Close this window to return to BookThink

An Interview with Tom Oram
at Book Sale Finder

by Catherine Petruccione

#92, 9 March 2007

Listing some 6,000 used book sales annually across the United States and Canada, Book Sale Finder has helped make book scouting easier and more fun for many of us and has helped libraries and non-profit organizations run more profitable, better-attended book sales.

Helen and Tom Oram founded the website in 1994 in response to their own frustration at missing out on book sales. Since then, they have worked hard to expand and share their knowledge with the entire book buying community.

Friends of Library (FOL) and other non-profit used book sales are an important source of inventory for many booksellers. In addition, they are good sources of reasonably-priced books for collectors and readers. Bookmarking Book Sale Finder to keep track of upcoming sales in your area is almost a must. An even better option - sign up for the website's weekly email newsletter, "Sale Mail." Every Wednesday you'll receive a list of used book sales based on how far you're willing to travel from your location.

I recently had the pleasure of talking with Tom Oram and learned more about Book Sale Finder and the people behind it.

BOOKTHINK: Tom, where do you operate from and who runs this wonderful website?

Basically, my wife Helen and I run Book Sale Finder together. My wife runs the site; she does all the work. I'm just a technical guy. In my regular occupation, I'm a computer consultant. We're not book dealers. We are located in Hudson, Massachusetts, which is about 30 miles west of Boston.

BOOKTHINK: What inspired you to start the website?

ORAM: Helen and I used to go to book sales all the time when the kids were younger, bringing them along on the trips. We just loved going to the sales. But we kept missing sales in nearby towns, and we decided maybe we should publish a book about it, to pin down where and when these sales were - thinking we couldn't be alone in wanting to know this information. So that's how we started this thing - back in 1994.

At the time, the Internet was nothing of consequence, so we self-published a book called Book Sales in New England. My wife actually sat down with a book (which we had gotten at a book sale, by the way) that had library addresses in it, and she typed each one into a data base. We then mailed an inquiry to all the libraries in New England to find out when their sales were. It was fun, and we learned an awful lot about the book publishing industry. The New York Times Book Review even mentioned us, and we are quite proud of that achievement.

BOOKTHINK: That is something! And you were the first to publish this type of book?

ORAM: Someone told me that somebody had done it years before, but we never could find out anything about it. We were the first that actually lasted. In 1995, we decided to go national, and we did a mailing to 8,000 libraries around the country and published yet another book - Book Sales in America. We kept that one out for a couple of years, and then came back with another edition of it in 1997. By 1997, though, we had pretty much realized that updating them was too big a job; they changed too frequently. We were updating right up until the book went to print, and we realized that this wasn't the right way, and at that time I put it on the Internet.

BOOKTHINK: And how much better to now have it on the web, where it can be updated constantly.

ORAM: Putting it on the Internet was great. In the early days we only had about a month of sales up. Basically what we'd do was publish the book on the Internet, which then allowed us to update the site whenever we had to.

BOOKTHINK: I've got to tell you, we plan a good portion of our life around your site, and I'm sure a lot of other booksellers do too.

ORAM: It makes us feel good to know that.

BOOKTHINK: Were you surprised by the site's success?

ORAM: It wasn't financially successful for many years. We invested a lot of money in printing the book, and we learned a lot about the book business. Having information is one thing; distributing it is another. What's great about the Internet is that, through word of mouth and e-mails, you can build up a buzz and get a lot of people looking at a site. Over the years we've been very surprised at how well it has been received.

The surprising thing is that it isn't what we thought it was going to be. I'm not a book dealer, and my wife's not a book dealer, but we just love book sales and we like to get books there. We love book bargains! What we didn't predict was that the Internet would create so many online booksellers and that we would become a major resource for them. It took us a bit by surprise when we finally realized the demographics of our users were not what we expected. We expected a lot of visitors like ourselves - and book collectors. But, at this stage, between 30-40% of regular visitors to our site are book scouts and book dealers.

BOOKTHINK: I remember planning book sale trips over the summer in the beginning, and then summer and fall - and now it seems there are book sales going on all year round.

