Both as President of IOBA (Independent Online Booksellers Association) and as a bookseller who specializes in selling signed and inscribed books, I was pleased to post the following announcement:
“From IOBA and ABAA member Marc Kuritz, Churchill Book Collector –
“On Thursday, 12 October, California’s Governor signed into law California State Assembly Bill 228, amending California’s disastrously onerous autograph law to totally exempt books, manuscripts, and correspondence, as well as ephemera not related to sports or entertainment media. Because AB 228 was an “Urgency Statute” it goes into law immediately. As already. As in “Whew!””
Marc mentions that there was a lot of heavy lifting involved, as well as significant negotiations between competing AB and Senate bills, and more – but in the end, booksellers got the results, in large part because of the efforts of Marc, Laurelle Swan and others in both IOBA and the ABAA. The efforts of the ABAA in general, from first raising awareness of the unintended consequences of the original bill to hiring a lobbyist to support the legislative fight, were essential to this successful outcome and we all owe them a debt of gratitude.
Thanks are also due to all those involved in writing about the bill, and those who took the time to sign the change.org petition and to promote this issue and support Todd Gloria, who agreed to author this bill in the Assembly.”
AB 228 removes the “unintended consequences” for booksellers in last year’s AB 1570, but still preserves consumer protection in the areas where it is most needed.
For those not familiar with this bill, it revised an earlier section of California’s civil code which governed the sale of autographed sports collectibles by removing the word “sports” and substituting “all” autographed items priced over $5.00 – and all of a sudden a very limited law applies not just to all booksellers, auction houses, book shows, art and autograph dealers in California, but also to sellers who might participate in California events, and possibly even to sellers from outside the state. The bookkeeping requirements are onerous (a very detailed certificate must be issued, and a copy kept by the dealer for 7 years) but even more significantly, it requires dealers to disclose the name and address of the person from whom they acquired the signed book – which is a violation of their right to privacy (a right which is also protected by law in California). Booksellers were unaware of this bill until after it was actually signed into law – to go into effect on Jan 1, 2017. In October, in an editorial calling for its repeal or revision, The Los Angeles Times called this the worst bill of the year!
There is a petition requesting that the California legislature repeal this bill and I hope that everyone who reads this will sign the petition. It got almost 500 signatures in just the first day, but we would like to see 5000 signatures or more!
There have already been some unintended consequences of what was probably a well-meaning, but poorly written bill. Easton Press is no longer shipping signed books to California, and some sellers have withdrawn from the most significant antiquarian book fair held in California annually – the ABAA fair in Oakland on Feb 10 to 12.
We very strongly support consumer protection, but unfortunately this bill, which only offers consumers the option to sue, does not really protect them.
We give an unequivocal guarantee on all autographed books – if ever there is even a question about the authenticity of the signature, we will give a full refund upon return of the item. There is no time limit on this guarantee. We obtain many of the signatures in our books personally – other books are purchased from longtime and knowledgeable collectors. We are members of the Independent Online Booksellers Association and we are bound by their stringent code of ethics.
Years ago, in the early and mid-1990s, when I was a new bookseller, we used to make frequent trips towards the coast of California north of San Francisco – to Marin and Sonoma counties – and we could easily spend a day scouting in the used bookstores we found there, and return with a carload of boxes. As the years went on most of those stores closed – and not much came along to replace them. Much as I love buying and selling on the internet, it is not quite the same thing.
I still miss those bookhunting trips, so this month, driven by nostalgia (and a desire to forget the present) we hit the road again. We live further away now, so it became a three day trip, with a great stay in a lovely little airbnb apartment in Lucas Valley, complete with a Bruce Johnson large wood sculpture in the courtyard and a welcoming bottle of wine.
Despite the pleasant accommodations, in our first full day of searching, good books – books worth buying – were pretty hard to find. We even came up empty in several thrift stores. Mystery hardcovers at the Friends of the Library store in Novato were only $1 each, but there were none we could use, although I did find a few books in other sections of the store (one of the advantages of having several specialties means that if one doesn’t work out, another might.)
The weather was perfect – 70 and sunny with a light breeze – the kind of autumn day that makes you glad to be living in California. Point Reyes National Seashore was just a few miles down the road, through the redwoods and rolling hills. Lunch in town consisted of oysters on the half shell, artisan pizza and local beer on the patio – it doesn’t get much better than that, even if we only had one small bag of books in the car so far.
