The Butternut and Blue bookstore in Baltimore, MD is closing. They had an open house sale on August 29, 2015 on a Saturday to sell off inventory. So I drove to Baltimore and was there for the open house. I made a point of purchasing a couple books.
Most of the books were more oriented towards military history and not much else, but not all books. I already owned almost all the few books that I was interested in.
The Butternut and Blue bookstore catalogs I had gotten for many years. They were very useful since they had a section of recently published or soon to be published books that listed most everything that was relevant to the Civil War and a couple sentences explaining what it was. It was very useful and afforded a quick way to keep abreast of what was being published and avoid missing anything. The prices were full prices, but I made a point of purchasing some things from the catalog to keep the catalogs coming and support the book store.
The proprietor of the book store in his letter explained that they are getting older and that they have grand children now, but most importantly the interest in Civil War books had been declining since the "mid- to late-1990s." and "Even though many dealers drifted away, Butternut and Blue continued to offer a catalogue every two months."
I also went to purchase a few books, finally visit the bookstore before it closed to satisfy my curiousity, and to see what was the demographics of the customers for the book store. They were all older white men, like myself. Some I think were reenactors I am assuming from observing their copious facial hair, now gray or white.
One person who bought a lot of books was very elderly and a little infirm. I made sure to hold the door open for him and people offered to carry the box of books for him. He declined and carried his own books to the car.
When I visit Baltimore I stay with a friend who lives in an apartment complex. The night before my visit to Butternut and Blue I was at his apartment complex and there were on the lawns of the apartments buildings the contents of two apartments. Two people had been evicted and their stuff just taken out and put on the lawn.
The evicted person takes what they can or wants and the rest is left abandoned later to put into dumpsters. Once abandoned it appears that it is open to rummaging by others. What is left goes to a dumpster and landfill later. I don't know what the timing of this is.
I was able to see that both previous tenants had abandoned books. Some were good books.
The next day, Saturday, when I was leaving the Butternut and Blue bookstore I suddenly realized what the future of Civil War books was going to be. A lot of books going into dumpsters.
The people who purchase most of these books will be passing away in the next few decades, likely many of them in less time, some are passing away now, since the demographics I saw was those in good enough health to go to a bookstore and want to go to a book store and aren't currently thinking about the fate of their Civil War libraries in the next few years.. Also, in the coming years there will be few and fewer people interested in purchasing the books in the Civil War libraries that will then come on to the market as their former owners pass away. There might not be any Civil War book dealers at all, or if there are a few, they won't want to purchase books they can't sell or which are flooding the online used book markets. One extensive Civil War library after another will be coming onto the market.
Some books are rare or for one reason or other will find buyers. Others can be donated to academic libraries, and I suppose a few might be donated to public libraries.
However, with interest in the Civil War declining, public libraries will not be interested in books for which there is a declining readership and books that were published decades ago and not current. Sure perhaps a few books for a local regiment or regarding a local Civil War leader will be kept in a local library, if the library didn't already have copies already.
Local historical societies usually don't have much space, but I suspect a few books will be placed there relevant to local history.
And then at some point all the institutions will have had donated to them mostly all the books they want. There will be few and fewer empty places to place Civil War books as time goes on. The institutions will become saturated with used Civil War books.
Go to a large university library or public library. The shelves are on rails and you crank to move the whole shelf. That way there is only space between two shelves if a person needs to find a book on the shelves being separated. This is done to get a lot of useful space out of the library building space. These librarians are not going to want to give over valuable space for books which few of their patrons will be interested in.
Libraries are already complaining about the increasing number of academic books that are being published and where are they going to put them all. Almost all the academic fields have had a great increase in books being published. Librarians struggle to find space for hundreds of linear feet of books published every year. University departments have their own libraries filling up with books.
There will be some countervailing trends. With the increasing supply of Civil War books, and fewer purchasers, prices will decline a lot, and some Civil War enthusiasts will be purchasing more books at a faster rate. However, at some point their shelves will be full. Also how many Civil War book sets by Bruce Catton or Allan Nevins do you need?
There was only one "young" person at Butternut and Blue, probably in late thirties or forties versus the dozen others. Maybe later in the day many "young" people came, probably not. Even if the Civil War books are free, there isn't going to be much space for Civil War books with the next generation. The drop of private shelf space for Civil War books appears to be precipitous.
Some might be kept by their children for sentimental reasons unread, or because the older ones make good decor. Probably not a lot of these books. Usually spouses don't like too much space devoted to book shelves.
But as the supply floods the market and the demand continues to drop there will be a point where used book stores won't want to take most Civil War books because they already have too many that are already on sale, on their second mark down, and they are still not selling.
Ebay and Amazon will have books available, cheap, and then there will be the books that are offered again and again and aren't moving. They are wasting the seller's time. A quick check shows that multivolume sets of books are going cheaply already.
Then some books will be in electronic form, not just proprietary systems, but in pdfs and other open formats. Do you want the heavy official records on your shelf, or wouldn't a data disk with a searchable text be better? Actually, I do have hard copies of multi-volume sets, but I greatly appreciate the searchable disk. And perhaps I am being sentimental to like to read a book in an easy chair and I am just not with it, out-of-date. I am looking at the new Apple Ipad Pro for reading pdf books. It has a really nice screen. Maybe all these books are just taking a lot of space and I just can't break the sentimental attachment. Maybe my library is just some ideas of social class from movies I saw as a child.
