Changing Hats in the Book Business
The Wright Book is shifting course to meet the times.
By Karen Wright
From the day I learned how to open a book -- maybe about two years of age - until now, I have been a bibliophile. I expect I'll pass on to Bookhalla, (book lover's heaven) with a book in my hand. So, in 1990, when I got a chance to go to work for one of the best bookstores in the world, Powell's in Portland, Oregon, I jumped on it. I started in shipping, worked up to section head, spent a couple of years as administrative assistant to the boss-man, decided it was silly to work in the office when the biggest bookstore in the country was downstairs, and moved on to become an assistant manager of one of their stores.
Eventually, we moved from Oregon to Eureka, California, where I had the good fortune to immediately go to work for Eureka Books. The eight years I spent at Powell's taught me a lot about the book business, but the two years I worked for J.B. Bowden at Eureka Books taught me about books. J.B. was a stickler for searching long and hard through mountains of reference books to price a book correctly. Keep in mind that this was pre-Internet or, at least, just at the beginning of its rise to fame. Eureka Books did not even have a computer when I worked there, so I was forced to learn to price my books the old-fashioned (correct) way. I couldn't just jump online and see what some other idiot was pricing a book for and then undercut him by two dollars.
When we moved from Eureka back to northern Nevada, we bought a house with a great daylight basement and big French doors. For a while, I had a nice little bookstore there, but it was just enough off the beaten track that it was hard to make a success of it. It is a blue collar tourist town, too, so even if one had a bookstore, it was hard to get people to buy books. They preferred hokey T-shirts! Rents downtown were too pricey for my budget, and I knew that I couldn't afford the rest of the overhead that comes with a store (old story), so I began selling online. I still sell by appointment, but now I'm mostly online. I specialize in "...otanies" and other books on how-to-do stuff such as jewelry-making, ornamental welding, gardening, art, cookbooks, and the like. I used to find a great book at a flea market or thrift store that I could buy for $1 to $5 and make a decent profit, say $5 to $10. For about two years I did pretty well. I priced my books at mid-range, described them very carefully, and, I'm proud to say, I never had one returned "not as described."
After a couple of years, however, the Internet began to be flooded with cheap books. I found that some of the really nice books that I had, most particularly art books that had been priced moderately at $10 to $50, were now online for $1 to $5. I would find a great book at a flea market, pay $5 for it, expecting it to sell for $8 to $10 and get home to find it was online for $2. The thrift stores were pricing their books higher and higher, belying the name "thrift store." ABE, Alibris, and Amazon were not just charging a percentage of the sale price anymore, but also charging a monthly fee whether or not they sold any books for me that month, and then they had the nerve to put books on "administrative hold" because they felt my pricing wasn't competitive. So essentially, if I bought a book for $5.00 and had it on sale for $9.00, and they had four others online for $1.38, they wouldn't put my book online if they thought it was priced too high. Now that stinks! Never mind that my book cost me $5.00, it was in pristine condition, I cleaned it, put a Mylar cover on it, and I knew that the description was absolutely accurate. With all my costs, I would end up paying someone to buy my book.
Changing Hats in the Book Business
The store is open winters by appointment only so they can shovel the walk.
Now, I'm afraid to pay $5.00 for a book as I will probably find it online for 50 cents. Once in a while, I used to find a copy of a good book in a thrift store or yard sale for $1.00 and actually sell it for $50.00 to $100.00. That is getting to be a very rare way to get my kicks anymore as there are so many book dealers that haven't a clue about what is a good book and what isn't that they just buy everything they can get their hands on as cheaply as possible, automatically mark them up fifty cents or a dollar, and undercut those of us who have some serious training. Do I sound like I'm whining? Sorry, I guess I am. At this juncture, I have decided it is time to make yet another change.
In the past two years, I have shifted my business from selling many low to mid-priced books, to weeding out all my less expensive books and going for higher end books. Now, I am being incredibly selective when I buy books. I whacked my old inventory in half, sold a bunch at a flea market, gave many to the thrift stores so they could overprice them, and though I did lose money on some of them, I probably broke even or made a small profit on most of them.
