Antiquarian booksellers adapt to keep industry alive | Culture| Arts, music and lifestyle reporting from Germany | DW | 11.03.2010
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Antiquarian booksellers adapt to keep industry alive

Antiquarian bookshops are closing every year because small business owners cannot compete with internet platforms. The solution, it seems, isn't to go completely online, but to mix old strategies with modern methods.

Stack of books

There will always be collectors of antiquarian books, say those in the industry

Three decades ago, Catherine Clement opened her bookstore, Clement Antiquariat, in Bonn - then the capital of West Germany. For Clement, Bonn was the ideal location.

"It was a bourgeois town with ministers, ambassadors and bureaucrats who had money," she told Deutsche Welle. "All the cultivated people who played a role in the evolution of Germany were my customers."

Clement, originally from France, used to meet many of her best customers at the annual Chancellor Party, hosted German Chancellery for diplomats and socialites.

That was then. Today, Clement's business is no longer the success it once was.

Hopeless competition

Antiquarian bookshop in France

Idyllic antiquarian bookstores are closing doors across Europe

"Most of my customers are either dead or dying, and the young are not interested," she said.

The even bigger problem, however, has been competition from other booksellers selling their stock on online platforms.

"I am closing my shop because I cannot afford the rent," Clement said. "I cannot compete with the monopolies of ZVAB and AbeBooks on the internet."

ZVAB and AbeBooks are online platforms where books can be found for as little as one dollar

The president of the German Antiquarian Association, Eberhard Koestler, told Deutsche Welle that the internet has not only had a negative effect on the antiquarian bookselling industry.

"Internet platforms foster more competition, so books that are more common become cheaper and those that are rare more expensive," he said.

This happens to be the case for Karl-Heinz Knupfer, co-owner of one of the leading antiquarian German book auction houses, Venator & Hanstein in Cologne. As an auctioneer, he only uses the internet to appraise the value of his books. Unlike on eBay, his auctions are live events.

The least expensive book at his auction house costs 300 euros ($406), and he says the financial crisis has not affected business.

A culture of collectors

Antiquariat Clement in Bonn

Antiquariat Clement closes on March 16

Koestler attributes the different experiences of the Clement and Knupfer to their business models. Unlike a bookshop, an auction house does not have to spend as much on rent for its books because the books are not displayed.

He feels that the current conditions are forcing the bookselling industry to evolve.

"Antiquarian books will always be important because most of them are out of print. There has been a culture of collectors in Europe for the last 500 years, and it will continue," he said.

In that vein, Clement now plans to focus on selling her 19th-century collection online. But she refuses to succumb to price dumping strategies.

"The books that I cannot sale now will not be sold for a dollar online - they are going to the College of Foreign Languages at the University of Tongji in Shanghai, where young people can appreciate these books and their history," she said.

Author: Chiponda Chimbelu
Editor: Kate Bowen

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