Yesterday I attended the opening of the last ever Brandeis University Women’s Club Used Book Sale in Chicago, the world’s largest outdoor book sale.
I’ve been attending this sale off and on (mostly on) for the last 30 years. There have been enormous changes in the sale over the years. The sale has changed from a sale of mostly old books to a sale of primarily newish books. Sort of like jumping into a time machine and walking into a Barnes & Nobles of a year or two ago. Most of the older high quality books are now sold at dealer or near-dealer prices so there aren’t nearly as many of the bargains there that there were long ago.
For me the sale has become primarily a social event. Through years of being near the beginning of the line (or, in many years, the very first) we’ve become acquainted with many of the dealers and collectors who are avid enough to stand in line waiting to be among the very first to look at what’s being offered at the sale. With most we’re just friendly acquaintances that we’ve known for many years and can chat with pleasantly about the sale, their businesses, the weather, the state of the world.
A very small number of others have become true friends. We visit each other at times other than the Brandeis Book Sale in our homes and exchange phone calls and Christmas cards. When we meet we share news of pets, families, and careers, sharing joys and sorrows, as friends will do.
This year many of the used book dealers with store fronts were complaining about difficult or failing businesses. They proposed a variety of different explanations for this including high rents, too many dealers, and not enough books. One dealer suggest that younger people are no longer building libraries relying instead on the Internet.
They proposed a number of different strategies for adapting to the changing times: seeking out lower-rent locations, operating more efficiently, making better use of technology, providing a better service. Some were resigned to abandoning a career in which they’d spent perhaps thirty years, still too young and in all probability too poor to retire but too old to make looking for a new job a pleasant prospect.
I think that the used book business is yet another business model that is failing, at least for small scale operators with the skillsets and approaches they’ve used for many years.
The official reason that the people running the Book Sale gave for ending it was that the volunteers were getting too old for the hard work involved and a new group of volunteers hadn’t taken up the banner. That may be true but I think that the real answer is that the Brandeis Book Sale is another failing business model, succombing to the pressures of higher costs, technology, and changing attitudes.
But as Stephen Vincent Benet wrote, “This is the last…this is the last”.
The end of an era.