How To Buy Inventory in Used Bookstores

by Craig Stark

#8, 15 December 2003

Where to Go and What to Look For

Buy inventory in a used bookstore for resale online? Huh? This is the 21st century! Almost all open shop booksellers now have an online presence as well, so what could be more futile than attempting this?

Two years ago, when we first discussed this topic, opportunities for buying inventory in used bookstores were far more abundant than they are today. At the time, we were finding close to half of what we needed in these venues, could in fact have purchased all of it with some persistence, and we were only shopping stores within an approximately 100-mile radius. Today, less than one in ten of the books we sell are purchased in an open shop, and things don't improve much if we drive several hundred miles. Sometimes a month goes by without a single purchase. Why? In order to survive, many open shop dealers have begun to sell online as well or have closed down their shops altogether and now sell exclusively online. The migration isn't entirely complete - some dealers have refused to make the trip; others are simply slow catching on - but it nearly is, and so are the accompanying price adjustments, which all but eliminate the ability to buy and resell at an acceptable profit.

Given this, are used bookstores still worth looking at as a source of inventory? Well, yes, but it's probably going to require more patience than it once did, and the results may be less than spectacular. Still, if you're temporarily having difficulty finding good inventory by more conventional means, there are worse ways to spend an hour or two than in the company of books.

There are several reasons why bargains can still be found in an open shop. First, even though a dealer may also sell online, the inventory more often than not is offered on fixed-price venues with brief descriptions and no accompanying photographs. Therefore, books and ephemera which are peculiarly suited to selling on eBay (with effective, revealing presentations) may still be available at prices which can produce profits. Second, though this is much less common, a dealer may be slow to identify books that have appreciated in value. This is most likely to occur with Modern First Editions, which can escalate in value almost overnight, but it may also occur with vintage books when certain topics go from hot to cold. Finally, dealers sometimes overlook things or make mistakes.

Part I: Where to Go

Every bookstore merits at least one visit if for no other reason than to eliminate it as a future source of inventory. Whether or not it will repay a second visit depends to a large extent on the inventory you encounter on the first visit, but it's also important, we think, to conduct at least a cursory investigation into the health of the store. This can be quickly accomplished by doing two things - observing and/or asking a few questions.


It may seem obvious to suggest that you look around, but we're not only talking about looking at books. Look for other suggestive things as well.

The presence of a computer behind the counter suggests, of course, a dealer who sells online. This doesn't necessarily eliminate the shop from consideration (or, for that matter, necessarily confirm that the dealer sells online), but it may alter your strategy for kinds of books to look for.

A sign may be posted explaining the store's trade policy. If the wording suggests that the policy is liberal, this is a huge red flag. You can be certain that junk will be pouring into the store continuously and almost equally certain that little time or energy is being devoted to looking for quality inventory outside the store.

Look for boxes or carts containing books ready to be shelved. New inventory is very suggestive of the kinds of books you're likely to find on the shelves. If the new arrivals are average or worse, beware. Shelved inventory is likely to be one grade below this in both topic appeal and condition.

As for the shelved inventory itself, a significant percentage of paperbacks and/or new books, a high ratio of fiction to non-fiction, and a low percentage of vintage books are all red flags. Also, the presence of patently unsalable books in any quantity indicates that flushing is rarely if ever done. Overall poor condition of inventory is also a red flag because it suggests that the books have been sitting on the shelves - and taking abuse - for some time.

Less obvious evidence may also apply. Use your instincts. Are you the only one in the store at what should be a prime shopping hour? Do prices seem high? Are there one or more obvious attempts to increase revenue unrelated to selling books? (For example, if food and beverages are served, this may suggest an inventory that can't support the store.)

Questions to Ask

If your observations don't answer all of your questions, asking the owner (or clerk) a few questions may, and if you're reasonably tactful, this can be done without betraying the fact that you're about to gut the store of under-priced treasures. Ask especially about their store trade policy. Are they highly selective? Are they looking for certain kinds of books? (Current fiction, romance, for example, should send up red flags.) Ask if inventory is also available online. Also ask how long they've been in business. If the store is only several years old, they may be well into the cyclic danger zone we spoke of before.

