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On the surface this doesn't sound like an object lesson at all; it's more a tale of one person having more book knowledge than another. But I've noticed a pattern with this dealer and several others I know who are doing the same thing he is - i.e., renting warehouse space and buying heavily at sales, sometimes buying entire estates. And most of them have hired assistants. If you've noticed an increasing number of craigslist ads for privately-run estate sales appearing one day and disappearing the next, maybe you have a few of these dealers in your area too. Anyway, the pattern is this: They hurry; and they make mistakes - in fact, they seem to be under a lot of stress. The above-mentioned dealer, in fact, had recently bought a "gold" bracelet for several thousand dollars only to discover later that it wouldn't melt. I observed another one purchasing over five dozen leather Franklins at an estate sale the same week - very common titles in at best VG condition - for $600. At $10 each, how would you like the task of getting those sold for a profit? Even breaking even might be problematic. (At the same sale, by the way, I purchased seven books with an estimated value of $1100.)

I don't doubt that there's at least some money to be made with this approach, but when you have a payroll to meet, rent to pay, intense competition in every direction, and are attempting to game a market that historically has demanded deep knowledge in narrow niches to succeed at (if then), it can change you. Even if you know a niche, you can make mistakes; attempt a generalist approach, and mistakes multiply. Don't get me wrong; ambition is fine, but when it takes over ...

A third situation - I'll stop at three in the interest of brevity - occurred at another estate sale, this one featuring another wall of books, some of them Eastons. This might sound like a tall story to you, but I assure you; it actually happened. The house was packed with people, and no sooner did I get to the door of the library when an elderly lady in a wheelchair inadvertently cut me off at the door leading in. I watched helplessly as another bookseller, who was already in the room, yanked - you guessed it - Easton after Easton off the shelves as this sweet lady literally inched across the carpet, then caught her wheel on the threshold! I had no choice but to help her, of course, but as I knelt down to lift the wheelchair, I noticed an overstuffed manila envelope propped up against the door marked ... NASA. After peeking inside, under my arm it went, and $3 later I walked out with dozens of signed astronaut photos and many packets of experimental space food manufactured in the 1960s. The individual packets alone went for almost $500 each. Divine intervention? It felt like it.

I wouldn't be spending time writing about these incidents if they didn't happen as often as they do. We often talk about working hard to become more successful, but working hard doesn't mean forcing things to happen, beating somebody else to the goodies - and losing sleep and perhaps money in the process! Those of you who scout for books (or anything else) at estate sales know that being first in line is often the worst place to be because you're so deeply invested before you even get inside; you've burned however many hours you needed to be there, and unrealistic expectations of a payoff often arise from this. If anxiety builds from these expectations, it's much more difficult to be in a frame of mind that will enable you to see straight when the door opens.

We joke about it sometimes, but there's a lot of truth in this: The chances of finding something good at a sale are in inverse proportion to the time you've spent waiting to get in. I would put it another way: The more up-front investment you make in a sale, whether it's researching what you see in preview photos to death, getting there obscenely early, or just daydreaming about how much money you might be able to make - all of this pushed too far will affect you negatively. Far better to take a deep breath, slow down, make sensible preparations, and enjoy the spoils that inevitably come with a grateful, receptive attitude toward what life chooses to give you.

Finally, there's a corollary to this. I don't necessarily avoid competitive situations, but I often question the necessity to seek them out. So often my best buys occur with no other booksellers in sight. From Chapter 5 of BookThink's Guide to Online Bookselling: "Competition with fellow booksellers can be borderline insane. Which brings me to a critical point: When scouting, try to put yourself in situations where there are few or no competing booksellers. More than anything else, this will give you the time and space to make intelligent buying decisions. More importantly, if you adopt this strategy consistently, you will now and again find yourself alone in important buying situations because other booksellers have gravitated toward sales with higher profiles, sales that are close to home - or perhaps they stayed home altogether because it's a Wednesday."

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Questions or comments?
Contact the editor, Craig Stark

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