An Interview
with Tom Oram
at Book Sale Finder

by Catherine Petruccione

#92, 9 April 2007

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Listing some 6,000 used book sales annually across the United States and Canada, Book Sale Finder has helped make book scouting easier and more fun for many of us and has helped libraries and non-profit organizations run more profitable, better-attended book sales.

Helen and Tom Oram founded the website in 1994 in response to their own frustration at missing out on book sales. Since then, they have worked hard to expand and share their knowledge with the entire book buying community.

Friends of Library (FOL) and other non-profit used book sales are an important source of inventory for many booksellers. In addition, they are good sources of reasonably-priced books for collectors and readers. Bookmarking Book Sale Finder to keep track of upcoming sales in your area is almost a must. An even better option - sign up for the website's weekly email newsletter, "Sale Mail." Every Wednesday you'll receive a list of used book sales based on how far you're willing to travel from your location.

I recently had the pleasure of talking with Tom Oram and learned more about Book Sale Finder and the people behind it.

BOOKTHINK: Tom, where do you operate from and who runs this wonderful website?

Basically, my wife Helen and I run Book Sale Finder together. My wife runs the site; she does all the work. I'm just a technical guy. In my regular occupation, I'm a computer consultant. We're not book dealers. We are located in Hudson, Massachusetts, which is about 30 miles west of Boston.

BOOKTHINK: What inspired you to start the website?

ORAM: Helen and I used to go to book sales all the time when the kids were younger, bringing them along on the trips. We just loved going to the sales. But we kept missing sales in nearby towns, and we decided maybe we should publish a book about it, to pin down where and when these sales were - thinking we couldn't be alone in wanting to know this information. So that's how we started this thing - back in 1994.

At the time, the Internet was nothing of consequence, so we self-published a book called Book Sales in New England. My wife actually sat down with a book (which we had gotten at a book sale, by the way) that had library addresses in it, and she typed each one into a data base. We then mailed an inquiry to all the libraries in New England to find out when their sales were. It was fun, and we learned an awful lot about the book publishing industry. The New York Times Book Review even mentioned us, and we are quite proud of that achievement.

BOOKTHINK: That is something! And you were the first to publish this type of book?

ORAM: Someone told me that somebody had done it years before, but we never could find out anything about it. We were the first that actually lasted. In 1995, we decided to go national, and we did a mailing to 8,000 libraries around the country and published yet another book - Book Sales in America. We kept that one out for a couple of years, and then came back with another edition of it in 1997. By 1997, though, we had pretty much realized that updating them was too big a job; they changed too frequently. We were updating right up until the book went to print, and we realized that this wasn't the right way, and at that time I put it on the Internet.

BOOKTHINK: And how much better to now have it on the web, where it can be updated constantly.

ORAM: Putting it on the Internet was great. In the early days we only had about a month of sales up. Basically what we'd do was publish the book on the Internet, which then allowed us to update the site whenever we had to.

BOOKTHINK: I've got to tell you, we plan a good portion of our life around your site, and I'm sure a lot of other booksellers do too.

ORAM: It makes us feel good to know that.

BOOKTHINK: Were you surprised by the site's success?

ORAM: It wasn't financially successful for many years. We invested a lot of money in printing the book, and we learned a lot about the book business. Having information is one thing; distributing it is another. What's great about the Internet is that, through word of mouth and e-mails, you can build up a buzz and get a lot of people looking at a site. Over the years we've been very surprised at how well it has been received.

The surprising thing is that it isn't what we thought it was going to be. I'm not a book dealer, and my wife's not a book dealer, but we just love book sales and we like to get books there. We love book bargains! What we didn't predict was that the Internet would create so many online booksellers and that we would become a major resource for them. It took us a bit by surprise when we finally realized the demographics of our users were not what we expected. We expected a lot of visitors like ourselves - and book collectors. But, at this stage, between 30-40% of regular visitors to our site are book scouts and book dealers.

BOOKTHINK: I remember planning book sale trips over the summer in the beginning, and then summer and fall - and now it seems there are book sales going on all year round.

ORAM: Yes, they really are. We went down to the Cape a couple years ago, and we saw a sign for a used book store, so naturally we stopped. We went in and we told the owner about our site. He said, "Of course I've heard of you! I owe this book store to you. I've gotten all these books from book sales listed on Book Sale Finder." It makes us feel good.

BOOKTHINK: In addition to listing FOL, what other types of sales do you list?