Rebound Books opened in San Rafael in 2005, after most of the other stores had closed, but a newly opened (or even a 12 year old) store – with maybe 10% of the space – just cannot replace a store like Hal Bertram’s old Mandrake Bookshop with its high shelves, and enough inventory to be nicknamed “the Strand of Marin County.” Still Rebound does have a pretty eclectic selection in a fairly small space, reasonable prices (I found a couple of juvenile series books here) and very friendly and helpful owners (it is also conveniently located next door to The WhipperSnapper, a very good Caribbean fusion restaurant) .
The next day we headed to Santa Rosa, where there is still a survivor of the “good old days” – Treehorn Books on 4th St in downtown. Founded in 1979, it always had a good selection of children’s books but now it has lots more books than it used to, including just about the biggest selection of poetry books you will find in a used bookstore. Trehorn has shelves going all the way up to their 12 foot ceilings (or are they 14 ft?), and lots and lots of the shelves are packed with double rows of books, so browsing is challenging. They list a very small selection of their books online, but even though very few are online, and their prices are reasonable, they really know their books so those prices reflect the current market pretty closely.
Nevertheless, I found a couple of items irresistible – the first was a small die-cut children’s book, published early in the 20th century by a printing company founded in Scotland in 1851 – a retelling of The Three Bears. Valentine & Sons, the publisher of a series of shaped books for children, became the largest printer of postcards in Scotland. Although it was later sold to Hallmark, this little book stands as testimony to its work over 100 years ago.
The second book was a signed copy of Howard Pease’s The Secret Cargo – just a reprint, unfortunately – but in a dust jacket – and quite uncommon signed. But it wasn’t the book alone that attracted me – it was the laid in mimeographed program for “Howard Pease Day” in 1961 (the same date as the book was signed) complete with lyrics for a song to be sung to the tune of “Farmer in the Dell. ” For me, it is these kind of connections that make a copy of a book really special.
This is an interview which was first published in The Standard, the journal of the Independent Online Booksellers Association, back in December 2001, but I think it is worth repeating here –
Regarding Black Writers & Literature
an interview with Chris Volk, bookseller and Shirley Bryant, editor of The Standard.
Q: One of your specialties is Black literature. How/why did you choose this area to specialize in?
A: I had both personal reasons and what I like to think are practical business reasons. The civil rights movement was very active when I was a college student, and in the years right after that, and while I was only involved in very minor ways (participating in a tutoring program, etc.) it was something I believed in, and I began to read and buy books related to blacks in America. In fact, this was one of the common areas of interest between me and my first husband (now deceased), who was black and working as a part-time lecturer in black studies when I met him. Since we had two daughters, I continued to buy books in this area, so that they would have them available.
When I started as a bookseller back in 1993, I was planning on selling books mostly by catalogues and at shows, and so within the overall area of modern first editions, I decided to focus on women authors and African American writers, two areas I both liked and felt were somewhat neglected, since historically most booksellers and book collectors in the U.S. have been white males. I also felt that since I was more knowledgeable about these areas than many booksellers, it gave me a little bit of an advantage that would offset my newness in the business.
Q: Which Black authors do you consider the best overall and why?
A: In terms of sheer literary elegance, I would have to say Ralph Ellison and the best of W. E. B. DuBois’s writings are extremely powerful. I think we all know the list of classic African American authors, ranging from Frederick Douglass to Hurston to Wright and to Baldwin, so I am not going to select a ‘best’ from among them.
I am not even going to try and select some favorites because so often it is a question of which writer affects you the most on a particular day or in a particular mood. I will mention a few who I think don’t get the recognition they deserve: Percival Everett (who has written many novels over about 20 years, with a new, very funny one out just this year), Paule Marshall, Gayl Jones (her personal tragedies made her name better known for a while, but I think she is still not read enough), James Alan McPherson (he won the Pulitzer prize for one collection of short stories, but I wish he would write more), Sherley Anne Williams, George Lamming (from the Caribbean) I could go on and on and on another day, my list might be completely different. Many of the African American writers whom I like are poets, rather than novelists.
Q: Do you think Black authors have a unique perspective because of being Black, or is that irrelevant? If they do have a unique perspective, do you think they’re writing things that non-Blacks can relate to, or are their experience foreign to most other races/ethnic groups? I guess what I’m asking is whether most Black literature is based on a past of poverty and oppression that any struggling ethnic group can relate to, or is it unique to American Blacks?
