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Books in the Country

November, 2006
By John Huckans

On a fine Saturday morning a few weeks back, we drove over to Hamilton for its late summer book fair on the village green in the center of town. A few years ago Colgate University’s library and bookstore teamed up with Hamilton’s public library to sponsor the first of a series of annual outdoor book festivals with antiquarian booksellers, independent bookstores, food vendors and musicians all joining in the fun. There was a hint of autumn and a slight chill in the air whenever the sun went behind a cloud or the breeze picked up a bit, but that didn’t seem to keep people away and bargain hunters were out in force.

Berry Hill Bookshop and other area booksellers were offering thousands of good used books for a dollar each and people who wandered by with the notion of finding a book or two, were caught up in the spirit and bought by the bagful. The freefall in general used book values, fueled both by the Internet and the proliferation of library book sales, is an ill wind that has actually blown some booksellers a fair amount of good. Berry Hill, near Deansboro (NY), runs a large book barn operation with an inventory of 65,000 books or so and Doug Swarthout tells me that 50,000 of the total have been shelved separately from the rest and priced at $1.00 ea. The two-tier selling scheme seems to be working fairly well so far-a much faster turnover at the lower end and a general upgrading of the overall quality of the stock. It helps that Berry Hill owns a three-story barn, a low overhead advantage that many booksellers don’t have.

The Hamilton experiment suggests that independent tax-paying booksellers can compete successfully with charity bookshops and library sales, and not lost on Internet-savvy book-buyers was that the $1.00 price included shipping and handling. The sea change in bookselling, reflecting the way people buy, use and eventually dispose of their books, must result in many booksellers offering considerably less for collections compared to what they were able to pay fifteen or twenty years ago.

A more transient life style, with many families moving house several times before settling in to assisted living, encourages people to travel light—and large book collections are hard to handle as anyone who has moved a hundred or so boxes of books learns in a hurry. For a lot of folks books have become like newspapers and magazines—bought to be read or with the intention of being read and after a brief shelf life recycled through a garage or library book sale. Newer homes that come with space for a media center or even a special media room with an almost multiplex-sized television screen would, in our parents’ or grandparents’ day, have been fitted up with a room called the library, with free-standing or built-in bookcases and perhaps a large globe or atlas.

At our own local library sale, it’s not unusual to see a dozen nearly mint copies each of titles from the previous year’s bestseller list. At the end of the sale, books that have survived “bag day” are loaded into dumpsters and brought to a workshop for the handicapped where bindings are removed before the text blocks are sent off for recycling. In short, except for bookish romantics, they’ve become a disposable commodity.

As mentioned before, what a bookseller will be able to pay for your collection or accumulation of books must reflect the new reality. At Hamilton, John DeForest of Brothertown Books, Doug Swarthout of Berry Hill and a few other booksellers have not only adapted their business model to the change but also appear confident in their ability to undersell the Internet. At the lower end of the market it’s all about recycling the printed word—and even though most new books sold at Barnes &Noble or Amazon these days seem to carry artificially high prices, they quickly become part of the lower end of the market.

In a rather perverse way we’re seeing a return to the spirit of New York’s Fourth Avenue (Book Row) where good used books were once plentiful and cheap—the sad reality being that New York City, because of its extraordinarily high rents, no longer provides a hospitable environment or fertile ground for this sort of business. The recent closing of the Gotham Book Mart a few weeks ago and the second attempt in several years to save it from the inevitable has caused a bit of a stir among some New Yorkers. According to an article in the New York Sun and later in the New York Times, an ominous notice taped to the door states “The landlord has legal possession of these premises pursuant to warrant of Civil Court…(for) information, contact landlord or agent immediately.” One has to sell a lot of books, through good times and bad, to cover the reported monthly rent of $51,000—which, I am told, is somewhat low by mid-town Manhattan standards. The other sign on the door says “Wise Men and Women Gone Fishin’.” For a cost savings of $51,000 a month what bookseller wouldn’t move to a place in the country with a nearby trout stream and a good DSL connection? And when the Coliseum bookstore, another NYC landmark, closes at the end of this year, the bank along that trout steam is going to get pretty crowded.

Almost from its founding by Frances Steloff in 1920, the Gotham Book Mart was a gathering place or oasis for writers and publishers and as the years went by it became one of New York’s cultural landmarks. Writers, including LeRoi Jones, Allen Ginsberg and others, worked there early in their careers and it was a regular meeting place for various groups, including the (James) Joyce Society. The present owner, Andreas Brown, bought the business in 1967 and in 2004 moved it from 41 East 47th Street to its present location at 16 East 46th Street. As of this writing, the future of Gotham is uncertain. We certainly wish them the best.

Nowadays the antiquarian book business is a moveable feast and in the Northeast the spirit and fragmented bits of Fourth Avenue lie scattered in parts of the Catskills, upstate New York, and throughout rural New England. In our own region, besides Berry Hill Bookshop and Brothertown Books in Deansboro (NY)—not too far from Hamilton College—there’s Utopia Books &Art in Leonardsville, Half Moon Books in Madison, Willis Monie in Cooperstown, Atelier Books in Schenevus, Books’ End in Syracuse, and a group of booksellers in the burgeoning book town of Hobart, nicely snuggled in the Catskills. Lots of good fishin’ there I’m told. And that doesn’t include the areas in and around Rochester, Buffalo, Albany, Schenectady and Binghamton.

Our own village, unfortunately, has been less than bookseller-friendly of late. The owner of the local bookstore, who provides excellent service, has a loyal following and consistently arranges the main street’s most attractive window displays, has been hassled to the point that we fear she may decide to move elsewhere. Her main transgression, I’m told, (for which she was berated in public by a local official) was wanting to recreate a bit of Fourth Avenue ambience by putting a small, rather attractive display of “sale” books on the sidewalk immediately in front of her shop in good weather. If she does decide to relocate, some other town will benefit by our loss. Any small town lucky enough to have an independent bookstore should lend all the moral support it can—and it wouldn’t hurt to buy a few books either.

Ned Hanauer.

In 1996, when we were still hooked up to cable television, I chanced to tune in to a C-Span broadcast of a talk given before one of the weekly forums of the City Club of Cleveland. The speaker was Edmund R. (Ned) Hanauer, whose soft-spoken yet eloquent presentation relating to questions of basic human rights was most compelling—so much so that I contacted C-Span, ordered a tape of the broadcast, and have shown it to friends and interested groups several times since.

Ned died in August after a short illness and a brief obituary appears in our Noteworthy section.