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The Economics of Used Books, part 1

December 17th, 2013  |  Published in Blogs, Bookselling, Serendipity


The first of an infrequent series of bookstore economics

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A couple of years before he died, Peter Howard of Serendipity Books, in Berkeley, was hired to appraise a small, general used bookstore in the greater Bay Area. Peter had appraised other bookstores and liked to use that platform to express his views of bookselling. The result is a rare look inside bookstore economics, with the conclusions and observations of one of the most knowledgeable, respected (yet simultaneously disliked), and successful booksellers in the trade.

The shop in question, which I’ll call Ye Olde Bookshoppe, had been open just over seven years at the time of the appraisal. There were two partners. When Peter visited, the store had 45,000 titles in stock, about evenly divided between hardcovers and paperbacks. What follows are extracts from the analysis section of the final appraisal.

Start Up

The partners had been involved in bookselling in various forms for ten years. Together, they pooled $5000 in cash, plus 15,000 books acquired at an average of $1 per and 10,000 books acquired for $2,000. “20 cents each!!!” writes Peter. So 25,000 starting books acquired for $17,000, mostly at garage and estate sales. Their average retail price was $7.

Walk-in Traffic and Internet Sales

“Ye Olde is a general used book store catering to the walk-in public, humble and modest readers, and scouting dealers,” Peter wrote. “The bookstore is not heavily patronized nor sustained by university faculty or students. There is no separate section for selling rare books or first editions.”

“Ye Olde’s rent increases every year. They are forced to gross more every year, though market conditions for open-premises used bookstores HAVE NEVER BEEN WORSE SINCE THE END OF WORLD WAR TWO” (emphasis in the original), due to the Internet. “More than 50 similar booksellers in the Bay Area have closed recently, only one has opened… Booksellers with 20,000 good and valuable books go home, put them online in one or two years, and average $25,000 or more in profits. No overhead. Ye Olde’s owners cannot go home. One cannot sell $7 books online and earn a living and support two families….Ye Olde serves its local, not very academic, middle-class neighborhood only. At the minimum price of long hours and endless scouting. And they have kids.

“The 3000 books Ye Olde has listed online, selling for an average of $40 (when sold), are locked in the back room, and are falling over somewhat from lack of attention, though they are in numerical order by computer listing, rather than by any other useful order (by subject, by author). They sell only one or two books each day.

“These 3000 books are not available to the public. Ye Olde does not have enough space, money, or staff by which they could both offer books on line and yet house them in a manner so that they are simultaneously available to curious walk-in traffic. It is the worst of possible situations, not the best. [In a random sample], there were cheaper copies online of all but one of the online books surveyed. The time and effort expended in putting these books online resulted in a tremendous waste of money. Moreover, the books online are locked upand cannot be seen by walk-in customers who would happily pay shelf price because most walk-in customers do not comparison shop at used book stores.”

Book Buying

When a partner is not working, “he spends his discretionary time scouting for books that he might sell for more than he pays. There are no other stores that sell for prices averaging less than Ye Olde. Therefore they must scrounge flea markets, benefit auctions, thrift stores, house calls, over the counter purchases. They cannot buy books from other book stores.”

Here are Ye Olde’s financials. All numbers are rounded to the nearest thousand

Year Rent Overhead Books Bought Gross Sales Cost of Goods Sold Ending Inventory Taxable Profit/Partner Actual Take-Home
1 27k 9k 27k 96k 34k 19k 13k 11
2 28 8 31 100 29 23 17.5 15.5
3 29 13 37 123 37 27 22 20
4 30 15 42 140 41 29 27 26
5 32 18 43 156 42 32 32 30.5
6 33 21 60 196 59 33 41.5 41
7 35 26 59 204 57 35 43 42

Note: The actual take home is less than the taxable profits because Ye Olde invested some of its profits to growing its inventory. Actual take-home is per partner, so in year 7, the two partners each made $42,000.

