As attested by my several brushes with bankruptcy, I am not a particularly quick study when it comes to finance and economics. This troubled me early in my career, when it seemed possible that any novice bookseller could become Bill Reese simply by working hard. However, time went on and I found my place in the food chain. That was when it dawned on me that I wasn’t very good at accumulating money because I didn’t particularly care about money. Shekels didn’t mean much to me compared to, say, the discovery of an important historical manuscript, or a long bike ride, or even a good night’s sleep.
Unfortunately, we are currently dealing with financial trends that even a fiscal nitwit like myself can’t disregard.
“Supply Chain Issues” for example, was a phenomenon I read about in the newspapers, and joked about when confronted with the occasional empty shelf at the supermarket. To my considerable surprise, these very “Issues” recently hit home because of an order I placed with Uline. I needed shipping supplies, so I ordered a roll of cheap bubble, 100 each of three different box sizes on which Uline was offering a discount, and a box of #9 business envelopes. The total came to $398.
The cost of shipping these 5 items via New Penn trucking was $239.27.
In other words, assuming I’ve done my math correctly (always a questionable assumption), the cost of shipping was about 60% of the cost of goods.
So, what do I – “who doesn’t care about money” – care about these ridiculous shipping charges? I’ll just bite the bullet, as I’ve always done, and hope that shipping costs return to acceptable levels sooner than later.
But I do care about the books, manuscripts, and ephemeral items I sell, and in an unpleasant moment of recognition, I realized that my Uline experience would be like selling a book to someone in Chicago for $100 and adding $60 for domestic shipping.
I know, I know. It is possible to recreate these outrageous shipping rates simply by mailing a heavy book to London or Rome. But that’s not the point.
The point is, as I observed in earlier blog entry (without the Uline experience to back me up), inflation seems to be everywhere. Everywhere, that is, except in the antiquarian book trade. When the supply of beef goes down due to supply chain issues, and demand remains constant, the price of a steak will go up. By definition, the supply of any rare book is low – that’s more or less what “rare” means. Demand may or may not remain constant, but there’s no way on God’s green earth I’ll be able to jack the price up to compensate for inflation.
In 2020 the price of a gallon of gasoline was $2.60 – $2.80. By 2022, that same gallon might cost $3.50 – $4.00. In 2020, I sold a copy of the atlas to Cook’s third voyage for $7500. There’s no way, in 2022, that I could turn around 2 years later and sell the same atlas for an additional 40%, or $10,500, simply to compensate for the rise in steak and gasoline prices.
It’s a structural problem, isn’t it? Rare books are not subject to inflationary pressures the way our most necessary commodities are. Since I depend on rare books to pay for those necessary commodities, this puts me in something of a bind, doesn’t it?