Do you find yourself lingering just that few extra minutes
in book shops or libraries, with a faraway look in your
eyes, long after everyone else is ready to go? Do the
people you are with seem to have to drag you away after you
have promised to stay in your favorite book haunt just
"five minutes more?" Do you always seem to gravitate toward
the table of books at yard sales and flea markets?
If the answer to any or all of these questions is yes, then
maybe the business for you is the one I explored and fell
in love with two years ago: owning and operating your own
used book store.
Why a used book store? Because you can get into the
business relatively easily and stock the type of literature
that you and many of your customers love without being a
slave to current best-seller lists. And in the used-book
business you can get started without the large outlays of
cash that are usually associated with the beginning phases
of a retail operation. I did it on a startup loan of just
Now instead of feeling guilty about hanging around book
sales and stores, I can do it to my heart's content, secure
in the knowledge that I am not languishing but working. I'm
not sure that all of my friends and relatives are convinced
of it yet, but as my business shows its (albeit modest)
profits, they are beginning to see the wisdom of it all.
If you have a love of books and know the difference between
Thomas Wolfe, Tom Wolfe, and Virginia Woolf, then take a
minute and I'll tell you how simple it is to build a
business that you'll leap out of bed to come to.
Planning and Stocking
First of all you will have to accumulate a stock of books.
But before you go off buying every used book in sight, give
some thought to what it is you want to sell. If you make
your offering too broad or too narrow you will end up
satisfying no one.
Your particular passion may be for signed copies by 19th
century African-American authors who lived in Atlanta. That
may be an admirable interest, but you might have trouble
finding enough other people who share it to make for a
If, on the other hand, you set out to find, and offer for
sale, every book on every subject conceivable, you will end
up with a warehouse instead of a store. And you will still
fall far short of your goal. There are just too many books
out there. What I opted to do was run a general shop
focusing on areas of interest that other dealers claim to
be the most popular. Alphabetized fiction, the Civil War,
crafts, Native Americans, cookbooks, and children's books
are all among my most popular sections. Rare titles in
these categories are, by definition, hard to come by, but
desirable, much sought after, and still out there by the
thousands if you know where the hiding places are.
Among the places I look for and discover books are yard
sales, library book sales, estate sales, auctions, and flea
markets. An added advantage of hanging out a shingle is
that many books will walk in the door. In other words,
people will come to you with books to sell, providing you a
cheap and time-efficient way of adding to your stock. If
this kind of shopping doesn't interest you, then stop right
here because this probably isn't the business for you.
Getting to the right sale first and leaving with an armful
of treasures is to me the greatest joy of the used-book
Although you will find others out there competing with you
for the books that you want, there will be days when
everything breaks just right. Once a couple of summers ago,
I turned up at a local private school where a day-long
fund-raiser was just beginning. In addition to an auction
and other events, there was a small table of books in the
back. The books were all sorted out into categories and
ready to sell but the gentleman in charge said the sale
wasn't to start for another half hour. I was happy enough
to be the first one there and asked if it would be all
right to look around. He not only told me to go ahead and
look around but that I may as well grab an empty box and
set aside anything that I was interested in. By the time
anyone else had shown up I had three boxes of cookbooks, a
set of Ulysses Grant memoirs and enough highly salable
novels and reference books to make my day.
I spent about $60 at that sale, but before I left the
parking lot, I had sold $150 worth of books to
late-arriving dealers. And those sales hardly made a dent
in the stock I had acquired! Of course, you will not always
be the first one at every sale and even when you are you
may not find the pickings as juicy. But believe me, if you
are persistent you will have enough of those experiences to
keep you coming back for more.
Once you have put together a book inventory you will,
of course, have to find a location from which to offer your
wares to the public. If you are going the route of a
general shop, including several subject areas, then you
should probably have a minimum of about 2,000 books.
The first place to consider officially becoming a
bookseller may be right in your own home. If you are lucky
enough to be located in an area of your community where the
zoning allows a retail enterprise, this is your best option
in terms of cost.
For a beginning stock, one or two rooms in your house
should suffice. You will save on the overhead of paying
rent and at tax time can deduct a certain amount from your
household expenses toward a home business.
