There's something I've been meaning to mention at the end of each of about the past five months: just "thank you" to all the people who have ordered anything from Amazon through the links on this site. The income for me is not generous, but it's substantial, and I'm grateful for it. So, thank you. Very much. I really mean it.
The empirical survey method
That said, I don't write about books exclusively in the hope that you'll buy a book from Amazon after linking to it from T.O.P. and put, say, 72¢ or $1.51 in my pocket. Fact is, to write this present series of posts (three from me—one down, two to go—plus we'll have three Guest Lists) has cost me more money, easily, than I'll make from it. Why? Because I've bought a stack of books as high as my kneecap in order to write about them.
I'm not necessarily complaining. But it has been expensive.
I've also done a city-wide store survey. And you know what the cost of fuel has been. This year I went through the months of January and February on one tank of gas, which tickles my "cheap gene." Rabbiting all over town looking at books, wantonly burning car fuel as I go, has also been a sort of sacrifice, although I guess only because it has injured my self-concept as a tightwad.
So why a survey? Well, I fancy that I'm an empiricist. Basically, empiricism is a mode of inquiry based on observation, as opposed to thinking or theorizing or experimentation or any of the other modus operandi by which we might acquire knowledge.
I'll give you an example of one of my empirical surveys: I used to like stereos. I was what is known as an "audiophile." It's basically a generational hobby among us baby-boomers. We were young when music briefly experienced a Renaissance phase in which its cultural importance was temporarily greatly magnified. (The period began in 1963 when the Beatles arrived in America, serving to distract the populus from the shocking gundown of John Kennedy, and lasted for twenty or twenty-five years thereafter; now known, roughly, as the "classic era" of rock and roll.) Stereos were a high-status toy to males of my generation, like electric trains to the generation previous and video game consoles to the generation after. Anyway, when I moved abruptly to Chicago in 1993, I didn't know anything about the audio salons in the area, so I decided to do a survey.
I made a list of all the stereo stores in town. The idea was that I would visit each one dressed in nondescript clothing, take note of how I was treated by the staff, then ask to listen to the best demonstration equipment they had available and evaluate it purely on the basis of sound quality—that is, regardless of how cool it looked or how esoteric it was or how much money it cost.
(I should explain (confess?) that I hoped to write an article about the experience, for one of the big audiophile magazines. But I never did.)
The Great Chicagoland Audio Emporium Survey was more interesting than you might think, however. For one thing, one inescapable conclusion I came to is that some extremely expensive stereos didn't sound very good. Even some hoity-toity high-end salons apparently aren't competent to put a decent-sounding system together. Another is that even a tall WASP-y looking white guy wearing jeans can get treated with almost unbelievable rudeness in certain types of retail stores. If I were black and got treated the way I was treated at one shop, I would definitely have ascribed it to racism. But that wasn't their motive—they were equal opportunity a-holes. That place is out of business now, a fate it well deserved.
Anyway, the survey served its purpose: I was able to identify what I thought were the three best audio stores in the Chicagoland area at the time*. In all three cases, the best demo sound at each was very different than at the others, but all three knew how to do it up right. The stores' reward for winning my contest was that from then on, I hung around and wasted lots of their salespeoples' time. Heh.
(Not really. I'm always honest about whether I intend to buy anything, and I did spend a lot of money at one store.)
The bookstore survey
Anyway, last week I decided to do the same thing with Milwaukee area bookstores, specifically looking for photography books. I'm sure I didn't find every store in Milwaukee and environs that sells photo books, but I hit the major ones.
The news is good and bad.
My three regular stops in my own immediate area include two stores that stock a decent number of photography books. One sells new, and the other used. I formerly considered this paucity of sources to be a hardship—yet another unavoidable drawback of living in the boondocks. The good news I discovered is that I'm much better off than I thought I was: both my regular new store (a Barnes and Noble) and my regular used shop (a Half-Price Books chain store) compare favorably to anything else around here. The bad news is that there's no really good photo book store in the city. The two biggest used shops I found in my area both had lame motleys of shabby, old, and undesirable photo books, and the "big" Borders store in the heart of downtown had one of the worst photo sections I've ever seen in a major retail bookstore: two and a half two-and-a-half-foot shelves, and half of what they had was trashy pop stuff. Woeful. (I guess Borders isn't doing so hot these days: it made the wrong decision when it decided not to sell online, and there have been rumors that it's going to be up for sale soon. Still, no excuse.)
I checked only one of the big University book stores, but I didn't find much reason to go back.
Best discovery? The museum store at the Milwaukee Art Museum (MAM). So that's a tip: If you're looking for good places to find excellent photo books, check your local art museum if you have one. It might not have a lot, but if it's like the MAM, it might have some things you'll see nowhere else.
Otherwise, the only trend I noticed was that the best chain stores are those in or near the wealthiest suburbs, rather than downtown. I don't know if that would hold true for your area, but it might.
Single copy searches
If you're looking for one particular book (and, if you become enthusiastic about collecting, sooner or later you will), the best sources are Ebay and ABEbooks. Originally "Advanced Book Exchange," a name they now downplay, abebooks.com is one of the great etailer success stories of the web; it has never required any venture capital to fund its growth, and now facilitates almost $200 million in book sales annually between consumers and small and medium-sized bookshops all over the world. Abebooks owns JustBooks in Europe and recently bought Bookfinder, and has many country-specific websites. It makes up in selection and volume what Ebay lacks.
