Apr/May 2007

Page Against the Machine

Justin Spring interviews Nicols Fox

Justin Spring


In 1999, after an impressive career as an investigative journalist, author, and critic, Nicols Fox took up bookselling on idyllic Mount Desert Island in Maine, home of Acadia National Park. I recently discussed the transfor­mations her little bookshop has undergone there, first operating out of her small Bass Harbor home, then from a picture-perfect shop front in affluent Southwest Harbor three miles away, and most recently as a "virtual bookshop" on the Web. As author of Against the Machine: The Hidden Luddite Tradition in Literature, Art, and Individual Lives (Island Press, 2002), Fox has described the historical importance of resisting new technology; nonetheless, she embraces it for bookselling.

Nicols Fox in front of her home, Bass Harbor, Maine, 2007.

JUSTIN SPRING: Where does the name Rue Cottage Books come from?

NICOLS FOX: "Rue Cottage" comes from a novel by Elizabeth Goudge––a very sappy one. I subtitled Rue Cottage Books "For Luddites and Like-Minded People" because I had just written Against the Machine and was interested in sharing the reservoir of books I had used in the writing, all of which had some reference to controlling or avoiding technology.

JS: Is that why you opened your independent bookshop—to return to a more old-fashioned way of bookselling?

NF: I had always dreamed of having a bookshop. But there's a novel called The Bookshop by Penelope Fitzgerald in which a woman comes to a small English town, opens a lovely bookshop, and then gradually it fails. So from the outset, I had that in my mind—that it would fail. Running an independent bookshop has never been more of a financial risk than it is today. When I started the shop in my house, online bookselling barely existed. And when I first opened my bookshop, I was resisting the Amazon model. I felt that books needed to be held and browsed in order to make a decision about buying them. But I kept seeing all these boxes arriving from Amazon at the post office. Clearly, many locals were buying their books by mail, even people who came regularly to my store. At the same time, I started listening to my customers saying, "I got this used book on Amazon." I realized the ways of doing business were changing, and that I had to change too.

JS: When did you know it was time to close?

NF: I remember it clearly. I had just sold a very old, beautiful set of leather-bound books to a client in Japan and had to take all the money I made on this Internet sale and give it directly to the landlord.

JS: Do you think we may be saying good-bye to the bookshop as literary salon?

NF: Well, we continue to have literary conversations, but they are happening on the Web. Some of the best literary conversations I've ever had have taken place via e-mail, with book collectors I've corresponded with for years yet never met face-to-face.

JS: Were you sad to close up the shop?

NF: Yes. I was so happy with the pleasure it gave people. To have seven or eight people in the shop browsing—it was like throwing a successful dinner party. But in a strange way, it was also a relief. Because I ran on such a tight budget, it really was a one-person shop. I had become a prisoner.

JS: What is your new, home-based shop like?

NF: People don't drop by Rue Cottage as much as they did the shop, but some do. And there are a number of locals who still order from me. These people call me to buy books for them—and if they don't feel like driving over to Bass Harbor, they meet me at Sips Coffee Shop to pick them up. I felt bad about using the coffee shop as a place of business, and I recently said as much to the owner. And she said, "It's all right—just as long as you're only selling books."

JS: How else has your life changed?

NF: The most remunerative aspect of my business has always been the finding and selling of rare and odd books. So in that sense, closing up the shop made perfect sense. I'm free to hunt books again!

JS: Has the return home meant better business?

NF: Yes. Now I can keep the shop open to the public on limited hours. Since the bulk of my sales are taking place via the Internet, I'm much more free to do the things I want to do, both for my business and for myself as a writer.

JS: But in Against the Machine, didn't you argue that human, community, and environmental values ought to take precedence over the demands forced on society by the machine, and that it's up to individuals to question (and, in some cases, fight back against) the progress made by technological innovations such as the Internet?

NF: Well, yes. And I still grind my own coffee beans by hand and still hang my laundry out to dry. But I sell my books on the Web. I'm a Luddite, but I'm adaptable.

JS: Is there anything distinctive about the Web as a marketplace for books?

NF: Yes. Right now, it's the purest marketplace I know—pure because buyer and seller both have full information about what is out there and available, so the price sets itself. And in essence, that's good. But it puts a tremendous price pressure on the bookseller—and as a result, the markup is very slim.

JS: How difficult is it to have a shop in your home?

NF: Rue Cottage is approximately 1,750 square feet in which I live, entertain, and occasionally have family and guests to visit. When I moved the shop back here, we loaded so many books onto the porch that it dropped half an inch—but that really isn't so bad, since when I first moved in, I was told it was probably going to collapse.

JS: Have you developed a niche for yourself on the Web?

NF: Yes. I specialize in the book no one has heard of. There is still a good market for those books—first, because there are not as many of them, and second, because you must care passionately about good books, and about culture generally, to spot the ones that will remain important and desirable over time.

JS: But marking up books, even rare ones, must be more difficult these days.

NF: Yes—rare-book collectors are much smarter as shoppers than ever before. But in general, fine, rare, and small-press books become more valuable over time. In that sense, it's a different sort of market than the regular used-book market.

JS: Do you feel that in computerizing your book sales and turning your bookshop into a mail-order business you've made a deal with the devil?

NF: Technology is tyrannical––it doesn't allow you not to participate! Any independent seller of rare books who won't use the computer as a selling place is probably going to go out of business. So I had to adapt. But I believe I have adapted with all my values intact. Which was the point, after all, of Against the Machine: our trad­ition of negotiating with new technology, rather than simply allowing it to take over.

JS: But doesn't closing the shop and going online conflict with the Luddite philosophy?

NF: I know some true Luddites who live out in the woods, and that's their choice. But they are being totally left out of our culture. I guess I would say that while I have Luddite tendencies—that is, a desire to question, and even protest against, innovations in technology if they appear to be doing harm as well as good—I am not militantly Luddite. I am passionate about the need to keep looking critically at technology as it evolves and to make adjustments in it when necessary, even if it means slowing down what others consider to be progress. William Blake, Mary Shelley, Charles Dickens, John Ruskin, William Morris, Henry David Thoreau, Ralph Waldo Emerson, Robert Graves, Aldo Leopold, and Rachel Carson all protested against new technologies of their day—and our world is much better for their protests.

JS: Do you think the story of your bookshop is unique to our time?

NF: Surprisingly, no. As I was moving my inventory out of the bookshop and back into Rue Cottage, I came across an article in an old copy of the Book Collector. It was one woman's story of how she realized that, in order to sell books profitably, she had to close her shop and sell her books by mail. The article had been written in the 1960s, but it was my story exactly.

JS: What innovations in technology do you see affecting the booksellers of tomorrow?

NF: I don't know exactly what's going to happen with Google's making everything available by e-books, but it does seem ominous for booksellers, particularly sellers of used books. If you can call up a book via Google to get the information you need, why would you buy it by mail? Over and over again with new technology, we find that the very thing we thought would save us will instead be our undoing. I suppose that may go for us booksellers selling on the Web. We'll just have to wait and see.

Justin Spring is a writer based in New York.

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