Establishing a Used Book Store

Gary Crooker started a used book store business with just a few thousand dollars and a love of literature. Here's how.
By Gary Crooker
August/September 1994
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A welcome, cozy ambiance is very important in the used book store business.
ANDREW AIRZI
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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 $3,000.

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 paying proposition.

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 trade.

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 customers.

Store Layout

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 favorable one.

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 home-built shelving.

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 Millay.

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 same time.

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 much difficulty.

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 date.

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.


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