My own experience is almost a perfect example of what not to do when starting a book business, but here I am ten years later giving advice. Ain't life surprising!
Eleven years ago I took a two-year educational leave from my job as a college administrator. My husband Dan worked nights as a psychiatric counselor at a local hospital but he always wanted to own a business in downtown Waterbury where we live (in the center of CT). I complained to him that as a member of the board of our Literacy Volunteers, I received a lot of complaints that there was no place in town where our volunteers and students could buy inexpensive reading books. Dan decided then and there that between my evening schedule of classes and his third shift at work, we could open a small used bookshop to fill this need.
We leased a 400 s/f storefront for a year at $400 a month. We spent $8000 to build shelves and buy supplies and then we stocked the place with the leftovers from a library sale. Yes, that's how inexperienced we were-we loved books, we read books, I was still writing for a newspaper and working for a Masters in Victorian literature. Dan was writing and publishing poetry. And we still thought we could sell books a library couldn't give away. With credentials like that, how could we fail?
Easily, we found out. But Dan is a lucky guy. We had a trickle of good customers and we tripped across some good books. One wonderful man in town brought us boxes of clean, newer books for free in order to encourage us to stay in business.
Granted, we had our pitfalls, some regular customers (and I use that term very loosely) who monopolized a lot of our time. A small store doesn't offer many ways to avoid these time-vampires, so I had to develop a lot of tact I normally don't possess. We also had some really unusual events- one lady splayed her bare breasts against our front window trying to attract a horrified customer, screaming for all the world to hear, "Get a load of these, Loverboy!"
Soon it was clear that we needed to regard the BUSINESS of books if we wanted to continue. When one bookseller invited us to share a booth at a weekend long antiques show, we jumped at the chance, even though we were completely unprepared. That show entailed a lot of long hours with few sales, but I was thrilled to make nearly $300. (After you deduct the material for the table coverings and shelving I had to buy it was a lot less, but getting my feet wet was invaluable).
Aside from the experience, that show introduced Dan to the value of the rare book market and he went forward with it full steam ahead. A monster was born.
I know you may think "monster" is too strong a word, but none else will do. Dan has a blessing and a curse rolled into one. He is lucky and has a great eye for undiscovered gems. I've watched him pull out wonderful items overlooked by scores of more experienced buyers; he shows instinct for items in areas where he has no knowledge; and he's personable. At the same time, he is a consummate accumulator of books. Not a collector, mind you, an accumulator. Dan hauls home books by the ton. With a 400 s/f space, there's not a lot of room to spare, and we weren't making enough money to pay for off-site storage. We filled the basement under the store twice. (We had water damage once and I had to clear the blasted thing out fast). Pretty soon our house became so inundated with books that our good friend who's a library director had to warn Dan about the possibility of slipping the foundation.
At about this point our daughter fell ill with a severe case of lupus and I needed to spend more time with her. Enchanted with owning my own business and thinking that my hours were really my own, I left my state job and we moved the shop into a new location, sharing space with an antiques dealer. This allowed me to work part time, but it strangled our walk-in trade. This forced Dan into doing more shows and developing friendships with other booksellers who were generous about sharing their knowledge and experience with him.
After a year we moved again to a much larger space, sharing it with another bookseller in the basement of a former department store. A cafe was attached that attracted more walk-in trade, but with two men in charge (I was spending more time with my daughter), the space became disorganized fast.
Over time we bought out the other dealer, I came back to work full-time and Dan joined the ABAA. But nothing compared to the Internet for truly rejuvenating our business. I spent a year working from home doing eBay. This provided a strong cash flow that was essential because Dan left his hospital job in order to devote his energy to bookselling full time. His schedule included over 20 book fairs a year along with the open shop.
Since Waterbury CT is more known for political corruption and crime than a love for reading, it was essential that we plunge into the Internet market to grow. We hired one girl, Liz, to list on eBay for us and to maintain our Powerseller status. We began listing books on Abe and Alibris, adding Amazon about a year later. Dan developed a Web site called sellusyourbooks.com to help in acquiring books, and things just grew from there. Another girl was hired, Liz's sister Vicky, and a former customer of ours came on board to help with packing (That's Furlan). Dan's Internet inventory grew fast (today we have around 50,000 books listed for sale online).
This led into another business with his brother Mike as a partner: Americanbooksellers.com. This is a fulfillment warehouse for online booksellers where we hold the inventory in a warehouse and pick, pack and ship books for Dan and other dealers as well as providing pallet storage for what can't be fit into a seller's home or shop. This grew out of Dan's needs as a bookseller (accumulator) and what we observed happening to shop owners who suddenly lost a lease or developed an illness that interrupted business.
September 1992 marked our tenth anniversary in the business. Last March a building we had always loved came up for sale. Dan and I had been hemming, hawing and dragging our feet about buying a house with a barn in order to work from home. When we heard about this building being up for sale, it took about 2 seconds to decide to make an offer.
In the next issue, Edith Reynolds discusses the challenges of renovating a building and preparing it to become the new home of the John Bale Book Company.