Sunday, 26 April 2015

The Rental Library (Bookhounds of London)

A while ago now I had cause to mention George Orwell's essay on running a book store. Among the topics covered was the store's rental library, something that was very common in Orwell's day but is extinct in ours. I wondered how it was organized, what its purpose was, how it was run. Wonder no more, for there is a book out there that reveals all: Ruth Brown Park's Book Stores and How To Run Them.

I had no idea this book existed until someone Tweeted about it, probably because the cover is so evocatively art deco. First published in 1929, copies of this can be had relatively cheap, and while it's not an absolute must-buy - the writing's a little dry, and as might be expected it dwells on the economics and accounting side of the business - any Keeper interested in running Bookhounds might at least see if it's available on inter-library loan. Naturally I turned to the Rental Library chapter first.

Few new book shop owners realize the importance of the rental library, it begins. Besides furnishing a source of steady income, remember always, a rental library brings people into your store. At first they come only to rent, but passing attractive displays on their way to the Rental Department, they eventually begin to buy,. And therein lies your opportunity. Make permanent buyers of former borrowers. Let people learn how delightful it is to own books, not merely to rent them. Create in them, through subtle sales talks, a desire to become book collectors, not transitory owners. You can do this if you exert real selling technique ...

Already I'm beginning to see why the Rental Department is extinct. The core assumption, judging by this piece, seems to be that people don't really know that they can buy books; that ownership is within their grasp. There's almost a subtle class war situation going on here, where a host of potential buyers, who previously thought that owning books was for the well-off, now realize how wonderful it could be to have a real, live book of their very own, to cuddle and play with and call George. In 1929, this might have been true. These days the written word doesn't have quite that same upper class cachet. People who want to own books just go out and buy them, and the ones who don't want to own books wouldn't care if Rental Departments opened up in all the Starbucks across the land.

George Orwell, since we're in his territory again, discusses this tendency at length in the essay Books vs Cigarettes. A couple of years ago a friend of mine, a newspaper editor, was firewatching with some factory workers, Orwell begins. They fell to talking about his newspaper, which most of them read and approved of, but when he asked them what they thought of the literary section, the answer he got was: "You don't think we read that stuff, do you? Why, half the time you're talking about books that cost twelve and sixpence! Chaps like us couldn't spend twelve and sixpence on a book." These, he said, were men who thought nothing of spending several pounds on a day trip to Blackpool. For the record, one pound in old currency is twenty shillings, and each shilling is twelve pence. Twelve and sixpence is twelve and a half shillings, or slightly over half a pound.

Orwell's essay concludes that, overall, reading is probably the cheapest recreation available, but it might not have appeared that way to the people doing the spending, because reading seems expensive when compared to everyday luxuries like cigarettes or beer. The individual pint or pack of coffin nails is relatively cheap compared to the price of an individual book, but when a year's spending is taken into consideration, you're likely to have bought, and spent more money on in aggregate, many more cigarettes or pints than you have books. Yet each cigarette or pint can only be consumed once, while a book lasts as long as need be.

Of course, says Park about the Rental Library, no definite choice of books for the renting department can be laid down, because the character of your patrons pays such an all-important part. However it has been found a good plan to have, first, the latest and most popular new fiction; second, the popular books of the past year, and the earlier books of authors whose present books are causing discussion; and third, non-fiction having wide popular appeal. 

The point always being to draw people in. Footfall is the life blood of retail. Remember what was said previously, about passing attractive displays on the way to the Rental Department. This is exactly the same kind of technique used in retail outlets all over the world; large chains, like Walmart,  have this down to a fine art. You put the things that you know the customers will want as far away as possible, so the customer has to walk past other things on the way to their destination. Those who walk past may stop, at those attractive displays, and those who stop might buy. I've previously spoken about shopping malls, and the practice of keeping key tenants far away from each other, so people have to walk from one to the other. The principle's the same. Only the scale is different.

As far as revenue's concerned - remember that source of steady income mentioned in the first paragraph - the retailer gets his cash up front. There's a deposit, refundable when the member decides he's had enough and wants to withdraw, and a small charge per week. Local competition would probably affect your decision as to deposits and rentals, Park diplomatically concludes. Some shops might choose not to demand a deposit, for fear of frightening off patrons. Orwell points out that theft is common in rental libraries, with the books being sold on at a small profit to other book shop libraries, but also says that the shop owner felt it was an acceptable loss, so long as Rentals kept drawing people into the store. 

Park starts talking about accounting at this point, and I shan't bore you with that, but she goes on to mention something I hadn't considered. Book wrappers should be of some distinctive design, with the name of your shop in clear relief. The more original and outstanding they can be, the more chance you have of saying to the public, "We have a rental department, and we can serve you."

You'd never persuade a shop owner now to produce their own line of dust jackets. The cost would frighten them half to death, but Park's writing about a time when paper's cheap and people's expectations are different. They'd demand dust jackets for their leather-bound darlings; only the pulps went about in horrid softcover.

From a Keeper's perspective, this is possibly the easiest prop ever invented. Want instant atmosphere? Photoshop a half-dozen dust jackets, wrap them around the books in your collection, and you're sorted. Or if you haven't got anything suitable, go to a second hand shop and buy a few of their cheapest old hardbacks. Let the players argue over the shop's logo, or how best to advertise. Oddly enough, this is exactly the sort of minutiae that many players love to get involved in, not unlike the Innsmouth House Players' inordinate fondness for period menus and food. You may even have to spend an entire session arguing over how best to design the jackets, but to be honest, if your players are quite that mad, good luck to you!

So there you have it: the Rental Department, in all its glory. What will it be to your bookshop? A constant trial and expense, with chancers nicking the books every other week? A source of revenue and advertising? What happens if a corpse turns up in an alleyway with one of your shop's books in his pocket? That attractive wrapper with the shop's name, address and logo on it might not seem like such a wonderful notion ...

That's all for now. Enjoy!

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