What You Might Be Doing
Better at Estate Sales

by Craig Stark

7 May 2016

The Power of Attitude Adjustment

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When I started going to estate sales many years ago, one of the first things I noticed was a veiled antagonism - sometimes not so veiled - that many buyers, some of who were dealers, seemed to view estate liquidators with, almost as though a sort of battle ensued when the door opened.

This took several forms. Sometimes it was simply complaining about how high so-and-so priced things. Other times it was grumbling about letting people in a day or so early, or, on the day of the sale, letting only a few people in while you cooled your heels outside, imagining that everything inside worth anything would be gone by the time you did get in. Or even something as small as liquidators dragging things that didn't sell at one sale to the next sale (instead of negotiating a lower price). But it also took the form of buyers' betraying their attitudes themselves, indicating that they were at a particular sale looking for "mistakes" - items of value that had been priced too low - or bragging about past scores, items that had been "stolen" for prices much lower than what they re-sold it for.

If you see yourself in any of this, I can almost guarantee you that you will rarely, if ever, be invited to a sale early or get a referral from a liquidator for a house call. It's so easy to forget that liquidators work for their clients first, not you, and if you take an antagonistic approach toward them, they will likely never work for you, even secondarily. Surely every last one of them feels this antagonism?

If you are getting along okay anyway, directly competing/fighting with other booksellers in the heat of sales, grabbing enough quality inventory that you can resell for a profit, more power to you, but if you find yourself often frustrated at estate sale outcomes, I have a few suggestions, framed as questions, for improving your chances of success - and, by the way, none of them involve getting up in the middle of the night to be first in line.

1. How many liquidators in your area have you given your business card to? Better yet, how many of them have you given your business card to three or five or more times? In my experience it often takes handing out multiple business cards to ultimately have an impact. These things get misplaced, tossed, etc., or, if they are retained and not immediately used, they soon age out of relevance. And - if any one of them ever asks you, "Do I have your business card?" never answer, "I gave one to you last year." Instead seize the opportunity to pass out a fresh card. There is strength in new, there is strength in often, especially in the relationship building process. Also, a business card has more impact if you're handing one out as you check out, that is, with money in your hand, paying for books. And it doesn't hurt to introduce yourself, state that you are a bookseller and offer your assistance if anything ever comes up that they might need help with. But leave it at that - be vague - and never attempt to negotiate anything, as in being let in to a sale early.

2. Speaking of handing things out, do you have a resale tax number? Do you hand out copies of it as opportunities arise? Again, from experience, I can tell you that this accomplishes more than simply abiding by the law. It shows others that you are in business - a professional - and also suggests that you know your stuff. If you successfully operate a business selling books, it stands to reason that you know books, and since you have already handed out your business card and offered to help if needed, guess who has a good chance of being called?

3. So, when is the last time you picked up a book for next to nothing at an estate sale, got home and discovered - or perhaps knew at the time you purchased it - that it was worth something far more significant than what you paid for it? This is what most booksellers live for, take great satisfaction in - and some gloat about for weeks after. Some, in fact, consider it a laudable business model. But the next time this happens, consider this instead: Call the liquidator a day or so after the sale and explain that you greatly underpaid for a book and want to offer them fair compensation for it - and then follow through with a check. So few dealers of any ilk ever do this sort of thing - ever think about doing it - that the impact will likely be major, and the next time you encounter this liquidator, you will be not only remembered but also looked upon with far more favor than your competitors - and this could have a far reaching effect because it's likely that it would become a tale that liquidators tell others about. Along these same lines, if you get a referral from a liquidator that results in a significant outcome, think this first: Finder's fee. And mail a thank you note with an appropriate check enclosed.

I could go on. Probably write a book about it - in fact, this topic is covered in BookThink's Guide to Online Bookselling in more detail - but this will give you an idea how things can change if you change your attitude about estate liquidators.

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