Despite the great convenience of these online sources, I've had decidedly mixed experiences with each. I've had it take excessively long times to receive books I'd purchased; I've had books arrive really poorly packed, and/or damaged; and I've gotten books in much worse condition than they were described. Because the books come from hither and yon, from all sorts of sellers, there's no consistency at all. A recent "like new" paperback purchased through Abebooks, for instance, proved to have underlining throughout the first half of the book. (What I imagine is that the store's buyer grabbed the book, glanced at the cover, flipped through half the book starting from the back, scribbled "like new" on the manifest, and moved on to the next book.) To the seller's credit, he immediately refunded my entire purchase price, including shipping. But the whole rigamarole is a PITA nonetheless.
Still, there are some things you might want that you just can't find any other way, and both of these resources are important—especially abebooks.com.
The Great Remainder Showdown
The other major source of fine photo books in excellent condition is to buy remainders. Don't think remainders are all garbage just because some of them are: I remember when I was in art school in the early '80s I saw a whole stack of remainders—sitting on the floor, no less—of one particular book that now can simply not be purchased for less than $300, with $400 more the norm. Price then? Five bucks for each pristine copy. That was 80% off the new price at the time. (Do I wish I'd bought the whole stack? Not really, because then I would have had to store and move them in the years since. If you have a huge house and never plan to move, buying up remainders might be a smart idea. For most of us, it's not.)
The two major online sources of remainders are Edward R. Hamilton (its photography page is here) and Daedalus Books (photography page here). As part of my survey I bought this book from Hamilton, and I can recommend it, especially if you have a scientific and historical cast to your interests—it's a handsome, well-made book with lots of pictures in it I'd never seen before. Note the price: $7.95 for a $60 book, which is the effective equivalent of "free." On the same day, I ordered a couple of books from Daedalus, including this one. (Again, note the price.) I figured I'd pit the two against each other and see whose service was quickest and most efficient and whose products were best. (All in the service of research, of course. See what I do for you?)
So who won? Both outfits confirmed my order by email within hours, and the books were on my doorstep within a few days. Both came very well packed, and all the books were in pristine new condition, most of them shrinkwrapped. In other words, I got ideal service from both places.
The only downsides I can see to ordering remainders from these suppliers is a) you kinda have to know what you're after, which requires a fair amount of familiarity with the current book market; and b) you're not rewarding the people who put their blood, sweat, and tears into making the book in the first place. In some cases this latter consideration might not be important to you, but in some cases it might be.
One lesson of the survey is that I am personally simply not in a position to act as an omniscient observer and reviewer of the photo book market, on your behalf or for myself, because I don't have physical access to an acceptable percentage of currently available new books. Milwaukee's not a big enough city to support a really good specialist photo-book bookstore, and the sum total of the books available to me for direct inspection is limited. I can do a pretty good job—I certainly have a lot more books to look at than I can afford to buy for myself—but omniscient, no. A really serious photo book reviewer would either have to buy a large number of photo books or live in one of the world's cultural capitals. (Or both.)
I suspect, also, that unless you live in a large city (two million population or more), you might not have great access to photo books either. It could require a fair amount of persistent sleuthing to locate your own best local sources.
Upshot? Just that some combination of methods is the best way to build up a collection. Order books from Amazon through T.O.P.'s links, yes. (Please.) But also find a good used bookstore in your area with a generous and rotating selection; know where your best local stores are; and check out the museum store at your local art museum, if you have one. Use Ebay and Abebooks.com to find specific out-of-print titles you want, and keep an eye on the remainder houses. Even if you buy only one book a month, the more informed you are, and the better a selection you have from which to choose, the better your choice will be.
*In case you're a Chicagoan and you're interested, the stores I thought had the best demonstrations at that time (and the salespeople I got the most knowledgable treatment from) were Van L Speakerworks (Van), Audio Consultants in Evanston (Simon), and Holm Audio (Albert), which was then at a different location than it is now. Bear in mind that this was 15 years ago.
Featured Comment by John Camp: "There are a bunch of Half-Price Books stores in the Twin Cities, and that's where I buy probably 70% of my photo books. One thing I like is that they buy books from locals, so that the stock in the different stores is somewhat variable—and occasionally you'll run into a pile of books from what is apparently an estate sale. If I'm still alive when Mike J. kicks, for example, I plan to hang around his Half-Price Books for a while....
"The problem with museums is that they're expensive. If you're buying several books at a museum, look into buying a membership first—they're usually cheap, offer a discount on books, and you can often get back the price of the membership with a couple of purchases, plus you get free admission to the museum for a year or so.
"Borders is in desperate financial condition, and the company is looking for a buyer (which may well turn out to be Barnes and Noble, if they can clear away some anti-trust questions.) In any case, there have been several reports that Borders is no longer buying many expensive, low-turnover books, i.e. art books. They used to be a good source for photo books, but since sometime last summer, have not been.
"I can vouch for the book stores in Santa Monica, mentioned above, but they are expensive. I found a gorgeous book in one of them—can't remember what, probably because of post-traumatic stress—and they wanted like a thousand dollars for it. Hint: if it's wrapped in hard shiny plastic and rip-resistant tape, you can't afford it. (You may be able to afford it financially, but your karma will take a big hit.)"
Featured Comment by Janne: "If you happen to be looking for some no longer in print photo books in the Japanese market (hey, it can happen), your best bet is probably Rakuten—Japanese site similar to Ebay (if you're looking for used lenses and stuff there's plenty here too). It's all in Japanese of course, and many sellers won't deal with foreigners (too much risk and too much hassle), but there's a site set up to help:
"Basically, you tell them what you want to buy, they buy it locally, charge you in turn, and send it on. And if you have any questions but are hampered by your lack of Japanese, they can translate and forward the answers. A caveat is that I have not used them myself (I live here already) but I have heard good things about this service from others. I should add that they help you buy from all kinds of sources, like Japanese photography museums and such too, not just Rakuten and Yahoo auctions."