How I Opened my Bookstore

I can’t remember when I thought that it might be fun to have my own bookstore. I know that since my teens I have enjoyed going to book stores. The first “book” type stores I remember going to was the comic book store that was operated at the building that housed the local taxi service. I grew up reading “Classics Illustrated” and DC comics.

The Marvel Universe

I was blown away when Marvel came on the scene with comics like “The Fantastic Four”, “Tales of Suspense”, “ The Hulk”, “Strange Tales” and the like. I don’t remember going to many bookstores when I was a child, but I had lots of books nonetheless. My mother bought books for me, I got books from the library at school and relatives gave me books. I really started acquiring books when I got out of high school, went to college for a while.   I got a car and my aquisitions exploded. It quickly became apparent that I needed a bumper sticker that said, “ I brake for book stores”. By my early 20’s I had accumulated a thousand or so odd books. Most of them came from bookstores, but many of them came from going to the flea market. This was 40 years or so ago and the nature of bookstores has changed dramatically since then. When I was in my late teens and 20’s and went into a bookstore and saw a book I really liked, I generally bought the book. In those days you didn’t know when you might see a particular book again. Today if I visit a book store and find a book I like, I am not quite as likely to buy the book on the basis that I might not be able to find that book again. Armed with my cell phone I can quickly determine if most books are readily available by doing a simple search on my favorite -site ABE Books. I have wondered the hall of nostalgic memory and have digressed from my story.

For over 30 years my main business had been selling industrial equipment. It has been a good business. About 15 years ago I bought a building in Mercersburg, Pa. To house my industrial sales business. The building was about 15,000 square feed of mostly warehouse space. I filled it with industrial equipment. Somewhere along the line my wife and I separated. Seeing the need for something new, I opened a small gift shop for a friend of mine. In the gift shop I had a small corner where I had a few shelves of books. The books were mostly new books. I started distributing books for Llewellyn Publications Wennawoods books and a few others. I was excited to be selling books.

I had taken about 1100 square feet of front of my warehouse and converted it to a gift shop. It was a lot of work and a lot of effort. Mercersburg is a small town and while the gift shop produced sales, it never produced enough sales to continue a full time venture.

After about 3 years I decided that the gift shop venture simply wasn’t going to be economically viable. Along the way I had wanted to open up a bookstore. I had actually been slowly working on converting another part of my building into space for an eventual bookstore. I started putting up walls and running electricity. My biggest challenge (or so I thought) was in finding enough books to open a store.

I was well aware of the seeming futility of opening a bookstore in Mercersburg, Pa. My building is not along the main routes into or going out of town. The street that I am on doesn’t have the greatest traffic count. Undaunted, I kept working on walls. I started buying some new books and some remainders. I was impressed with the notion that coming up with enough books to fill a store with new books or remainders would be very costly. I felt as though I was being unrealistic. At this time (about 2005), the traditional bookstore was coming under the assault of the Internet. Big box bookstores were still thriving, but great change was on the way. I realized that my bookstore would not likely be busy, but I still wanted to have a bookstore. By this time I had gotten divorced and filed bankruptcy to save my property from a tax sale. It really wasn’t the best time to open a bookstore.
I recently read a quotation from Camus that I am fond of –
“In the midst of winter, I finally learned that there was in me an invincible summer” – L’Ete

In the midst of the winter following my divorce and entering into bankruptcy, I pretty much figured that opening a bookstore was going to be beyond my financial capacity. Being in a bankruptcy meant that I would have a difficult time obtaining any financing to buy inventory or to obtain any capital to put up more walls and convert warehouse space into retail space.

A friend of mine called and asked me if I wanted to buy slat board from a closed sporting goods store. It was industrial slat board with metal reinforcement – very expensive to buy new. I bought a truck full of it and put it into my warehouse. I started selling some of the slat board before I realized that it would work great in a book store – the metal reinforcement meant that the slat board would hold the weight of books – books which I still did not have!

I talked to a friend of mine who had a book store in Chambersburg, Pa and he told me that he would be happy to sell me loads of books for $1.00 a book. I realized that if I were going to open a bookstore with 10 or 15 thousand books I would have to come up with 10 or 15 thousand dollars. I didn’t have that kind of money. I pretty much decided to give up the notion of ever having a bookshop. Why tilt after windmills? Why dream impossible dreams?

Somewhere along the way I had opened an Ebay store and had become and Ebay Trading Assistant. One day, out of the blue, I received an email from a company asking me if I could assist them to dispose of the contents of a used bookstore. I emailed back and set up an appointment to go look at a used bookstore in the Camp Hill Pa. Area that had recently closed. The store had closed abruptly. Apparently the woman who ran the bookstore “ran off” with “someone” and simply closed her store and abandoned her books. I visited the store to find a fully stocked bookstore in about 2000 square feet of space. There were lots of books in the store and some books in an outer area need the rear door. I considered my position to be one of advising my Ebay client of the best way to dispose of the books. I told them that they would likely get the best return on the books if the tried to sell the books in small lots or individually on Ebay or on the Internet in general. I told them that they would likely have a hard time selling the books as a lot due to the daunting nature of removing all of the books, thousands of old magazines, and hundreds of feet of rickety wood shelving. The Ebay client turned out to be a real estate company that leased the space for the store. I quickly found out that their biggest interest was in getting the space rented. I mentioned to the client that I might have a personal interest in buying the books. They asked me to make an offer. I had no idea what to offer for these books. I knew that there were over 15000 books there and I also knew that I would have to deal with disposing of thousands of old magazines and old bookshelves. I would also have to deal with the physical loading, transporting and moving of the books.

I went next door to where the bookstore used to be and found a video rental store. I asked a clerk at the video store if the lady who owned the bookstore ever tried to sell all of her books. I was told that she had put all of her books onto Ebay as a lot with a starting price of $300.00 with the description being “as is where is – you load and remove” and had not received an offer.

I went back to the rental company and made an offer of $500.00 for the books with the agreement that I would remove all of the books and clean the store. I expected them to roll on the floor and laugh. They told me that they would get back to me and a few days later they called and asked if I would go up a few hundred dollars on my offer. I agreed to do so and I bought all of the books.
When we started to remove the books we discovered a rear nook of about 800 square feet that was crammed with books from floor to ceiling. I was fortunate to have a 22-foot long flatbed truck, which I used to transport the books. We put book onto pallets and unloaded the pallets with a forklift. I was fortunately well equipped to deal with loading, moving and storing the books.

I went into my warehouse and got industrial shelving. We set up the industrial shelving and started to bring books from the closed book store to my bookstore. This was fun. We removed the books by category – biography, literature, history, etc and simply put them onto shelves in my soon to be store. We painted the concrete warehouse floor and set about to filling shelves with books. I still only had a shell of a store- but that is another story.

At some point further along the way, I got back more that the entire amount I paid for the books from one box of books which contained 8 volumes of Joseph Needham’s “Science and Civilisation in China”.
Now I had a books and the beginning of a bookstore! Now I had a dream that had come true. I was very pleased.
Now I had to find a way to make this work.
Having a bookstore was something I wanted to do. It was a dream. I refused to give up and it manifested itself into reality. To anyone having a dream of opening a bookstore – I wish you great success in your endeavor and hope that your dream also manifests itself into reality.

John Pollard
Jpollardbookseller @gmail.com
Brick and Mortar and on the NET

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