(This is an excerpt from Nothing Much Happens, Diary of an Upstate Bookseller, a work in progress.)
New customer from the UK in today, a verbal salad shooter, manure spreader. “Bloody” this and “bloody” that and George W. Bush is a wanker. Obama is a wanker too, and John Wayne was a bloody wanker. Most of the the time I could understand him, but sometimes I needed subtitles.
He comes to the States once a year, entering from Canada with a suitcase full of hundred dollar bills to buy vintage cars and parts to ship back to the Island to sell at a profit. His name is Ford*, but he buys and repatriates Triumphs, Austin Healys and MGs not Mustangs.
Then the dreaded question, which I’m never prepared for, “Do you give discounts?”
Why is it people feel comfortable asking antiquarian booksellers for discounts, especially the first time they visit? It’s just one of many annoying questions people ask, like where do you get your books? (Echoing Harlan Ellison, I say Schenectady, where I do get books sometimes). Have you read all these books? (Some of them twice). Why are you asking $10 for this book when its original price was $1.49? (Try buying a Model T now for its original price of $800).
But I have never come up with a satisfactory answer for “will you take $5 for this?” other than yes or no. If it is a person’s first visit to the store, the answer is generally “no” which is what I said to Ford. Get to know me, show your support for the store by returning several times, and then I might offer a discount.
Ken Dorn solved the discount issue early in his career. Ken ran a used and antiquarian bookstore out of his humble brown asphalt sided house and garage on Walnut Street in Johnstown , NY. He had been a maintenance man at Fulton-Montgomery Community College, where the library’s regional history room is named in his honor.
When I knew Ken, he did not drive. He paid people to take him to book sales and house calls. His appearance was of an elderly country bumpkin, but he was a canny bookseller. While I always priced my books at what I thought they were worth, Ken priced his at double their value. Then he gave everyone a 50% discount. He would give most dealers an even deeper discount. If he liked you, then he would offer you an even deeper discount. Many times he sold me books priced at $20 for $4. Everyone loved Ken Dorn.
Ken taught me a lot about books and the trade. We talked a lot on the phone and at his house. He was a storyteller. One of his best stories had to do with discounts. It seems there was a dealer who felt highly stressed. What caused his stress, Ken didn’t say. Maybe it was customers asking for discounts.
One particular stressful day, a customer approached him and asked, “Would you take 50 cents for this book?” The dealer opened the paperback book to the end page, looked at the price and saw it was one dollar. Then he looked up at the customer, tore the book in half and said, “Yes.”
Ken passed away almost two decades ago, but I’ve never forgotten that story. I have kept that dealer’s response in the back of my mind, hoping to use it some day, but so far I have never had anyone ask me if I would take 50 cents for a dollar book. I keep hoping. It would be worth it just to see the look on the customer’s face.
Mr. Ford came back the next day. He asked for a discount again. I said no again. He came back, year after year, staying at what was once the Holiday Inn on Market Street in Amsterdam. The Holiday Inn and the Amsterdam Mall, built in the middle of Main Street, cutting the city in two, were the Urban Renewal’s attempt to resuscitate the city. The city should have signed a DNR. By the time I opened my store in downtown Amsterdam, the mall was crumbling and Holiday Inn had descended to Best Western and then Best Value Inn.
In spite of its comedown, a few tourists at the hotel would walk around the corner and visit my store. Ford was one of the few. Eventually, I offered him a discount on some books. He collected books on World War One from an American perspective. Few people were interested in the War to end all Wars, so I didn’t mind discounting them.
Eventually, I warmed up some to Ford, not that we would ever be close. Everything was still bloody and everyone was still a wanker. Like many customers, I learned details of his life, and there is no life without sorrow. Then he came in one day, his son pushing him through the front door in a wheelchair. He was missing a leg. It’s hard to get around my store in a wheelchair, so I would bring books out to him from the genres he liked. It has been a couple of years since I have seen Ford.
At least once a month, someone asks me for a discount. Whether I give them one depends on a number of things. My mood. How long I’ve had the book. Is the customer new or longstanding? The attitude of the customer also makes a big difference. I am more inclined to give discounts to kind, respectful people, although I’ve noticed that most of them don’t ask for one. Sometimes I offer them a discount even when they don’t ask.
But you can be sure of one thing, I never give discounts to bloody wankers.
*Name and other details changed.