A: To the extent that some (not most) African American literature is based on a past of poverty and oppression, I think it speaks to all groups who have struggled against these – however, the black experience in the U.S. is unique in many ways: the length of their history in the U.S. going back to the 17th century, the fact that they were brought to the U.S. unwillingly as slaves, and also that the form of slavery to which these Africans were subjected in the west was in many ways the worst the world has ever known (the only one which considered slaves as chattels, of no more significance than ownership of cattle).
The other important thing to realize in looking at African American literature is that in many ways it is part of a world literature or a trans-Atlantic literature. The term “diaspora” is used to indicate the spread of those of African descent to most parts of the western world. So my own personal perspective has been broadening to include Afro-Caribbean writers (many of whom left the Caribbean and went to England, France, Canada and the U.S.), Afro-Brazilian, and African writers. In fact, if you are talking about a writer from Puerto Rico or Cuba who has come to the United States, is that writer a Latin American or an African American or both?
One other point: the best literature is universal – Thus Grapes of Wrath speaks to all readers, not just migrant farm workers, and I think so does Wright’s Native Son, and Baldwin’s Go Tell It on a Mountain and Zora Neale Hurston’s Jonah’s Gourd Vine, to give just a few examples.
Q: Do most Black authors only write about Black characters? I’m curious about this, as Caucasian authors seem to write about all nationalities and racial and ethnic groups (although perhaps not with the authority that an author from a particular country or racial or ethnic group brings to writing), and most of the admittedly few current Black authors I’ve read seem to stick to Black characters and Black situations.
A. I guess I am partly curious about why you say that white writers seem to write about all nationalities and ethnic groups. Certainly one sees this in children’s literature where in the past the writers were almost exclusively white, but the children were often from different countries, or little black children. But I think in serious literature it is much less common for a white writer to have the protagonist of the work be of another race. Again, in the past, some Southerners wrote novels in dialect, but these were intended to confirm white readers in their belief that Negroes were simple, child-like, happy folks, or untrustworthy and shifty or whatever.
I don’t want to say that there aren’t any exceptions, because of course, there are but they are precisely that, exceptions: To give just one very modern example, Susan Straight is a white woman who set her first few books exclusively within the black community but she was married to a black man and living within that community at the time and her books stand out precisely because they are uncommon.
Some other interesting exceptions occurred during the Harlem Renaissance when you had a white woman like Nancy Cunard create the massive anthology “Negro” or Marc Connelly write a play like “Green Pastures” Langston Hughes referred to this phenomenon rather uncomplimentarily in one of his poems, but the fact remains that the Harlem Renaissance was a time in which it was “popular” to be black. Similarly, during the Civil Rights era and the Black Power movement, there was a certain allure to the whole scene which led to many writers who were not black featuring black protagonists.
However, it is true that most white writers have, in a sense, more freedom to write totally outside their own culture or their own experiences. They have been given this freedom by society, where they are not expected to “uphold the race” and by publishers. However, one of the ongoing issues for many black writers is not just expressing themselves creatively but also how much of an obligation do they have to work to correct injustice through their writing. Should they always be thinking of the white reader who might read their books and find his/her stereotypes confirmed if they described a black man as brutal or unfaithful (a criticism leveled against Alice Walker and Gayl Jones, for example)?
Richard Wright, whose books focused on the daily injustices blacks faced in America, felt that Zora Neale Hurston was wrong in writing her novels about a self-contained black world. I just got a copy of Bronze, the second collection of poetry by Georgia Douglas Johnson, a minor Harlem Renaissance writer. Her first collection was criticized because it dealt with the “heart” and not race, so this was her book of poems on race (although still infused by the heart), and in her last book, she again ignored race.
An interesting example is Charles Perry: his first and only published novel Portrait of a Young Man Drowning, was based on his own experience of juvenile gangsters in his Brooklyn neighborhood, but it features almost exclusively white characters – a decision made, according to Perry’s daughter, out of a fear that issues of race could cloud the humanity of the characters. Did this make it harder for him to get published?
Just two more very different examples: Many people still do not realize that Frank Yerby was a black man. His earlier books did not have a picture of him on the dustjacket, and almost all of his books are historical fiction, adventure novels, and so on, set almost exclusively within a white world. When Charles Chesnutt published his first book, even though it used dialect, it was thought that he was white. In fact, he was light skinned enough that he could have easily passed for white, but instead his novels became increasing more “political” and less popular. What had been considered his last novel, The Colonel’s Dream, was published while he was still relatively young, and only a few years after his first, and sold poorly. In fact, a recently found later novel of his has just been published, and this is the story of a man who grows up thinking he is black, and discovers that he is white (does this count as a black writer writing a novel with a white protagonist?)
