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 www.bookshopblog.com on July 20, 2008) 

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