Basement, 77 Langsford St. April 22, 2012
When I started this blog a couple of years ago, I aspired to absolute transparency. I was going to “tell it like it is.” The unvarnished truth about the book business!
It only took me half a page to realize that, despite my lofty goal, this would not be possible in the real world. As much as I might assume the power to speak my version of the truth, I had to acknowledge that my unfiltered observations had the potential to do enormous harm – to blow up alliances, derail deals, and alter the way colleagues were perceived by others - based merely on my own myopic perception. So I adopted a generic reportorial voice. I reckoned if I told it like I saw it in the broadest terms, leavened that with a little humor and some big picture thinking, I could amuse myself and you.
But there is one topic about which I can speak with frankness, knowing full well what damage I’ll cause – and that’s Ten Pound Island Book Co.
If you haven’t guessed by now, I’ve spent a good part of the past week on Ten Pound archaeology. The exercise of emptying those shipping containers and digesting their contents provided long forgotten data about the history of my book company. I’m sketching that trajectory here in hopes that it might provide some amusement, diversion, or warning.
1976-77. Ten Pound Island Book Co., a partnership with my dear old pal Jean, operates out of an art gallery called Stagecoach House. Grosses about $5000 that first year. A typical week
After welfare runs out I paint houses and drive cabs to feed my family.
1977-80. Jean and I move to an old fish shack in East Gloucester. Business a little better, grossing $15,000 - $18,000. But I’m still painting houses.East of Eden 95 cents? Ouch!
1981. Move from the fish shack to 93 Main St. – Downtown baby!Start adding catalogs and book fairs, and gross jumps to $37,983.83.Rent $400. Still painting.
1982. Jean comes to her senses and moves to Maine.Rent goes up to $475, but paying for heat is the killer. It dawns on me that some books are considerably more valuable than others, but I still believe that if I could just find the right location in Gloucester my business would be secure.
1983. Move across the street to 108 Main. $400 rent, heat included. It’s a lovely space with generous windows, retail brings in about $16,000 annually, with roughly the same from book fairs and catalogs. Still painting houses BUT, in our Great Leap Forward, TPI starts borrowing money, $1000 at a time, 15.5% interest.
And I finally figure out that the people with the most reliable supply of good books are dealers, and the people to sell them to are other dealers.
1985 – 87. Incorporate, join ABAA, buy a computer. Still a struggle, but during one of those years I quit painting houses for good. Ransack them in search of books instead.
1987. Move around the corner to 3 Center St., my fifth location. Get serious about catalogs, book fairs, and dealer sales. Rent $350 with heat. The retail public, with only a few exceptions, becomes a source of terminal boredom. Fortunately, my kids are now old enough to work. They’re always bored, so it doesn’t matter. But it’s still a struggle – $1600 a month retail doesn’t cut it.
1993. I finally realize that success in this business is NOT determined by location. And it’s not about retail, either… not walk in retail, anyway. I buy the property across the street and fill it with books. Interloc! $200,000 credit line! Big Time Book Dealer now!
1995. Gross hits $500,000 and stays there, with minor fluctuations (as low as $450K, as high as $820K), while I put kids through college, spend out my $200K, and open another credit line.
1996-present. While gross income flattens out, “cost of goods” increases, as I cheat, lie, and steal to make up the difference. Begin to economize by buying cheaper copy paper, stopping daily UPS pickups, and not answering the phone. Squeeze one last credit line out of my local lender.
As you can see, it’s been a good run and a wonderful life. I told a colleague at the New York fair, “Every morning I wake up and I can’t believe they haven’t found me out yet.”
“Oh,” he replied, “They HAVE found you out. And this is what you get.”
So now the bank owns my house, my new building across the street, my cars, all my books, and my future, which is guaranteed to be spent in bookish toil until the day I keel over.
I suppose I could get nervous about the situation, but I prefer to think of the bankers as “my partners.”