Blue Plate Blog

A Recipe For Starting A Used Bookstore

Yesterday, I picked up the key for a strip mall storefront that I hope to transform into a profitable used bookstore. The store, cleverly named Blue Plate Books, aims to serve up a healthy helping of books at affordable - ‘blue plate special’ - prices. Our byline? “Feeding Your Need to Read” This bookstore has long resided first in the back, and now more recently in the very front, of my mind. The key in my hand should convince me that yes, Virginia, the bookstore is real. So before this dream of a second career transmogrifies into the harsh reality of a daily job, I thought I’d try to remember how I got here.

I’ve been actively working on making this a reality for almost 2 years. My recipe: Start with one slightly burned out health care worker. Mine was a detail oriented ophthalmic photographer (he took pictures of eyes). He’d loved books, collected many, and had even written a few. He’d always been devoted to his career and to his patients. But 25 years of going full speed ahead on a daily basis was starting to take its toll. Suddenly, the stars made a right hand turn, angling toward alignment. His boss changed positions, and the new boss was not for the better. His two children were just completing their undergraduate degrees (translation: a respite from college bills). And his wife was recruited to a better position in a significantly warmer state (Virginia is due south of New Hampshire). He began to think that his very late 40’s would be a once in a lifetime opportunity to make a new start. He’d always wanted to run a bookstore…

Back to the recipe: Sprinkle liberally with education. My first plan of attack was reading. Helen Hanff’s romantic ‘84 Charing Cross Road’ was balanced with the practical ‘Complete Guide to Starting a Used Bookstore’ by Dale Gilbert. Series of books included three works each by the Ahearns and the Goldstones. These intriguing reads were balanced by the always boring database and business software how-to manuals.

Following Frances Bacon’s personal advice (”Reading maketh a full man; conference a ready man; and writing an exact man.”), I went to summer camp for used booksellers.

While both terrifying and exhilarating, the highlight of The Colorado Antiquarian Book Seminar was not freewheeling a bicycle down the twisty summit road of Pike’s Peak the Saturday following the conference. The highlight was also not (although it suited me fine) getting up at the crack of dawn each day for an early start to the seminar, then returning back late (11:00 or so) with your head crammed full of important grand schemes and minor details you won’t want to forget. For me, the best part of the seminar was hearing about other bookseller’s experiences. One man shared that he had closed 3 different used bookstores in the last 3 years. He was there to find out what happened so he wouldn’t be forced to close his next venture quite so quickly. A women talked about what and how she was selling on the internet; and wondering why she just wasn’t making any real money. And the instructors generously shared stories about their failures alongside equally enlightening successes.

For the binder that holds together the above ingredients, I suggest experience. I sought this out in two ways: via discussion and by procuring a minimum wage job with a daily start time of 6AM. I asked questions of every bookstore owner I met: what worked? What suggestions do you have for a newbie? What was your worst mistake? I asked friends and neighbors: what are you reading? What is the last great book you read? What’s your favorite book? I queried myself: What do I need to accomplish in order to succeed at this? What can I do today to move forward - even if just a little bit.

One of the suggestions by the Colorado Antiquarian Book Seminar faculty was to obtain a job in a local used bookstore. They suggested that it would be a good way to find out how things really worked. Since that wasn’t possible in my community, I found a position at the local big-box-bookstore: Borders. My IPT position (Inventory Processing Team) required me to report before the sun rose and take a 90% pay cut, based on my previous salary. It meant getting a raise so small that my just-out-of-college daughter laughed at it. At least being a member of the Inventory Processing Team sounded impressive. Until you learn what it really means. My job involved swapping out magazines from the newstand, unloading boxes, and putting books on shelves.

But the people I worked with were great. And it was a very useful learning experience. I saw firsthand which of the books I placed on the shelf sold, and which got shipped back to the publisher. I learned to relate with customers and find them books when all they gave me to go on was “I think it had a yellow cover”. And I learned that the price of a book is really only based upon what someone else is willing to pay. More than once I witnessed the self-same title sold at list price from Borders’ shelf while being deeply discounted in their bargain area, and then sold for almost free at a local garage sale.

To mix with the above ingredients, take one part basement and fill with books. Wait, make that most of the basement. While I worked at Borders, I also worked at obtaining stock. Depending on who I asked, a minimum of 4 to 6 to 10 thousand books would be needed to start my store. So every penny that Borders paid me, along with any funds from various freelance photography gigs, were channeled into the bookstore fund. Buy books, clean them, sort and box them. Wait - be sure to leave a path between the boxes so we can still get to the washing machine.

What did we live on? I’m lucky in that our modest lifestyle of the last 2 years has allowed us to make ends meet using just my wife’s salary (Thanks Honey!). Trust me, we are both looking forward to some income from this store. But that won’t come until we actually open. And that won’t come until after the movers arrive today to transfer the boxes and the bookshelves to their new home in this strip mall.

As I help them pack their truck, my experience at Borders will come in handy. And then, once the truck pulls up in front of the storefront, I’ll use my new key to literally open the door on a new chapter in my life. Wish me luck with Winchester Virginia’s newest bookstore: Blue Plate Books.

(originally written on July 2 and posted at on July 20, 2008) 

Shelf Progress

We arose early today and drove 2 hours to Ikea in Woodbridge.  We spent the day choosing shelving units, chairs, lamps, step stools and the like. We rented a large pick-up truck. Sixteen sets of 72 inch tall Billy bookshelves - even when efficiently flat-packed as Ikea likes to say - just won’t fit inside of my Mini Cooper.

