discount, the reaction is nonplussed: “Is that all the discount I’m getting? £5?”
Bythell is the owner and proprietor of The Bookshop in Wigtown, Scotland, where he lives with 100,000 books and a morbidly obese cat. He’s also the author of Diary of a Bookseller and Confessions of a Bookseller, which I read in a delighted rush last weekend. Mostly, I enjoyed Bythell’s acidic portrait of the bookselling life, and appreciated his thoughts on surviving as a bookseller deep in to the Age of Amazon. But I also thought, as I read his running log of daily operations, sales, shipments, acquisitions, bids, offers, squabbles with his oddball staffers, and run-ins with motley customers, that the book-buying public tries to haggle a lot more than I expected.
“I have devised a new strategy for dealing with hagglers,” Bythell muses at one point, exasperated with another discount-hunter. “When they ask for a discount, I’m going to ask them what they do for a living…In the extremely unlikely event that they earn less, they can have a 10 per cent discount. In the almost inevitable event that they earn more, they can pay me 10 per cent extra. That’s progressive economics.”
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Why would you haggle over books?
There are a few reasons why people might feel entitled to bargain at a used bookshop in ways that they wouldn’t in, say, Victoria’s Secret or Tesco. For one thing, booksellers really do negotiate prices when acquiring inventory. Bythell makes a lot of housecalls, usually to those recently departed, to buy up their book collections for a fair price. Everybody knows, then, that used booksellers aren’t obeying some MSRP handed down from on high, but have set their prices as high as they reasonably can, just like any reasonable merchant would. Perhaps more people would try to haggle over the price of an iPhone if Tim Cook had to sell them out of his trunk.
The real reason haggling seems to persist in bookselling, even though the practice has been vulgar in English-speaking cultures for a hundred years, is the same reason for most other social problems these days: the internet has broken our minds.
If you are a healthy, red-blooded homo economicus who lustily responds to financial incentives like all the other good moderns, buying a book is a simple process: go online. You could go straight to Amazon, but if you really want to take the long route, you could also look on Abe Books and Book Depository, or search reviews on Goodreads, or look for audiobook versions on Audible, but these all subsidiaries of Amazon, so it’s all the same. Whichever one you choose you’re likely to find the exact book you want, at the lowest possible price, and probably with free shipping. You order it, and thanks to Amazon Fulfillment Magic, the parcel shows up quickly and painlesslyat your doorstep a few days later.
This is how bookselling is supposed to work, at least if the whole point of the market is efficiency, customer satisfaction, and profit. The Bookshop, needless to say, is not coming after Amazon any time soon, and you can tell because Bythell posts his sales records every day in his journals. The Bookshop goes whole seasons without earning back its operating costs, and it isn’t getting better. The variety and types of used books people are willing to buy is drying up as fewer young people collect them, and the value of used books continues to tumble against online pressure. At one point, Bythell barely manages to convince a customer to pay 60p for a copy of a popular book he used to sell for £10.
A bookshop, then, has the appearance of a shop, but not the form of a shop. Bothered by this disjunction, customers versed in good capitalist practices can’t help but haggle, to make the whole place more market-like and cozy.
The only reason Bythell manages to keep the lights on and feed his obese cat is that some people, mostly old and not especially rich, still prefer used books. This is nice, but it’s not nearly as primary to the function of bookshops as, well, selling lots of books. So, being good market economists, we have to ask: what niche is being covered here? What are independent bookshops for? What is their function? What niche do they fill? What species do they sustain?
Towards an ecological argument for the independent bookshop
One day at The Bookshop, an old man comes in and whistles around in wonder: “You know,” he tells Bythell,
‘Edinburgh used to be filled with places like this. I spent my life wandering about them and building up my library. I bought a sixteenth-century copy of Holinshed’s Chronicle–you have a later edition, I see–in a bookshop in Leith in the 1940s. I remember it clearly. They’re all gone now, all but a small handful.’
Bythell knows what the man is talking about. He has a keen memory for British bookshop lore, and quotations from many classic books-about-books fill his diaries. He knows this kind of customer, and what they’re looking for in his shop:
Collecting books was clearly an important part of his life, and without bookshops there is little joy to be found in this pursuit. The serendipity of finding something you didn’t know even existed, or asking a bookseller what they could recommend on a particular subject, isn’t really possible online yet, although I expect it will come…Still, the smell, the atmosphere and the human interaction will remain the exclusive preserve of bricks-and-mortar bookshops. Perhaps, like vinyl and 35mm film, there might be a small revival, enough to keep a few of us afloat for a bit longer.
I find this whole passage beautiful, but frustrating. Not because I don’t agree with it: I do! But this isn’t economics, it’s ecology. And ecology doesn’t make any money at all! What it could do, though, is at least give us the terms we need to carve out a space protected from the market, like those spotted owls whose federal protection wrecked the economy in my coastal Oregon hometown. Ecologists are great at this! Taking a page from Rohit, let’s build up this metaphor.
Old-growth bookshops like Bythell’s sustain all kinds of rare and wonderful species with their own useful ecological niches. Bythell actually writes about some of them in his other book, Seven Kinds of People You Find in Bookshops. Between the bearded pensioners (Genus: Senex cum barba), the amateur occultists (Homo qui maleficus amat), and the local historian (Parentum historiae studiosus), Bythell has identified several keystone species. We might tentatively add to that list a few more specimens awaiting scientific study: nerdy book bloggers, trainspotters, vintage sci-fi fans, military-publishing aficionados, weird old art spinsters.
Who knows what predators they keep at bay, what symbiotic kinships they maintain with flora and fungi as yet unknown to science, or what strange and wonderful rituals they perform in the secrecy of their nests? The bookstore is a crucial part of their habitat, and without it, they might end up stumbling through our backyards and parking lots, disoriented by noise, bellies distended with hunger before they keel over, dead by displacement.
And as the chainsaws and bulldozers rev up outside their barren, unprofitable marsh, why should we chain ourselves to the trees and fight for these weirdos? We do it, finally, for the same reason that we would for the spotted owl or the dodo: because nothing natural is alien to us, because it is their home, because we can never get it back when it’s gone, and because, well, it’s there. Nature, in its great and good wisdom, saw fit to put these shops there. They represent centuries (millennia?) of cultural evolution, adapted to their environment, clinching it together in ways we can hardly guess.
What are bookshops for? I can only begin to guess. But as much as we can’t afford to keep them, maybe we really can’t afford to lose them, either. Now I’m going to go and preorder Remainders of the Day: A Bookshop Diary.
A quick announcement for my regular readers
I have dropped the blogging part of my Substack platform. Mostly, I was using it to post weekly link roundups to things that I found interesting and useful in the world of books. However, it was a bit of a drag to produce, and Substack isn’t really the right platform for those kinds of rapid-fire, infrequent posts. Instead, I will relegate the link gathering to once per month, and lock all the little bloggy drafts I have on my harddrive away in the cellar until they’ve grown into full-fledged essays. Everything that I write out here will once again be plain old newsletters for email and RSS
Going forward, I’m going to put as much energy as I can into posting one newsletter per week, rather than every other week with weird little blog posts thrown in.
To mark the occasion, and to search for a name that’s a little more memorable than Bibliophilia, I am now renaming this newsletter Musement. I hope you continue to read it.