ORAM: Yes, they really are. We went down to the Cape a couple years ago, and we saw a sign for a used book store, so naturally we stopped. We went in and we told the owner about our site. He said, "Of course I've heard of you! I owe this book store to you. I've gotten all these books from book sales listed on Book Sale Finder." It makes us feel good.

BOOKTHINK: In addition to listing FOL, what other types of sales do you list?

ORAM: There are lots of sales out there, for sure. Our policy has always been that non-profits can list their sales for free. We get the library sales, of course, but we also have the American Association of University Women and the Canadian Federation of University Women, churches, Goodwill - all the major non-profits that are associated with books. Actually, one of the largest ones we have is the YMCA out in St. Louis, which has about a million books.

BOOKTHINK: Do you think that's the largest?

ORAM: I think that's the largest. But there are several other really large ones, In Arizona, there's the VNSA sale and large sales at libraries in Phoenix and Tucson. Here in the northeast, Booth Library and Mark Twain Library in Connecticut both have large sales. There are several in Pennsylvania, including AAUW sales.

BOOKTHINK: I think the largest one I've attended was the one in Des Moines at the State Fairgrounds.

ORAM: Yes, that's a big one too. When you think about how large some of these book sales are, these are major productions.

BOOKTHINK: They are major productions. When you think of the amount of books that have to be physically moved by volunteers - I always try to be especially nice to the volunteers because of the amount of work that they put into these events. What do you think about the future of FOL sales?

ORAM: When we think of the future of the library sales - really, a lot of it depends on volunteers because many libraries have a hard time finding volunteers to run these things.

BOOKTHINK: Yes, I've heard that too. And a lot of the volunteers are older people. ORAM: That's right. They are going to have to change, perhaps recruit Cub Scouts and Boy Scouts working for their merit badges, these kinds of things; I would think that there are many local organizations that could help out, not just Friends members.

BOOKTHINK: I often wonder if they will evolve into listing more and more books themselves online.

ORAM: Obviously some are doing that, but that's a big job. For the most part, they really don't want to deal with people calling up saying "I bought this book from you and I'm not happy with its condition" or similar problems, you know, the types of things book dealers have to handle all the time. Some of these places are willing to run their used book sales as real businesses and go through all that, but for the most part I think they are probably not going to go that route. A lot of them still view this as a community event.

BOOKTHINK: I hope you are right.

ORAM: I do too because I'd really hate to see them go.

BOOKTHINK: You are so right that these sales are a community event. And in one section of your site you describe what to expect at book sales and suggest that while visitors are in the sale area they take time to experience some of the other attractions in the town. That is such good advice. I have to tell you, we have seen more of this country going to library sales than I ever dreamed I would see in my lifetime. All the towns we have been in that we never would have otherwise visited, all the people we've met, little restaurants and hotels and places we've stayed - they have been unforgettable experiences for us.

ORAM: Ever since we started, even when we were publishing the books, we thought our readers would be just regular people going out looking for books and spending a weekend at a place and looking at two or three different sales. So we've always tried to list the other events that are going on. Quechee, Vermont has a hot air balloon festival at the same time as their book sale, and there's a lot of fun stuff like that. These people care about their communities.

BOOKTHINK: I think a lot of booksellers are so intense about scouting for books that they forget to enjoy that part of it.

ORAM: Well, it's a business and they are trying to make a profit.

BOOKTHINK: We've found it's actually helpful to stop and take a breath, enjoy the town, meet some people. Sometimes you end up talking about books, exchanging business cards, and learn about other people, how they make their living and so on. Sometimes they can direct you to other places to scout for books.

ORAM: It's a lot of fun. We like it ourselves, only we don't do it much anymore. Helen and I rarely can get out because I work on Book Sale Finder on the weekends. That's the only time I can do the technical stuff. As I mentioned earlier, I'm a computer consultant. I designed the software that runs lottery systems around the world. I've been doing that for 30 years.