Part II: What to Look For

First and foremost, start with reasonable expectations. Unless you've stepped into a very unusual place, it's highly unlikely you'll go home with more books than you can carry under one arm. In a store containing 20,000 to 30,000 books, for example, there may be only 5 or 6 good candidates (or, at times, there may be none). However, if it only takes you an hour or two to find them and you ultimately resell them for $100 or $200 profit, you're still doing fine.

When we first wrote about this topic, we suggested concentrating on non-fiction and applying what we called "the Five S's" - scarce, specific, strange, scenic and slender. Let's review these briefly.

  1. Scarce books are those which are in short supply but do not ordinarily rise to the level of being collectible - as distinguished from rare books, which are both scarce and collectible (and priced accordingly in most bookstores). Scarce books, primarily because the topics are either obscure or narrowly defined, don't often sell briskly in an open shop but frequently do well in a global venue such as eBay.

    Since we'll be away from our computers, this begs the question, how do we determine if a book is scarce? Look at publication data. Books that are privately printed by an individual or organization are likely to have been produced in small numbers. Books published by major publishers are likely to be numerous, and if some indication of a later printing or edition is evident, this suggests larger numbers yet - and a high unlikelihood of scarcity.

    A plain appearance may be another clue, especially if the book or booklet is something that could have been accomplished by any printing method, even photocopying, and bound, say, with a stiff paper cover and staples. Age may help here as well, and if it's a book that wouldn't ordinarily be something a typical reader would hold onto, many copies may have been discarded over the years. Finally, ephemera - booklets, brochures, pamphlets, etc. - are less likely to be priced high in an open shop, more likely to be scarce, and best of all have a good track record on eBay.

  2. Specific books, those which focus exclusively on very narrow or obscure topics, may have little or no interest to most of us, but again, in a global venue, may attract intense interest in a small group of buyers. Local histories are an obvious example (though many open shops now price these higher) as are vintage catalogs, instruction manuals, forgotten arts & crafts how-to's, government-produced monographs, fraternity and sorority publications, and so on. Instincts play a large role in identifying specificity. Use them.

  3. In the sense that they appeal to small audiences, strange books overlap with specific books (and scarce books) but differ in the sense that they're, well, odd. A book devoted exclusively to the dissection of the Ophidian snake is not only specific but strange as well.

  4. Scenic books, those which have photographs and/or illustrations, may also be good candidates for purchase because they have so much potential to evoke emotional responses from potential buyers. The fact that these illustrations are also effectively "invisible" either on a shelf in a shop or in a fixed-price listing online enhances their salability in a venue in which illustrations can be displayed - once again, eBay. Density of illustration is an important factor - the more the better - and specificity also enhances value. One greatly prefers a photograph, for example, of a specific farmer in a specific bean field in a specific county in Illinois, all annotated in a caption, than an un-annotated photograph of Everyfarmer in Everyfield.

  5. Looking for slender books may not produce a high percentage of winners, but this is another factor worth considering because so often scarce, specific, strange and scenic books are also brief, and if you're looking at shelves and shelves of books quickly, it's easy to spot the thin ones. Look for both slender hardcover and softcover books. Also, when looking at an entire shelf of paperbacks, make a point of looking at oversized copies, those which extend above the level of the common trade paperback. These will more likely fall under one of the Five S's.

Important note: if you're knowledgeable in the area of Modern First Editions - that is, if you have a reasonable command of collectible authors - it might be worth your trouble to look through some fiction because many used bookstores have extensive collections, due largely to the fact that recent fiction is so frequently brought in for store credit. Prices for first editions of collectible authors published in the latter part of the 20th century can sometimes command obscene prices. Finding one on the shelf of a used bookstore could make your entire month.

A final note: there are areas in most used bookstores that will be more productive than others. History (especially local history), military, nature and pets, some (definitely not all) sports, music, fishing and hunting, fine art, crafts, etc., will more likely produce results than cooking, psychology or romance. Experience will help you to confine your searches to the best areas.

A last piece of advice: don't be afraid to haggle.

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Questions or comments?
Contact the editor, Craig Stark

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