Wednesday, June 22, 2011

All Haggled O'er

For a country boy like my Dad, the auctioneer's job had a certain glamor. Auctioneers stood up out of the mud and the manure. Auctioneers, like as not, wore suits, or at least clean clothes. Dad was dazzled by their spieling; that rapid patter, somewhere between a stutter and a yodel, with which the auctioneer kept the bids going and the excitement up. Dad can still do it himself. Been to a lot of auctions since the heart-attacks retired him, bought "a lot of junk" and sold it on, and he has been known, now and again, to even step up and sell a thing or two at the mic, though he's shy of trying this too often, as his eyesight is not what it was. Also, just the fun of doing the call, once he gets going, tends to end up in an undignified chortle that is not altogether in keeping with the serious business of the platform.

I've been to the auction barns with the folks a few times, and to a farm sale or two. Even went into a book auction once. I found the whole process confusing. Never could quite keep up with either the auctioneer or the bidding. Had no idea, even at the rare book sale, just who was after what or what anything was worth. In fact, the book sale was funny, in a terribly serious way. Never had I seen so many grim faced collectors and or dealers, eyeing each lot and each other as if the last oxygen tank was being offered for bid on the Nautilus, and she was goin' down. In my ignorance of such things, I might add, I saw nothing much come up in the way of antiquarian treasures that seemed all that worthy of such stern concentration. Just books, people.

My father is a salesman, whatever else he's done for a living. He's good at selling anything. He'll talk as long as you want. He may make a deal. I sell books for a living, largely because books are the only thing I know a damned thing about, but I do not make deals. I'll tell you what I know, answer any question I can, but the price is as marked, thank you very much. Likewise, buying used books for the bookstore, I'll make you a bid, which you may take or leave. My feelings won't be hurt if you say no, but I won't haggle. Yes or no, cash or credit, them's your options, friend.

The husband took me to a fancy carpet place one time, and enjoyed a lengthy negotiation over a rug he had no real intention of buying. I had to leave. The rug was beautiful, and I don't doubt dear A. would very much have liked to own it, and as he was then still fully employed and known to occasionally let the piastres ring, he might even have been persuaded to buy the thing, in time, at the "right" price. My good man, however, is a deliberative soul and will not be rushed, mostly. He will take a business card from well nigh anyone offering, but he will usually think better of whatever caught his eye, given time. (Shopping in his retirement, on the Internet, has undone him a bit. You should see all the shoes this man now owns.)

Even had we gone into see the rug merchant with every intention of leaving with a rug, I would not have been able to stand for the haggling. I hate haggling. Whatever other traditions may see in the operation, to my cold, beady, blue eye, such negotiations always have the look of sharp practice. I do not like deals. I do not like the people who offer or make them. I always feel a fool, or worse, suspect I will be taken as such, should anyone suggest that numbers need not be what they seem.

I have a hard enough time with numbers as written.

When we bought my one and only car a dozen years ago, I did research for three months. I read up on mileage, reliability, the lot. I consulted my father long distance. And when the time came, and I knew exactly what I wanted, and what I could afford to pay, I took the husband with me. He has had considerably more experience in this kind of thing. He is a big black man, knows how to wear a tie, and tolerates no nonsense. (As a couple, he has had to talk to every repairman, plumber and rental agent with whom we have ever had any dealing. I don't even like picking out upholstery in public. Give me a catalogue, go away, and I'll send him for you once we've decided.) We got to the lot, I saw my car, checked everything of my list down to the color (blue -- blue cars get fewer speeding tickets) and only then let the husband bring a dealer into it. And when the dealer went "to talk to the boss", before he came back, as agreed, if the price had changed by so much as nickel, we would walk. It did. We did. Dealer pursued, the price went back to his original quote -- about which he then moaned as if he was about to be beaten -- and the contracts were signed. Good car. Keep it 'til the wheels fall off. To be honest though, this is true at least in part because I never want to have to talk to another car salesman.

Every now and again we get someone selling used books who wants to haggle a bit, either for the sport of it, because they think it is expected, or because they suspect the books are worth more than is being offered and they hope to persuade me to reconsider the bid. Never going to happen. Sorry. Thank you for bringing them in, I enjoyed seeing the books. Have a nice day. I don't haggle. I will explain, and answer any question, up to a point, but the bid is what it is.

Now and again, after the bid has been made, a seller might bring to my attention what may indeed have been an oversight. Perhaps I missed something? If so, I'm happy to adjust the totals, if I still want the book. Doesn't happen often, but it has happened. I make no special claim as to any expertise beyond what I should know, but I usually know enough, and I may know something you don't. When I make an offer, I make it in good faith, so if you think you know better, tell me. You just might. If you do, why then, I'm glad of the information. Pipe up. No one is trying to cheat anyone at the desk where I work. (If I pass on what is indeed a most valuable book, I almost always say why, and suggest other dealers who might pay more to have it. Seems only fair.)

A gentleman not so long ago declined the bid I made. Happens. He wanted to review the bid, book by book. I declined. There are always other books to buy, books to be priced, books to be sold, to say nothing here of phones to be answered and my duties elsewhere on the sales floor, to say nothing of my lunch. I wished him well, quite sincerely, and said that I hoped he found another buyer. I even suggested a couple of places he might try. So far as I was concerned, that was the end of it. Had he brought me other books, I would have been happy to look at those, and possibly make an offer on any I thought we might sell. The gentleman was not not happy, I thought. But the gentleman would not take yes for an answer. The gentleman would not leave. The gentleman wanted to haggle, wanted to insist on it, and I would not. The gentleman, frankly, was not very nice.