BOOKTHINK: That's quite a responsibility! Anybody ever try to bribe you?

ORAM: People always ask me that, but the fact is that it's basically part of my job to make sure there's no possible way I could beat the system. So, on the one hand, I have this high tech part of my life, but on the other hand, I'd rather touch and feel a book.

BOOKTHINK: You know, that's interesting. People always worry so much about the Internet, technology hurting the book business, etc., but I think sometimes it can help prod us to look for something different too. So many of us work at computers at our regular jobs. When we get home, we'd rather pick a book off a shelf.

ORAM: I agree with you. There's something different about going to a used book store as opposed to buying online. And I buy things online - new books and used books. When I'm looking for a specific title, I go online, and bam! There it is. I bought my son's Christmas present online from a bookseller. But I like going into the used books stores and actually looking around and browsing, and looking inside the book and going, "Hmmm, this is interesting."

BOOKTHINK: And finding the unexpected that awakens your interest.

ORAM: Absolutely. That's what I like best.

BOOKTHINK: I think we all enjoy that. I don't think the bricks & mortar used book store will ever completely disappear.

ORAM: I hope not. I know there is tremendous pressure on bookstores these days.

BOOKTHINK: I think by combining Internet sales and walk-in traffic, some can make it work.

ORAM: I've heard a lot of people say the same thing. Booksellers enjoy the interaction with customers; you aren't going to run a bookstore very long if you don't like direct interaction with customers. They want that, and they know they aren't making a lot of money on the walk-ins, but it's part of their life, and they don't want to be all business all of the time. I admire that.

BOOKTHINK: Are there any changes in store for Book Sale Finder?

ORAM: We are always trying to make it better. Unfortunately, I'm a little slow sometimes to put changes in because my "real" job interferes. But Helen works full time, six or seven days a week, doing things on the site. I want to automate it a bit so that people can enter their sale information. On the other hand, it's really important to us that people don't feel that they are dealing with a computer all the time. Helen is here, and she has personal relationships with all sorts of people who visit our site and who advertise sales on our site, and that's really nice. We want to make sure we keep that. But at the same time, we want to try to add new things.

Just last year we added Google Maps to our site. We're proud of the fact that we actually find the library or wherever the sale is at and get the exact latitude and longitude and plug it in exactly where it is on the map, not just the town - and that's a little time consuming.

BOOKTHINK: I don't think I've ever used that tool. I usually just go to MapQuest, plug the library address in, and look up directions.

ORAM: Yes, I've got to get more people into using the Google Maps feature. Plus we are going to be doing some other things in that area. I have some ideas on making Google Maps work better and faster for our visitors so they can get good directions to sales on the site. One nice feature is that, when viewing the current sales in a given area, you can also click another button and get all the other non-profit book sales and stores in the same area.

BOOKTHINK: Right. A lot of times people drive a long ways to get to sale, and it's nice if they can manage to hit a few other book spots in the area.

ORAM: One of the things we're struggling with is how to help - how to advertise the (for-profit) used & rare book stores on our site. People have asked us over the years to put up advertising for their store. We could put stores on the site for a fee, but I'm not sure we would be giving them enough value just by doing this. It's important to us that, if someone is going to pay us for something, they receive some value for it. So one of the things we are struggling with is how to help used & rare books stores and how to work that into our site in such a way that they actually receive some valuable advertising.

BOOKTHINK: One possible answer might be for a book store located in the same area as a sale to advertise during the time leading up to it - have it linked to the same area as the sale.

ORAM: We are on the same wave length there. That's exactly the type of thing I'm thinking about doing, but I have to figure out how to do it on the site without having intrusive ads with a cluttered appearance. It's something we are struggling with all the time. We are supported by advertising, and it is a balancing act to keep the site orderly and useful and still give value to our advertisers.

We try to keep navigation simple for our visitors; a couple of clicks and you get the information you want. It's easy to get away from that if you aren't careful. I'm not a professional web site designer, but I do want to re-design some aspects of the site and make it a little more user-friendly - yet still keep the advertisers. I'm actually turning away advertisers right now because I don't want to crowd the site with more ads. I'm thinking of doing rotating ads for a couple of our spots. This is a good problem to have, but a tough one to solve.