I finally feel as though I have enough experience (and a laptop) that I don't often get burned on books I buy anymore. I don't believe I have enough experience yet to appraise true antiquarian books such those from the 17th and 18th centuries, but I have shifted in a major way to doing a lot of appraising of personal libraries and collections, and selling those books on consignment. One exciting thing about appraisals is that one never learns it all, and I do love a challenge. To do competitive pricing, I check the Internet, going to the web pages of several very good bookstores that I have done business with in the past, to see where they have something priced, but I still check my reference books, as well. It is much more profitable, not as much work, and a lot more fun. I find all kinds of nifty stuff stashed in boxes and barns and on old bookshelves in people's houses (of course, there is a lot of dreck, too.) If, after a period of time, they haven't sold, I pat them on their little spines and send them back to their owners. No more giving away books for which I paid too much.
There are a few drawbacks to appraisals, of which I'm sure most of our readers are aware. There is the guy who has had the books stored in boxes in a dirty garage, they are covered in car grease and dust, and maybe they are moldy. They belonged to his Old Aunt Ethel (who was a chain smoker, which you can tell with one whiff of the books) and from the look of them, she probably stole half of them from the local library. "But," he says, "they are old, they must be valuable." If someone has a first edition of John Grisham's latest book, they think it must be worth a fortune and they get a bit pissy if I have to say, "Sorry, it's not anything special. They printed 50 million of these." If they have a book from 100 years ago, they just KNOW that it must be priceless. I feel badly when I have to say, "Sorry, Mr. Jones, not necessarily." By and large, when I get to someone's home, I give them the "old-is-not-necessarily-valuable," pep talk right up front so they are prepared to some extent to be disappointed.
Changing Hats in the Book Business
If they have a really good collection, I put the books online for three months. If they don't sell, I call on my friend at PBA and he looks them over and picks the books he feels will sell for the best price. I sometimes accompany the books to the auction and monitor them. I do charge a per diem for that, but it is reasonable and so far, this has been quite successful for my clients and for me.
I also do a lot of searches for book collectors, but I get very nervous about buying books online unless I spend some time researching the seller or buy from someone from whom I have bought successfully in the past. I live in a bookstore wasteland. There are no really good bookstores here, so I have to turn to the net or travel (which we do frequently) to do research at fairs and stores in "bookish" places.
I try to pay attention to the online dealer's personal pages. How long have they been online, are there many negative ratings? Is it really in "very good condition"? Do they understand the difference between fine, very good, and good? Is this seller competent to quote the edition correctly? Does s/he really understand how to describe a book? Do they know a book club edition when they see one?
When buying for a customer, I always try to email the seller and find out if their return policy is just hokum or if they really do take the book back if it is misrepresented. I have found that trying to send back a misrepresented book usually costs more in time, irritation, and money than selling it myself or pitching it into the bin at the Goodwill. But, I pay almost no attention to the fulfillment rates on the sales sites such as ABE and Alibris. First of all, they tend to make an uneducated buyer think that the seller is incompetent. They really have no bearing on whether the book seller is competent or the book is good or not, as far as I'm concerned. Unless one has state-of-the-art computer equipment and an inventory program that is automated, it is easy to forget to delete a book, to not delete it quickly enough, or, if you are busy, as most of us are, to not turn over inventory often enough. I have to delete by hand, so I'm familiar with the syndrome.
Above all, I keep really meticulous records of my customer's appraisals and consignments. I am mathematically challenged and Excel is a foreign language to me, so I have a good bookkeeper; consignment selling leaves a lot of wiggle room for a dishonest book dealer. In my years as a bookseller, I have only once run across a book dealer who was dishonest. I think, basically, those of us who are experienced and well trained are honest and care about books and our bibliophile clients.
What Bruce McKinney said last month about "...what often used to be considered unobtainable is now available in multiple copies..." is SO true. The trick is how to sift through the trashy books and find the ONE that is in truly collectible condition and will make my client come back again and again when s/he wants another book.