Where Do Booksellers Find All Those Books?

Jessica Amanda Salmonson


Rob made the following query in a book collectors newsgroup:

> Hello everyone,
> I am interested in setting up a used book store. Would be a family run
> affair. Any suggestions on how to start, where to get books, etc., etc.
> Any help would be greatly appreciated,
> Rob Wood

Which inspired the following rift.

Open with a big stock & a quality stock or expect to fail. If you open with good stock then everyone who buys something they really wanted will come back repeatedly & often & you're in like flint (unless you can never replace good stock with equally good stock). If everyone who shows up realizes your store is pathetic, they will look around in disgust, won't check back for at least a year, & then only to figure out how in hell you lasted that long.

Shops that succeed tend to be one of two types: First are those with a good to great stock in high foot-traffic areas or big parking lots, the type of location that permits a well-stocked used bookstore to sell hundreds & hundreds of books each week so that the high rent doesn't kill them, & who have a large phone book ad that makes the store look more likely to buy books than the next ten stores that can't afford a visible ad pretending "We Pay More For Your Used Books!"

The second type that lasts for years & years is off the beaten track with a really huge dusty stock with thousands of square feet to stock just everything, but because the run-down building is in a terrible location rent is next to nothing so it doesn't matter that on many days business sucks cuz rent is a measly $200 a month & you can live in the crawl space if you have to.

Less likely to succeed, but it happens, is a small shop in a so-so location paying the going rate for insufficient square footage & therefore restricted to paperbacks carefully & conservatively chosen sought-after authors in as-new condition for used prices, insuring fast turn-overs.

All others close the day their first-year lease runs out, unless the owner wasn't married so could skip town earlier.

So wait until you don't have to ask "where do I get books." While it is true it doesn't take a great deal of skill to run a bookshop, & most folks who run them are nose-picking cross-eyed weirdos with no salable skills, there's a level of know-nothing that just won't do. If you're still at the point of having to ask "how do I zip my fly" or "where can I get my stock" that probably means you're not quite ready.

Even though I'm going to list a lucky-thirteen places generalist booksellers get their stock — & this is going to be the best "where & how" list anyone ever saw (she said with her usual humble demeanor) — this list really won't help you if you didn't know a bit of it already, as a flat list of "where" doesn't really get you to the true heart of the matter. Most of the "wheres" are obvious, & the success of it is in unexplainable details.

Before ever you look for a location for your shop, you should already have crammed-full the guest room, a storage facility, the attic, & the basement with books gleaned from:

1. Yard sales. Be first to arrive & be picky, meaning don't start stockpiling beat-to-death copies of last year's unsalable bestsellers just because they only cost a nickle. Be die-hard in your search & quick to the next yard sale. Do the yard-saling persistently. If it's too much trouble, then quit right now.

2. Your own bookshelves. If you don't already have a gigantic batch of books yourself, you probably lack the simplest knowledge of books & authors & won't be of much assistance to people asking elementary questions like, "duh, uhk, do you have any william gibson?" If you do have the knowledge, then you already have a shitload of interesting books. Some of them you don't really need to keep any more, indeed some of them you have long wished you could get rid of but knew the local used bookstore wouldn't pay enough so you kept them. Now's your chance.

3. Bookstores that are going out of business. There are in any 200 mile radius in any given year at least two & maybe a dozen morons who thought it would be a good idea & great fun & quite easy to run a bookstore. Near the end of their first year they have a 50% sale followed by a dime-a-book or dollar-a-shopping-bag "Doomed Loser Sale." Shave your head like a buzzard & buy everything that has a chance of being resalable & on your way out kick that failed dweeb of a would-be shop-owner in the stomach.

4. Library sales. Don't get marked-up exlibs, it'll make your shop look like a shithole, but library sales include all the donated books dumb people thought would be processed for library shelves. Some of those will be in fine condition & very resalable & cost you a pittance. Volunteer to help out at these sales & you get first dibs on the non-crap.

5. Successful booksellers. This supposes you ever really liked books & therefore know many established booksellers & they know you by name. If they don't think you're a pest who talks a lot about books but never buys one, then many of them will be happy to sell you, cheaply, duplicates from their stock, & stuff still in the back room they've never bothered to shelve. A lot of it will be common but if you're starting out you need common stuff too if people are known to buy it. More to the point, the "extras" or cast-offs in a well-established successful store can be very good stock since a store doesn't get to be a good one by taking in a lot of crap that never deserved to be shelved in the first place. If these successful booksellers think you're a fool they'll want to pawn off whatever book clubs, jacketless books, & unsalable old fiction with broken hinges that got abandoned at their shops, all which you will accept with a smile if you're the foolish know nothing they think you are. But if they like you, & you're not a fool, there are always more books coming into an established shop than can be shelved, & they'll be glad to help out. Also if you plan to include some specialty areas which these other booksellers don't share, you can risk paying a slightly expensive price for ideal top-end stock if it's really your specialty & you expect to be able to get at least $25 & maybe $100 for titles someone else, who doesn't know that specialty as well, only wanted $5 or $15 for. This goes for getting stock from booksellers on-line, from eBay or abebooks.com, or from print-catalog dealers. There aren't a lot of actual bargains to be found on-line since no one likes to sell cheap on the net & spend the whole workday wrapping & shipping two-dollar books one book at a time. But in personal specialty areas you know better than most booksellers, you should be able to judge what's undervalued even at net prices.

