Ed recently visited Bernard Bonnet, Book Buyer at the Museum of Fine Arts, Houston. Bonnet, a French ex-pat, has been a vital part of the European and American art book community for decades. Here, he shares insights on the craft behind his profession, how he feels about used books, and book buying versus bookselling.
EM: Talk a little bit about who is shopping at your store. Are museum visitors just looking for souvenirs or are they specifically interested in buying art books?
BB: We have people visiting the MFA Houston from all over the world and they usually stop at our store, often noticing that the MFAH has an unusually large museum bookstore. This strategy is not really fashionable these days. Very often the book section in a museum store is limited to a basic selection of titles from the mainstream publishers distributed in the U.S., maybe two, three, or five copies of the same title poorly displayed on the shelves. It’s what publishers and distributors call “Special Markets,” and it is not what we do at MFAH. We carry around 9,000 titles, including foreign books. We have some sections that are very well developed, such as Latin American art and Architecture, and also a fairly deep back-listed selection of art books. With the help of our professional staff, we are able to provide the same service as that which a specialized independent bookstore could offer. The MFAH hired me in 2000 with this idea in mind, so that we could not only build an efficient museum bookstore but also provide a resource for the art community in Houston and beyond.
EM: What are some cultural differences between selling books in France and the United States?
BB: In France, we actually have schools for bookselling with very professional training, we have college degrees in bookselling. In Paris, there is a good general bookstore on almost every single block. Here in Houston, the fourth largest American city, we can count the remaining independent bookstores on one hand.
This is mostly because in France and some other European countries, the law does not allow discounts on books over 5%. The competition is based more on the quality of the service and not simply on the price, so independent bookstores have a better chance for survival. The profession understands that one needs actual bookstores to sell books in the long term. European publishers are partners with booksellers, not competitors; for example, they do not sell directly to the public like they do in the U.S., or offer discounts that they don’t give to booksellers. This is what I miss the most and this is what troubles me.
EM: What is your opinion about adding used books to your inventory?
BB: That is my dream. In Paris, an important part of my clientele was the professional art dealers who were always looking for long-out-of-print catalogues raisonnés or exhibition catalogues. At that time there was no Internet, so we had to use only our personal address books and our brains to find these books and locate a dealer somewhere in the world who was selling a copy. We were one of the very rare modern bookstores to provide this (at the time) sophisticated service; we would never say, “Sorry, this book is out-of-print,” and instead say, “It might take time but we will find a copy for you.” But since then, I have always wanted to have both new and used art books in my store. For example, when I go visit Larry McMurtry’s bookstores in Archer City and see a book (used, maybe rare, and not too expensive) that could be a nice complement to our collection, I will buy it for the MFAH store. By doing that, our museum bookstore goes way beyond the definition of a traditional museum store.
EM: Why did you choose to have your office so close to the bookstore?
BB: Before, my office was all the way downstairs in the basement, near the warehouse and retail offices. I moved up here because I wanted to be on the floor as much as possible with the customers. A lot of my book buyer colleagues are in an office two blocks away; they spend a lot of their time in front of the computer, meeting with reps, or searching catalogs. But they don’t get to see the book received and displayed in the store and who is buying them. I feel that is an important part of my job. In Europe, we don’t have this concept of book buyer: we are first booksellers and, if we are at a management level, we buy also.
One of my theories is that a book always needs its own good neighbor. You sell more books and help your customers to discover other books because you link the books to each other, you build bridges. It gives the customer the feeling that there is someone else sharing the experience, a fellow human being with a brain and a love for books. Our shelves should reflect our presence. I feel I need to be around.
EM: Talk a little about how returns affect you as a bookseller.
BB: It is not by chance that the bookselling profession has the option for returns. A book is a cultural product that is difficult to market. We are almost never sure if a book is going to sell. With a return policy, you can extend choice and selection for your store, you can take some risks. If a book turns out to not be selling well, sometimes it is not because of the sellers; there are many different factors as to why a book might not sell as well as it should.
But now that budgets are being drastically cut, it is so much more difficult for stores to choose which books to buy. I need to think hard about every single book: “Do we need that? Can we sell two or three or just one?” With non-returnable options, you have to deeply consider which books to stock, and your collection can shrink in quality because of that. You buy the bestseller and you have to pass on the obscure first novel. With most publishers, I buy returnable. From a cultural point of view, our mission is to try and try and try again to match a book and its reader.
EM: I feel that booksellers are still so important. I love walking into a bookstore and being handed a book, while being told, “I think you would really like this.” It’s such a treat; I would never have known about it any other way. It is like going to a restaurant and somehow the waiter knows exactly what it is you feel like having for dinner.
BB: That is my job; that is the bookselling job. Very often, you will need just one comment to convince customers the book is right for them. Or maybe there is a particular spread that shows beautiful printed serifs or lovely images. All you need to do is open this book for the customer and show it to them, and they will want to buy it. It is just not the same as clicking a button on a computer. Selling books is my job forever.