Books in Hard Times
This is a talk given by William Reese at a symposium at The
Grolier Club in
Is it possible to be an optimist and a pessimist at the same time?
If so, mark me down in each column.
On the bright side, I think that what has now been dubbed the Great
Recession has had far less effect on the rare book market than on many other
areas of the economy, or of the larger art and antiques market of which it
constitutes a small sliver. News
of its demise is greatly exaggerated, and this year has been a far better one
than many of us might have predicted last October; the market in rare books is
healthy and functioning. On the dark side, I see larger systemic problems,
primarily on the lower end of the scale of rarity and value, which will shape
its direction and imperil its health in years to come.
These generally have little to do with the immediate state of the
economy and more to do with modern taste and technology.
Many of these issues were already factors in the marketplace in boom
times, but their direction is perhaps more fully revealed in the current
economy. It is important to
distinguish between the immediate problem and longer-term trends, and which
parts of the market are affected by them.
In this exceptionally wet year many of us have noticed the phenomena
that it may pour on one side of the hill and barely sprinkle on the other.
The first thing to understand about the current rare book market is
that it is a collection of mini-, micro-, and micro-mini markets, each with
its internal dynamic and players among dealers, collectors, and institutions.
As many of you know, I am an expert in printed
The dealer Richard Wormser observed decades ago that rare books were
becoming scarce. The one big thing to know about most areas of the antiquarian
book market – with the possible exception of modern literature – is the
scarcity of material. Good books
are hard to find, at least for sale, because the extraordinary boom in
institutional collecting after World War II moved most of the float in the
market from private to public hands. This
trend continues, although at a reduced rate, as institutional budgets have
contracted, and as some institutions – mainly small and medium-sized public
libraries – decide to get out of the business of holding antiquarian books
entirely. Whether that net flow reverses itself in an age of digitization and
strained resources is a huge issue for all of us, as vendors, holders, donors,
and scholars. Without touching
that tar baby of a question further, nothing in the short to mid-term is going
to change the scarcity issue. Any
time a truly first-rate thing has come into the market in the last year, the
troops have turned out of their bunkers and it has set a record price.
In my field, the two A+ things to come up for auction this spring –
the Paul Revere engraving of the Landing of British Troops at Boston, at
Northeast Auctions; and the third known copy of the first Franklin almanac of
1733, at Sotheby’s – both commanded very strong prices with numerous
competing bidders. There are no
problems with best material – and that’s true throughout the antiques
One thing we have not seen much of is forced selling – people being
compelled to liquidate their book collections to raise cash.
There undoubtedly have been a few instances of this, and my company
bought a small collection under what seemed like such a situation this summer,
but in general it hasn’t happened. I
confess I’m surprised by this; I expected more material to be pushed into
the marketplace. Instead, the
opposite has happened: people who have collections are holding them, and the
amount coming on the auction market has dropped drastically.
Why aren’t we glutted like the real estate market?
First, I’ve always believed that book collectors tended to be less
subject to whim than other areas of antiques.
Through repeated market cycles, the price of rare books in general has
risen less rapidly than art in boom times, but held value better in busts.
It’s less fashionable, but more consistent.
Second, books are easier to hold onto than some other assets, like an
expensive second home – compact to store and without on-going expense.
Third, and mainly, it’s become clear that virtually anyone who has
collections and not been forced to sell for the classic three “Ds” of
debt, divorce, and death, would prefer to sit it out and wait for better
times. This has hurt the auction houses, who live on volume, much more than
Indeed, sitting it out is what a number of people have done, neither
adding to their collections nor thinking of disposing of them.
They are on the sidelines for now, but they will be back.
Their interest hasn’t gone away, but they would like to know what
this year’s bonus is before getting back in.
At the same time, there are plenty of collectors who don’t feel so
poor, and even some new ones who have come on strong in the last year.
Some people may have more money in cash earning very little interest
than they have ever had in their investing lives.
When the threat of inflation looms, tangible objects have always looked
like a good hedge, even if they are less fungible. I’m not suggesting that
investing is the primary driver, but clearly books and other rare tangible
objects look like a safer bet to a lot of people than real estate or the stock
This is my fourth recession in the rare book business.
I started in the trade in 1975, in the midst of stagflation.
The period 1981-82 was difficult for the trade, but I remember it more
as an era of great opportunity, with such auctions as the Sonneborn sale, and
a time when the extraordinary strength of the dollar made buying in
My experience is not universal in my field.
I have the advantages of seniority, liquidity, and a deep stock.
I know that many of my colleagues have had a tougher road. But books
are being bought and sold, new collectors have entered the market even in the
last year, and many of the sideliners are getting back into the game.
Recessions come and go, and this too must pass.
The problems I see ahead have less to do with last year’s bust than
longer-term systemic ones, now thrown into stark relief.
All booksellers are divided into three parts: new, used, and rare.
The dividing line between the first and second is very clear; between
the second and third it is often blurry, and they are the only two that
concern us. Over the last decade
the used book business – the low end of the rare trade – has been utterly
transformed by the Internet, generally to its detriment.