So African American authors have both pressure from others in their communities to write about black people for many different reasons and from publishers who find it easier to keep writers in a ‘box’, a desire to overcome the prejudices and injustices they have faced, a dramatic history to write about is it surprising that they mostly write about black characters?
Q: Do you believe it is harder, today, for a Black author to find a publisher? To be marketed as a mainstream author by publishers? Or do their works command a smaller audience which discourages publishers from pushing their work?
A: Most African American writers would be considered ‘mid-list’ writers. I think that all mid-list writers are having problems now in finding publishers, but yes, this situation is probably exacerbated for black authors. I recently went to a signing by Mary Monroe, who just published her second novel more than 10 years after her first one and the reason was that she could not find a publisher. I can give several other examples of women who have had good critical reviews, or even won prizes for their books, but they wind up with no publisher for a while.
Marketing is, of course, another issue and it is one that becomes very obvious in some bookstores where African American writers are for the most part put in a separate section of the store. In a way, this increases the ‘ghettoization’ of black authors, by implying that only black readers will be interested in their books. Writers like Toni Morrison obviously have broken out of this, but I think this trend is increasing.
Q: What genres seem to attract the most Black authors? Does their being Black usually have an effect on these choices?
A: African Americans write in all genres aside from straight “literature” there are many black writers in mysteries, romance, science fiction, juvenile and children’s literature. Perhaps the genres where they are relatively under-represented are science fiction and Western fiction.
Q: Am I mistaken that most of the currently popular Black literature authors are women? If that is true, what is your thinking on why?
A: If by popular you are referring to those who appear on the best seller lists consistently like Bebe Moore Campbell or Terry MacMillan or even Toni Morrison, then it might seem so. Remember most book buyers in the U.S. are women, and one of the things that Campbell and MacMillan seem to have done is to write novels about black women facing emotional/family/romantic/financial problems in a way that has more to do with being middle class American than specifically African American so that makes their novels popular enough that they will hit the best seller list. I don’t pay attention to the best seller lists all that much but I will agree that there do not seem to be any African American male writers who approach the popularity of Clancy, King, Koontz, etc.
However, when looking at literature overall, there are many popular African American writers who are men. With some exceptions, popularity usually means that a book is less challenging, so I am not sure that is an important goal.
Q: Are most Black literature authors (as opposed to autobiographical, nonfiction, or politically related writing) from the U.S.? If so, why?
A: Well, I dealt with this a little above, but no, most of them are not from the United States. Africa and the Caribbean have both produced Nobel Prize winning authors (to use just one yardstick) the Caribbean especially has produced a large number of interesting authors, both in the past with such writers as Aime Cesaire and currently with not just “giants” of literature like Derek Walcott, but also with many interesting younger writers, such as Jamaica Kincaid and Edwidge Danticat and Caryl Phillips (and remember, not all black literature is written in English – much of it is in French and some in Spanish.) Many writers move between countries – in other words, lots of Caribbean writers go to Canada or England or the U.S., and back again.
Q: Do you think that popular Black authors are helped a lot by the publicity Oprah gives their work? What other venues or people are helping Black authors?
A: I can’t really give a complete list of authors Oprah has selected, but it seems to me that her effect has been much more dramatic on some of the white woman writers she
has selected: specifically, I am thinking of her first selection, Jane Hamilton, who was very little known until that happened.
In a sense, Oprah is much more conservative in selecting African Writers: many have already won recognition. Toni Morrison was already a Nobel Laureate, Ernest Gaines had won the National Book Award, Crosby books were already all best sellers, etc. I might be missing someone but offhand I cannot think of an unknown young African American fiction writer who she selected.
Q: I’ve had some Black customers who only collect works by Black authors. Do you find this prevalent?
A: Most collectors have to limit their collection – African American collectors are no exception. Certainly, many of them collect primarily in certain periods (Harlem Renaissance, or modern literature or late 19th century), but I have had African American collectors who only collect mysteries, one who was a serious Anne Rice collector, others who collect children’s books.
And many of the collectors whom I have dealt with who collect African American authors are not themselves African American.
Q. What percentage of your sales are books by Blacks?
A: I actually looked this up because I wasn’t sure and I was surprised to see that African American books are approximately 15% of the books which we have catalogued and represent about 15% of our sales (in terms of numbers of books). The only difference is that the average sales price is somewhat higher than our overall average, and this reflects the fact that I will put more energy into “buying” in this area.
