We recently had a letter to the editor from someone wanting to become a bookseller. Since the response was long and involved, I'm promoting it to a full-fledged article. I am relying on my own experience as a bookseller, peppering my comments with suggestions I've gotten from other sellers. This would be a great forum discussion item, sharing our experiences with how we started. Please feel free to send along your comments. The letter is as follows.
To Whom it May Concern:
My name is Fred Loveland. I am interested in learning how to enter the book business. I would like to eventually have a business with three components. One being an online book store and the other two components a mail order business and a store. I am in the process of researching the business. I have approximately 5,000 personal volumes I could use for inventory. I have some seed money. Although, I am no expert in your business and do need some advice. Thank you for your time and consideration is this matter. Sorry to bother you. I know that your time is valuable.
The value of our time is helping our readers, and so your letter is not a bother by any stretch of the imagination. You are embarking on a life-changing enterprise, with each of your three components constituting a major undertaking. I hope you're taking your vitamins and getting a lot of sleep. (Starting a book business is a lot like having a child: there's a lot of anticipation preparing for it and a lot of late nights working once the baby's born.)
Because there are so many variables, almost as many as the kinds of people who go into the profession, there is no one "right" answer, so I welcome any and all insights and war-stories our readers want to share.
Ask yourself a couple of important questions before you commit to a shop: what do you hope to gain by opening one, what do you hope or need to earn, how many hours do you plan to devote to a shop, and is the space you can afford equal to the space you'll need?
Catalog sales can be done in conjunction with a shop, but this facet of the business takes time for your to develop a good, solid customer list, and setting books aside that you might be able to sell to walk-in traffic can be a problem.
And as for the online sales, do you plan to simply list what you have on the shelves? And how do you plan to keep abreast of deletions from the database? Do you have a good storage and packing space to use for those books that sell? And will you hire employees?
There are no easy answers because much depends on experience with books, location, and seed money. You can start with little and build up and with the Internet, this is easier to accomplish, but you'll need a good steady income until that happens.
The pros and cons to owning a shop are pretty clear-cut. On the plus side, a shop is a great way to buy books. People walk in with them all the time. Since you'll own a phone, you'll probably be listed in the yellow pages as a shop, and this attracts all sorts of house calls. Internet buyers feel assured that, because you have financial obligations to meet, you'll treat your business more responsibly-namely, getting shipments out quickly. You'll also benefit by being a part of the business community in your area, even if you work from a space in your home.
But opening your doors to the public also has its down side. You'll have expenses like insurance and higher utility rates, not to mention possible employment costs. Bookshops also attract people who'll talk your ear off if you let them. And you won't be able to work in your pajamas. If you have regular posted hours and want to include book calls or shows to your daily schedule, you'll have to hire help and train them. That's easier said than done, especially in a strong economy.
With your inventory online at the same time it's for sale in the shop, you run the risk of books being relocated without your knowledge, and this will cost you time. Internet listing will force you to stay organized, and it also gives you a good excuse not to be cornered by a time-sucking customer who simply wants to talk. You'll look and be too busy to engage in frivolous conversation. But a shop is only so big, and part of it will have to be dedicated to a shipping area and storage for packaging materials. The larger your Internet sales become, the greater the need for storage and work space.
Before you start, check with your local post office. Make sure they will welcome your packages. Some don't. In our town, we used three different post offices at various times. One kept trying to pawn us off, telling us to take our packages to the main office, etc. The other two were far more welcoming, one even had an employee take our shipment to do between customers and calling us in the end to bring over our credit card. (Before we started manifest mailing, we were bringing at least 50 packages a day to our main post office). But as helpful as they were, getting there was really tough-it was a historic building without a handicap ramp. This forced us to haul a heavy load up 8 steps every day.
I have heard of some NYC post offices that limit the number of packages you can bring to them in a day. One NY seller complained to me that he had to visit 4 different offices each day to handle his growing business. As you can imagine, the time lost going from one post office to another was time spent away from listing books, limiting his growth considerably.
The Internet is a great way to build a customer list, and if you decide to go into catalog sales, the one consideration you'll have to have is: can you withhold choice books from the walk-in trade while you're developing your catalog?
The best way to handle that is to segregate your catalog listings, keeping them from the public eye. Also, be prepared for calls about books you may have listed some time in the past, at prices that are far below the current market value. We recently searched google.com for a particular book and found a catalog listing. When we called the dealer, he informed us that the particular listing was 4 years old. The price was very low but he honored it, though he had to dig for the item. He had long since given up on the idea of selling it.
My advice to you is to plan out your finances and see how far they will carry you. Will you work at another job or will a spouse or relative provide the necessary income to cover your current expenses? Are you retired? Can you part with books that you love and were part of your own collection? Will you look at what you buy for resale and ache over losing it to a customer, kicking yourself about the possibility of selling at too low a price, or agonizing that you may have over-charged? Do you have the free time to devote to your new business?
Bookselling entails long hours. Other than manning a shop, you'll have to research, price, and list books for sale. You'll be invited on house calls, go to auctions, and hunt down books whereever they are prevalent in your area. Do you have other booksellers nearby to develop a professional friendship with in order to share knowledge, resources, and perhaps partner with for special purchases?
Lastly, assess yourself carefully. What are your strengths and weaknesses? Do you have a plan to bolster your shortcomings? I know successful booksellers who are a lot of fun, kind, and warm until they sit behind a counter in an open shop. Others are just the opposite. If you plan to open a shop in or near your home, can you tolerate the interruptions to your life that customers will inflict? Can your family withstand this? (If your wife or husband cleans house in the nude, you probably don't want them answering the door.) Know in advance what your family will expect of you. Set personal boundaries and live up to them.
Then expect the unexpected.
Tune in to the next issue when Fred writes back, and Edith shares some information about useful bookselling tools!