Beloved stores have closed, stocks have been devalued, and livelihoods
The demise of the great used book stores began in the 1960s, with the
closing of the great urban shops such as Leary’s in Philadelphia or
Lowdermilk’s in Washington, and continued with the crumbling of the Fourth
Avenue stores in New York in the 1970s, and the end of shops such as Kaye’s
and Publix in Cleveland in the 1980s. Despite
this, the used book business remained a decent living in many places, and
essentially the only way to find out-of-print books. It
was also an incubator for collectors, who cut their teeth browsing in such
stores before moving on to rarer delights. Similarly,
it bred important trade specialists who straddled the used/rare line in areas
such as art history. All of these
dealers had an incentive to gather in and sort out material and offer it in
their shops. With the practical
advent of the Internet as a bookselling tool about 1998, everything changed.
The barrier to finding an out-of-print book dropped to a simple search,
and the barrier to entering the used book business dropped to signing on to
one of the websites. Today
Advanced Book Exchange, to take the largest, offers something like 70 or 80
million books through about 10,000 vendors.
I guarantee you the world does not contain that many skilled rare book
All of this has been great for the buyer.
Prices quickly dropped off on regular out-of-print books – to the
point where the profit may lie in overcharging for the postage – and a book
that formerly took search or luck to turn up can be found immediately.
Open stores can seldom compete on this now leveled playing field with
sellers who have virtually no overhead. As
a result, many more used bookstores with a foot in the rare trade are going.
The further one ascends in rarity and such concerns as condition,
provenance, and the like arise, the less the Internet has changed the
business. While online sales are
now a significant factor for all of the trade, few truly rare or expensive
books are being sold blind, ordered out of the blue by previously unknown
buyers. The Internet is a very
effective advertising tool, but once the transaction moves into five figures,
almost everyone wants to have some discussion with the bookseller about the
who, what, and why of the book.
In short, the rarer and more valuable the book, the more the
specialized knowledge of the trade is valued, and the more experience and
memory provide a context for unique material.
The rare book business is healthiest at the top, with great rarities,
and on the esoteric sides, in specialized areas that require deep knowledge of
inherently rare material. In the
age of the Internet one has to have the best, the cheapest, or the only copy.
Specialized knowledge of readily available books has been largely
This is not good for the long-term health of the trade.
Fewer young people are entering the business, and the difficulties of
building a professional career are, I think, much greater than they were.
A substantial part of new entrants to the business are second
careerists, and while this certainly doesn’t preclude their becoming skilled
dealers, it does leave their business without the long view of experience the
lifers have. For collectors, the
traditional path of working up from used to rare material will increasingly be
done on-line. The market will certainly learn new tricks, but the old style of
used book store will soon be found only in the smaller university towns, with
low rents and a high percentage of readers. The survivals in big cities will
depend on owning the real estate.
Perhaps the biggest question facing all concerned is what kind of
market the rare book business caters to. Are
we in the information market or the antiques market?
Are we selling access to data or charming artifacts?
And to whom will we sell them?
At the beginning of my career there was no question that we were
selling both at once. Yes, there
were large microfilm and reprint projects, but these seldom came close to the
heart of the rare book business; they tended to focus on newspapers, scholarly
journals, and similarly bulky items. Institutions
were still the largest consumers in the market, and some dealers geared their
businesses entirely to their needs. The surrogate information platforms
simplified storage and spread data, but they were no easier for the scholarly
user. Indeed, we now look back on
some of these projects and are appalled at the sloppy manner in which they
It is only in the last five years that the digitizing of data on a
massive scale has become possible, and it now proceeds at a rapid rate.
Google’s projects, combined with other public and private ventures
and keyword searching, have utterly revolutionized research.
How many people in this room recall spending hours searching for one
clue that can now be found in fifteen seconds?
The information value of rare books is melting like the polar icecaps.
The subscription costs of many of these projects are hugely expensive,
and will take up ever greater segments of institutional budgets.
In general, it will mean less and less institutional money spent on
used and rare books. It may not
affect the behavior of institutions committed to being holders of record, such
as those on our library panel today, but it will greatly affect many smaller
All of this will continue a trend underway since the early 1970s, now
recognizable as the apogee of institutional buying in the rare book market.
A greater percentage of the dollars spent buying rare books will come
from private collectors buying objects and less from institutions buying
information. There is nothing
wrong with this, but it will change patterns of what is being collected and
what is salable. In general, the
great post-war institutional boom greatly expanded the range of material
considered collectable. As the
pendulum swings back, some areas of rare books will have smaller
Other areas of the current market will be little affected by these
trends. Color plate books, livre
d’artiste, atlases, and other major illustrated books have always been
collected mainly as objects, and primarily sold to private collectors.
These are all areas where the artifactual appeal trumps the
informational. Once again, the
rarest and best material and the esoteric edges will fare the best.
But what about the “standard” of-of-print book which retails in the
two or three figures, with twenty copies listed online, the text of which can
be found on Google? It will become
much harder to sell.
From all of these musings I am optimistic and pessimistic at the same
time. I am confident that this
recession will pass as others have, and that the marketplace in rare books
will recover along with other antiques markets. Indeed, I think the rare book
market has fared better than most things in the last year. That seems to me a
short-term concern. Far more
worrisome are the loss of used bookstores which were incubators of collectors
and centers of culture in their own right; the transformational effect of the
digital age on buying patterns; and budgetary crises in institutional
libraries which will reduce their role in the market.
As we look at the market today, let us distinguish what is short-term
malaise and what is a long-term trend.
One thing I am sure of: people will continue to be drawn to the beauty
and romance of rare books, and that as long as there are collectors, there
will be a market. I hope myself and my colleagues in the trade can do our part
to keep it vibrant.