An internet scrapbook with a shuffle button. (They're the best things...!!)
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Customer: “Do you have ‘Dr. Who and the Secrets of the Hidden Planet of Time’?”
Bookseller: “I’m not familiar with that one. Hang on and I’ll check our system for you… I’m afraid I can’t find it in our database or a reference to it online. Are you sure you’ve got the right title?”
Customer: “No, not at all. I don’t know that it actually exists.”
Bookseller: “What do you mean?”
Customer: “Oh, I was just driving to work yesterday and I thought up the title and I thought, ‘Now that sounds like the kind of book I’d like to read,’ you know?”
“There are two things you don’t throw out in France — bread and books,” said Bernard Fixot, owner and publisher of XO, a small publishing house dedicated to churning out best sellers. “In Germany the most important creative social status is given to the musician. In Italy it’s the painter. Who’s the most important creator in France? It’s the writer.”
A more compelling reason is the intervention of the state. In the Anglophone book world the free market reigns; here it is trumped by price fixing. Since 1981 the “Lang law,” named after its promoter, Jack Lang, the culture minister at the time, has fixed prices for French-language books. Booksellers — even Amazon — may not discount books more than 5 percent below the publisher’s list price, although Amazon fought for and won the right to provide free delivery.
Last year as French publishers watched in horror as e-books ate away at the printed book market in the United States, they successfully lobbied the government to fix prices for e-books too. Now publishers themselves decide the price of e-books; any other discounting is forbidden.
There are also government-financed institutions that offer grants and interest-free loans to would-be bookstore owners.
The second half of this article is somewhat less optimistic, so read on. Via @MargaretAtwood on Twitter.
I was in a graveyard for books last night at a large shopping centre, where all the books were five dollars. It is the biggest remainders depot I have ever seen.
For most book collectors – and there seem to be fewer and fewer of them – finding what you want is now so easy that the only real consideration is what you are able or willing to pay. Twenty-five years ago, first editions of Kerouac’s On the Road were both scarce and valuable. Nowadays they still cost a lot, but there are masses of them on offer (abebooks.com lists 103 of them, priced between £3.84 and 18,562.60). It may be that a similarly large number were out there in the past, but nobody knew where they were. You had to find them, encounter them serendipitously one at a time.
So two things have happened, and they threaten to cut our archetype off at the knees: “treasure” is now common, and “hunting” involves nothing more exciting or time-consuming than booting up a computer and surfing the rare book sites. You want to collect Conrad? You could build a virtually complete collection in the next hour or two. What the hell fun would that be?
And without the underlying treasure-hunting archetype, and its attendant excitement, rare book dealing and collecting will wither as a form of life.
Rick Gekoski tells us that the treasure hunt is over, or at the very least, evolving.
On the way, as Sarah navigated the barge along the canal, I managed to ask her just whom her average customers might be. “I’ve had school teachers and kids who are skiving school,” she laughed, “tourists and a bride groom; the odd celebrity; a whole shop full of parents waiting for a Justin Bieber concert to end and most recently a bunch of drunkards diving off the roof into the canal at 5.00am on a Sunday morning. A good independent bookshop shouldn’t have an average customer. The more diverse the custom, the better independents are doing at bringing books to the widest possible audience.”
The Book Barge is a breath of genuinely fresh air and quite possibly the coolest bookshop in the UK.