I’ve had a little time to reflect on our recent book scouting trip, and here are some of my thoughts, for what they are worth:
Every year since 2001 we have made a book-scouting sojourn through several states; this year it was through seven Midwestern states including Ohio, Michigan, Illinois, Wisconsin, Minnesota, Indiana, and a corner of Pennsylvania. We have seen some changes. Open Used & Rare, Antiquarian book shops are becoming fewer in number. Many of the shops we have visited in the past are history. The ones that have survived have done so through sheer determination and love of the trade, plus they have a lot to offer either through sheer volume, lots of hard-to-find older titles in good condition, unique ambiance, or a combination of these. Location doesn’t seem that important. We have visited successful shops in remote areas that have good traffic and have been around for 20 years (e.g., Birch Bark Books outside of Potsdam, NY) and those in large cities like New York, Chicago, Buffalo or Detroit. The trouble with large cities is that overhead becomes a big problem, where high rent, utilities and taxes take a huge toll. Other problems include people pawing over your fine books who may not handle them carefully, theft, crime, lack of parking space. This is one of the reasons we at Old Scrolls Book Shop have chosen to remain a country book shop – it helps us survive! But cities need these book shops; they add to the vitality of the community and they are so much more interesting than “big box” stores or retail chains, and really a great and unique draw for an urban area. Support these shops if you want to see them stick around!
Every shop we visited had something different to offer. Out of all the great shops we visited, our top 3 favorite shops on this trip were:
1. John K. King Books, Detroit, Michigan – vast number of out-of-print books at more than fair prices, excellent rare book room, great customer service, cool old elevator, lots to look at…paintings, posters and artifacts, sculpture, meteorite, animals, you name it; this place has character, and wonderful people running it.
2. Hyde Brothers Books, Fort Wayne, Indiana – Oodles of out of print books, great mystery section downstairs, rolling ladders, hard-to-find titles, reasonable prices, books are in good condition, great people.
3. Bookworks (Inside Avol’s Book Store) Madison, Wisconsin – lots of bang per square inch. We found so many books we were looking for here…titles and authors that are difficult to find…Aldo Leopold, Freya Stark, M. F. K. Fisher, to name a few. For it’s size, very competitive and one of the best.
Visiting other book shops lends inspiration and ideas on how to arrange and display stock, how prices and quality compare from shop to shop and to those in our own shop. We see titles we haven’t ever seen before, and familiarize ourselves with what’s available out there that we may not be carrying. Best of all, we get to meet other book sellers and talk with them face to face, and learn how they are coping with changes in the trade. We, as book sellers, are an interesting lot; independent, atypical, and usually a bit eccentric, which makes every used & rare book shop a real unique experience. Most of the best antiquarian book sellers are older, and my question is this: Will a younger generation take over this trade, or will it dwindle away?
We always learn a bit about traveling as we go, and this year more than ever, we learned it pays to seek out historical hotels if there are any on your route. The prices were very reasonable (mid-week, no reservation, just pop in and ask for their best rate). The service and the rooms and surroundings at these hotels were completely restoring in nature for road-weary travelers—and believe me, after looking and hundreds of thousands of titles each day, navigating and driving in unfamiliar cities, one becomes road-weary. The chain hotels we stayed in such as Holiday Inn Express or Comfort Inn were just as expensive (sometimes more), often with less than satisfactory facilities and service. The two exceptions to this chain rule were The Hyatt Regency in Buffalo (it’s in an exquisite historic building) and the new Doubletree Inn in Detroit (also in a completely restored old building), where the service and facilities were outstanding.
Is it advisable for a used & rare bookseller to travel about the country in search of fresh book inventory and fulfilling wants of customers? If your emphasis is on “used,” paperbacks, or recent titles, probably not. If your emphasis is on antiquarian, collectible, rare…we think it is, and so we make a two-week book scouting circuit once a year, in addition to some weekend sojourns. Although we make “house calls” in our own territory when people contact us with books to sell, and books are brought into the store, most of the books are not of the type we are seeking; most of them are newer, best-seller type books or book club editions, or old but lacking in condition or interest. The quality of books offered at F.O.L. or Friends of the Library book sales have become noticeably worse over the years, partly because libraries are trying to survive too, and are cherry-picking the best of the donated books and selling them on-line. Estate sales offering high quality books are infrequent, at least in our area.
Booksellers have traditionally purchased books from each other. The first hour before the opening of an Antiquarian Book Fair is usually an enthusiastic exchange of money and inventory between sellers. Some of the most historically successful antiquarian booksellers made trips at home and abroad on a regular basis to secure good stock. Every antiquarian book shop is unique (you learn this by visiting them!). The stock reflects the personality and interests of the owner and there are different areas of focus in different shops. So when I go searching for excellent literature at a shop that specializes in scholarly titles, I can usually find some bargains on literature, as one example. If I shop at a huge long established shop that has been around for 40 years, I can usually find some sleepers—nobody has time to keep up with the trends and prices on hundreds of thousands of titles in hundreds of genres, with little time to dust let alone reprice older stock. Dusty books can be found with dusty prices; and dust can be swept away. Most of your business travel expenses are a legitimate tax deduction, and most book dealers offer reciprocal dealer-to-dealer discounts if you are buying a quantity of books (you must have a legitimate tax number and in some cases, an open shop). The rest is up to you– you need to bring knowledge with you as you select books of value that you are confident you can re-sell at a higher price. By this I mean in-your-head knowledge from your experience as a book seller, not a scanner!
I feel is important to get out of the shop from time to time, so you can see your own business in a new way, and return with new ideas and a better appreciation for your own operation.
Here are some things I believe have contributed to our book store business success:
- Having fresh, interesting inventory. If people come in and see the same old books on the shelves or on-line month after month, year after year, they will lose interest in visiting the shop. If there are always intriguing titles being added, they will return. Actively seeking out great books and constantly improving the inventory in your shop reaps benefits.
- Knowing, and caring about, your customers. Every store, on-line and/or bricks and mortar, will develop a different type of clientele, and clientele will develop based on what kind of books you carry. It’s important to pay attention to what is selling profitably, and what is not selling profitably in your store. It is even more important to find stock to suit your best regular customers. If you have a couple of Modern Library completionists frequenting your shop, you want to be searching for the best Modern Library Editions you can offer. If a regular customer collects decorated American Trade Bindings, you want to be scouting for them. You can learn a great deal from your customers.
- It’s all about the books. No matter what your location, if you have books of interest and quality which people can’t find easily elsewhere in great condition, customers will find you and beat a path to your door.
- Condition, condition, condition. Don’t even bother with books that have missing front free endpapers, ratty covers, ex-library markings, broken bindings, even if they are being given away. Become known for having the best condition available.
- Seek out the unusual. Common books can be purchased anywhere. Finding interesting, scarce titles is a challenge, but it helps make your store and its offerings unique.
- Observe, absorb, read, inquire. Never stop learning!
Thanks to each and every book seller we visited across the Midwest for making our journey pleasant and successful.