That choice wasn't available to me, but the cost of opening
a used bookstore, even if you have to pay rent, can still
be less expensive than you may think. Don't let the high
rents for small spaces charged in malls scare you off. The
people who like to spend leisurely afternoons browsing
through old books by and large aren't the same ones who
rush through big city malls. Your customers will be more
willing and likely to seek you out. I recently took on a
partner and have relocated the store in a refurbished mill
building in the town where I live. Sharing the rent and
expenses, we now have more money to spend acquiring books.
My partner's specialty areas (children's and scouting
books) and my own (fiction and history) complement each
other and provide a wider range of choice for our
We have low ceilings, exposed pipes and painted plywood
floors. We also have a monthly rental bill that is about
one-fifth of what we would pay for the same space in a more
"upscale" retail location.
All of this isn't to say that you shouldn't work to make
your store attractive. On the contrary, atmosphere is of
the utmost importance in a used bookstore. Bookstore
customers have fairly set fantasies about the type of
stores they want to spend their valuable browsing time in.
Wandering and searching until a title almost jumps off the
shelf and begs you to take it home is an experience that
accomplished browsers are familiar with. The surroundings
in which afternoon-long book hunts take place can make all
the difference in guaranteeing that your browsers return
again and again.
For example, the very first section that our patrons
encounter is the children's. We planned it that way because
it is a particularly strong and attractive area for us and
we want to make their all important first impression a
The children's books are allotted a large 20' x 20' space
in which both collectable books and lower-priced reading
copies are available. The 50¢ to $5 books are placed
on the lower shelves well within reach of the little hands
that are eager to get at them. Higher-priced collector
items can be secured on the upper shelves or on display
stands where interested adults can handle them safely.
But the children's section also serves another purpose. In
addition to being a receptacle for books and the welcome
mat to our store it is also an entertainment area for our
younger visitors. A chalk board, games, and toys are
provided along with an overstuffed chair and a tiny rocker.
Considering that children generally tire of the shopping
experience long before adults do, a little comfortable
furniture and fun diversions can go a long way toward
keeping customers around.
The adult visitors to your store will be looking for a
particular ambiance too and a few well-chosen yard-sale
purchases can help provide it. A braided rug here and
there, strategically placed reading chairs, and
refreshments can all add to the experience of visiting a
used bookstore. And it can't be stressed too many times
that an experience is what you are providing.
My store is furnished to encourage customers to spend as
long as they want looking through the books. We have some
very good customers who will spend the better part of an
afternoon in the store and leave without making a purchase.
But the seed has been planted. Those same people will blow
in a week later, go directly to the shelves they had been
browsing, and within fifteen minutes be back at the
checkout with $20-$50 worth of books.
Yard sales and auctions are also a great source for the
bookshelves that you will need to display your volumes.
When we first went into our new location we had many old
wooden tables that were already there and available for our
use. While they were not ideal for our purposes, they have
served us well as we gradually replaced them with
Coffee, tea, and doughnuts are always available as a
courtesy and if people come in and leave with nothing but a
full stomach and a warm feeling, that's fine with us. I
know they will be back. The cost of that type of
hospitality is far outweighed by the customer satisfaction,
word of mouth, and loyalty that it produces.
Getting the Word Out
One problem you will share with other retailers is how to
connect your product with your customers. Most people,
unless coaxed, will buy just what they perceive to be the
necessities of life. Now you and I know that books should
be included in that category, but the general public may
need some coaxing.
Often, the most effective method of coaxing or advertising
for a used book store can be very simple and inexpensive.
Simply write to the book-loving acquaintances that you
know. Let them know what your specialties are and whenever
you have a sale. If opening a store interests you, then you
have probably spent quite a bit of your life around others
who love them as you do.
We run specials every month on a display table celebrating
not only a major theme (African-American history, women's
rights, American presidents, World War II) but also the
birthdays of that month's literary lights. For example, February books — set
out attractively on the table at a 10% discount — may include works about and by Kennedy,
Lincoln, Washington, and Roosevelt. The other half of the
display might include books of such birthday celebrants as
John Steinbeck, Charles Darwin, and Edna St. Vincent
There are many variations on this type of promotion and you
should make sure that all the bookworms and other dealers
in the area are aware of them. We also send a list of what
our general stock includes and of any specials to public and school libraries within a 50-mile radius. With
school and municipal budgets being stretched to the
breaking point, you can offer a way to fill holes in their
collections at reduced prices and boost your sales at the
The Bottom Line
What about pricing? This is an area that scares away many
beginning booksellers because they just don't feel they
have the expertise to price their stock off the top of
their heads. There are no suggested retail prices to go by.
