Kevin Mullen: A Bookseller in a New Light
"We love open space... At work we have the same good feelings.”
The colors are warm, the building old but recently renovated. It’s a bookstore but not what you think of when you think of bookstores you’ve seen. This is the new old, where specialist used and rare booksellers acquire, catalogue and then post for sale on line all the while gauging price appropriateness. Customers though the door are rare but orders are steady because Mullens has made themselves specialists in a niche: books on the Fine and Decorative Art, Photography and Architecture in America.
The company, a 20 year old enterprise located in Columbia along the banks of the Susquehanna in pastoral Lancaster County Pennsylvania, sets comfortably in an Amish area better known for Whoopie Pies and horse-drawn carriages than scholarly tomes. Here you think traditional book selling will be the approach but in fact their books are sequestered in careful order on the second floor in relative luxury with climate control and double-insulated ceilings. Setting on what seems like a mile of shelving, the books are accessible only to vetted individuals for this inventory is digitized for quick retrieval and one wrong move (in this case an erroneous placement on the shelves) can send a book into hiding for months if not years. Entrance to this secure storage, according to Kevin is as guarded as the entrance to the heralded Vault of Grateful Dead Masters described in Nick Paumgarten’s recent article in the New Yorker (November 26, 2012).
I have seen this before. Three or four years ago I visited Willis Monie Books in Cooperstown, NY and saw first hand their inventory of tens of thousands of books behind locked doors to keep them in letter perfect order. This is what Kevin is also doing. It’s the separation of material from the occasional walk-in visitor so to ensure every book is always precisely in its place.
There was once a time when walk-in traffic was the lifeblood of bookshops but as the Internet has taken hold, the new generation of collectors and casual acquirers has learned to price check. That has meant, for a bookseller to sell, their pricing has to be consistently competitive. And that competitiveness requires efficiency. Sealed rooms and controlled inventory are logical elements in this new formula.
For Kevin, the new space in the freshly renovated building is the marriage of two themes – a specialization within old, rare and collectible books, electronic efficiency and internet reach. "The rules are simple; be complete, competitive and quick. From these requirements his current business model has emerged. He describes his printed inventory of fine and decorative arts, photography and architecture as “the broadest and deepest in the land.”
Kevin Mullen: A Bookseller in a New Light
A mile of storage, air-conditioned, and secure.
To get to where he is today he recently consolidated his Internet business into a single location. He’s had multiple locations and for a while thought he could run the business from his historic home. That proved impractical and zoning issues later scuttled a second plan.
Shortly after, he found the current site, an older two-story building with plenty of space. “It’s a charming building with river views of the Susquehanna. “When my partner Diana and I saw it on a grey day one late November, we fell in love. We knew it was perfect,” the potential clear to them for the second floor, an open 80’ x 50’ space with a hand-operated freight elevator, to become home to their sequestered inventory. “I love open space, which is one reason I love my house with all its fireplaces and high ceilings. At work I have the same good feelings.”
They went all in and the outcome is the space shown in the accompanying photographs. “I wanted an inspiring work space to greet me each morning, one that’s conducive to research and selling. "A lot of what we do here is data entry, and it can be really dry." His remedy is their comfortable and engaging environment. To ensure success they brought in a Feng shui expert. No use leaving anything to chance.
And the rest is history. They love the space, have embraced the hermetically sealed approach to efficient bookselling and find they love to come to work. Not bad.
These days most booksellers, in trying to pursue traditional bookselling, are encountering problems. No so at Willis Monie Rare Books in Cooperstown and not so here along the Banks of the Susquehanna.
In times of change fresh thinking is required. Who said that? Someone else who believed in Feng shui, Sun Tzu. He wrote the Art of War two thousand years ago and seems now to have had the specialist rare book business in mind.
For book collectors here is one more stop. Call ahead.
www.mullenbooks.com and on Facebook at Mullen Books, Inc.
Mullen Books is the largest seller of used / OP books on the Fine and Decorative Art, Photography and Architecture in America. With over a mile of shelving devoted to these subject areas, including over 10,000 unique monographs on artists, they supply books to libraries, museums, galleries and collectors on every continent. Celebrating their 20th year in 2013.