The Zobel Inventory Sold on Craig's List - A Perspective
The changing value of the printed word.
By Bruce McKinney
More than a year ago I heard from Miriam Zobel of the Zobel Book Service that she had some books to sell. I did not initially know that she lives in upstate New York in Clintondale, a comma between Poughkeepsie and Middletown to the southwest and Kingston to the north. I grew up in New Paltz, the nearby SUNY New York college town and knew something of the place. My first girlfriend Norma lived there and I, almost fifty years ago [I was twelve], used to race my bike against the school bus that carried her home. It was all of three miles. I did not however know of the Zobel Book Service which would move into town the next year, 1959. Their business would be the buying and selling of scholarly material to and from libraries up and down the East Coast. Clintondale was inexpensive, spacious and quiet. The Zobels, David and Miriam, had met in New York following WWII and run a book business on 3rd Avenue in the shadows of Columbia University.
Declining neighborhoods led them to join the exodus to the suburbs in the late '50s and the 8 acres, 1848 house and two outbuildings they found in Clintondale proved to be the perfect alternative to tenement life. In Clintondale they became a "catalogue" business issuing as many as two a month. Business was brisk and as the company name stated: a service. They moved material from where it was no longer needed to where it was next required. Periodically they'd pack their Chevy Bel Air to tour cities and college towns for a week or so. The jingle, inescapable on the radio, "See the USA in your Chevrolet' applied. It was a life.
As businesses sometimes do, this one masked another reality. David was a book collector and felt about selling books the way children feel about getting shots. They know its necessary but never get to like it. David didn't just acquire books, he adopted them and of course nobody sells their kids! So David enjoyed half of the book business: the buying part. For the other half he had a wife who paid the bills and while enjoying books, never lost sight of the end of the month when all bills needed to be paid. Every bookman should have such a wife; a realist to go with the romantic.
In 1990 David died. You know he had no choice because bookmen never willingly separate from their inventory. Miriam was 61. For the next ten years she continued the business with the help of her son. In that decade the book field began its transformation from a series of shops and catalogues to one increasingly dominated by electronic listings on the net. The changes were gradual but conclusive: what changed did not change back. Miriam [and her generation] lost a step while the next generation embraced change. Universities in particular were among the early adapters and the Zobel Book Service, a successful family business for 40 years, slowly but inexorably foundered.
By 2000 Miriam began to liquidate their enormous stock - at the time more than 200,000 books and pamphlets. By 2007, after visits and revisits, discussions by mail, telephone and the internet, offers and counter-offers, the inventory stubbornly remained at around 90,000 items. It was at that time our paths crossed.
The Zobel Inventory Sold on Craig's List - A Perspective
Miriam recalls my father Tom but I have no memory of them. My family owned local weekly newspapers and knew everyone who might buy a paper, a subscription or an ad. This side of the grave, in the hardscrabble country newspaper business we were in, everyone was a prospect. Even when they died we only put a pencil line through their names just in case. But memory or not, connection or not, what Mrs. Zobel wanted, and what I was interested to see if it could be done, was to sell her remaining stock. For my part I was [and still am] trying to understand how books, the book business, reading, Kindle-like devices, the internet with its auctions, listing sites and online research, and whatever else may emerge, fit together into what reading [and by extension thinking] will become. Books are probably a passing stage though they have lasted a long time. The Roman Empire too lasted a long time but it's still gone. Nothing is permanent.
So we talked about her opportunity and decided to offer her material as a single lot at JMW Auction Gallery in Kingston, New York. I wrote a story for AEM and commissioned a video [another experiment] to effectively present what she had. We both thought the lot of possibly 90,000 items would sell for anything up to about $7,000. It did sell to an online bidder with a second to go for $1,000 and that was the closest that buyer ever got to his treasure. The buyer soon lost confidence and walked away. He was in California and the books might cost $15,000 to pack and ship.
We then talked to another local auction company and they too expressed concern. They visited and the potential sale slipped into the future. Come summer I asked my son Tom about listing Mrs. Zobel's books on Craig’s List. He thought it would be easy. I rewrote the description and provided a link to the video we prepared a year ago. My thinking was simple. There is every evidence that another world coexists with the traditional world of books but it's essentially invisible because it is so fragmented. The way people think in the old world is incomprehensible to those in the new [and vice versa]. It turns out markets are shaped by mechanisms. Craig's List is a new mechanism and was worth a try.
Within 15 minutes of posting Mrs. Zobel had an inquiry. Two others quickly arrived. The asking price was $3,250 and the buyer, after a brief preliminary visit, went to his bank and obtained a certified check. By the time the deal closed, 48 hours after posting, she had a backup offer. Both interested parties are eBay sellers. The world is changing.