ORAM: There are lots of sales out there, for sure. Our policy has always been that non-profits can list their sales for free. We get the library sales, of course, but we also have the American Association of University Women and the Canadian Federation of University Women, churches, Goodwill - all the major non-profits that are associated with books. Actually, one of the largest ones we have is the YMCA out in St. Louis, which has about a million books.

BOOKTHINK: Do you think that's the largest?

ORAM: I think that's the largest. But there are several other really large ones, In Arizona, there's the VNSA sale and large sales at libraries in Phoenix and Tucson. Here in the northeast, Booth Library and Mark Twain Library in Connecticut both have large sales. There are several in Pennsylvania, including AAUW sales.

BOOKTHINK: I think the largest one I've attended was the one in Des Moines at the State Fairgrounds.

ORAM: Yes, that's a big one too. When you think about how large some of these book sales are, these are major productions.

BOOKTHINK: They are major productions. When you think of the amount of books that have to be physically moved by volunteers - I always try to be especially nice to the volunteers because of the amount of work that they put into these events. What do you think about the future of FOL sales?

ORAM: When we think of the future of the library sales - really, a lot of it depends on volunteers because many libraries have a hard time finding volunteers to run these things.

BOOKTHINK: Yes, I've heard that too. And a lot of the volunteers are older people. ORAM: That's right. They are going to have to change, perhaps recruit Cub Scouts and Boy Scouts working for their merit badges, these kinds of things; I would think that there are many local organizations that could help out, not just Friends members.

BOOKTHINK: I often wonder if they will evolve into listing more and more books themselves online.

ORAM: Obviously some are doing that, but that's a big job. For the most part, they really don't want to deal with people calling up saying "I bought this book from you and I'm not happy with its condition" or similar problems, you know, the types of things book dealers have to handle all the time. Some of these places are willing to run their used book sales as real businesses and go through all that, but for the most part I think they are probably not going to go that route. A lot of them still view this as a community event.

BOOKTHINK: I hope you are right.

ORAM: I do too because I'd really hate to see them go.

BOOKTHINK: You are so right that these sales are a community event. And in one section of your site you describe what to expect at book sales and suggest that while visitors are in the sale area they take time to experience some of the other attractions in the town. That is such good advice. I have to tell you, we have seen more of this country going to library sales than I ever dreamed I would see in my lifetime. All the towns we have been in that we never would have otherwise visited, all the people we've met, little restaurants and hotels and places we've stayed - they have been unforgettable experiences for us.

ORAM: Ever since we started, even when we were publishing the books, we thought our readers would be just regular people going out looking for books and spending a weekend at a place and looking at two or three different sales. So we've always tried to list the other events that are going on. Quechee, Vermont has a hot air balloon festival at the same time as their book sale, and there's a lot of fun stuff like that. These people care about their communities.

BOOKTHINK: I think a lot of booksellers are so intense about scouting for books that they forget to enjoy that part of it.

ORAM: Well, it's a business and they are trying to make a profit.

BOOKTHINK: We've found it's actually helpful to stop and take a breath, enjoy the town, meet some people. Sometimes you end up talking about books, exchanging business cards, and learn about other people, how they make their living and so on. Sometimes they can direct you to other places to scout for books.

ORAM: It's a lot of fun. We like it ourselves, only we don't do it much anymore. Helen and I rarely can get out because I work on Book Sale Finder on the weekends. That's the only time I can do the technical stuff. As I mentioned earlier, I'm a computer consultant. I designed the software that runs lottery systems around the world. I've been doing that for 30 years.

BOOKTHINK: That's quite a responsibility! Anybody ever try to bribe you?

ORAM: People always ask me that, but the fact is that it's basically part of my job to make sure there's no possible way I could beat the system. So, on the one hand, I have this high tech part of my life, but on the other hand, I'd rather touch and feel a book.

BOOKTHINK: You know, that's interesting. People always worry so much about the Internet, technology hurting the book business, etc., but I think sometimes it can help prod us to look for something different too. So many of us work at computers at our regular jobs. When we get home, we'd rather pick a book off a shelf.

ORAM: I agree with you. There's something different about going to a used book store as opposed to buying online. And I buy things online - new books and used books. When I'm looking for a specific title, I go online, and bam! There it is. I bought my son's Christmas present online from a bookseller. But I like going into the used books stores and actually looking around and browsing, and looking inside the book and going, "Hmmm, this is interesting."

BOOKTHINK: And finding the unexpected that awakens your interest.

ORAM: Absolutely. That's what I like best.

Questions or comments?
Contact the editor, Craig Stark

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