In the future estate dealers won't want Civil War libraries since they know that they don't sell. Then the Civil War books will face the fate of Reader Digest books. If you go to department stores in the sections where they want to sell expensive goods with illusions of being socially upscale they have a book shelf with books that have gold stamped titles as filler for decor. You will see that they are Reader Digest condensed books. There are other markets for dirt cheap books for when you want to set up interior design for a movie or stage. They won't be interested in anything with Confederate flags since it might create the wrong impression.
The same day I was at the Butternut and Blue I went with a friend to a mall and at Macy's instead of having book shelves, they had big wall paper posters of bookshelves lined with books. Probably adds 2 linear feet to the available space in both directions. It seems even this use of books is becoming obsolete.
At some point Civil War books won't physically have anywhere to go. As the children of the deceased former owner of a Civil War library need to clean up the house so it can go on sale they will initially try to find a place for the books. They will find that their aren't any used book stores or used book dealers who want more than a few.
They are also trying to get rugs and furniture and dishes and paintings and all the stuff we accumulate in life distributed. Maybe they are arguing over the vases or the jewelry. They will be deciding if the old oriental rug is too worn to be kept or if it is still nice whether it will it fit in with their home or apartment decor. They might have been watching the reality TV show about hoarders and be wary of keeping too much stuff. They will be distracted with emotional concerns with relatives they don't normally see. Some of these relatives they will be glad to see again, others they have avoided.
Then there is the funeral to plan. Then there are the usual disputes over family estates and relatives stealing stuff.
Probably many of them don't value books that much or at least not as much as the deceased relative and maybe they might have books but they aren't Civil War books.
The deceased relatives will have a lot on their minds and the books won't be a priority. Soon they will be asking anyone including neighbors or friends or people at work whether they want them. They will think, "didn't Fred in purchasing buy a history book? Maybe he will want some?" And this will be for the relatives which care something about books, others might curse the bother of so many books to carry to the dumpster.
Then it will either be the dumpster or one or more relatives going to have to be taking the books home with them and they really don't have the space, spouses will be angry,
For some books, I don't have any concerns about them going to the dumpsters. People who buy Civil War books have seen books that didn't need to be written and contribute nothing to scholarship or education and were written for the sole purpose of just having a book to sell to a target group that marketing had identified.
There are other books for which the Civil War was just a lot of fighting where men were men and it all thrills and chills and loud noises. I won't be concerned about those books either. A few need to be kept for the study of historical memory.
But there will be great many good books by good authors that are going to end up in landfills, tons of them.
The decline of the interest in the Civil War wasn't inevitable. The Civil War was an event of great importance in American history and is still perhaps the central event in American history. The nation ceased to have slavery. The Civil War was horrendous. It led to Reconstruction, the first attempt at a multi-racial democracy.
The problem is that the Civil War magazines and newspapers looked at the Civil War with a very narrow lens to satisfy the reenactors. It is the toy soldier game view of the Civil War. Where the mentality comes from some time before the modern civil rights movement (Mid-20th century).
Civil War historians didn't do much better. With few exceptions they ignored or gave a free pass to the obvious neo-Confederates in their ranks. They often shared the reenactors' mentality of the Civil War. They rarely spoke out against the Lost Cause nonsense.
For those Civil War historians who might reject the previous paragraphs I ask why is James Robertson still a respected historian or Gary Gallagher?
When the National Park System in an attempt to get broader interest in the Civil War by bringing up the issue of slavery, to give an explanation why they were fighting, there was a great whining arising in the Civil War clubs and really inane reasons given. No the Civil War was to be about manly white men fighting manly white men with courage and glory and loud noises.
Finally the public is realizing the problems with Ken Burns' sorry "Civil War" series. But it is 2015 and too late, interest in the Civil War has been killed. Some Civil War historians did speak out, but most didn't and were thrilled with the temporary increase in the interest in the Civil War. PBS and Ken Burns should have been roasted. I still hope that they might.
And what was it with PBS selecting the Civil War trilogy of a fairly obvious neo-Confederate and racist Shelby Foote? A historian which the Southern Partisan claimed as being one of them. Didn't the producers find it odd that Shelby Foote kept referring to abolitionists as Jacobins? No it was another example of a free pass given to a white racist and neo-Confederates by PBS.
Currently the Civil War Trust has a petition to ask Congress to protect Confederate statues everywhere. You can read it here. http://www.civilwar.org/take-action/speak-out/protect-memorials/ For the Civil War establishment it is still the early morning of May 17, 1954, the supreme court still hasn't issued its ruling on Brown vs. Board of Topeka, and Plessy vs. Ferguson still might be saved along with the Romance of Reunion mentality of the Civil War.
Civil War enthusiasts usually have an abrupt cut off in the historical timeline with the end of the Civil War except how it relates to some Civil War protagonists. Little interest in Reconstruction and if there is interest it is most the idea that Reconstruction was a period of "negro misrule."
The impression that is given to the general public is that the Civil War is for older white people who probably spend a lot of time complaining about Obama or young people or both and "still hear the guns" and so have a very narrow interest in the Civil War and would react to the discussion of slavery or race or criticism of the Confederacy like people would react to a loud fart at an elegant formal dinner party.
The Civil War of the Civil War Trust and other organizations in the community of present day Civil War enthusiasts is going to die out and it is a good thing.
However, interest in the Civil War will come back in another generation, a generation where it will be the Civil War of the abolitionists in a multi-racial America and the Civil War will again have popular interest.
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