Running a bookstore is obviously not quite the same thing as running any other business. I suppose there may be the odd ironmonger fascinated by those ancient pliers lurking in the back corner, but booksellers are surely more at risk of having strong feelings about their inventory than any other retailers. Still, if you open a bookshop and insist on stocking it only with books you love, you risk disappointment culminating in early financial embarrassment. On the other hand the reason why local independent bookstores are currently doing better than big chains is precisely this feeling of the stock being selected by someone with likes and dislikes, and who is there to talk about their choices.

NPR tells about the tweet storm (maybe just a tweet weather incident) consequent upon Southport, UK bookseller Broadhurst’s Bookshop‘s announcement “I have just sold a book that we have had in stock since May 1991. We always knew its day would come.” Their tweet is followed by several comments which are worth seeing.

Now, if Broadhurst’s were to inventory only books which they had held in stock for 25 years, they would of course not be doing too well. No business can afford to keep its capital tied up for that length of time — as book publishers have been forced to acknowledge over the last fifty years. It would make for an interesting study to work out the average age (time since it was printed) of books sold by publishers over the last century. I’d guess that nowadays the answer would be less than one year, whereas back in the sixties it might have been near two: obviously new books will always tend to sell more than back-list, so looking only at back-list one might find numbers more like 2-3 years today and 5-10 back then. We publishers used to love to hang onto those objects we so loved and had lavished such care and investment dollars on creating. I can remember in my early days in this business finding in the “slow-moving stock” part of the warehouse books which had been printed in the 18th century. We’d even wrap up slightly damaged books and keep them so we could sell them off years into the future when we’d begun to run out of stock. These were called first copies. All publishers overprinted in those days; there was a letterpress technological determinant driving this, and we went along with it happily. These books looked so good; we all cared deeply about them; and laying down a few years’ stock made us feel warm and virtuous. Just not a really good business plan, as we were eventually forced to recognize.

The tightly managed bookshop nowadays cannot afford to hold their inventory for too long; probably something like one year would be considered too long. Sitting on the sidelines one often gets the impression that large bookselling accounts are settling their bills with publishers by returning for credit books which they’d ordered a year ago. In this way they come close to acting like a consignment supplier — taking a cut on the sale of inventory which is actually owned by the publisher. Rigorous inventory control and profitability are (unfortunately for the sentimental bookman/booklady) essential to business survival. There’s a certain Quixoticism involved with 25-year old inventory, and the romantics among us should perhaps do whatever we can to encourage such behavior.

I particularly like the proposal of one of the respondents to the Broadhurst tweet who plans to go into bookshops and buy the book which has been in stock for the longest time. Such regular randomness should result in a fascinating collection of books: inevitably some of them will be good, won’t they? It’s sort of like hanging about in second-hand bookshops.

Thanks to Jeremy Mynott for the link.