Friday, January 28, 2011

A Peek at the U.S. Rare Book Trade in 1933

by Stephen J. Gertz

By November of 1933 the financial crisis that swept the country in 1929 had wrenched the U.S.  into a profound economic depression that was deepening into a miasma with no end in sight. The rare book trade saw prices decline, credit dry up, and client bases contract. Many firms went under.

Goodspeed's, in Boston, established by Charles E. Goodspeed in 1898, had grown dramatically during the Roaring Twenties; by the end of the decade it had three shops and sixty employees.

"With us, as with many others, the late 'twenties were years of great expansion both of staff and premises," George T. Goodspeed, C.E.'s son, who joined the firm in 1925, remembered. The Williams Book Store had gone bankrupt in 1929; Goodspeed's bought its stock and took over its lease.

But just two years later economic circumstances had worsened and now even Goodspeed's - one of the most successful rare book firms in the country -  was feeling the Depression's effects.

"1931, which I think of as the first of the Depression years, found us dangerously overstaffed and but for an extraordinary windfall we should have operated at a loss for the first time in many years," George T. Goodspeed recalled.

By 1933, however, Goodspeed's had, by necessity, slimmed down. It was time to retrench and, significantly, reach out. Studies show that in difficult times, rather than cut back, it is crucial to continue to advertise and market to remain visible, competitive, and viable; spending money to make money is never more important.

And so, amongst other tactics, Goodspeed's placed an ad, 11 x 2 inches, in the November 1933 issue of Fortune magazine. While advertising space rates had declined, this was still an expensive ad to run.

Why that magazine and that issue?

In 1933 only one industry in the United States was booming, indeed, bursting its barrel hoops: The alcoholic beverage trade. The huge sums of illegal money generated by the business during Prohibition had, with Repeal (implemented in 1933) been diverted to legal commerce. The November 1933 issue of Fortune featured a twenty-page in-depth report on the whiskey business, which couldn't distill and age spirits fast enough to satisfy demand. The magazine would, of course, be read by all in the liquor industry, who were doing quite well, thank you, in addition to the moneyed class that Fortune was aimed at; the rich were still, for the most part, rich, even if a polo pony or two had to be sold to help make ends meet and pay the chauffeur. 

Goodspeed's was simply trying to attract the attention and business of the demographic that it depended upon and seek new clients. Fortune was an over-sized periodical that was still using expensive, coated paper stock, though at this time the total number of pages so had declined, with uncoated stock used for approximately 50% of its bulk. It was priced at $1, which, adjusted for inflation, is $16.50 in today's dollars; a very pricey magazine.

The advertisement is quite revealing:

Fortune, November 1933, p. 126.

 Here, Goodspeed's is offering prints from the first edition of Audubon's Birds of America (1833) from $5 to $100 ($82 - $1640 in 2009 money). First edition prints in fine condition now sell for $25,000 - $80,000.

"Audubon Never Drew a Dodo" is certainly a headline for the ages.

They offer Robert B. McAfee's History of the Late War in the Western Country (1816) for $250 ($4,100 adjusted for inflation). A rebound copy now sells for $925, which may be pushing it; it has not fared so well at auction over the last thirty-five years, though, admittedly, it is usually found in poor condition. Fine copies are  near impossible to find.

I can find no auction records for the Coolidge piece offered for $95 ($1560). My guess is that the price, adjusted for inflation, would be around the same were it offered today; at the time Coolidge was fondly remembered for presiding over the 'Twenties speculative boom. "Silent" Cal has not fared  so well in Presidential Americana (or in U.S. history) since then.

Of special note is Goodspeed's promotional publication, The Month, an illustrated overview of books, prints and autographs in general and those in Goodspeed's stock in particular. In bad times, the show must always go on. It is offered to as a "gift" to Fortune readers, a nice  if somewhat misleading pitch - it was free to anybody who subscribed. Goodspeed's simply used the ploy as an attractive, personalized come-on to a readership whose attention, names, mailing addresses, and money it was trying to capture.

Goodspeed's, alas, closed in 1993, just five years shy of its centennial, a victim of rising rents and a lagging economy, an object lesson that, if at all possible, book shop owners should own the buildings they are located in to turn a  short-term fixed/long-term (and potentially disastrous) variable expense (rent)  into a permanently short- and long-term fixed and predictable one, and gain a growth investment at the same time.

"It's hard to talk about it," George Goodspeed, ninety at the time, told the Boston Globe. He wanted to continue the tradition but keeping the bookstore open, he said, became "just too expensive."

No amount of advertising could save it. Fortune no longer smiled.

Reference: GOODSPEED, George T. The Bookseller's Apprentice (Oak Knoll Press, 1996). Excerpted in The Professional Rare Bookseller, Journal of the Antiquarian Booksellers Association of America, 1983, No. 5.

Fortune magazine, November 1933, and advertisement therein a happy discovery courtesy of Kenneth G. Gertz, the author's beloved father, with my deep thanks.

I have a personal interest in advertising for the rare book trade 1900 - 1960. Readers with knowledge and/or in possession of such are encouraged to contact me, with my thanks in advance.

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