A week or so ago, the gentleman came back, not with the same books, or with other books, but with just a note. When he came up to the desk, on a Saturday, my busiest day and the only day now when I work the desk alone, the gentleman insisted that he had to speak to me, despite the fact that I was in the middle of no less than three buys, and already in conversation with one of the sellers present. The gentleman was so insistent, and frankly so loud, that having apologized to the other fellow, I stopped what I was doing and took and quickly read the note being thrust under my nose. On the note, in pencil, was a list of roughly half a dozen local used bookshops, in no particular order, and next to the name of each was a number in no particular order either. Took me a minute to remember the gentleman and took me another few seconds to recognize what it was I was meant to glean from the note. "Just FYI," the gentleman kept saying, "just FYI."

What the gentleman's note was meant to show me was the variety of bids he had received from bookstore to bookstore, across the city and elsewhere for the books he'd tried to sell me some time before. The bids varied from as little as sixty dollars, to as much as three hundred dollars for the same books. According to the note, my offer had been one hundred bucks. Truth be told, I could not have said what books these were by then. I barely remembered the gentleman, let alone the amount of the rejected bid. Taking the document on face value, and assuming that the gentleman had indeed carried the same books hither and yon and been offered in each place exactly the amount listed -- facts I saw no point in questioning -- and knowing every shop on the list intimately as a customer and by reputation in the business, my only response was, "And?"

"I just thought I should give you this," the gentleman insisted, "just for your own information. Thought you should see this."

I thanked him, somewhat curtly, and went back to my work, but he would not let the silly business go.

"I though you might appreciate an opportunity to educate yourself," he said.

Had I not been so busy already with business that might actually make the business some money, and had he not been grinning at me quite so smugly, and in so doing had he not reminded me of just how unpleasant he had already been when last we met, I might have stopped to talk. I might have reviewed the gentleman's little list, dealer by dealer, offer by offer, and offered some suggestion, based on my experience, of why each offer might have been what it was. I might have explained how different bookstores have different expectations of the used books they buy; that some sell books at higher prices than others because of different clientele, and so may offer sellers higher bids for the books they buy, that some dealers are willing to sit on their stock, at whatever price is assigned, for as long as it takes to sell the book. I might have explained that the kind of business we are in at the bookstore where I work demands a higher turn-over of stock than many smaller shops require, that our prices tend to be, in many instances, lower, and in consequences our bids as well, because we intend to sell most of our used books in roughly a year's time, if not sooner. I might have offered my personal opinion of some of the dealers on the gentleman's little list, and pointed out those I thought either inconsistent because of their staffing, or suspiciously eager to spend their employer's money on books that may end up being sold individually by third parties, shall we say, in venues other than the bookstore to which they were sold. I might have said a great deal. We might, in other circumstances, have had an interesting, and possibly enlightening conversation. I might have learned something, and so might he, though honestly, I doubt it.

I let him talk. "Did you see that offer of three hundred dollars?" he asked me. I told him I had, and trying to be friendly, said I sure hoped he'd taken the three hundred dollars. I went on with my work. "You don't seem to understand how this works," he said, clearly disappointed that I neither blushed nor barked, "you need to learn how to haggle."

"No," I said, "I don't."

And there, ended. Eventually, the gentleman drifted stormily away. "What an asshole," said the seller at the desk, waiting so patiently for the most instructive gentleman to finish talking, and thus becoming, in that moment, a favorite of mine.

I do not begin to understand what satisfaction the gentleman hoped to have of me, or why he might have thought I would give it. Who throws gauntlets, nowadays -- and at busy little book clerks, at that? (Like Shakespeare's warrior king, as Hazlitt said of horrible old Henry V, his "will is only then triumphant when it is opposed to the will of others," I suppose. What a terrible combat the gentleman must wage, it seems, how many miles he must travel, just to sell a bag of old books. The maintenance of such raw dignity must pinch dreadfully, to say nothing of the cost.)

It is true, I am disinclined by disposition and principle to see any point in haggling, ever. To my mind, such behavior is a relic of market day and the souk, of the primitive business of doing business without access to paper and pen, when prices of necessity were set as they were spoken, to buyers who may or may not have been able to read them had they been written down. Honest or dishonest, fair or not, the merchant who had to negotiate with every customer did only what he had to at the time, and it came to expected, I suppose, perhaps even enjoyed as part of the day's conversation between the fishmonger and the Mam', the jeweler and the jade, etc. I count myself lucky then to not be pushing a cart, or spreading books on a blanket, as happens still, in some unhappy corners of the world, indeed, even on the sidewalks of our greatest cities. I work in a bookstore, with calculators and computers and ready cash. I have bought and sold books now, new and used, for a quarter of a century. I am myself honest and am lucky enough to work with and for honest people. (It was not always so.) I am lucky also to deal almost exclusively with the same, every day at the buyer's desk. I like to think that by now I may know, without the gentleman's tutoring, roughly what I am doing. It is not then just my personal dislike of such petty negotiations, but the absence of any need to haggle that makes the gentleman's behavior so... embarrassing.

Godspeed, Sir. I hope you spare the ox a little, for mercy's sake, when next you go to market, elsewhere.

(You never did tell me, did you accept the three hundred dollars bid?)


  1. Thanks for a reminder of why I must never ever again work in retail. The majority of customers may be neutral to wonderful, but people like this, well, you know me...

  2. You do yourself a disservice, darling. It is a matter of record: not one homicide -- not one -- during your entire tenure at the bookstore. Hold your head high, fellow bookseller.