They say that the internet has been bad for bookshops, those that sell new books and those that sell used ones. It's probably true. Truth be told, I don't mind seeing corporate bookshops struggle, because it really doesn't matter much to me which corporation wins out. And it's not like going to Barnes and Noble is going to like a real bookshop. OK, they do have books, but it's almost as if the books are an afterthought.
(Keep in mind I grew up in Germany, where there is a long tradition of smaller, independent bookshops.)
I do care about second-hand bookshops, though. Where I live (Western Massachusetts), there are many. Since I moved here, I've seen some of them fold. One, in Amherst, closed down because its owner wanted to just sell the books online. It was cheaper, he said. I believed it. Another one, in Hatfield, closed – or actually relocated plus merged with another one – because its owner was going blind, and running a bookshop alone wasn't an option any longer. But quite a few ones are still around. There are three in town (assuming I'm remembering them all), and I went to one today.
They say that the internet is good and bad for photobooks, and it's true. It's good because now you can sell your own books, or you can order them from who-knows-where without having to rely on a bookshop. That's great. On the other hand, you can't find any treasures any longer, they say, because owners know what they have: they check the web before they sell their wares.
So let's just assume that that's true (I don't think it always is). We'd have to ask what's wrong with that. Why wouldn't you want to pay what the market thinks is a fair price? Wouldn't you want to support the owner of the shop where you can browse books in a way that just doesn't exist online? (Do you really think browsing for books on, say, Alibris is even remotely close to doing it in real life?)
What's more, there are deals, and then there are deals. If you're looking for your copy of, say, Fukase's Solitude of Ravens for $10, then you're probably in for a disappointment. But here's the thing, second-hand bookshops are filled with books that did not make it into any of those books about photobooks, such as the Parr/Badger ones. And those books can be had for, well, next to nothing.
If you just keep looking, you can find the most amazing stuff. Time and again, this leaves me wondering about the world of photobooks and how we approach them. Everybody is trying to get the books in Parr/Badger or in those “best of” lists that blossom like weeds at the end of each year. But I'm often surprised how few people seem to look for books that aren't in any of those lists, even though they have a lot to offer.
Today, I found Abigail Heyman's Growing Up Female. It was $6.00. I had never heard of it before. Published in 1974, it's a fantastic book. I was floored when I looked more closely at it at the shop, and I'm even more floored now. I don't think its content is any less relevant today than it was when it was made. It's a profoundly moving and honest book with a lot of great photographs (and it's edited and sequenced very, very well).
Given I didn't know anything about it, I Googled Heyman's name, and I found a New York Times obituary. In the obituary, the book is described as a “sort of illustrated encyclopedia of women performing self-limiting roles,” which is sort of bullshit. There's talk of “claustrophobic black-and-white images of almost clinical detail,” which is also bullshit. The pictures aren't any more or less claustrophobic than any other photographs taken during that time by the mostly male photographers we still admire so much, and I'm still trying to find that “clinical detail.” (here is a much better article about Heyman)
Of course, I was wondering why the book wasn't any more well-known or popular. I will have to assume that an older generation of American photographers will know the book. I grew up in Germany, and I was six years old when the book came out. But still, given the books seems so apropos today... Maybe the answer can in part be found in the way that obituary treated Heyman. It might be symptomatic of something.
For a while, when looking at books to possibly buy in a second-hand store, I would think “I should check this online.” I don't do that any longer. If I had checked Growing Up Female online, I would have found copies started at $0.75, which incidentally, is how much I paid for parking to browse for books.
(I made that up. I only paid $0.50. But I needed to indulge the writer in me.)
But why would I not buy the book and have it right away, and instead pay someone I don't know $0.75 plus $3.99 shipping to some day – media mail takes a while – get a package in the mail (“Oh, I forget I order that.”)? It's true, I could have saved $1.26. But I paid those extra $1.26 and thus supported a local business that I return to regularly.
There's that other thing that's killing bookshops: we are cheap. Or rather, we often decide to be cheap. We'd often rather save $1.26 to get a deal online. And I suppose that's fine. We're all on a budget. But then, being on a budget means that those places like that second-hand bookshop where I found Growing Up Female are struggling. And if they're struggling that means the less of them there are, the smaller the chances that older, under-appreciated books will somehow make it into the hands of people curious enough to browse.
The reality is that I found a ton of great books I had never heard of before in second-hand shops for prices that were more than reasonable. There are thousands of photobooks out there that you can buy for $5 or $10 that are just waiting to be rediscovered. And while the internet is great for all kinds of things, it's not that great for that, for the re-discovery of photobooks.
So if you like (or love) photobooks and if you're somewhere where there's a second-hand bookshop, go inside and browse. You'll be amazed what is out there to be (re-)discovered.