Tips for running a used book store?
August 24, 2005 8:01 PM   Subscribe

Any advice on opening and running a used book store?

I'm kind of at the end of my rope as far as the whole "being an employee" thing, and I'm looking into the viability of opening a used book store –– something I've wanted to do since I was a teenager.

Is anyone here in this line of work? Any advice on starting up? Finding books to sell? Organizational tips? Any help would be appreciated. Save me from being a barrista forever!
posted by brundlefly to Work & Money (13 answers total) 6 users marked this as a favorite
This might be useful: Should I open a bookstore?
posted by Mo Nickels at 8:42 PM on August 24, 2005

I would recommend starting out by selling online through Amazon and before trying to open up a storefront. I worked at a used bookstore for quite a few years, and probably at least 80% of the sales came through listing them online.

The rent the owner was paying was killing him, so he eventually moved his store out to the West coast, leaving me unemployed. I figured I knew the business ok, so I sold books online out of my apartment for a while, and actually did pretty well.

Madison's a college town, so there was always good, sellable stuff to be found at library sales (especially the university library), thrift stores, garage sales, estate sales, etc. You have to pick through a lot of junk, though, so you really need to get a feel for what sells.

My email's in my profile, so let me know if you've got specific questions.
posted by Hlewagast at 8:43 PM on August 24, 2005

This article from TMN is about a couple of friends who opened a successful used bookstore.
posted by cali at 8:44 PM on August 24, 2005

My main experience is brief ownership of a company name and an aborted attempt to build a business out of nothing. (It was computer-related and it quickly showed me the nature of networking as well as what wholesale price fluctuations can do to your profit margin, ie; erase it.)

I maintain that the way to move into any small business, particularly a secondhand business, is to do it slowly. Amazon and eBay both provide a popular on-line community where you can test your skills at picking good stock and see if you want to work with books full time.

Locally, I have a bunch of Sunday morning markets that all have a couple of secondhand book dealers that are there every week. You could try something similar in your area. You should be able to use them to test the water before having to sign a lease for a shop.

I used to work at a real-estate place (as the IT guy). Trust me when I say you want to avoid signing onto a lease until you're sure you have a viable business.

As a bookworm myself, I can say that my taste is for new stuff. I don't mean that the books have to be unread by anyone else, I mean that I'm most interested in stuff written and published within the last few years. I don't know if this will help you with stock. I know my taste can be obscure and I'm sure that for every one of me there's someone who will happily buy any, say, Catherine Cookson that they've not already read.
posted by krisjohn at 8:45 PM on August 24, 2005

This article about used bookstore business strategy was a popular link on delicious a bit back, and is an interesting read.
posted by fishfucker at 8:54 PM on August 24, 2005

also: not sure if you're actually employed as a barrista or not, but i'll add this: I spent easily $3000 opening a (now-failed) art gallery that had two openings (this is doing most of the work myself). My friend has spent $25,000 opening a (now-failed) auto-shop.

you're gonna need capital. ask yourself how much money you're willing to risk losing/owing to someone else. Maybe after that, the job won't seem so bad.*

hell, i could have a pretty nice used car by now, instead of one and a half years remaining on a $500/mo lease.

*though the job shouldn't preclude you from selling books on the side -- as others have advised -- and making baby steps toward a bookstore.
posted by fishfucker at 9:01 PM on August 24, 2005

I would suggest scouring thrift stores and the like and reselling on amazon (mentioned up thread). I made decent money on the side doing this.

Until you're making good money reselling on the Internet, I wouldn't even touch opening a store. Many used bookstores have closed in the last few years because they've either went out of business or moved to this model.

Working at a major bookstore, I can tell you we have at least one customer who makes a living by reselling books from our bargain section. I'm not sure his angle though because he's buying books which would show up online as being discounted.
posted by drezdn at 10:25 PM on August 24, 2005

I can tell you we have at least one customer who makes a living by reselling books from our bargain section

Yep, we have about 6-10 customers who do the same with our dollar and quarter sections, many of them showing up daily. One woman, a nurse, has an amazing eye for the books that are resellable on eBay and Amazon.

you're gonna need capital.

And inventory, which is related but different. Where do you plan on getting the thousands of books you'll need to stock a used book store, at a price you can actually make a profit on? It's gotten harder and harder to find lots of good books at thrift stores since the 'net took off; unless you can buy out an existing store's stock, or get some exclusives to good estate sales (good luck), you might find it takes quite a long time to build up enough to open a store.

That said, there's been a general upward trend in the number of used book stores opening in the US since 1993 (scroll down to Table III), with a slight downturn during recent years. I don't know how many end up surviving, but it's certainly not a far-out idea to try.
posted by mediareport at 11:27 PM on August 24, 2005

Being a used book dealer is probably a better idea than opening a used book store. The few second hand book dealers I know spend all day in their stores listing books for sale online or fulfilling orders from abebooks/ebay/amazon marketplace on their laptops - the 3-5 customers they get through the door fit somewhere in between.

There is no need to have a premises, only enough room to store books. At local auctions you could probably pick up 3 shelves of decent books for $60. Thrift stores also. You don't need a lot of stock at first, and one good find can raise your finances considerably. It is easy start with a pool of good books, sell them through the internet, and build. And you can try this out before leaving the job you are in now. It is possible to make a living from this eventually.

