When I left university I decided to go straight into secondhand bookdealing. I rented a storeroom two roads away from an auction house that had a specialist book department and started to sell at various locations in Bristol including the Central Library. Within three years I had obtained a market stall specializing in academic books.
Things were so different when I started in 1988. Bristol had over a dozen secondhand bookshops and George’s alone had more secondhand books then than there are in the whole of Bristol today. Perhaps up to ten dealers operated from home. We even had Twiggers which offered a booksearch service. Such a business would take out pages of adverts in Bookdealer magazine and we other bookdealers would search our shelves to see if we could offer them what they had advertised for.
In fact, in the 1990’s the secondhand book scene was so vibrant we all clubbed together to produce a leaflet listing where we all were. People used to visit Bristol just to go to these shops and dealers – a form of destination shopping which now no longer happens as so many secondhand bookshops and dealers have ceased trading largely as a result of the internet.
Now in 2015 there are just four secondhand bookshops in Bristol with probably less than 40,000 books between us and maybe half a dozen dealers operating from home. Bookdealer magazine is now defunct,and I am not aware of a single business in the whole of the UK which specializes in booksearches. There is no need – you just go online and try and find what you want on Ebay or use a meta search engine like Bookfinder.com to trawl through 150 million books available online. Nineteen times out of twenty I can find any book I am looking for using such methods.
And if I can do that then anyone searching for a book can do likewise and that means they do not have to come to my bookshop or phone me to find the book they want. Remember ‘Fly Fishing’ by J R Hartley? Being in the Yellow Pages was of the utmost importance in the 1990’s. Now it is an irrelevance thanks to the Internet. One of my wiser moves was to give up offering a booksearch service early on in my career.
Whilst some second-hand book dealers still issue catalogues they are very few and far between and I haven’t seen a recent one for years. And let’s face it why would anyone go to the expense of printing one up and then posting them out when you can list all the books you want to on the kind of internet sites mentioned above and potentially reach hundreds of millions more people than your catalogue could ever hope to reach?
Moreover, when you sell an item online you just delete it at the click of your mouse and everything else listed is still valid. Catalogues are now almost exclusively the domain of highly specialised dealers and the internet is the main reason for their demise.
And if all such bookdealers are advertising their books online then it is less likely that people will consider me to find the book they want.
And it is not just professional dealers selling online. The British taxman has largely turned a blind eye to this cottage industry of amateurs and it means I am up against people who are able able to sell books at discounted prices because they don’t have to pay any tax or business costs. Also prices at auction can be driven up by them because they have more of a profit margin to play with for the same reasons.
And people who sell their books on the likes of Ebay don’t come to me to sell them, which means the internet also affects adversely my supply of books.
Bookfairs have suffered likewise and though I didn’t do many of them they have dwindled to one or two a year – because of the internet? I suspect so. Bookfairs are hard work, so why do them when you can put your stock on the internet and spare yourself the physical exertion, the driving and cost of a hotel?
Then there were the stalls I used to do in the various departments of the universities and colleges in Bristol. Now students don’t bother with books very much. During the nineties I could expect to see three reading lists a day during the summer break. A couple of summers ago I decided to count how many reading lists I was shown during July, August and September and there were just three. Not one student showed me a list – it was their parents.
Needless to say I no longer specialise in academic books and am more likely to sell a book to an art student as an object that ends up being cut up than to a student who plans to read it for an essay or project. And talking of art students there was a time when my shop sold books solely because of images it contained. Now it is straight to Google images.
The internet has also meant that certain categories of books are now difficult to sell. If you have a hobby then there are loads of sites dedicated to your interest which not only can give you the information you want but often also enables you to sell what you have to other collectors or people with the same interests. Many sorts of reference books and price guide books have become redundant as a result. Anyone remember Lyles and Millers Antiques guides? General information books and books for the educated layman are now very hard to sell. Books I used to sell for a fiver a decade ago are now in my pound boxes outside. Many specialists bemoan the fact that books they used to be able to sell books in their field for between £25 – £50 are now readily available online for between £10 – £20. One suspects it is only the exorbitant cost of postage in the UK that stops book prices online falling even further.
People prefer the community and forums that the internet offers to talking to a secondhand bookdealer who is ignorant of, and not particularly interested in your passion for Icelandic Pixie Juggling music books.
And believe it or not, many a sad soul used to come to my shop just to have their prejudices confirmed or to tell me what’s wrong with the world. They would often buy a book to sweeten the bitter pill I was being asked to swallow but now they can go to forums aplenty on the internet which are much more accommodating and accessed from the comfort of their own warm home.
And there is more good news for the customer. The internet has resulted in the price of books coming down generally. Every time a book comes into the shop that I do not recognise or remember I go to the internet and check what it is being listed at on Bookfinder.com and then maybe look at what it sells for on eBay. I then sell it for cheaper. People used to start haggling over the price of a book by saying it was too expensive. Now they say they can buy it cheaper on the internet and I have to make sure I am competitive.
The internet has had a negative impact on reading books generally. If you are on Facebook playing Candy Crush Saga or reading an article on Buzzfeed entitled ’19 Magical Bookshops Every Book Lover Must Visit’ you are not reading a book. When there is so much free stuff online why pay for a secondhand book?
Poorer people used to go to the library to borrow books they could not afford. The Bristol Central Library is now full of computers, DVDs and CDs for hire and just a fraction of the books it used to have on display a few decades ago.
And more library closures are on the way.
It is great that people can log on to so many sites to learn how to speak a foreign language, look up the capital of Iceland or a recipe for tonight’s meal but it sure ain’t good news for your local secondhand bookdealer. The idea of building a library of your own is alien to so many people who now turn to websites instead of books on their shelves at home.
Every bookshop, both new and secondhand, is now competing for people’s time and disposable income in a way that was unthinkable 25 years ago. Put bluntly, the internet has led to such shops being marginalised as a source of recreation, betterment, information and interacting with other readers and booklovers. I just take hope from the fact that literary phenomena like the Harry Potter series is still interesting kids in reading and that a trilogy like 50 Shades of Grey can get people into a bookshop for the first time or in some cases reading their very first book.
All is not lost. Just don’t be surprised if any secondhand bookshop you go in is full of really good condition popular fiction, lovely bindings from a century ago and titles you never dreamt of being written. Variety may be the spice of life but it is sure-fire winners that keep us few secondhand bookdealers in business. If it was not for non-English speaking foreigners buying the likes of Dan Brown and collectors purchasing Dandy Annuals, Ladybird books and Commando comics I could be out of business. But I am not and just hope that I am not having to still sell books in a market in 24 years time.
PS – I am not unaware of the irony that it is the internet that is providing me with the medium to express such opinions about how my living as a secondhand bookdealer has changed so. Or that whilst you are reading this blog you are not reading a book.