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Collecting and it’s Electronic Discontents

February 8, 2011

David Mason is having a sale. This is very exciting. David Mason is an antiquarian seller in Toronto who specializes in Canadiana and modern first editions, and his store is beautiful. Originally located in an upstairs location on Queen West, now located a few blocks away, the store is filled with wooden bookshelves, woven carpets, posters, postcards, and other literary memorabilia. If you have a chance to go (it’s on till Wednesday, with a possible extension), GO, if only to experience the store.

Antiquarian shops are becoming rarer and rarer in Toronto, a trend I find disheartening. The usual suspects apply here: skyrocketing rent, competition with movies, ebooks, and computer games, and the high price tags that come with a collectible market. Toronto, I suspect, also has some unusual suspects: just as chains like Indigo and HMV have cornered the publishing and music industries, there are chains of used bookstores operating in Toronto that have consolidated a lot of the secondary market.

In many cases, the market has moved away from the concept of a ‘curated’ experience, which has driven down the unit prices of books. By curated, I mean stores like David Mason, Bakka Books, Contact Editions, Seekers Books, She Said Boom, Monster Records, and many others. Stores that not only specialize in a particular type of book or genre, but generally charge more for having a limited selection of good books, rather than a large collection of mediocre ones. A curated experience also means books that are rare, out of print, or collectible, with the price hit that incurs. Like museum curators, they are consciously choosing the stock they wish to sell, because they believe that stock represents who they are, and what they’d like the world to be.

I’ve been a collector my entire life. Just look through this blog…half the entries are lists of my books, cameras, comics. I dig inventory, baby. I can remember the first Byrne/Claremont X-Men book I ever read (loaned to me by the kid who lived next door), the satisfaction of finding every single Master of Kung-Fu issue (all 108 issues, 1 annual, and 4 Giant-Size issues!), having a complete run of every Roger Zelazny paperback released at the time (31), and finding the last issue of Sandman that I needed to complete the series (issue 5).

Like many collectors, I define myself (and regrettably, those around me) by what they own. This is a habit that can lead to very negative consequences, if left unchecked, and I’ve learned to curb this, as best I can. Yet, true collectors can’t help it. And I suspect, the booksellers who curate their stores can’t help it either.

I’ve already mentioned the usual suspects in the decline of good bookstores above, but I think collectibility plays a large role here, as well as online auction and clearing-houses, and print-on-demand services. It has never been so easy for non-experts to believe that they are.

In all the years I’ve been collecting books, comics, records and CD’s, I’ve often thought of myself as an ‘expert’. And, almost every single time, I’ve been full of shit. I’ve come around to the notion that I’m just opinionated, but most of those opinions don’t count as ‘expert’ advice.

But what many of the online services sell is the notion that people can beat the market if they sell to it themselves. That all those pre-internet dealers are just ’boutique pawn shops’ that only offer half the market value because they’re indecent liars, instead of honest business folk.

The reason they offer half the market value of the book is that they need to pay the rent. They reject books because they have to pay the rent that month…they can’t tie up money in stock that won’t move.

There are indecent dealers out there. I’ve been in quite a few shady stores, just in Toronto. They will remain unnamed, as I’m sure they are already aware of who they are.

But the Internet has generated a lot of dealers who have no idea what they’re selling, how much to ask, and don’t have any idea of the historical or cultural value of what they’re selling. This is what the curated store experience offers. This is what turns a storefront into a valuable part of the local community, often defining a neighborhood in the way that City Lights Bookstore has become part of the definition of San Francisco. This is where the added value is. This is what justifies the higher price tag.

When I walk into certain stores in Toronto, I know that part of the price I’m paying for the merchandise is the knowledge the retailer has acquired about what he’s selling. In other stores, I know the retailer couldn’t care less about what they’re selling, as long as it sells. The difference is dramatic. Both stores can become key parts of the local culture, but in different ways: the former enriches the neighborhood, the latter helps it survive. I don’t think you can argue one is better than the other, and I’d argue that both are necessary. Survival without self-respect isn’t enough.

In many cases, an antiquarian dealer or comics retailer will have built the connections and experience to not only properly appraise your collection (no matter how large or small it may be), but also offer ways to consign the really valuable stuff so both the dealer and you come out ahead. Even when just straight cash is offered, you benefit from those connections, because they will help you find the things you’re really looking for in good condition, something you may not find from the inexperienced seller on eBay.

