Estate Sale Strategies
for Booksellers

by Craig Stark

23 October 2018

90% Gone in the First 90 Seconds?

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Experienced booksellers who depend on local estate sales, auctions, etc., for inventory acquisition no doubt have proven strategies for maximizing their efforts to grab the good stuff amidst competing booksellers, especially when both other booksellers and books are many. Sometimes it's an all-out athletic event, sometimes less challenging, but, if you're new to the game, some sort of strategic approach to a roomful of books is helpful. Mine is more or less three-pronged.

Prepare. We booksellers live in a time when it's far easier to anticipate what one is likely to encounter at a sale than it once was. Now there are photos - often hundreds - to examine ahead of time, not to mention more detailed textual descriptions. Many of these sales, of course, appear on Set things up so that you're alerted to upcoming sales daily. Stay engaged. And don't hesitate to call the liquidator ahead of time and ask questions, whether it's about the contents of the sale or how it's run. Also, arrive, if possible, at sales early to take advantage of any opportunities for looking into windows, assuming the building is vacant, that is. If it's dark, bring a flashlight. Shining a flashlight into a dark window will often reveal things that are much less visible in broad daylight. Try it. Sometimes, talking to others waiting for the sale to begin is helpful. For that matter, establishing relationships with fellow dealers, no matter what their specialties, is important as well. If they're not booksellers, for example, they will sometimes point you to where the books are. All common sense stuff.

So many times it's possible to identify where potentially valuable books are located in a room. Go after these first, and don't ever forget that many booksellers are loathe to spend more than a buck or two for a book. Be willing to spend more and you'll separate yourself from them.

Second, attempt to assess where the largest concentration of potentially good books are and start there, quickly going through them one by one, using your instincts only. The rule of thumb is: 90% of the quality items will be gone in the first 90 seconds of a sale. Dawdle at your peril.

Finally, go back a third time and be more thorough. Look up ISBN's, open books for signatures, First Edition designations and so on. At least some of the best stuff escapes early notice - namely, the 10% that doesn't get snagged in the first minute or two. Sticking around longer than others also may give you an opportunity to talk to the liquidator, introduce yourself and hand out a business card. All important relationships start somewhere.

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