Monday, November 06, 2006

Have I Got a Deal For You

The book business sometimes forgets that it's a business. It likes to dress itself up in the robes of educated and idealistic sophistication. Publishers host dinners for authors and booksellers at swanky restaurants with private rooms and plenty of excellent wine. Booksellers love to discuss an author's writing style and the importance of weighty ideas when touting their recommendations for the next season. We talk about that book that's going to change the world and the importance of freedom of speech. It's enough to make a guy like me forget that I'm in the business of selling, not worshipping, books.

Then there is CIROBE (Chicago International Remainder & Overstock Book Exposition). CIROBE is a week-long feeding frenzy of buying and selling sale books. It's all about wheeling and dealing; there's no such thing as a set price. Sometimes, sales people take you behind the curtain in the back of the booth to see the secret stash of a title that they can get you because you're such a valued customer. It's enough to make a used car salesman blush. No one cares about the writing or the ideas in a book. How many can you sell? That's all that matters.

I love it. Sure it makes me dizzy, and for at least a week afterwards I am still seeing parades of book covers in my dreams, but it is capitalism in its purist form in the book business. The thrill of finding a key title on sale for just $2.00 is enough to make my hands shake. All those beautiful cookbooks -- the ones we could never sell at $40 -- now available for $12.98. Just the thought of it makes me salivate.

Here are some notes and random thoughts from my week in sale book heaven:

  • CIROBE is held every year at the Chicago Hilton Towers. This is the Hilton's flagship hotel, and it is so ostentatious that it makes Paris (that's Paris Hilton) look demure by comparison. The huge ballroom features a painted ceiling, a ton of molding, gaudy chandeliers and plays host to a black-tie event nearly every Friday and Saturday night. Often, there's live classical music in the second-floor lobby. It's a very strange setting for a group of people (remainder sellers and buyers) that think wearing a corduroy sports jacket is the height of fashion. The promoters of CIROBE must know this because the show is always booked into two relatively dingy basement rooms that wouldn't suit Eloise at all.
  • The exposition opens at Friday noon, but if you don't arrive by Wednesday morning you'll miss most of the books. About two dozen vendors start selling books in breakout rooms, hotel suites and even -- in one case -- the hallway. When I arrived in Chicago on Tuesday, I immediately headed for the Powell's store located a block from the hotel. I made my way into the cave-like basement and was met by a representative from Powell's wholesale operation, as well as by a couple of reps from the remainder company Texas Bookman. It's a good thing I showed up early. I immediately bought every copy of The Places in Between by Rory Stewart. By the time I left, there were buyers from three other stores in the cave.
  • When I left Powell's, I was greeted by a huge fire just three blocks away. The vacant six-story Dexter building, designed by Louis Sullivan, was spitting flames and a plume of dense black smoke. All week long, whenever you entered someone's room, they would show you their view of the fire. It worked out well for me. For the sixth straight year, I didn't have a lakeside view, but I had a great angle on that fire. It took nearly 24 hours with three fire hoses to calm the blaze.
    • When is it acceptable to cross a picket line? That's a tough question, but one that I'm forced to contend with every CIROBE. In addition to the sellers in the Hilton, several vendors set up down the block in the perpetually picketed Congress Hotel. Three years ago, there was a group of 30 people on the line with signs. This year there were two to five people manning the line. I've stayed away from the Congress the last few years, and have given the strikers some money for the cause. This year I was kind of fed up. Obviously, the strike hasn't worked. The hotel is still open, and the picketers don't have jobs. Fellow booksellers told me how to avoid the picketers by going in a side door, but somehow I felt that was worse than just going in. I steeled myself for compromising my values on Wednesday afternoon, but when I got to the Congress, all the strikers were on a break. There was an orphaned sign, but no picketers.
    • For the last few years, CIROBE has been a bit of a struggle because so many vendors are selling on the web. It's been hard to find new and unique titles. This year was a refreshing change. I couldn't believe some of the titles and authors that were available, including Team of Rivals by Doris Kearns Goodwin, Glass Castle by Jeanette Walls, Dress Your Family in Corduroy and Denim by David Sedaris and Eats, Shoots and Leaves by Lynne Truss. Also, I was able to snag many of Christopher Moore's and Philippa Gregory's titles as well as several beautiful cookbooks. Of course, with CIROBE there's always a chance that a high percentage of your most anticipated titles won't even show up. I won't say it's a bait-and-switch, only because there's no switch. They bait you into placing an order with the amazing titles, and then somehow the titles are all sold out when it comes time to ship the books. You're left with the odds and ends. I'm keeping my fingers crossed this year.

    The books from CIROBE are just now starting to arrive at the store. Each day brings a new delivery and with it the expectation of a great deal for the customers. I rip open those packing lists and the memories of the search are fresh in my mind. I try to explain to the staff how great it is that I was able to get 100 copies of the Stick it to Bush bumper stickers for close to nothing and I usually get a look that says, "Where in the world are we going to put these?"

    The first few years I went to the show, I was filled with paranoia. I was sure that I was always missing the great books. My order was too late, or I didn't go to the right booth. Other booksellers will always tell you about the great books they ordered, and you can't believe you missed the title that they're bragging about. It can be an angst filled week. Now, I realize it's about the books that you got, not the ones that got away. If I could only get the lakefront view, CIROBE would be the perfect week.

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