Old-school booksellers learn to survive, thrive in digital age
John Schulman didn’t think much of the Internet back in the early 1990s, when he and his wife opened Caliban Book Shop in Pittsburgh.
He still has reservations about the web, but he and his wife, Emily Hetzel, have learned to benefit from it: About 60 percent of their sales happen online.
Caliban specializes in hard-to-find, out-of-print and author-signed books: It has 30,000 books at its shop on Craig Street in Oakland and 150,000 more in a Wilkinsburg warehouse.
The real joys of owning a bookstore, Schulman said, come from meeting interesting people who pass through the shop’s door and the serendipity of finding a rare book.
“Despite the Internet, Pittsburghers are prone to going out shopping, being friendly and not being isolated,” said Schulman, 50, of Squirrel Hill. “There’s something about the culture of Pittsburgh that lends itself to the book scene.”
Even in the age of e-books and Amazon.com‘s dominance of online book sales, old-school retailers in Pittsburgh are finding a niche from trading on their knowledge of books, their connections to local authors and the customer experience of poring over shelves of dusty tomes.
“Some are just beautiful to look at,” said Jenny Soracco, 22, of Lawrenceville, who was flipping through the pages of a book on Eskimo basketry with a friend from Singapore. Both graduated from Carnegie Mellon University in the spring.
“There’s a little bit of history in each book with the people who owned it before,” she said.
Independent booksellers who feared the Internet would put them out of business have found advantages online, said Susan Benne, executive director of The Antiquarian Booksellers’ Association of America, a trade group based in New York.
The group has 440 members — fewer than it did 20 years ago, but a consistent number over the past decade. Books once deemed to be scarce are common online, and booksellers have gotten smart about selling wares by using social media, Benne said.
“Certainly it’s still evolving, but one thing we do notice is that different methods of selling, like social media, are having a positive impact,” she said. “Using social media as advertising and promotion really requires only the cost of one’s time and the use of wit.”
Inventory from varied sources
Caliban gets many books from people unloading them for one reason or another — a death in the family, downsizing, divorce.
Bruce Miller, 57, of Oakmont hoped to sell an 1897 copy of “Messages and Papers of the Presidents.” A friend gave Miller the book for painting a room, but Schulman said so many copies exist that it has little financial value.
Playwright Attilio “Buck” Favorini, 71, of Squirrel Hill stopped by a short while later with a box of books from his career in the theater. He gave away about half of his collection before retiring last year, but he has 22 cartons at home. Schulman gave him $20.
Books at Caliban range from free, donated items on the street to rare books worth thousands of dollars, including a first edition of Harriet Beecher Stowe’s “Uncle Tom’s Cabin” priced at $12,000. Schulman acquired the book from the widow of a collector.
Signed books fetch big bucks
A set of six signed books by author Michael Chabon is listed for $2,500. The autographs are inscribed to Jay Dantry, the former owner of Jay’s Book Stall, an Oakland shop that closed in 2008, or his partner, Harry Schwalb.
Chabon, who worked for the bookstore while attending CMU, is the acclaimed author of “The Mysteries of Pittsburgh” (1988); “Wonder Boys” (1995); “The Amazing Adventures of Kavalier & Clay” (2000); “The Yiddish Policemen’s Union” (2007); “Gentlemen of the Road” (2007); and “Telegraph Avenue” (2012).
Schulman recently purchased a handmade book, “Im Nebel,” published in Rheinback, Germany. Beyond its craftsmanship, Schulman said, the book has value because only 40 copies were made and none is available on the Internet.
Other books are more affordable: Signed copies of David McCullough’s “The Johnstown Flood” and Hillary Clinton’s “It Takes a Village” are listed at $125 each. The store recently sold a signed copy of August Wilson’s “Three Plays” for its list price of $170.
The store has a “signed” first edition of Jack London’s “White Fang” for $100. Unsigned copies can go for $200, but this copy has a bogus signature — written in ballpoint pen and dated 1907, years before the pens were invented. The seller purchased the book online.
Schulman said he bought the book as proof of the uncertain authenticity of items online and the relevance of booksellers who can verify them.
“Indie bookstores do worry about an age that will come when we’re no longer regarded as purveyors of information but as curio shops of things that people used to find useful and interesting,” he said.
Andrew Conte is a Trib Total Media staff writer. Reach him at 412-320-7835 or [email protected].