I would like to see a higher percentage of our books in this area, actually, but finding really good quality books is becoming more and more challenging.
This is another older article – but perhaps still relevant – while times change, and we like to think that the great “recession” is behind us, one thing is constant: making a living as a bookseller is both a joy and a challenge:
USED BOOKSELLING IN THE RECESSION
by Chris Volk
When I (as the vice president of IOBA – Independent Online Booksellers Association) was asked by a reporter if there were any statistics on how the recession was affecting sales for used booksellers, I said that reports are mostly anecdotal – but I offered to run a quick and rather impromptu survey. The questions focused on simply sales – up or down – during the January and February of 2009 vs the sames months in 2008 and 2007, and in order to put these figures in context, I asked a few basic questions about whether or not the sellers also had an open store, number of employees, years as a bookseller, and the average selling price of their books.
Forty-eight booksellers took the time to reply. While their experiences ranged from one extreme to to the other, I think overall there were enough replies for a few trends to emerge.
In the general comments, I found the level of confidence expressed quite amazing – even those sellers whose sales were down and who expected the downturn to continue still commented in this vein:
“Everyday I feel like I’m challenged to find new ways to be able to continue earning a living in the field I love. I am working more hours for less profit and cannot imagine what other profession I would enter at this stage of my life.” or
“sales seemed to turn downward with the economy. It makes us dig into our resourcefulness to try to figure out different ways to increase our sales, cut our costs, and just plain survive. Adapt. Hold on. We hope that a more robust market isn’t too terribly far away.”
Based on this brief summary, selling used books might be less affected than many other businesses by the downturn in the economy, but it is not a “recession-proof” industry. For most of the booksellers who replied, business had been increasing year-over-year through the beginning of 2008; since most were experienced sellers, the most significant factor causing this decline in sales is presumably the overall economy. While we were just looking at a narrow window of two months, several sellers commented that the decline was worse in February, paralleling the fall in the stock markets and the increases in unemployment.
48 booksellers participated in the survey, representing 20 states, Canada and the UK – 11 sellers were from California, 5 from New York. Not all sellers answered all questions, although most did.
Approximately 2/3rds of the sellers responding were members of IOBA.
The sellers who answered were overwhelmingly small businesses: only 11% had 3 or more employees (including the owner as an employee). They also had a significant amount of experience – 91% had been working 5 or more years as booksellers, 73% for 10 or more years. 91% were full-time booksellers.
23% had open stores; the rest were primarily online sellers, although some also did book fairs, mailed out catalogues or were open by appointment. For those who did have open stores, the amount of business generated by the store vs online ranged from 10% to 95% for the store.
61% of the sellers had an average sales price in the $10-40 range
27% of the sellers had an average sales price of $40-100,
8% of the sellers had an average sales price of over $100 and only 4% had an average of $10 and under.
The median response was a loss of 10% in 2009 over 2008, and a loss of 5% in 2009 over 2007. In other words, the median decrease between Jan-Feb 2007 and 2009 (a period of 14 months) was 15%.
for those sellers with an average sales price in the $10-40 range, the median decline from 2008 to 2009 was 4%; for those sellers with an average sales price in the $40-100 range, the median decline from 2008 to 2009 was 20%.
the median number of years in the business was 11.
change in $$ sales between 2009 and 2008 -10.6%
change in $$ sales between 2009 and 2007 +.4%
(the majority of sellers had an increase between 2007 and 2008)
for those selling books with an average sales price of $10-40, the 2009 vs 2008 decrease was 7.1% , for those selling books with an average sales price of $40-100, the decrease was 18.7% and for those selling the most expensive books, it was 18.5%.
number of years as a bookseller : 13. Those selling books in the $40-100 range – that is, the group which appears to have experienced the largest year-over-year decline – are the most experienced with an average of 15 years.
number of employees (counting self as 1) – 1.5
change in $$ sales between 2009 and 2008 ranged from a decrease of 66% to an increase of 100%
change in $$ sales between 2009 and 2007 ranged from a decrease of 75% to an increase of 135%
years of experience ranged from 1.5 to 32 years
number of employees ranged from .5 for a part-time bookseller to 26, but 58% only had one employee, 23% had 1.5 to 2 employees
54% of booksellers responding reported a decrease in 2009 from 2008, 9% no change and 37% an increase
51% of booksellers responding reported a decrease in 2009 from 2007, 3% no change and 46% an increase
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