I’ve been meaning to write something about this myself, but Judith has beaten me to it. I will add to it another time.
I let Monica answer the phone as a rule. My familiarity with telephones stretches back less than sixty years, and coming to terms with technology new to me is not my strong point. For some reason, though, I fielded a call a couple of days ago. It began inauspiciously. The enquirer mentioned haggling. I mentioned that I don’t, but would get the book in from the storesheds anyway. He rang back the next day and asked for me. I was able to tell him what a lucky fellow he was: the book was listed at $75 but the insured postage was a mere $6 by insured large letter, making a total of $81.
Once, for bookdealers, pricing was a bit like breathing – you hardly noticed that you were doing it. You made it up as you went along. Now with all the information on the internet it may be a little more difficult: look up a title, find a given price range, viz. $0.01 to $2564 and take your pick. However, it remains quite refreshing to come across a potential customer who has studied the subject, although these customers are seldom of the kind who help us booksellers pay our bills. The enquirer had calculated that the book was worth $60 to him, postage included. He recommended with cogent argument that I accept his offer. He based his price on a number of incontrovertible facts. Firstly, the size. It seemed to him that, with but 112 pages, the 279 x 198 mm book was not much more than a pamphlet. Secondly, the subject matter was people whom nobody has heard of, and some of them are, in fact, already dead. The clinching argument concerned a theory of supply and demand. It appears that Pioneer Books is oversupplied with this title as we have never sold this copy, and it is highly unlikely that anyone, apart from himself, will ever want to buy it.
I had to agree with everything he said. I mean, it’s almost self-evident. I did demur over the word ‘pamphlet’, but it’s certainly no Gutenberg Bible. And, yes, the subjects of the book, are, like most of us, practically unknown, and if not already dead, soon will be. And, yes again, there is, at the moment, no line of people at our door all desperately hoping to be the lucky purchaser. Most telling of all is the devil’s advocate in the heart of all sensitive new age booksellers, informing us of the likely final resting place of most of our unsold stock in this digitally blighted age.
Nevertheless, the phone call ended with my suggesting that he try elsewhere for a cheaper copy. I wished him luck, and told him that though he could not get a better copy, I’d be surprised if he didn’t get a cheaper one. He, admirable man, accepted defeat less easily than I. He asked me to consult my partners and suggest to them that we accept his offer.
What is it about secondhand books that inspires such fiscal restraint among a certain percentage of buyers? Many years ago Paul and I provided a collector with a copy of a title in the ‘British Trials’ series. The purchaser, a man who had accumulated great wealth as a defence lawyer for the notoriously criminal and who has since received official honours for conspicuous philanthropy, looked at the book, deemed it not worth the $25 we were asking for it, paid us $15, and left.
‘How did that happen?’ I asked. ‘Why did we let it happen?’ Paul asked; then, ever the philosopher, shrugged his shoulders. ‘Oh, well,’ he said, ‘If ever we take up crime instead of bookselling perhaps he’ll give us a knock-down on his fees.’
Once I would have concluded these observations by drawing attention to the coincidence that it is only when the bookseller is considered to be overcharging that these differences of opinion arise. However, a few months ago a woman came to collect a copy of Mincham’s book on the Flinders Ranges.
‘That will be $15 dollars,’ said Monica.
‘No,’ replied the customer. ‘I couldn’t pay $15 for this. It’s worth $25.’ And she refused to pay less even when Monica showed her the price clearly on our data base