Wednesday, September 23, 2009

Dover Days

In the ongoing struggle to maintain some relevance to the increasingly small number of regular readers who still come regularly to the bookstore, or to any bookstore, our manager has hit upon the rather novel idea of generating sales by creating, from bargain books, occasions and sales unique to the bookstore. He has, since before he became a manager, been the primary buyer for our Bargain Books tables, regularly shopping not just the usual catalogues, but traveling, actually all over the country, to warehouses and remainder-distributors, looking for good books that can be sold at exceptionally good prices, and with a superior margin of profit for the bookstore. He's really quite remarkably good at this. Our Bargain Books continue to work as well or better than ever for us. With Used Books, these discount books now provide us with our best resource for maintaining the interest and diversity of our inventory, even in the face of the ever-declining sales for general books in bricks and mortar stores, like ours, that still insist on offering our customers as representative and various a selection of titles as the best independent bookstores of the past. I, for one, am convinced that the survival of independent bookstores depends on just such adaptation to new economic realities without compromising the original mission of what a great bookstore can and should do for the customers and communities served -- namely, stock and sell the widest possible range of good books. Our manager's latest inspiration? Dover Days.

For any that don't know them, or remember them only from the occasional sad rack at the back of an art supplies store, Dover Publications is actually a grand old American company, since 1941, publishing affordable reprints of the classics of literature, science, mathematics, music and art, as well as children's books, educational materials and the clip-art and coloring books most people would recognize immediately as theirs. The Dover Thrift Editions are, for many younger readers, the first copies of great books that they can afford. The bookstore where I work carries the whole range of Dover books, but there is little emphasis on them as such. Having found a huge selection of discounted, remaindered books from this publisher, our manager decided to buy pretty much the lot. Our publicity and promotions people designed some handsome signage, put up an attractive window, and then nearly the whole lobby of the store was given over to this sale. What's more, tables running the length of the department were given over to discounted Dover books, racks of Dover books were added, great boxes of coloring books, books of paper dolls, and music scores were put out, in short, the whole New & Used Books Department was given over to a celebration of all things Dover.

The enthusiasm with which this sale was greeted by our regular customers has been very heartening. It has been, from the perspective of the Used Books Buying Desk, where I sit every day next to the lobby, a wonderful thing to watch perfectly respectable adults squealing with delight to find book after discounted book of paper dolls, to watch people who may or may not actually have children, collecting up multiple little volumes of temporary tattoos, books of postcards, coloring books, literature, art, music... For many of our customers, this sale seems to represent a rediscovery of not only Dover, but of that innocent enthusiasm for collecting that the prices of most new books now precludes. I don't know that I've seen one person shopping these tables leave with just one book.

Even though I seldom if ever buy paperback books myself, even I was not immune to the temptation of those tables. In the dizzy midst of so many classics, my eye was drawn inevitably to Great English Essays: From Bacon to Chesterton, edited by Bob Blaisdell. Already a bargain at $3.50, now on sale for only $1.98, how could I not? And a very good collection of essays it is, too. In it I found many old friends, but also essays unknown to me, by authors I've never really read, like W. H. Hudson, writing about a wonderful old family dog, and Alice Meynell's delightful and wise essay on children, "The Unready."

That is the glory of a publisher like Dover, the possibility of finding old things new, and at prices affordable to anyone. How many lost treasures are to be recovered from these tables and racks?

Giving these bargain books an unusual prominence, making an occasion of remainders, was a brilliant idea, and one that will be repeated whenever the opportunity arises again. Not only is this a profitable and affordable means of drawing customers in, this sale best represents the true spirit of independent bookselling. Improvisational, entertaining, abundant and diverse, the materials of Dover Days are the stuff of dreams, and damned good business, too.

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