A word on Specialization for Book Sellers

Tom Nealon of Pazzo Books brings us his first post on specialization and how you might want to get your feet wet after first opening a shop. Some good thoughts for veteran sellers as well.


After the initial madness of setting up a bookstore (be it online or an
open shop), and assuming you’re like most of us and have limited capital,
you’ll start to become interested in specializing a bit without breaking
the bank. As book selling is such a funny mix of capitalism and hobby,
retail and reverie, it’s important to make it as rewarding and interesting
as possible as the financial rewards may not always equal the
non-economic. How you do this is, of course, a very personal affair, here are just a few thoughts:

You can specialize in an author – buy your Hemingway/Faulker/Dr. Seuss
bibliographies and go to town. If you’re absolutely in love with a
certain author this can be a very satisfying path – the problem of course
is the lack of capital problem, again, as most good modern firsts run in
the 4 figures (if you’re buying nice jacketed editions. I’ll talk a bit
about firsts sans jackets in a later post) which is out of most of our
single book price ranges – at least on a regular basis. An alternative is
to specialize in little known or semi-discovered authors, collect all
their books and make a market yourself – if there is an author that is
genuinely overlooked this is fun, rewarding, and potentially quite
profitable. I’ll have more to say about book speculation in later posts,
but while this is not a quick way to get rich (though I don’t see why it
couldn’t be a slow way to get rich), it does bring interest and meaning to
the enterprise. For example – I recently read a few novels by the
Japanese novelist Kobo Abe who is medium famous but perhaps more for the
films made of his novels than the novels themselves. I checked around and
firsts of his books – in English – are quite cheap, considering, and I’ve
since picked up a couple to stash away. With this tactic you can also go
on a blog somewhere and offhandedly mention that you think an author is
overlooked – it might just stick sometime.

Try old books. Old books (16th-18th Century) have a built in interest –
it’s fun to hold them, count the signatures, examine the type impressions
(we have a great early 17th century French book of plays that I’ve used
for many of our website designs. The type they used was so beaten up and
re-used that it seems to have a history all its own), check the bindings,
and pore over the woodcuts. (here’s a nice site for bindings from
the British Library
. It’s important, for obvious reasons, to know as
much about period bindings as possible to ascertain when an older book was

One nice thing about older books is that they were much better made –
often making them far less fragile than modern firsts (especially their
dust jackets), and that they are much safer to buy on Ebay than firsts
(especially signed
. In this day and age it is usually more expensive to fake an
old book than it’s worth (with many notable exceptions) – though it’s
still best to view annotations on older books with
. The problem is often that the most affordable older books
are either of limited interest or are theology and in Latin so, if the aim
is to bring life and interest to your job as a bookseller, this route can
be problematic (unless you did better than I in high school Latin. They
called me the C+ kid). With some clever auction hunting (both online and
off – we’ve had much more luck off), antiquarian stock is available and
relatively affordable. Don’t be afraid of ancient ex-library books –
while they need to be priced down, libraries and scholars are often
interested in good reading copies of original editions.

I’ve a bad habit of reading old book seller catalogs on the toilet (not to
worry, they do not find their way back to the shop) and some of my great
history of books discoveries have come with my pants down (there’s a
witticism in there about how many of my purchases have been in the same
condition). Catalogs of distinguished dealers (like H.P.
) can yield valuable information even if the books therein are
generally unobtainable. Many open shops will have piles of old dealer
catalogs around (we always do) that can be picked up for a song.

One of the best tips I’ll leave you with is to put some money out there.
There is probably no better incentive to learn about books than if you’ve
just dropped some actual cash on some. No matter how much you may read
about book selling, until you involve yourself financially, it’s often
just voyeurism (if you’re a dedicated self motivator, you can probably
ignore this advice, but for the rest…).

Tom Nealon