I sold books casually in the past, and once owned this which gives you plenty of ideas on what to look for in a valuable book. It's basic but will put you on the right track if you don't have much knowledge of the subject. Books worth hundreds of dollars are lying around everywhere in shops up and down the country. Once you know what to look for, half the battle is won.

The dream of opening a dusty old bookstore is undoubtedly the more attractive idea, but if you can make some decent money and build up some stock through selling on the internet, you could then think about using some of that cash to stick your best books in a shop window.
posted by fire&wings at 3:01 AM on August 25, 2005

I was good friends with our local used bookstore owner, who closed within the last year (he still has another store elsewhere). His advice when I asked him about it?
"Never, ever open a used book store."
He went on to say that there's no money, that you just end up accumulating books, and that the two things that kept him afloat were that he did a healthy business through rare book fairs and online selling (mostly selling things he bought at rare book fairs) and that his wife had a job that could support him.
posted by klangklangston at 7:10 AM on August 25, 2005

My mother-in-law owns a used bookstore in a small town on the far, far edges of the DC suburbs. Here's what I've gathered from her experience.

- Her husband built all the shelves in the store, which was a huge cost savings.

- She bought most of her initital stock by visiting yard sales for nearly a year. Also, word of mouth. Once people knew she wanted lots of used books, they passed on names of people clearing out basements and trying to get rid of stuff. A lot of it was crap, but it hardly mattered. When she opened her doors, plenty of good books were brought in for trade.

- Her bread and butter are romance novels. Hands down, she could not be profitable without them. There are women out there who run through 6-8 of them a week, buying both used and new, and bringing in finished novels to trade. Not a fan of the romance genre herself, my MIL always employs a woman who is a romance novel expert to help her manage this section of the store. Mysteries and popular fiction, also important to profitability.

- Her other big source of revenue: eBay. She must auction a hundred or more items a week. Huge profits, as discussed above.

- In addition to selling used books, she also sells a few new comic book titles and a lot of baseball cards, new and used. eBaying rare baseball cards is also a good moneymaker.

- A big part of her success is customer service. She's a sole proprietor in a small town. She knows her customers; her kids go to school with their kids, she's at the choir concert on Thursday and the bake sale on Saturday. She's also working the front of the store 4 or 5 days a week, not just hiding in an office somewhere.

- Another key to profitability is a workable trade policy. She'll give cash for books, but she'd rather give you trade slips. It's better for her bottom line to deal in trade rather than cash payouts. Good CS means she can give mostly trade slips, since her customers know they'll be coming back in. Her trade system involves white slips for more valuable books and blue slips for common paperbacks -- I don't understand it fully. I believe she worked for a year or two in another used book store where she learned the system and adapted it to her needs.

- The other side of the trade policy: being selective about the books you buy/trade for. Gotta know what you already have in stock, and know what your customers like to buy.

- Although the used book trade is more immune to the big box stores, it helps that there's not a Barnes & Noble 2 shopping plaza's over. They opened a Borders about 10 miles away, but it didn't really matter. Her area is suburban/rural, but also highly educated and mostly professional. The store reflects their tastes and needs, and has adapted to cultural shifts in the community over the years.

- She sells all those romance novels and baseball cards, does all that eBaying and trading -- and I think my MIL makes a profit of about the amount a minimum wage job would pay if you worked it full time. The store is a nice way to earn money and offers some tax benefits, but her husband's job is what supported the family, provided insurance, etc. She does a lot of work and makes very little, but it offered her a flexible work situation in which to raise a family of 3 kids, which was more important than a high salary. Kid #3 goes off to college this week -- we're all wondering how long she'll keep the store going now. Interested in moving to Virginia?
posted by junkbox at 9:14 AM on August 25, 2005

Having crashed and burned on one business that I did full-time, I Nth the "keep your day job" suggestion. Many business books claim that the reason many new ventures fail is insufficient capital, and I can tell you from first hand experience that when you have to pay yourself from profits to keep eating it makes things that much harder.

My more recent venture (shameless self-link, that) I do in my evening and weekend hours. It's exausting some days to be in the office 8+ hours than go slave over a hot miter saw in the basement for another 3 to 5 but just last weekend I sat at a table at Eastern Market and didn't make a single sale.

If I had to sell in order to raise capital to buy more materials I'd be dead in the water now. Since I am not reliant upon income from them for that I can still make more and be ready for the bigger street fair I'm scheduled for on Oct 1. I'm also still paying rent, eating and have health insurance.

Looking back on my old full-time venture, if I was magically transported back in time to that point I'd go get a job at Starbucks and work on the weekend. I was pulling $110 out of my pocket and profits every month for health insurance when I could have been earning and getting access to a cheaper deal. On that note, my mother is working there now in her retirement and it's what allows her and my father to afford health insurance in their early 60s.
posted by phearlez at 9:55 AM on August 25, 2005

Another suggestion is to see if you can learn on the job by working at a used bookstore first.
posted by Good Brain at 10:52 AM on August 25, 2005

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