The day was hot and long. The temperature topped 95. Which made loading and unloading all the more fun. And when I say the day was long, I’m not kidding. We arrived back home around 9:00pm - the Ikea laden truck bed having been emptied into the store. Seeing the empty truck bed, we enthusiastically decided that, since we still had the rental truck till the morning, why not take a load of books down to the store tonight? We could then fill the truck up again for a morning run. The truck bed could be easily filled 2 or 3 times over with the book boxes left over from the big move a couple of weeks ago. So there I am, dragging a handcart in the dark, navigating uphill across the unlit side yard, and then heaving book boxes onto the tailgate while Deb is packing them in. Even though the sun has set, it is still at least 85 degrees out. We’re both tired. We’re hot. We’re sweaty. Our arms are ready to fall off. We finish filling the truck at about 11:00 and get ready to make the trip into town. I ask Deb if she’s game and she puts on her ‘I’m a trooper face’ and answers ‘Let’s go!’

Then a thought occurs to me. It’s a thirty minute drive into town, then another 30 or so to unload. That makes it midnight before heading back for another pickup-bed-loading session. I picture myself at 1AM. Dressed in Roman slave rags like a late 50’s costume drama starring Kirk Douglas or Charlton Heston: I’m bare backed, my body sweat glistening in the moonlight. I’m moving up the side yard hill in slow motion to the methodical beat of the drums. It is then that I realized what Falstaff meant about discretion being the better part of valor.

Instead of driving into town, we decided to wait until morning. We showered and both felt and smelt better for it.

Travel Thought for the Day

Most of the books in my store cost no more than a gallon or two of gasoline does these days. But I can guarantee you that you’ll travel a lot farther with just one of my books than with a whole tank of gas.

Books take you places.

A Mention in the Washington Post


In his column today, the always readable (and often insightful) Washington Post Metro columnist John Kelly included an excerpt from an e-mail I sent him concerning his 9/24 column “Surviving Tough Economic Times? Readers Say, Bring It!”

You can read his complete article here. The following is a direct quote from the paper {including a quote from me [as well me quoting a customer (is this a ‘tertiary quote’?)]}...

“Pat Saine registered polite disagreement with the suggestion that people use libraries rather than bookstores. Wrote Pat: "The libraries I've visited lately have aging collections in mediocre condition." Rather, he said, people should frequent their local good used-book store.

And what a coincidence: Pat has just opened a bookstore in Winchester, Va., called Blue Plate Books. Wrote Pat: "This morning I was chatting with a customer about the latest Washington/Wall Street money drama. 'What should we be doing?' I asked. His opinion was this: 'I'll take this sci-fi novel. Now's a good time to bury your head in a book.' "

“Surviving Tough Economic Times? Readers Say, Bring It!”

“Readers Are Rich in Money-Saving Tips


The Rest of the Story?


Today I noticed a lovely inscription in a spiral bound local cookbook that I was placing into stock. But I wasn’t sure of the real meaning behind the words. The text read:

“To Irene: What is Friendship? Friendship is a joy that just never ends.”

Sounds touching enough - but it was inscribed in “The Versatile Vinegars from White House.” I guess I was just hoping that this gift didn’t ‘sour’ their relationship.

What We Serve at Blue Plate Books

The Bibliophile’s Menu

Ex-Library Eggs

Green Eggs & Ham oeuvre easy. Served with Grolier Grits.

Hardback Hamburger

Served with Fiction Fries, Civil War Slaw, and a Chapbook Shake

Horror Hoagie

A classic Italian Sub-title. King-sized helping of Paperback Pretzels & Pickled Provence

Facsimile Fillet

First Edition Fried Fish with Dust Jacket Chips & Closed Tears

Mystery Lovers Meatloaf

Fortified with blended bindings. Served with a side of Mashed Paper & Points Peas.

Verso Vegetable Wraps

Filled with a nutritious blend of head bands, high spots, and hinges.

For Dessert

Enjoy our Presentation Copy Pie or our Else Fine Sundae

Winchester Star ‘Open for Business’ Feature

Blue Plate Books was featured in the Open for Business feature in the Winchester Star today.

You can read it on line at this link: Winchester Star

‘Tending Your Bookshelf’

Today’s New York Times Review of Books contains an essay by Laura Miller entitled ‘Tending Your Bookshelf’. She muses interestingly about the ins and the outs, and what should be there...

New York Times Article Link

Are you cleaning your bookshelves? Bring your books to Blue Plate Books for evaluation.

Drive Through at the Used Bookstore

Today I became what I think might be the world’s first drive through used bookstore. I took a customer’s order, delivered a book, collected money, and gave change through a driver’s side window while the customer was sitting at the steering wheel. How did this come to happen?

A very nice little old lady lugged in a large bag of books for me to evaluate for purchase. Unfortunately, one half were book club and the other half had mutilated free endpapers (surely, a past owner’s overzealous attempt at removing their identity). The bag being big, and the lady being small, I offered to walk the unwanted merchandise back out to her car.

After dropping the bag in the open trunk, I heard a loud “Excuse me” from a women sitting behind the wheel a few cars over. Turns out that she had come to my store to pick up a copy of “The Seven Mountains of Thomas Merton” for her husband’s Christmas present, but her two young daughters were napping in their car seats. She explained that she wanted to come in - but didn’t want to wake her children - and didn’t want to leave them alone in the car - and was in a rush anyway, just trying to get get everything done. Of course, I told her not to worry, we could work things out.

I went inside, found the book and went back outside where she could inspect it. It was fine, so I brought her money and the book back in, rung it up, wrapped it, and put it in a bag. Using a loud voice, I made sure the other customers in the store  were fine, then went back outside and gave the young mother her book, receipt, and change. She thanked me, rolled up her window, started her engine, and backed out of her parking space. The kids were still asleep in the back seat. I went back inside to wait on my other customers.

10 Commandments of Book Giving

In today’s Washington Post Book World, Michael Dirda enlightens us about giving books as presents:

Article Link


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