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Bookstore Siteseeing: Unexpected Ruins

Shelf Awareness -- July 27, 2006

I'm often tempted by virtual detours on this trip and found one I couldn't resist in last Friday's edition of Shelf Awareness. When I learned that Tuttle Antiquarian Books was closing after 174 years in business, I followed a link to the Rutland Herald article, which reported: " 'The reason for closing was the effects of the Internet.' Jon Mayo said Wednesday while watching workers load books onto a truck bound for Maine. 'We think that's what did us in.' "

I will mourn this bookstore's passing, and I understand Mayo's fatalism about the chaotic used book industry. A funeral is a time for eulogy rather than autopsy. On the other hand, exploring ways to be competitive and creative online is the essence of our site-seeing journey here, and there is a lesson in this loss.
I lived in Rutland from 1973 until 1997, so I knew the bookshop well. Tuttle Antiquarian Books wasn't a particularly welcoming place, though I tolerated its laissez-faire attitude toward customer service. I didn't mind being left alone to explore room upon musty room of book-laden shelves, and I will be in their debt forever because I discovered the wonders of Asian literature and art in that quaint Vermont bookshop.

Charles Tuttle, who died in 1993, was serving as an American soldier in Tokyo after World War II when he fell in love with Japanese culture. He made it his life's mission to introduce this world to American readers. In addition to their extensive used book inventory, Tuttle Antiquarian Books displayed and sold an array of new titles from Tuttle Publishing, which still exists as an imprint of Periplus Publishing Group.

One of many books I bought new there was Zen Art for Meditation by Stewart Holmes and Chimyo Horioka (1973). As I write these words, that copy is on my desk, open to page 25 and a reproduction of "Bare Willows and Distant Mountains." On the facing page, a commentary begins, "How remote from the everyday world this landscape seems!"

I felt the same way about Tuttle Antiquarian Books, and yet it was in those isolated Vermont rooms that I discovered an even more remote world. Call it a low-tech precursor to the global village.

I haven't visited the bookshop for more than a decade, so its demise is like the sudden death of a long-neglected uncle. I feel a little guilty, but in this case it is balanced (yin and yang, a concept I first learned reading Tuttle publications) with a dose of frustration.

According to the Herald, Mayo, who began working at Tuttle in 1957 and became co-owner five years ago, felt that "consumer buying and selling habits had changed to the point where Tuttle couldn't compete with eBay, Amazon and everyone else in between." (Many booksellers, large as well as small, utilize ebay and Amazon to enhance their used book sales, but this factor was not addressed in the article.) Mayo added that "it's impossible to compete with someone who can sell their books from their living room."

That the current owner of Tuttle Antiquarian Books viewed the Internet as an enemy rather than a tool is worth considering, especially in light of Charles Tuttle's undeniable pedigree as a publishing industry visionary.

For years, I thought the reason there was so little interaction between staff and customers at Tuttle Antiquarian Books must be because their business was conducted primarily through mail order. I imagined them nurturing worldwide customer relationships--the 84 Charing Cross Road effect. I would have assumed that a mailing list like Tuttle's, built decade upon decade, positioned them to make a profitable transition to the Web.
I would have been wrong.

Tuttle's Web page is now its headstone.

What if, instead of being gradually swept aside by the "long tail" of Internet used book dealers selling out of their living rooms, Tuttle Antiquarian Books (and many other bookshops, for that matter) had approached the Web with the same innovative vision that Charles Tuttle exhibited when he found himself seduced by Japanese culture in postwar Tokyo?

Many years ago, I met Mr. Tuttle on a golf course and I thanked him personally for the new world he had given me.

I'm still grateful, but a little sadder

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