Local Venues

by Bob Schilling

#63, 27 February 2006

A Brick and Mortar Alternative

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For most of us, online selling is the richest vein in the bookselling mine. But there are other veins that can be profitable too. Whether full-time bookselling or simply selling smarter is the goal, working creatively can maximize income. That goal shouldn't be taken as a sign of financial obsession. Instead, it is more about a quest for freedom that gives us time to focus on work we love and enjoy. Some work toward this goal by selling watches, patterns, ephemera, and other products online. Others focus on writing, consulting, web design, graphic design, computer programming and similar efforts.

Still, many online booksellers ruminate about the pros and cons of having a brick and mortar bookstore. But combining the "Click" with the "Brick" has roadblocks - not the least of which is that independent B&M's appear to be declining these days.

I sell online primarily but also sell to used book stores. Despite the roadblocks, I've pursued a hybrid alternative to a Brick and Mortar store. The alternative always has been around but generally is rejected as useless to the online seller. Still, local venues provide me with a third source of book income, and I can make a good case for adding them to your business plan.

At first glance, the local venue choice seems unlikely to succeed. Reasons include:

A. Rent: In many stores and malls, rent costs are prohibitive.

B. Location: Antique stores and malls are local venues that often have scattered books. They typically fall at the extremes of worthless and overpriced - or both - and they fail to attract book buyers in sufficient numbers.

C. Time: Online sellers have little extra time, so why add a venue unlikely to generate significant profit?

True, local venue bookselling is not for everyone. But before you write the idea off, consider my experience.

In my small town forty-minutes from suburbia, the population when relatives visit is still only about 2,500. Back in fall 2004, I was starting to sell online and brainstorming about other venues. That's when I noticed two situations uniquely suited to my needs. The next year, I put my ideas into practice, first at the local pet store/youth center/variety shop owned by friends. It was divided with the pet store on one side and completely separated youth activities in the back, including pool tables, air hockey, a small food bar with Karaoke stage, and a few shelves holding books for sale.

Next I made a deal with family friends to display books in an empty space in their antique store. Unlike many other antique malls I had priced space in, this one didn't charge rent. Instead, they took 20% of the sales amount. The timing was right for me. With several boxes of buying mistakes, I was looking for a way to sell without investing much work. In addition, this allowed me to have a brick-and-mortar style advantage - getting my name out in the area as a book buyer and seller.

By the end of 2005, I had a clear idea which of the two venues worked best for me. The antique store brought in around $2000 for the year. Though not a great amount, it covered the cost of my inexpensive bookshelves, cell phone, ScoutPal, shipping supplies, and paid for more inventory. The pet store was profitable at first but proved to be unworkable, so I discontinued using it. Both locations served as contact points for me. I left business cards there and both owners recommended me to those inquiring.

I missed some opportunities, and one in particular stays on my mind. The pet store owner gave my card to a man inquiring about selling books and let him use their phone to call me. He had a small box of eight fishing books and a couple looked as if they had value. I could always sell the others in my two local venues. I offered $15 for the box. He agreed. As we walked out to his beat-up truck, I asked if he had other books to sell. Then he told me about the books he inherited when his dad died, including a lot of "old stuff." He was really into Lewis and Clark and things like that." I expressed interest, made sure he had my card, and asked him to call anytime I could see the books.

I never heard from him and could kick myself for not getting his name and a way to get in touch. Live and learn.

That episode illustrates one reason I like local venues. I've streamlined operations at the antique store, so it doesn't take much time. Once or twice a week, I stop by coming home from work to make sure the books are orderly and to add or remove inventory. Prices are lightly penciled on the front free endpaper and the whole process is part of my listing system at home.

I think of what a seasoned bookseller in Portland often tells me. "You're one door-knock away form hitting a big one," he says. "It'll happen." His experience in a brick and mortar store that sells online through ABE is one I'm attempting to duplicate on a smaller scale. I want to be the guy people call when they have books to sell. Selling online strikes some as not being a real bookseller, so the tangibility of a local venue adds concreteness to my selling. Other creative options include a yellow pages ad and business cards. During 2005, the antique store changed its pricing and now charges a $30 set space rent, but that didn't change the fact that the venue works for me.

Several issues are key in making a local venue successful. They are:


When selecting inventory, consider the three types of books that sell best for me in local venues-

  • Nonfiction. Far and away, nonfiction sells best. This dovetails with what most of us see online. I stock 10-to-1 non-fiction in my local venue. I recommend focusing on nonfiction that catches the eye. I organize and label my shelves with these subcategories: Americana; Sports, Recreation and Hobbies; Cooking and Crafts; The Arts; History and Politics; Biography; Religion; Academic and Reference; Humor; Miscellaneous; Juvenile and Children; Vintage/Classics; and Fiction. Another couple of shelves are labeled New Arrivals.

    Areas selling the least for me are biography, political books, humor, and religion, although I sell many religion books online. Children's books sell better than juvenile literature, and I've learned to avoid books that are easily dated. For fiction, the newer-the-better and focus on condition. I rotate fiction stock regularly to keep interest.

  • Visual. Look at books that look eBayable but don't have the value for eBay. I browse Barnes and Noble, Borders and used bookstores for these. If they are interesting and eye-catching, they are likely to sell well. Look for unusual subjects but not too specialized. For visually attractive books, I use Brodart plastic cover protectors to make sure the cover is clean and appealing.

  • Moderately Collectible. Vintage books and classics, nice reprints, perennial sellers, coffee table/display books are all moderately collectable, as are some series books that are not worth groupings online. Also keep on the lookout for nostalgia, pictorial, and books on collecting everything from dolls to glass-ware, stamps to seashells and rocks.

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