BookThink's Proverbs
of Bookselling

by Craig Stark

14 August 2016

The Seventh Five

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31. Bookselling is difficult before it's easy and easy before it's difficult.

I'm not sure why, but I've long been wary of early success in any endeavor, especially if it seems to come easy. In bookselling it has happened to lots of us, probably still does happen, perhaps because valuable books can be found in the wild by anybody with a few bucks who happens to be in the right place at the right time, or in some cases a fine collection might be dumped into one's lap from a deceased relative. Same result. For me it came in the form of some high-end material scored at two local locations late in my first year that netted me something north of $80,000. In one sense, of course, this was a positive. Making that kind of money early was both welcome as income - my first son had just started college - and an inspiration for me to stay in the business.

But every so-called positive experience has a dark side. For one thing, though I had good instincts in guessing what to pick up at sales from the outset, I was woefully lacking in foundational bookselling knowledge. At first this wasn't a liability because I had started in the "golden" age of commodity bookselling, the late 1990's and early 2000's, when online competition was a fraction of what it is today and pretty much everything tossed online sold - and without photos! But my early success blinded me to how much I would need that knowledge (and sooner than later) and delayed my seeking it out for several years. My third year in the business, however, was a comparatively poor one - and that's when I finally got down to the business of serving a self-directed apprenticeship.

Whether you self-direct your own apprenticeship or not, it's not easy. Bookselling ranks right up there with the most knowledge-demanding trades, and it's a forever thing. Never make the mistake of thinking that you can learn bookselling passively, simply by the osmotic process of buying and selling books.

32. All books are not meant to be sold.

This is a newbie thing, mostly, in that one needs to be disabused of the notion that just because a book exists means that it can be sold as a book (and not discarded or pulped). But even experienced booksellers sometimes fall prey to this in that there exists books in their inventories that will never sell. Often these are books that were catalogued early on but not always. Just as it's important to develop the ability to identify books with value, it's also important to identify books without value that have found their way onto your shelves. There are both direct and indirect costs associated with maintaining an inventory, and to rationalize this - "This book might never sell but it's already listed and I have plenty of shelf space, so why not just leave it?" - doesn't cut it. A slow leak in a toilet will fill up a septic tank in surprisingly short order, just as a shop will fill up with garbage.

33. Keep thy bookshoppe, and thy bookshoppe will keep thee.

A common bookseller lament is something along these lines: "Books are gradually taking over my house (or a bookstore). They're stacked everywhere, etc." Have you ever thought about what this says about your business? When we first moved to Florida, now many years ago, we rented a house that had just been built and were "assigned" the task of laying down sod. This occurred at the beginning of the wet season, so it wasn't long before it took root and flourished. However, the dry season soon arrived, and with it things turned brown. We had moved from Illinois, where lawns turn brown as well and go dormant during the winter, harmlessly, so we thought nothing of it. However, our "friendly" neighbors, who felt that rental property depressed home values, took it upon themselves to call our landlady and inform her that we weren't taking care of the yard. She soon arrived to inspect both the yard and inside the house. We passed the inside test, but as she was leaving, she said, "Put some water on the grass, and by the way, don't ever forget that people are going to judge you by the appearance of your yard - and in most cases that will tell them something about what's going on in the house too." At the time I felt somewhat unfairly treated, that it didn't apply to us, but for some reason this advice never left me. It was only later that I realized that outward appearances do matter. And so often they betray inward matters that need to be addressed.

34. If you buy books you don't need, you'll sell books you need.

A restatement of Gresham's Law: The bad drives out the good. Good books are books that sell for prices worth bothering with, obviously. The more bad books you buy, the more they dominate your business because you will be burning time and other resources on the front end in acquiring them and on the back end by building labor into adding them to inventory, leaving you with less time to focus on good books. Good books, inevitably, will slowly be driven out unless you are vigilant about not letting them come in the door in the first place.

35. Don't pick books by candlelight.

How many times have you gone into a dimly lit room at, for example, an estate sale and come out with less than desirable books? Long term, exposure to light will damage books, of course, but if you're shopping for them, there's no such thing as too much of it. If it's too awkward to hold a flashlight in one hand and grab books with the other, any smartphone has flashlight capability. Buy a lanyard for it and hang it on your neck.

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