The Fundamentals of Operating a Successful Used Book Store

opening a successful Used Book Store
Used Book Store in Germany

In spite of the advent of electronic publishing, the Kindle for instance, the death of books printed on paper has been vastly exaggerated. For myself, I can’t imagine using one of those things to read a book but obviously someone does or the Kindle wouldn’t survive.

My wife and I have owned 5 successful used bookstores. By successful I mean they produced a reasonable income for the time involved. But if you are thinking of operating a used book store in hopes of getting rich, or even mildly rich, or even well to do, forget it. My guess is the average income bookstore operators are taking from their operation will range from $22,000 to $60,000 a year. Owning a used bookstore must first be a labor of love with financial considerations coming in second.

However, if you are one of those people who love books, love talking about books, and love a stress-free working environment, and are determined to own a used bookstore, here are a few suggestions.

  • First and foremost, have a spotless and clean smelling bookstore. Far too many used bookstores smell dingy and look dingy. This is not the middle ages and people expect retail establishments to be bright and shiny.
  • Make your store a pleasant place for customers to browse in. Use a lot of white and pastels and avoid like the plague those awful, natural wood shelves. You have a retail store not a log cabin! Put some art on the walls.
  • Organize, organize, and organize. We have never had a store that did not have the general divisions (romance, mystery, science fiction, westerns, etc.) with each division alphabetical by author. Anything less than that is unacceptable. The divisions need to be well marked (spend a few bucks to have attractive signs made). Ask yourself “how easy and pleasant can I make the shopping experience for my customers?”
  • Don’t clutter up your store with calendars, greeting cards, bookmarks or, heaven forbid, coffee. You are a bookseller not a variety merchant!
  • You have a product you are selling and, hopefully, people are buying. Therefore, forget all that historical nonsense about store credit, trading two for one, keeping a rolodex of how much credit your customers have. Buy and sell your books for CASH and cherry pick every book you buy. I can’t tell you how many of our customers walked in our store and said “I thought this was a used bookstore – where are all the used books”. That’s because most of the books we buy look like new books. Of course you can’t do that across the board. If you need westerns or science fiction you are going to have to take a lot that are not in the best condition. But overall, your bookstore should sparkle with clean books. You may not want to do this but every single book we ever took in was cleaned with 409 to sanitize it and give it a good odor. I should have bought stock in that company!
  • Along similar lines, but just some good advice, you are going to have smokers bring in books. You won’t have to ask, just smell them. Two days in the sunshine will cure that as will a grocery bag liberally laced with wither talcum powder or baking soda. Whatever you do, don’t mix smokers books with your others until they have been deodorized.
  • The greatest source of new customers is old customers. Readers talk to each other and when they get a bookstore they like they are very loyal. Therefore, don’t spend too much money on advertising. (we spend nothing!)
  • Make friends with your local library. They have wonderful book sales and if you go you will see a lot of your customers there.
  • Take a lesson from the cattle business – well bought is well sold. Don’t fall in love with books you see for sale. Our top price is $2.00 and it had better be a good book in demand before we go that high.
  • Don’t ever bother with Harlequins. The only exception is those few that were written a long time ago by writers that are currently popular.
  • By far the best advice I can give you is to read, read, and read. Customers expect you to be up to date on current authors and books and you have a responsibility to do so. My wife has listened to a lot of audio books just to familiarize herself with various authors. If you do not so this you will never be a bookseller, only a person who sells books and you can find hundreds of them at any flea market.
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  • Fantastic article, Ed. I don’t dream of opening a physical bookshop, my virtual online one keeps me gainfully employed. I do visit a lot of secondhand bookshops though, and have formed a lot of opinions about what does and doesn’t work. And here you have basically echoed my thoughts in your wonderful post. Thanks.

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  • I’d like to think my husbands bookshop reflects what you say here. We were talking lately about adding coffee or gifts but have decided against it (though he does make magnets which sell well). Thanks

    • A wise decision. The magnets are okay but we found that every square inch of our store has to be devoted to selling books because that’s what we do. However, if you are intent on running a restaurant I have one for sale.

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  • Ed, I have to ask (I manage a used bookstore). How are you paying people for books and staying afloat if you are only charging max $2.00 per book? What is your typical percentage in payment? We actually have credit cards we give out to people, and I now have a budget as to how much I can spend on purchasing books per month. Thanks! (P.S. We also have a new store, and we just opened another used/new. Plus, we are opening one more in October.)

    • I think he is paying his customers 2.00 max per book, not selling for that.

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