Back when I was an editorial assistant living in New York on the princely salary of $17,500 per annum, I noted that although my colleagues and I were laboring to sell books, few of us actually seemed to buy them.
New hardcovers were virtually unaffordable, but assuming one was patient (and with a tote bag laden with manuscripts that needed reading, such patience was an easy-to-cultivate virtue) one could generally lay hands on the desired books gratis, sometimes from a kindly publicist or editorial colleague, sometimes via the inter-house, cold-call assistant swap, or when stars aligned, from the “take shelf,” a magical spot where unwanted books waited to be scooped up by the penurious and/or acquisitive. For a while, I allowed the take shelf to dictate my “for fun” reading; it made for an interesting run. One memorable span included Al Haig’s memoir, A History of the Arab Peoples and Lorrie Moore’s incomparable collection, Self Help–Watergate, Shiites and anagrams make for a heady mix, let me tell you. Although I was awash in books, I am somewhat abashed to say that I acquired an astonishingly small percentage of these in retail bookstores. As a holdover from college and then grad school, I was an inveterate used book buyer, and I also went to the library, something I found few people in publishing ever seemed to do.
These days, I purchase books more frequently than almost never (somewhere around the dot com boom, I stopped thinking that only Croesus and his ilk bought hard covers, and started investing in a few of my own). I buy books, most often as gifts, but nowhere near as often as I imagine that a self-professed bibliophile ought to. I wonder whether the same is true of others connected to the publishing world; writers, agents, editors, scouts, if we help to create it, but don’t always float it. And in this dire time, when few people are buying books at all, I wonder if there is some ethically correct consumer position—a literary equivalent of a locovore or fair-trade-ite—so that a person who cares passionately about books would, for example, endeavor to buy them new, at full price, from an independent bookseller. Is buying from Amazon’s selection of used copies like tucking into a plate of Chilean Sea Bass or Alaskan King Crab? What about buying books at deep discount “big box” stores? How do places like The Strand fit in? I love used and antiquarian book stores, and I can’t quite reconcile myself to the idea that these shrines to reading aren’t good for books, though I know full well that the publisher saw not one penny of revenue on my nearly new copy of Iris Murdoch’s A SEVERED HEAD. And so I wonder, now that I’ve come clean about my own less than exemplary book buying habits, what are yours?