Sunday, August 21, 2011
Going, Going, Gone!
Front elevation of the future. (See below.)
In 1993, after seventeen years in the used book business, I finally saw the light. Retail bookselling was not for me.
I closed the shop in downtown Gloucester, my fifth location since 1976, sold all my non-maritime, non-rare stock, and headed home. As chance would have it there was a shack on a 10,000 sq. foot lot across the street from my house that wasn’t being used by anyone.
I tracked the owner down and discovered that she was just about to have a baby, and needed money. It didn’t take long to arrive a mutually agreeable purchase price.
The place was a wreck, but we went to it with a will and soon had a sweet little warehouse in which to store our maritime books and documents.
These were the early days of the internet, before the dreaded “race to the bottom” that has all but destroyed the value of used books. For a few years we made damned good money buying all sorts of books and throwing them on Interloc, then on ABE. Soon the warehouse was filled with used books and orders were rolling in every day.
Joe and Amanda were over there working five days a week handling that end of the business. I stayed in my office at home, concentrating on growing my rare book specialty, working on my website, figuring out how to put catalogs together, and establishing relationships with librarians and collectors. Then I saw another light.
My two workers were sitting in the warehouse, up to their ears in used books, five days a week. I might as well open the doors to the public and see if I could make a little extra cash.
That was how shop number six came to be, right across the street from my house.
And for a number of years it worked very well. We kept banging out Internet sales, but now, from May to October, tourists would come in, tell us what a charming place we had, and ask to use the bathroom. Once in a while they’d even buy a book.
Sadly, as more people got into Internet sales the competition sharpened and prices began their inevitable decline. A book I might have sold for $25 in 1993 began showing up on Internet databases for $20, $15, $5… The party was over.
Meanwhile my wife Anne Marie and her buddy Cynthia, both talented artists, were toying with the idea of opening an art gallery on the main street of our little village. The light went on yet again.
“Don’t bother renting a gallery space,” I told them. “We’ll convert the old book building into a gallery with a book store attached.
The rent will be free. All you have to do is man the store on the days Joe can’t be there.”
So, once again, I sold all my books except for the rare maritime tomes that had become my stock in trade. This time I put the proceeds into spiffing up the building and grounds, and in the end the place looked pretty classy, track lighting and all.
Anne Marie and Cynthia started curating art shows.
And for every new show we’d have a big opening, which was really just a party for our friends and customers. We weren’t making a lot of money in the gallery business. But boy, were we having fun!
All this time, I’m happy to say, the rare book business was growing. Our website was drawing a steady response, and our catalogs regularly sold 50%-60%, which is considered a pretty good percentage.
Then, in February 2010, just after we returned from the Los Angeles Book Fair, a neighbor’s tree blew down on our little gallery,
destroying its structural integrity. The building was condemned.
Over the next year and a half this neighbor revealed himself to be a world class jerk. He somehow managed to forget that it was HIS tree that had ruined us, and steadfastly opposed every rebuilding plan we put forth, threatening legal action at every turn. We had all our permits and permissions from the various regulatory boards and commissions, and the jerk surely would have lost his lawsuits, but the process might easily have dragged on for five years and cost tens of thousands of dollars. So we kept trying to compromise with the guy. True to his jerky nature, every time we offered something, he’d want a little more. What he really wanted, it turned out, was to buy the property. No way that was going to happen.
Meanwhile the gallery was out of business, all our used books were in storage pods, and Joe had moved his office into my house, forcing me and the rare book end of the business upstairs into an unused bedroom. We were able to carry on, but it was very difficult. Nothing was where it used to be. Books kept getting lost. Our jury rigged computer network kept crashing. Fortunately, our insurance company came through just like the ads on TV. They worked with us to recover the value of the building, the ruined stock and the upfront costs of relocation. But after they signed off we were faced with a constant stream of unforeseen disasters and expenses just to try to maintain business as usual. I reckon our neighbor and his tree cost us about $50,000 in lost business and extra work over the course of that next year.
Finally, we came up with a compromise that even HE could not refuse, and we started in on our new gallery building.
Which gets me to the point of this essay.
After a year and a half, Anne Marie and I were itching to begin our building project.
Imagine our surprise, then, when the crusher took the first bite out of our dear old building,
and it suddenly felt like the machine was taking a bite out of us. We hadn’t tracked it, hadn’t given it a thought. But it turned out that both of us were incredibly attached to the physicality of that place – all the work we’d put into, all that had gone on inside it. It was the container of two decades of memories, and when that machine smashed it, we yelped.
But we’re over it now…