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The Reinvented Bookstore

As a teenager in the 1970s I spent many happy weekends with my father haunting used bookstores and charity book sales. At every library sale, I was accustomed to the presence of bookmen: owners and employees from the used-book stores we loved. The bookmen would grab handfuls of books and set them under tables or into boxes, to preempt competing dealers. While the dealers’ methods were intrusive to casual book-hounds like me, I loved the bookstores they were keeping stocked through their energetic book-hunting.

The rise of used book selling on the Internet in the early 2000s introduced severe downward price pressure to the business that caused many brick-and-mortar stores to close their doors. Many of those store owners reestablished themselves as online-only dealers in order to stay in the market.

People who for various personal reasons were moving and downsizing their belongings, and who formerly would have sold their book collections to neighborhood bookstores, were now more likely to donate their books to Friends of Libraries (FOL) groups for their own book sales.

Inventories at library book sales skyrocketed. Meanwhile, the number of used-book dealers also skyrocketed because the new online channels made small-scale selling much easier than staffing a storefront full time.

The new breed of online dealers has proven to be made up of energetic library-sale book hounds, using cellphone scanning software to check prices on the Web. They can be rude to casual shoppers as they jostle to scan ISBNs in search of underpriced gems, and FOL volunteers sometimes struggle to defend shoppers from unpleasant experiences with these hypercompetitive dealers. The result has been a rather defensive attitude among some FOL members toward professional book dealers.

However, some FOL groups have overcome this attitude and even recruited retired book dealers to help with presale preparation, since they can expertly price donated books for maximum profit. Other FOL groups have gone so far as to establish full-time bookstores that they operate with assistance from retired dealers. Sometimes they do this in conjunction with library renovation, and they actually build designated bookstore areas. Some highly organized FOL groups have even posted online how-to manuals on bookstore operation, for use by other groups.

Most FOL groups, however, have not been able to obtain help from retired dealers, and many do not have the number of volunteers needed to maintain full-time bookstores. These groups struggle with the question of how to handle the excessive—and perhaps valuable—book donations, which cannot be priced as carefully as they would like and are entirely liquidated during a few big annual book sales. Many valuable books continue to be sold at prices that are needlessly low, and many unsold books are donated onward to companies that have emerged to handle these excess library donations—companies such as Better World Books, which posts some books online but ships the majority to Africa.

Now, I have run two successful stores in conjunction with nonprofit museums. My first, at Chicago Children’s Museum from 1994 to 2002, was set up on a contract basis with my company, The Children’s Bookstore. The second, beginning in 2002 at the Eric Carle Museum of Picture Book Art in Amherst, Massachusetts, is fully owned by the museum itself, and I am a salaried museum employee.

In 2006 I suggested via the Friends of Libraries USA List-serv that for FOL groups to rely on retired book dealers wasn’t enough. My experience running bookstores inside museums pointed the way for libraries to raise more money if they vigorously attempted to attract experienced book dealers into paying jobs operating FOL bookstores.

My post attracted an irritated response. I was accused by a couple of regular, longtime FOLUSA participants of being a businessman trying to sell my bookstore management services on a listserv for FOL volunteers, which violates the rules of the FOLUSA list. Since I am a lifelong bookseller and shopper at FOL-run book sales, I was surprised to be labeled as unqualified to discuss FOL matters. But I realized that FOL activists are devoted to the mission of reselling donated books at low prices and, in effect, to democratizing access to book ownership. Paying for something that could be obtained for free (i.e., the labor of professional booksellers) would divert cash that could instead be spent on direct support of the target library.

In the interim, a few more libraries have launched full-time FOL bookstores. But with the recent closing of over a thousand Borders, B. Dalton, and Waldenbooks storefronts, and the resultant loss in many communities nationwide of their only bookstores, some online used-book dealers are noticing that they just might have success with a new brick-and-mortar store.

Last September I was on a panel to promote my book Rebel Bookseller at Skylight Bookstore in Los Angeles. One of the other panelists, Josh Spencer, had been selling used books online for ten years and, in 2010, had opened a storefront called The Last Bookstore. He runs a lot of special events, and his bookstore has become quite popular. Josh told the group that for him, after ten years of selling books online, opening a bookstore in the underserved neighborhood where he lives was without risk.

Unfortunately, in my experience bookstores like Josh Spencer’s, when successful, can be damaged by the gentrifying forces they unleash. By generating economic growth—because book-lover foot traffic attracts coffee-shop owners and restaurateurs—these kinds of pioneering stores can get priced out of the rental real estate they occupy. The alternative, establishing a bookstore in a library, could ensure that the store would not suffer from changes in real estate values.

Now is the time for FOL groups to pay attention to the pacesetters among them and to put out Requests for Proposals asking local online book dealers to launch library-housed bookstores. This would help ensure that the many wonderful used books that small FOL groups can’t sell during their annual book sales do not simply leave the community, but instead are kept available for slower distribution back to local readers. Such bookstores would generate additional foot traffic to boost library circulation numbers. They could also help libraries increase their relevance in an age when the use of digital reading devices is distracting people from the terrific value libraries offer their communities. http://ala.org/ala/mgrps/divs/altaff/friends/ideasharing/bookstores/index.cfm