Proverbs of Bookselling Revisited

by Craig Stark

29 March 2015

The Second Five

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6. The early scout gets the book.

Okay, so, whomever gets to the book first gets the book, assuming it's priced right. If it's an estate or FOL sale, get there at five or so in the morning so as to be first or near first in line. If it's a garage sale that's starting at eight and, to boot, states "no early birds" - well, you don't have to play this game long to see that "eight" doesn't necessarily mean eight, and "no early birds" doesn't necessarily mean no early birds. More often than not - and there are a few exceptions, sure - it often means it's my intention to start at eight, and, though I don't want to be inundated with buyers at seven when I'm setting up, since it's just you and you're interested in books, c'mon in and take a look.

We're done, right? Not so fast. It isn't just about arrival time. Wouldn't it be better yet to pre-shop an estate sale several days before it starts? But how does this happen? Successful booksellers - and this applies well beyond bookselling - know that bookselling is about relationships, growing and sustaining them by way of sharing knowledge - teaching - and building trust.

An example might help. Several weeks ago I got a call from an estate liquidator to pre-shop a sale. If you talk to people who go to estate sales frequently, you know that one of their biggest beefs is with liquidators who let people in early, before the sale starts - and all the "good" stuff gets skimmed. They don't think it's fair. Do you think it is? Well, let me tell you why it happens: knowledge and trust. In this case - and this is usually how things go down - this liquidator is usually in the process of pricing things when I arrive, and when I arrived this time, she had already priced what she thought was a 19th-century German Bible at $20. However, when I looked at it, though indeed printed in Germany, the text was in Latin (not German), it was ca. 1700's and a classic legal treatise. When I paid her for it, I was already thinking partnership, and if research proved it was something special, she was going to get a call back. And she did. Had she played "fair" this likely $1,000 plus book would have gone out the door for $20. Instead we will split the profit, and her client not only will benefit but also is likely to refer her to others. Oh - and call me again!

7. The late scout gets the book.

There is looking and there is seeing, and the two don't always overlap. At estate sales we often joke that being first in the door is the kiss of death. Everybody is behind you, and the tendency is to feel rushed - to capitalize quickly on your advantageous position. What too often happens, however, is that somebody else scores instead of you because the threat of competition impairs your seeing. And being first often carries an additional burden: It likely means you've been thinking about getting in first prior to the sale - trying, trying, trying - and too much trying obscures seeing as well.

Still, it makes sense to move quickly at a sale no matter when you get in, grab the things of obvious value - or educated guesses - as soon as you spot them, but if there are many books, go back through them a second, perhaps even a third time. Seeing will improve as you slow down, and you will often find things you missed.

8. A book is no stronger than its weakest hinge.

A fault is a fault is a fault, and no matter how you soft-shoe it, it's still a fault, and a book with one will never rise to the level of a copy without it, perhaps not even come close. Competent repairs and/or restorations bring it closer, yes, but the time to make good buying decisions is before you buy something. Commit with caution. Ask yourself: Why do I want to take on somebody else's problem? I suspect most of us have several shelves set aside for hurt books, and likely most of them are in need of a good dusting.

9. Booksellers rush in where cleaning women fear to tread.

When you've been to as many sales as I have, it becomes agonizingly clear that, when there's a death and an estate to liquidate, surviving family members are, more often than not, considerably more interested in the money that can be realized from the sale than they are in preserving family heirlooms, memorabilia, etc. So much - so very, very much - personal material seemingly has little or no value to them, even when it's apparent that previous generations have preserved it, often lovingly in albums, scrapbooks, etc. One need only Google something like "destruction of the family" to see what's going on in hard numbers. The American family is in free fall. What this means to booksellers - and many of us sell ephemera as well - is that so much more material that would have been preserved by previous generations is available to us now. And if family members don't care about it, it often pays for us to.

Another example. At a different sale I was invited to pre-shop recently - and as is so often the case in situations like this, the house was far from clean - there was a massive stack of ephemera on the floor of a bedroom, much of it intimately personal - and it was obvious that nobody had gone through it. I sat on the bed for several hours and painstakingly examined everything. What I netted, among other things, were photos signed by the "Father of Rock & Roll" Alan Freed, Canadian rock legend Jack Scott and Buddy Holly's back-up band, The Picks. There are some things, obviously, that are so personal that they will have little or no value to non-family members, but don't forget that part of what we do that often nobody else will take the trouble to do, including cleaning women, is preserve things that do have lasting historical value.

10. Persistence in book scouting is the mother of good luck.

You've heard this before: There is no such thing as an overnight success. The seeming appearance of overnight success, in fact, most often cloaks years of persistence leading up to it. This expression is usually applied to those who make it big in the entertainment industry, but it applies to most any venture that seeks success at some level.

Before I got into bookselling, I designed and built high end furniture for a living. Fifteen or so years out I was operating my business at a level that required no advertising. None. Work arrived almost by magic, either through word of mouth or from several interior decorators I worked with. And I had the luxury of picking and choosing between jobs that I wanted to do and those that I didn't. I was booked up for months. Somebody looking on might have thought, "Well, that must be nice. Would that I were that fortunate."

But let me tell how I got started in this business many years earlier. It began with an idea - and a strong desire to be my own boss. I lived near a large university, and it occurred to me that pretty much every student attending that university who didn't already have a bookcase needed one. Then I thought, if I could build a bookcase cheaply enough (acknowledging that that many college students don't have two nickels to rub together) and quickly enough, there might be money to be made - and of course there was a never-ending flow of new students arriving every year.

I solved the "cheaply enough" issue by using #2 pine boards, which, at the time (ca. 1970's), were dirt cheap. I could make, for example, a 36" high, 24" wide and 9" deep bookcase for less than $3 in materials. I solved the "quickly enough" issue by making unfinished kits that buyers could assemble themselves with supplied screws and glue. Total time to make a kit? Less than 10 minutes. If I sold them for $19.99 - well, you do the math. It seemed viable - and possible to offer free delivery as well.

The next issue was marketing. Would it be possible to advertise without spending any money? Back then - and I suspect this is no longer the case - anybody could pin a flyer to any of many hundreds of bulletin boards in campus buildings without having it yanked down. So I did that. I designed a goofy flyer with phone numbers you could tear off the bottom and set out to pin them up, putting one foot in front of the other every week - this is called persistence - and voila! The phone began to ring. Often.

It was an elegant system because the fliers measured activity. If all of the numbers had been torn off a week later, well, that was a hot bulletin board; if none of them were gone, there was no pointing wasting time returning to it. Over the next two or so years, I learned where to pin them and where not to - this is called efficiency - and I was also making enough money to quit my job.

Obviously, long run, this business model needed to evolve into something bigger. I needed to learn much more about furniture, build more sophisticated things, master professional finishing techniques, turn my focus to more profitable projects and so on. And, I also suspected that it was just a matter of time before a competitor or two showed up. What I was doing was hard work but easy.

Naively, this is how I began as a bookseller - looking for a cheap and quick method to make money selling books. I started at the low end. I did the math. I put one foot in front of another looking for inventory. There were some weeks I'd go out every day - to garage sales, estate sales, FOL sales, bookstores, thrift shops, etc. Now, there are often weeks that I don't go to any of these venues - or perhaps just an occasional estate sale. But the phone rings now. Inventory often comes to me. And somebody looking on might think, "Well, that must be nice. Would that I were that fortunate." Starting quick and cheap is fine, but don't dwell there.

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