6. General auctions. A way to get a shitload of crap but show up early, assess which book lots have enough good to justify the weight of the bad, & bid low. If too many other beginners or low-end dealers are there eager to outbit you, this source for books can be the first lopped off your list, since getting aggressive over books that are usually pretty marginal in the first place is called cockfighting not stock buying.

7. Fellow book collectors. Again, if you've an honest love of books, then you know many other people with an honest love of books. And everyone who loves books has bought way more books than was ever sensible to buy. Tell all your book-lovin' buddies you will buy what they no longer want. If their book interests are not moronic, then even their cast-offs will be cream for a good bookshop, & having been well cared for or read only once, probably in nearly-new condition.

8. Church bazarres & school rummage sales. As with yard sales, arrive first, be picky, don't get lazy & skip any. Most bigger cities have at least one blow-out giant book rummage sale run by or for a school district or church — those are always worth driving a hundred miles to scout. And for these giant book rummage sales, as with library sales, if you volunteer to help, you'll be there ahead of the enormous crowds & you'll get first-dibs on the non-crapola.

9. Remainder book catalogs. The generically named "Book Sales" catalog sells remainders for a dollar each or less. There are a half-dozen big remainder houses that issue catalogs. And the dirt-cheap prices in these catalogs is twice what a bookseller has to pay. Catalog says this $25 new book is only $5, but that means you pay $2.50. If you're careful you can get as-new stock for super-cheapo & it can spice up a used bookstore with fine dustwrappers. If you select badly then you have the same easily obtained stuff everyone else has & your price will be higher than on Barnes & Noble's remainder table. There is an academic remainders company that sells stuff rarely seen on remainder tables per se — these are books originally issued for $75 a pop available for $10 or $15 (before discount to the book trade). Some of these books aren't even going out of print so are still being sold in university bookstores for the full $75 — some university presses just figure they should only keep about 300 copies in their backstock, the 500 copies they still have from the first printing is too many, so they remainder 200 of them to make room for new releases. Academic remainders can help you seed an exciting folklore section, or a high-end history section... But even the dirt-cheap Book Sales people frequently have the last of a relatively limited number of books & if you know your stuff you can get near-future scarce items for a dollar each as-new. I once stockpiled 25 copies of a Thomas Ligotti book for $25 plus shipping. Long gone now; wish I'd bought fifty or a hundred! But it is just as easy to buy something that is going to be a buck everywhere for all eternity. Careful gleaning of remainder catalogs can get you stuff that will be rare & valuable a year later, but careless gleaning can get you stuff that five years later is still available for remainder prices, so ponder every purchase.

10. Goodwill & Thrift Stores. Many of these places have a scheduled evening or early morning when books are processed & shelved. Immediately after, during the first half hour they are opened, is the only time when the shelves have stuff better than worthless book clubs & religious shit. At the biggest Goodwills the morning after the shelves are restocked, book buzzards will be waiting at the door before the store even opens. They will run to the book section elbowing one another to glean anything that might resell. They look & act creepy. But face it, you're entering a business where creeps have the edge. So start competing with those other buzzards, & find out which shops have regularly scheduled shelving practices so you can be first to see new stock. Some thrifts you will soon realize are not worth visiting ever: the time-to-discovery ratio is too low — but the ones that are worth it are gold mines for the generalist eager to buy low & sell high & you'll know right away you've found such a thrift when you discover that showing up immediately upon restock day means you get to stand in a little crowd of scruffy mumbling greasy-haired guys who weekly scout those restocked shelves.

