Hard-to-Find No More
Most of us have a hard time remembering what life was like before cell phones—not to mention before air conditioning and the polio vaccine. And thus we will likely soon forget a feature of life that was once as common as LPs, ashtrays and payphones. It was referred to as “hard-to-find books.”
Allow me to take you back in time to, say, misty 1990. In that tender year, if you suddenly became aware of a marvelous book that, though out of print, you had to have, that moment of beckoning sunrise was immediately followed by a cold, overcast sky: how on earth to get it?
You might try your library, where, if your book wasn’t that old, the librarian could likely find record of a copy in some sister library. Your library could put in a request through inter-library loan, and if the book wasn’t checked out, you might be able to pick it up.
In a few weeks.
If you wanted to own a copy, you would stop by your local used-books dealer. It would be unlikely that he’d have it, but if he were a bona fide bookseller, he’d try to track down a copy. He might ask you for a deposit first. Then he’d call a few places he knew.
If that didn’t work, he could place a small want ad in AB Bookman’s Weekly, a hefty trade publication printed on newsprint and mailed to antiquarian book dealers across the land. There, in their back offices, bespectacled booksellers would play a quiet game of concentration, comparing the tiny want ad for your book with their memory of what they had on their shelves. A match would elicit a postcard, which could lead to a phone call or letter to you, quoting condition and price.
Then, assuming you still remembered that you had asked for this book in the first place, and still had the yen for it, you’d write a check and wait a while longer. The process could make watching grass grow seem fast.
Flash forward to today. Upon learning of an out-of-print book, no matter how old, you type a few words into your computer and there, appearing as if by magic, will be a color image of the book—actually, several copies. They will likely be cheap, too, and the one you select can be on your doorstep tomorrow.
The difference between then and now is not merely quantitative but qualitative. It makes possible a different kind of well-read life. Today, an inquiring reader can benefit from fast feedback loops—virtuous cycles of seeking, finding, reading, and seeking more.
Developed a sudden interest in Gabriela Mistral? Or how about antebellum apiculture? Is it coelacanths and their influence on modern evolutionary theory? In days you can collect a library on these and millions more topics that formerly may have taken years—but more likely than not, simply didn’t happen.
This air-conditioning for the mind was made possible by a uniform method of listing books in databases, and then linking those databases to the Web. It’s another reason why we’re entering the Golden Age of Books.
Robert Hittel is a rare-books dealer and appraiser here in South Florida. For many years he also ran a well-known and much-loved bookstore devoted to used books. He remembers what it was like before computers, and how quickly the World Wide Web changed the book world.
“Before the Web, if there were 10 copies across the country of a book you wanted, you could spend years finding one,” said Rob. “Today, you see all 10 books on your computer in a matter of seconds.”
“The mystery and serendipity are gone,” Rob said. “In the old days, when people browsing in my store discovered a used book that they were even moderately interested in, they knew they had better buy it, since it might be gone on their next visit and they might never come across another copy. Today, there’s no such urgency. You can always find it later online if you want.
“It’s definitely better for readers because there’s more available and it’s cheaper,” Rob said. “It’s pretty much the end of hard-to-find books.”
Marty Manley helped erase the expression “hard-to-find” from books. Together with antiquarian bookman Richard Weatherford, he founded a major online source for out-of-print books called Alibris.
“Before we started, book dealers set prices since they had a scarce commodity,” Marty said. “But as books went online, the market became efficient and true supply-and-demand took over. At one point, book prices were falling by twenty-five percent per quarter.”
Marty, who sold Alibris in 2006 and left the company last year, recalls life prior to large- scale online selling. “A used-books dealer might get $10 for a copy of Bridges of Madison County in a store, but once more and more seller inventories came online, it was obvious that there were far too many copies. Today you can find Bridges free in book bins across the country.”
Although some books were more in demand than in supply, “in the main, the supply of out-of-print books exceeded demand, which really hurt used-book stores but was good news for customers,” Marty said
“When we began Alibris in 1998, we used the tagline, ‘Books you thought you’d never find.’ It worked back then. Soon, however, it was obsolete.”
Visiting the home page of www.Alibris.com in 2008 shows a different tagline. It reads: “You’ll find it at Alibris! Over 60 million used, new, and out-of-print books!”
If books are medicine, we all used to live in remote mountain villages; whereas today, we all live next door to the well-stocked drugstore.
Does this boon for readers mean that bricks-and-mortar stores that sell used books will go away?
“The Web is not great for browsing,” Marty pointed out. He and his wife will make a date night of browsing new and used bookstores near their home in San Francisco. “Even to this day, I prefer browsing in a store versus online.”
In Florida, you can still find Robert Hittel Used Books on Federal Highway in Fort Lauderdale (it helps that Rob owns the building). But Rob has expanded his appraisal work beyond rare books to include antiques and estate items. Customers still come in to browse the bookshelves, just not as many.
For the time being at least, we still have the best of both worlds in the Golden Age: bricks-and-mortar destinations for browsing used books, and online destinations that make every book easy to find.
Do you agree? I’d love to hear your thoughts on whether we’re entering the Golden Age of Books. Just click on the Comments link below. (If you’re reading this as an email, click here and you'll connect to Comments).