BOOKTHINK: It's nice that you consider whether it's actually going to help your advertisers to advertise on your site. How many sites do that?!

ORAM: It's always been our policy to have a better-than-your-money back guarantee for advertising. We tell the advertisers that they don't have to pay until after the ad has run and they don't pay us unless they feel the ad was worth the money. Because of that, though, it means that I'm not going to take ads that aren't going to work. I know what works on the site.

Helen and I are struggling with what we can do to help used & rare booksellers. We have on-line booksellers who want to advertise with us, and I'm reluctant to begin selling them display ads. At this time, I offer them a classified space, but I'm not sure that's as valuable as it could be. So I'm trying to think of ways to really bring value rather than put their name up there with 400 other names.

BOOKTHINK: It's possible that you'll get some ideas, some feedback from this interview.

ORAM: I hope so. I look for feedback. Effective advertising for the online book selling community is not really available anywhere. If they have ways that they think they could attract people to their site, I'd love to know.

BOOKTHINK: Do you get much feedback about sales?

ORAM: We get a lot of feedback from visitors to the site - and it's almost always positive. But as for reports on the sales, occasionally somebody will say, "We went to this sale and it wasn't what you said it was." They rarely blame us. If we get a complaint about a sale, we remove the sender's name and forward the comments to the sale organizer so they will know about possible problems, and it gives them the opportunity to make corrections. Generally, they appreciate the comments.

BOOKTHINK: And book sales are different every year. The operation may be run in a consistent way, but volunteers change, and, as for quality, it's usually dependent on who happened to donate books that year - unfortunately, sometimes dependent on who got divorced or died or whatever. Of course, there are some areas that seem more fertile for good book hunting, like larger cities or college towns.

ORAM: Absolutely. And there are other random things that occur which are fun. A few years ago there was a sale in Ojai, Ca. Remember Larry Hagman, "J.R." in the TV show Dallas? He donated his mother's record collection - his mother was Mary Martin, a famous actor herself - to the Ojai library sale. Wouldn't you have loved to be there for that? We want the libraries to tell us about unusual donations so people will know about them. There's a sale in Connecticut I've been to a couple of times that always seems to have a lot of uncorrected proofs - and I love uncorrected proofs.

BOOKTHINK: It's amazing what you still can find. Last summer we went to an FOL sale in Ohio. Of course, we planned our whole route by your site. We didn't realize that there was a "preview sale" the night before, though we were in town and could have attended. But we got in line the next morning, and there were herds of people in there. You know, sometimes you look around, and you think everything good must be gone. But it's almost never true. About an hour into the hunt, I picked up a first edition of Gerald Ford's A Time for Healing. People had passed over it with their scanners, but nobody had examined it. I opened it to look it over, and it was signed by Gerald Ford on the half-title page on a Presidential Bookplate, and the book and jacket were both in fine condition.

ORAM: You're kidding! That's a great story. Most people feel that if they don't get there in the first hour of the first day, it's over.

BOOKTHINK: I have actually found great things on the last day that have been totally overlooked. I think people get so excited; they feel pressured to hurry through the books. Also, after an hour or two, they lose their focus and they aren't really seeing what's in front of them anymore.

ORAM: I may use that as an example of why people shouldn't give up on book sales after the first day. It's a great story.

BOOKTHINK: You're welcome to use it.

ORAM: That, by the way, is another area we are looking to improve on our site. We are looking at ways of putting information on there so book dealers and book scouts know what to expect when they get to a sale - whether the library is going to allow scanners, credit cards, or whatever else might be important to know.

BOOKTHINK: I was also wondering - I know this can be touchy - but perhaps it would be an idea to put some sale etiquette guidelines on the site.

ORAM: That's one of the things we'd like to look at addressing.

BOOKTHINK: Perhaps you could survey some of the libraries and see what they see as problematic.

