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Monday, July 11, 2011

Rare Books and Retail--An Unfinished Post

I've spent several of the last week's days in the library at the huge estate whose sale we're preparing in Georgetown.  Supposedly, a big auction house in New York had come and taken the cream of the collection, but I have found enough gleanings left that if we sell only a quarter of what's available, my own salary and that of all of my colleagues will be paid just from the company's 30% take.  For example, we've got a 1820 3rd edition of Washington Irving's tales, published in London under the pseudonym Geoffrey Crayon.  It's in lovely shape.  On ABE, the cheapest version of this book is $1750, plus shipping, and prices ascend steeply from that point.  So, I priced our copy at $1250, which I think is fair.  There are dozens of other nice editions--a 1796 reprint of the Wealth of Nations (originally issued in 1776, one of the few book-publication dates I know offhand), a compilation of Benjamin Franklin's writings, issued during his lifetime by one of his friends (I recognized the publisher, but his name escapes me at the moment).  The oldest book we've discovered is from 16-something.  It's been a crash course in re-familiarizing myself with Roman numerals, as many, if not most, books before about 1930 were dated that way, if they were dated at all.  And not only are the books themselves treasures, previous readers tucked odd items between their pages--an old (early 19th-century) door key, a telegram from a major New York paper asking the multi-millionaire former owner about another multi-millionaire's (duPont's) purchase of a castle in Europe, an 1890s newspaper clipping of a letter to the editor about China...

Everyone in retail has theories about how people behave--selling is not only about the merchandise's immutable qualities, but also about the environment in which it is presented, and, of course, in the times where you and your fellows stand around "bowling turkeys" (being bored out of your mind because customers are as rare as hen's teeth), the relationships you have within the sales force. I thought it was just the Arlington Marketers who blamed poor sales on every meteorological phenomenon (and its polar opposite), the time of day, the news, the calendar, and so forth. It turns out, talking to Lori, a woman with 30+ years experience in upper-tier store sales, including a decade or so on Fifth Avenue, that the brick front retailers have as many kooky notions about what causes people to buy or not to buy as us tent-top vendors. The problem is that people are predictably unpredictable in their shopping habits, when pouring rain can see shoppers forking over massive sums, and perfect sunny weather can keep people away from the cash registers in droves.

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