Another aspect hitting the bottom line of all retailers is the ebook and mp3 market. I honestly believe that this will deeply hit the antiquarian market, but ultimately for the better.

There has never been so much to collect in recorded history as there is now. There is more new writing generated on a daily basis in North America today than there were books available in the whole world just a few hundred years ago. And it’s increasing exponentially. Publishers in both the book, music, and movie industries have built up ways to control the flood, including regional encoding on DVD’s, purposefully leaving books out of print until demand has built up, and re-issuing music and movies in ever-increasingly complex special editions.

Many of these control levers make sense when the product is analog, but are absurd when it’s just a computer file on the network or hard drive. When you encode music in lo-fi mp3 format, there’s no reason why a record label can’t issue it’s entire back-catalog. When you have formats like ePub, there’s no reason why a book should ever be out of ‘print’.

Digital Rights Management has slowed down digital adoption. Copyright is a complex issue…it won’t get sorted out overnight.

In general, though, the economics of selling digital copies hasn’t been worked out. Selling a song for 99¢, selling a book for half to two-thirds of it’s print cost doesn’t scale. A 1 Gigabyte drive can hold 10,000 100Kb ePub books (100Kb can store most of a 200-page novel). Imagine a Terabyte.

No one will ever read 10,000 books in their lifetimes. But no one listens to every track on the CD’s they buy, either. Part of the reason to collect is not just to randomly own as much as you can, but to build a library that extends your knowledge of the world. I’ve probably owned more than 100 computer and programming manuals, but I doubt I’ve read more a few dozen cover-to-cover.

The volume of material already produced versus material being produced is another limit on how high or low the price can get. Even if Penguin could sell every book they ever produced online for pennies and still make a profit, they could only do so by lowering the advances offered to new writers. The dead don’t need to eat, but the living do.

So, it’s a bit of a balancing act. One that’s not being executed very well right now.

But I can’t believe it won’t improve. At a certain point, it’s going to become both economically and ecologically important to move to digital formats. In the book Information: A Very Short Introduction, Luciano Floridi notes studies that predict Information and Communication Technologies will “eliminate almost 8 metric gigatons of greenhouse gas emissions annually by 2020, which is equivalent to 15% of global emissions today”. We’re going to need to not just recycle all of these cheap paperbacks, CD’s, DVD’s, and magazines, but stop producing them in mass quantities, and the collector’s market will shrink.

As much as I love walking into a comics shop on Wednesday afternoons and buying the latest issue of The Invincible Iron Man or The Astonishing X-Men, I also love waiting for reprint editions. Soon, there will be a less expensive alternative to the iPad, and I expect I’ll be able to subscribe to those books digitally and have them delivered wirelessly on that same Wednesday. Wouldn’t that be cool?

As cool as it will be, I don’t think analog is going away. When the online economics get ironed out (and they haven’t…the CRTC usage-based billing legislation for the Internet is an indicator of just how badly it hasn’t been worked out), the analog world will still be there. We are tactile creatures, and we need to feel the heft, weight and texture of things. And I wouldn’t advocate recycling the last copy of The English Patient in existance just because it’s on my Kobo.

Collectibles do rely on rarity and demand, things that aren’t deeply effected by who’s selling. Of course, many things listed as collectible aren’t as rare as some people think. The comics market has suffered from a profound loss of confidence in the last decade (maybe the last two decades) because of rampant speculation, fueled in part by publishers and retailers as much as collectors. The antiquarian market has been more insulated against this, but many of the things being offered on eBay aren’t ‘rare’. Hopefully, people will become more comfortable with owning a purely digital copy in the future.

And the analog has the one advantage the Internet may never have, despite the current spate of ‘social media’ websites: the local impact it has on where you live.

Curated stores like David Mason are important to their neighborhood. I’d rather not look at live video feeds of people getting shot to death in Egypt, but I recognize the value that aspect of globalization has. In the large, cheap digital communications have brought us all closer together. But at the same time, if globalization destroys the concept of the local, then we have nothing to call home. The curated experience of local shops, no matter what they sell, adds to our cultural diversity. It helps keep us sane. It provides identity.

It helps makes us human.

One Comment leave one →
  1. February 8, 2011 8:07 pm

    Although I’ve never been anything remotely resembling a collector, I know many who are and I appreciate the aesthetic of the condition 😉

    Great post, sir!

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