ORAM: A survey is on our list of things to do this year. A forum might be a way to address the subject. Most dealers act professionally. As we've said, the people organizing and running these sales are volunteers, and they don't deserve problems.

BOOKTHINK: I feel bad when there is boorish behavior at book sales. It doesn't happen often, but it's embarrassing for other dealers who try to be considerate when somebody doesn't abide by posted rules or even behave decently.

ORAM: My fear is that I could put something out there on book sale etiquette, but the people who are rude aren't the ones who will read it or pay any attention to it.

BOOKTHINK: Have you seen the number of library listings increasing?

ORAM: Yes. When we first started we had about 20,000 page views per month; ee're now up to 200,000 per month. Last year we had about 6,000 sales at 3,000 locations. It's hard for me to remember, but when we first started I think we had about 800 to 1,000 sales listed.

One thing that made a big difference - and something we are very proud of - is our Sale Mail feature where we send personalized e-mails to our readers informing them of upcoming sales in their area. The person tells us what distance they are willing to travel and every week we send out e-mails to all these people telling them about any sales in their selected area. That has worked out very well for us. We send the Sale Mail out on Tuesday night, and we get the most hits on Wednesday. Everybody's at work, looking these things up!

BOOKTHINK: A lot of people probably don't take advantage of this feature, including myself. I go to the site every few days to see if anything new has popped up, but Sale Mail sounds like a great idea.

ORAM: We have some people who spend the winter in Florida or another southern state and will switch their location down there, then switch their location back up north for the summer. Other people might have two or three book stores, and they have us checking the radius of each of their book stores for sales each week. Every week now we are sending out 15,000 e-mails notifying people of upcoming book sales in their selected area of interest through Sale Mail.

BOOKTHINK: That's a lot of people depending on you.

ORAM: It's hard to get by our technical providers - to convince them it's not spam. But we're not sending out one "newsletter" to 15,000 people; each e-mail is personalized depending on what geographic area that person is interested in. We are proud of that, and we know that has made a big difference to our site traffic. People really seem to appreciate the service.

BOOKTHINK: I'm sure that is a problem, getting around the whole spam issue. That must get tougher all the time.

ORAM: We have a good relationship with our customers, and they let us get through their email blockers. We have been sending Sale Mail for six years now, and the subscriber list is constantly growing.

BOOKTHINK: You are providing a great service for all of us who are constantly looking for places to scout for books.

ORAM: Funny, but I'm actually a user of our site. As I said, Helen does all the work, so I don't see what she's putting in. So like everybody else, I wait eagerly for Wednesday morning to see what book sales are coming up. I look forward to my Sale Mail. Occasionally I'll say, "Hey, let's go to this one." Then Saturday comes around and we've got too much work to do!

BOOKTHINK: Did Helen have another career before Book Sale Finder?

ORAM: She raised the boys. They are now 39 and 36. That pretty much pegs us, huh?

BOOKTHINK: It's amazing what we can do later in life now, isn't it?

ORAM: It is. We were young parents, so we just turned 60. This is what we plan to do in retirement.

BOOKTHINK: And isn't it great to have retirement not be "retirement"?

ORAM: It is. I love working on the site. I'm anxious to get to the point where I am able to spend more time on Book Sale Finder. We have a lot of plans for the site, both functional and technical, and we are looking forward to implementing them.

BOOKTHINK: It has been a real pleasure to talk with you, Tom - and informative.

I'll say it again: I don't know what we'd do without your site! I love it when Spring arrives - I'm sure you can sympathize with that, living in the Northeast - because it's harder to travel to sales in the winter. We do it, of course, because we're nuts! But it's lovely to look forward to Spring and more pleasant traveling conditions. I just take my calendar and write down all the more attractive sales from your site, and that's how we plan much of our year.

ORAM: I'm glad to hear that, and I hope we can make it easier for you and others to do. Once again, if you or any readers have ideas about how our site can make improvements, we do want to hear about it.

Questions or comments?
Contact the editor, Craig Stark

Copyright 2003-2011 by BookThink LLC