Object Lessons in the Book Trade

by Craig Stark

29 August 2011

If You're Struggling to Pay Bills, Try Slowing Down

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Some of you may recall an early BookThink article offering advice for shopping at FOL sales - "The Stillness of Trout: How to Shop FOL sales." Funny thing, I haven't attended an FOL sale since I wrote that article over seven years ago, but this month I was reminded of it several times in several competitive situations.

The first situation involved a widely advertised estate sale featuring a library which was comprised in part of Easton Press books, several dozen of which were signed. Now, when this sort of sale pops up, I don't even attempt to compete with my fellow booksellers - which in my case could involve getting up in the middle of the night and waiting in the dark for hours just to get inside first. Every bookseller knows Eastons (and Franklins), and many non-booksellers do as well. If you can snag them at the right price and they are in flawless condition, they are easily flipped for a modest profit. If I go at all to a sale like this, I approach it as I would any other sale: Arrive somewhat early, and be content to be the 15th or 25th person through the door. Almost always this means passing on the Eastons, but this can open the door to bigger fish.

Since many people love Eastons as objects, it wouldn't be accurate to call them commodity books, but they sure feel like it to me. With the exception of the occasional true first edition or signed copy, most of them are very common, and Easton Press, for one, continues to crank them out into the marketplace in a big, commodity-like way. Those of you who have been in the book biz for a number of years have observed the consequences of this: Values have plunged. Today, it's not uncommon to see them go unsold at $10 on eBay. So - my thinking is, let somebody else get up in the middle of the night and score their chump change. As for the signed books advertised at this sale, I strongly suspected going in - because I knew the people who were doing the sale - that they would be priced too high.

Still, I decided to go anyway because the location was somewhat remote - this, I thought, would scare away at least part of the competition - and the Eastons weren't the only books in this library. Anyway, there were about a dozen people ahead of me in line, and two known-to-be-ambitious booksellers stood in the number one and two positions with boxes in hand. One had driven many hours to get there. By the time I walked in the door every single Easton had been grabbed and put into those boxes. As I walked by the bookcases, I noticed a sign taped on the wall: "Hardcover Books - $2, Softcover Books - $1." At the bottom of the sign in much smaller letters appeared: "Unless otherwise marked." I didn't think anything of it at the time, but after glancing at the remaining books and concluding that there wasn't anything I was interested in, I went into one of the back bedrooms and - don't laugh - started scanning CDs and DVDs. About 15 minutes later I came out of the bedroom with over $500 worth of inventory, most of it $50+ items, and as I passed through the library I noticed that all of the signed Eastons had been put back on the shelves, this time with colorful price tags affixed to the spines.

At this point, nobody was even looking at them, so I bent over to look at the labels - and my mouth dropped open at the prices. $200. $300. And more! The first two booksellers, in their rush to grab everything they could, either didn't know that there were prices penciled inside (recall the sign taped to the wall) or didn't take the time to look at them - and no doubt were horrified at the checkout table. I smiled, handed my card to the liquidation company owner, and asked her to give me a call if there were any books left at the end of the sale. I didn't get that call in this instance, but this tactic has worked for me in the past many times.

The second situation involved a privately run estate sale advertised on craigslist. The description was very brief, but I put it on my list because it did mention "many books." This time there were only a handful of people at the door when it started, and I was pleased to see an entire wall of books when I got inside. After a quick glance at everything, I knelt down in front of several shelves of high-end hunting and fishing books, some of them leather bound, some limited editions, etc., and began to quietly make a pile on the floor. Next to me I was aware of a generalist dealer I knew pacing back and forth in front of the shelves, occasionally grabbing things (boxed sets of Folio Society publications, for example), then putting them back, asking what the price was, grabbing something else, putting it back, and so on. The tension in the room was palpable. Finally, he left the room without buying anything. Naturally, the Folio Society sets went into my pile. $100 later I walked out with about $1500 worth of books.

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