11. Hurt Books & Returns from specialty publishers. Since I'm no longer a generalist I can share this. For years I kept it under my hat because it only works because not many booksellers ever figure it out. I put this one low on the list so that anyone not really interested will never make it this far into this article. When I had a walk-in shop, one of the many reasons I had better stuff than anyone in town was because I did something nobody else knew to do. I wrote to publishers whose entire lines of trade paperbacks I knew I could resell for two-thirds cover price almost as fast as I could shelve them. These included "New Age" publishers of kabbalah, angel books & the like; publishers of gay & lesbian books; publishers of Sufi & Buddhist books; publishers of quality ethnic cookbooks; mountain climber specialty presses; publishers of ninja & martial arts books; publishers of wacky sasquatch & conspiracy books ... & I asked them if they could sell me their returns & shopworn copies cheaply. I frequently got lists from these publishers with the coolest stock on earth offered for nickles on the dollar. Some specialty publishers (especially those with high-end literary lines) are well-organized to offload hurts & returns & don't need a small-potatos buyer like you; others never had anyone ask before & are delighted to get rid of a few boxes of books they dared not sell as new & that were taking up needed room. Even if you're small potatoes, though, you have to be able to take at least five copies of everything offered, or you're wasting their & your time. But very-little-worn trade paperbacks in salable categories for no more than a dollar each, you can & should invest in five copies each.

12. Annual publisher expositions. There are a couple huge book fairs for new book publishers that occur each year. These can be worth airfare & hotel room to attend. At these events they are giving books away left & right to promote them — many with the authors present to sign them. Snarky disgusting used booksellers arrive with push-carts to fill up on autographed freebies. What they never tell you is the fair membership will be color-coded so the exhibitors will know by the color of your badge if you're a snarky used bookseller (despised), an author-guest or street walk-in (liked somewhat), an owner or buyer for a new books store (liked quite a bit), or a regional book distributor (loved, loved, loved). So when you sign up to join, fib if you can, you don't really want to be color-coded "pariah." But they'll recognize what you're up to even so. You just gotta buck up & not mind being regarded as a disgusting wart as you fill up that push-basket with freebies, haul those to your hotel room, then come back to fill'er'up again. For the scheduled signings, go through the line five times to get five copies of the signed big-name-star who by your third time through will know what an ass you are — but worth it when you find out how fast you can sell those autographed copies for above cover price & cost you nada. Also, there will be remainder exhibitors — they'll actually be nice to you & will have extra-large exhibition discounts, lower even than their usual dirt-cheap prices.

And finally:

13. Book shops that just opened on that day, run by beginners who won't last out the year. Excellent source of stock!! They will open with some of the best books from their own collection offered for way under value. As soon as all the other booksellers in town buy these opening-day treasures, the poor beginner will never again have even one book of merit, so get there quick.

Now except for source number 11 & possibly source number 12, you should've known the rest of this stuff already, even as a rank amateur. Since you did not know, then I suspect you're doomed to fail, & will begin (at best) yourself fitting category 13 & a year later fitting category 3. But what the hell, you're still at least contributing to the ecology of the thing.

There are more nuances to doing it right than simplified instructions can ever convey. Nevertheless, I can think of a couple individuals who were the stupidest would-be booksellers on the face of the planet who really just should've put a bullet in their own brains they were such fabulous failures. Yet after failing in two, three, even four locations with the crappiest stock imaginable, suddenly something clicked, & it all fell together for them, part luck, part surviving their protracted learning curve. And today they are huge successes contributing to the cultural fabric of their cities or neighborhood & successful enough to buy a home or blow a few bucks in a casino. So miracles happen. The rest will find themselves opening later & later in the mornings, & already snockered when they do finally turn the open sign around.

Much of the above 13 sources drop off the list if/when your shop actually succeeds against all odds. In time you'll rely not exclusively but increasingly on whoever saw your lie in the phone book, "We pay more than anyone for your used books." The endless parade of people with cardboard boxes of books to sell you will some days be glorious, other days a nightmare, you may even have to put a sign on the door "buying books on Tuesdays only!"

But starting out, all the above, & a bunch of other stuff, can get you a first-rate opening-day stock so that it will really look like you knew what you were doing, & then keep good stuff on the shelf even after you've been gleaned by better-practiced booksellers than yourself. Those methods can also get you the worst crap any ignorant lughead ever tried to pawn off on the public, so it does help to already know that it's very hard or impossible to sell book clubs, forgotten science fiction writers in skinny 60s/70s paperbacks, cookery pamphlets, encyclopedias, romance novels unless for a dime, westerns, marked-in childrens books & library discards, or anything truly grubby.

Many a successful bookseller knows about books nothing except the names of authors who'll sell. These are actual business-minded people who know how to run a business — to them, books are just commodities not treasures of art & intellect. These philistines frequently do better than the book nerds who expected the public to buy what is good rather than what is popular. But if one knows neither about books nor about business, then what chance do they have. So take the free Small Business Administration course when next they have that at your local library or school. Don't sign up for expensive "how to run a used book store" workshops — those are run by scamps who figured out they can sell the course much more easily than they can sell the books, & it is not worth their price to tell you about brodarts & library sales & ego-bullshit about how cool you are for wanting to be an antiquarian bookseller.

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