used books

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Yes, the used book business is different, but it’s kinda fun because of it: or me vs the scanner people

Published February 5, 2017 by The Merida Review

When I moved back to the states, people kept asking me if I was going to get back into bookselling, I had had a used and rare bookshop before I moved away, and I kept adamantly saying NO, though I had no clue how I was going to support myself. In retrospect, I’m not sure why I was so dead set against it. Maybe I just wanted to look forward and not muck about in the past? Don’t know. At any rate, I found myself looking for books, buying books, telling myself I would be a collector and build up this fabulous collection, but when I found myself buying books I had absolutely no interest in, just because they were obviously worth way more than they were priced, the writing was kind of on the wall and I bowed to the inevitable and began searching for books seriously, with the intent of building up enough business to allow me to eat and sleep and feed my dogs so I could continue to write books that – well, they sell some.

I was something of an expert at the point when I moved away, but with a 10 year gap and a big recession in between my leaving off and starting again, I wasn’t sure what my old knowledge was worth, how much was different. So I bought rather hesitantly. And I don’t have a vast amount of money to invest, so I’m nickel and diming it, buying at the low end of the spectrum. I think the most I’ve paid for any single book so far is $15, and that was for a 1820s farrier’s guide at a country auction. Which will be a hard sell! but a delight to be the custodian of in the meantime. I love old books.

I have been officially in the book business for 10 months now, and am more confident – yes, the business has changed and a new generation of collectors have entered the field, and I don’t yet know everything, but I’m getting a feel for it.

When I left the business in 2007, we were starting to see people with scanners show up at charity book sales, but no one took them seriously.  And here, I think, is the biggest change in the business. I would say that nowdays, anyone who enters the used book business does it with a scanner in hand. They scan ISBN codes and their machines tell them what books to buy. The dealers set the parameters, and the machines tell them which books are worth X or above, and what the sell rate is. These dealers are only interested in books with ISBN codes, so only in books printed after 1966.

There are now hoards of book dealers with scanners at any sales with a lot of books. I went to a tiny library sale in a tiny town nearby last week, and there were 3 of them. The entire sale consisted of maybe 6 card tables worth of books, on the surface of the tables and also on the floors beneath. 2 card tables’ worth was the entire nonfiction section, which is where the scanner people were huddled. There was no room for anyone else to get in while they were there. They were shoulder to shoulder. What they do is go down the rows and hold their scanners up to each ISBN number and buy the books that get a positive response. So they don’t move till they’ve scanned every book. And then they just move a couple of inches. I looked between shoulders, reached over and plucked a few books over their heads and was pretty disgruntled with the whole experience. I’m in the starting phases of my book business and I’m pretty desperate for books at this point, but I don’t think library sales (now that the scanner people have invaded) are going to be very helpful to me. They never were, actually. Library sales tend to have newer books, and I’m interested in older books, but I would go anywhere that had books because you never know where you’ll find the next great book and I have found a few amazing things at library book sales over the years. But few and far between.

Estate auctions, on the other hand, where every book dealer worth his stuff would have been found in the past, are now pretty deserted. Auctioneers don’t even bother to advertise when they have books half the time. I asked a scanner guy about this when I was standing in line at the Fremont library sale last fall, and he said he’d tried auctions but he just didn’t find enough to make it worth his while. When I picked my jaw up off the floor and thought about it, I realized he is in a totally different business than I am. He’s making a living going around with his scanner and buying and selling books via ISBN numbers. I am building up a business to support myself based on authors and titles and content (and edition).

I come home with my piles of books and sit and look them up on the internet, to see how similar copies are priced, how common or scarce they might be. I carefully judge and describe the condition, I type my books by hand into a database one by one with a photo of each. Scanner people don’t do it that way.

I’m not judging what they do. I think they probably make more money and faster than I do. They don’t even have to house their own books, they can ship them off to Amazon, or other book brokers who will sell them for the scanner book dealer and send money when the books sell. I looked into this scanner stuff for awhile, thinking that maybe I could do it in addition to what I already do. Since I was already at book sales, maybe I could double my productivity. But I don’t think they’re compatible. We do things in a totally different way with a totally different mindset. And when I considered my future both ways, I’d rather be an old school used and rare dealer, it’s gentler and slower and would allow me time to write. I get to savor my books a little more, I think, which is important to me.

So as I soldier on, I am discovering odd little holes where the scanner people have left opportunities. Obviously books before 1966. But also with book club editions. They don’t have ISBN numbers, and old school book dealers won’t touch them (who wants a book club edition?) so there’s a (false) scarcity. Titless that weren’t reprinted (much) whose first editions are scarce and pricey, there’s a market for book clubs, because people who want to actually READ them want to buy them for $5 to $10. I am just starting to find this out, I am an old school book dealer who was trained not to touch a book club edition with a 10 foot pole, so this is an alien concept for me, and it’s only a select type of book that this theory is valid for. But it’s there and it’s explorable and it’s an avenue I can easily and cheaply pursue.

It’s having these little secrets that other book dealers don’t know that help you survive. I can’t think book club books are going to do much for me, really, but when you get into the book buying thing, you start finding fields that are starting to be collectible that other people haven’t caught on to yet, and you can go wild with it. (For a while. Other people will catch on.) Things like this make the used book business exciting. I don’t know if scanner people have that. I don’t know enough about what they do.

Listen to me. I remember myself a year or so ago, telling people that no way was I going to start selling books again. Ha. Silly me.

Anyways. Here I am. Book dealer. Old school vs the scanner people. Well, I don’t know if it’s versus as much as me discovering the opportunities they’ve opened up with their dependence on ISBN numbers. Oh man, I have learned to love ISBN numbers, or rather the lack of them. I mean, look how many books have been printed since ISBN numbers came along, and just look at how many there were printed before. The odds are in my favor.