Commenting on Ye Olde’s financials, Peter noted that bookselling is a “trade that takes a lifetime in which to master little, suffer much, and on the average, earn less than any union laborer.”

Cost of Goods Sold

“The only variable in an honest book business is the estimated cost of books sold,” proclaimed Peter at the top of the section on inventory. “Cost of books sold is computed either by the coding and recording of the cost of every single book (Serendipity’s method) or by equating the cost of books purchased with the cost of books sold in a fiscal year. Ye Olde records the cost of books sold on an annual basis as the amount of money spent on books that year, and report that figure annually on federal tax returns, to the truth of which they swear. This method is allowed by the IRS, especially when the average price realized is small and steady records are maintained of checks written, deposits made, bills paid. Their manual bookkeeping is extremely hard and time-consuming work.”

Ye Olde had a very low cost of inventory, averaging just 29% of sales for the first seven years.

Profits and Margins

“The more expensive the book, the greater the profit in absolute dollars, if not the greater ratio of cost to selling price. Ye Olde pays 29% for books sold (less the cost of books UNSOLD). Simply enough, they make $7 on a $10 sale, before overhead. But dealers who pay 80% instead of 30% and who average $50 a sale, instead of $10 per sale, make $10 profit. Most antiquarian booksellers average 60% for cost of books sold, making $20 gross profit on a $50 sale.

“Ye Olde is at the very bottom of the food chain that is the book business. They sell the cheapest, least profitable type of book, and only that type of book, and have absolutely no means by which to get ahead, except by inching forward, their success depending entirely upon long hours (read: good health, lifetime commitment); the willingness of others to sell them books at the cheapest values in the book business; a rent that does not interfere with their ability to pay based on their gross; yet a large enough space to contain an endlessly growing stock.

“Almost all dealers leave a portion of their profits within their business, in order for their businesses to grow. Ye Olde struggles to increase their inventory a bit every year. This means taking less money out of the business. If the business does not grow and the inventory increase, Ye Olde will fail.”

“Inventory is the stock of material for sale, and the cost to the bookseller of that stock. Ye Olde buys books by check and with cash…. Ye Olde records sales with a cash register and in a salebook daily under lock and key, entering by day and summarizing by month, distinguishing between taxable and non-taxable (dealer) sales. The account book is maintained in pencil and appears absolutely straightforward. Single entry bookkeeping, manual. Currently $200,000 in annual sales. Two employees gross $100,000 per annum each.

Each partner works an average of 3.5 days per week in the store, often until three or four hours after closing.

Bottom Line

Peter’s conclusion, at the end of the appraisal: the store is worth $35,000 – the value of its inventory, at cost, even “though it is worth less than its cost….The cost of used goods does NOT REFLECT the value, as COST is likely to be too generous, and does not take into account the number of books residual in inventory that have declined in value, and have been repeatedly de-selected as candidate purchases by customers. Ye Olde must constantly remove books for which they paid money because they have not sold, making room for new arrivals that might have a better chance of selling. Yet booksellers’ stocks, so long as they remain on the shelves, may not be depreciated, legally.

“A business may have goodwill of value, calculated by the cost of replacement to the relevant community: e.g., a new barbershop (find one that will give you a shave with a straight razor!!) or a new hair salon. There are startup costs to recover, there is value in having “good deed” foot traffic (sponsoring ball team, donating to local fundraising auctions, internships underwritten). Dentists and veterinarians sell their practices and get a little more extra for the good will of their good name and their patient lists in the community. The notion of good will having value is NOT APPLICABLE when the good will is dependent upon “key man” personality or depth of friendly knowledge, or in the circumstance that the businesses has no likely future beyond the present owner. Used bookstores are always representative of and extensions of their independent owners’ personalities and utterly dependent upon their specific knowledge, non-transferable, earned over a lifetime.”

Next up (when I have time!), some comments on the conclusions herein.


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