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Why Buy Collections?

Initially, nearly all of my stock came from buying at thrift stores. I started as an inexperienced and very part-time seller with limited time to scout and limited space to store inventory. The thrifts were perfect: There were several close by my home and where I worked, and the dirt-cheap prices meant I could make lots of mistakes and not lose a lot of money. As I gained experience and knowledge, I began to add other venues: internet buying, library and other book sales, estate sales, and auctions. It took several years before I felt confident enough to consider going to someone's home, looking over a collection of books, and making them a purchase offer. The negatives always seemed too big. What if the books are a bunch of Readers Digest and BCEs and just a big waste of time? What if the collection is too big and I don't have room to store and process it? How do I come up with a realistic value, and what percentage do I offer? What if the owner is a relative or friend? What if I overestimate the value and spend too much on it? What if I seriously under-estimate the value, and they claim that I cheated them?

Then there is bridging the psychological gulf between spending $5 to $10 for a handful of books every week at the local Goodwill or library sale, versus offering $2000 for the library of a textile and rug collector.

Easier to just keep on doing what you are familiar with, since it kind of works OK. Most of the time.

But here is the rub: If you only stick with what you know but you still want to expand your business, then pretty much the only way to do it is to increase volume. If you are grossing $1000 per month selling on Amazon with an inventory of 500 books, then you can do a few things that don't necessarily involve changing the way you acquire stock. You can list on multiple sites by adding Abebooks, Alibris, Biblio, and/or opening an eBay store. This involves potentially significant up-front and on-going work. It also means added expenses for monthly listing fees and, in some cases, credit card processing and even shipping reimbursement skims. You can also increase the size of your inventory. You can spend more time scouting and listing, or lower your minimum list price. All of the added time and labor can be offset some by improving efficiencies - but in the end it comes down to working harder and longer.

The conservative approach of sticking with what you know also leaves you vulnerable to changing conditions. If you build your business around thrift store purchases and selling on eBay, then your business is seriously affected if the thrifts decide to start selling their best books online and/or raise their in-store prices significantly. A couple years back I suddenly lost access to several local libraries with on-going sale shelves as well as a few big annual sales when the county system contracted with Better World Books to sell their books. There was a year-long dry spell at one of my most productive thrifts when they acquired a volunteer who cherry-picked all the good books before they hit the shelves. And everyone who lists on eBay knows the issues there: endless changes to policies; arbitrary changes that exclude your items from the main search results; the recent huge increase in fees; and so on.

And even if you don't want to expand your business, treading water is not a good business philosophy. You can't control change. Nothing I did during that year stopped the cherry-picking Goodwill volunteer, but you can control your vulnerability to change. On the simplest level, buying collections represents another way of acquiring stock - another tool in the tool belt.

But it also has the potential to drive your business to a completely new level of performance, if that is what you are looking for.

Part of the fun of bookscouting is the idea that on any trip you could stumble on something BIG. I still get a little tingle every time I walk into a thrift store. The signed modern first, the rare cult collectible, the 1950's science fiction classic in dust jacket. I've had books sell for over $1000 that I bought for $0.50. But these are pretty rare. It is much more common for me to find the bread-and-butter books that list for $20 to $30, that make up the bulk of my sales by count. But consider: If instead of coming across one rare book every few months at the thrift store, you instead came across a collection of choice books every few months. What if you could buy 100 - or 200, or 500 - books from the library of a retired philosophy professor, or a collector of early automobile books, or an Easton Press collection? What if you are that seller I talked about above with 500 books listed on Amazon, and you start buying 100 books here and 200 there? Before you know it, you'll have 1000 books listed, and doubled your business.

So far I've spent a lot of time talking about the why of buying collections. In the next installment, I'll start to get into the how. I'll talk about getting the word out, strategies and rules of thumb for evaluating a collection, how to calculate an offer price, and how to close the deal. I'll also talk about some of the points related to buying collections that I've seen experienced booksellers disagree on, and try to present the various views so you can make up your own mind. If any of you have specific questions or experiences of your own that you'd like to contribute, please email me at Baysidebooksmd@hotmail.com - and let me know if you do or don't want your name included if I end up using your experience in the article.

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Questions or comments?
Contact the editor, Craig Stark

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