There are, however, very useful price guides that you
should invest in and use. Mandevilles Used Book Price
Guide is updated every five years with a new version
due out in late 1994. Another good price guide that also
offers a little more specific information on books is
Collected Books (G. P Putnam's Sons, 1991), by
Allen and Patricia Ahearn.
Also don't be afraid to check with other dealers or
collectors in your area to increase your knowledge of
pricing. There are shady characters in the used book
business as in every other, but for the most part you will
find they are straight-shooting lovers of the printed word
like yourself. By staying in touch with them and letting
them know about some of your new purchases, you will gain
valuable information ...and occasionally make a sale.
Above all don't be intimidated by the pricing process. As
long as you are buying your books at a reasonable rate, an
occasional mistake in pricing isn't going to put you out of
business. A lot more money is lost, and made, on used books
when you are buying than when you are selling.
Right after I opened my store I put a book on
African-American history on my shelves and priced it at
$35. I sold it within days to another dealer and it so
happened that I was able to track its route after it left
my shop. It ended up in the hands of a collector who was
waiting for it ,at the nifty price of $125.
Did I lose any sleep over my obvious underpricing? Not
really, because I gained twice in the transaction. First I
made a $34 profit because I had happened on the book at a
yard sale. Second, and in the long run much more important,
I learned the importance of keeping a list of my customers'
wants. Now when such a book comes into my possession the
first thing I do is check that always growing list and
connect the book with a willing buyer before it ever
reaches my shelves.
Finally, be sure that your customers are getting educated
along with yourself as you continue in the business. Being
bargain hunters, as most of your customers will be, they
may have to be enlightened to the importance of the
services that you are providing. I had a first-time visitor
to my shop last summer who arrived knowing exactly the book
he was looking for. Armed with the title and the author, I
was able to go directly to the fiction section and have the
book in front of him within a minute. He was delighted to
see the book, but much to my surprise balked at purchase
when he discovered that the price was $5.
"Well there is just no way I can justify paying that much
for a used book," he said. "I'm sure, I can find it at a
yard sale for about 50¢."
All of my efforts to patiently and politely explain to him
the amount of time and money that goes into seeking out,
pricing, cataloging, and shelving each book fell on deaf
ears. Out the door he went, and back to its slot went my
fairly common but out-of-print novel. But not for long.
Within a week my reluctant buyer was back, admitting he'd
had no luck in his independent search. He decided that he
was interested in buying my copy after all. Alas, it had
already been sold, but I told my newly educated friend that
I would be glad to put his name and the book on my want
list. I assured him he would get a call the next time a
copy shown up.
As luck would have it, that turned out to be within the
next few days. I called the customer, he came in for the
book and willingly parted with $5 he had felt was so
exorbitant just days before.
With a new appreciation of the used book business, he is now
a weekly visitor and regular buyer at my store. Sometimes
he just comes in for coffee and a homemade doughnut and
sometimes he leaves with a bag of books. But he is
definitely hooked on the idea of visiting regularly and
seeing what new treasures have showed up on my shelves.
As a matter of fact, he seems to stay a little longer each
time and the frequency of his visits continues to increase.
I think I may have even noticed that faraway look in his
eye that tells me the legion of used booksellers may soon
be gaining a new member.
Some Red Tape
I f you decide that starting your book business at home is
the best route, you will have to begin by deciding what
type of selling you are going to do.
If you plan to build a customer list and sell mostly
through the mail, you will probably find it a fairly easy
route as far as your town or city officials are concerned.
Even if you are in an area zoned as residential, you should
be able to get an exception for a home business without
If, on the other hand, you are leaning toward an open shop
you may find the road a little tougher. The place to start
is at your city or town hall where you will be referred to
the Zoning Board of Adjustment. Be aware that the main
concern of these boards will be the impact of such a
business on the rest of the neighborhood. Issues such as
additional traffic and lighting will be addressed and all
of your abutting neighbors will be advised of the hearing
It's always a good idea to be on friendly terms with your
neighbors, and never more so than when seeking an exception
to your local ordinance. They will all be allowed to speak
to the issue at your hearing. Even if your neighbors are in
favor of the idea, a favorable ruling is not assured, but
if several are openly opposed, the board will be
substantially more inclined to rule against you. Take a few
moments to let your neighbors know in advance, sound them
out, and discuss the plan in as much detail as they want.
Some thoughtful (and early) public relations efforts can
make all the difference.