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Bookselling

So You Want to Own a Bookstore II

March 15th, 2008  |  by  |  published in Bookselling

Yesterday I posted Chuck Rozanski's seven questions to be asked before getting into the comics business. Here are a few of his choice observations, which apply equally to the used book business:

"I remember reading a Small Business Administration (SBA) pamphlet 30 years ago which laid out the hard facts that 70% of new businesses started in America fail within three years, and that 85% fail within five years….For the specialized area of comics retailing, those percentages were actually a bit optimistic. Very few of the stores that were opened from 1988-1999 are still in business, and I'll bet that 75% of those that are still open could be purchased for net asset value, with no consideration given for the enterprise as an ongoing business."

"What most comics retailers never figure out (until it's too late…) is that they are losing money every day that they are open for business. They accumulate lots of inventory, and come to believe that owning lots of stuff is the same thing as making a profit. Well, that's only true if you have a cost-effective mechanism for turning your stuff into cash. If you don't own such a mechanism, you're not generating a profit, you're simply adding to your storage cost burden. Eventually that burden, combined with a lack of cash flow, will kill your business."

"Comics retailers are notorious for seldom liquidating slow product, and as a result, what you see in a store is not what their customers are seeking, but rather what they got stuck with."

And finally, in a much later column, Mr. Rozanski asks a question that I think all book collectors should ask. It's one that I've been giving a lot of thought to of late as I have been working with one of our regular contributors, Richard Goodman, on a story about what the book world can learn from the art world. A lot of people are concerned about an apparent waning of interest in books. The same is true about comics. I am reminded of the last lines of that famous Dylan Thomas poem: "Do not go gentle into that good night. / Rage, rage against the dying of the light." What Mr. Rozanski asks here is worth asking of everyone who loves books.

"To get to the nub of my question for today, I would ask you to consider what you are personally doing to try to save the comics world. I realize that there is not a single one of us who can have any measure of a significant impact solving this kind of dilemma alone, but I do fervently believe that great numbers of people working toward a common goal can create an astonishing level of positive change. To be a bit more specific, I would ask what kind of outreach you have done of late to try to bring new readers into comics? All of us have favorite stories that particularly resonate with us as an individual. Have you tried passing that book and/or comic on to a friend? How about giving comics to kids?…How about speaking about comics before groups of young people? I've been to numerous elementary, middle, and high schools during my career, speaking to young people about the merits of graphic storytelling, and passing out free samples. These are just a few of the ways that all of us can help encourage new readers."


So You Want to Own a Bookstore

March 14th, 2008  |  by  |  published in Bookselling

Chuck Rozanski of Mile High Comics is one of the most interesting retailers of collectables. I have basically zero interest in comics, but I subscribe to his email list and read every one. He basically breaks every rule in the book, and doing so has made him the leading comics dealer in the world (he started out living in his car along with his inventory). Instead of keeping his emails short and to the point, he tells stories about his latest buying trips, what's going on at home, his adventures collecting Native American pottery, and whatever else happens to be on his mind. He also runs crazy promotions, like giving $10 gift certificates to everyone on his email list. The gift certificate had no minimum. Order $10 in comics and they were completely free except for the shipping, charged at the actual cost (no markup). In December, Mile High customers redeemed $50,000 in gift certificates.

Mr. Rozanski wrote a column for a comics publication, and then posted them on his store's website. It's very good reading, and although it is about selling comics, a lot of what he writes applies to books as well. His columns are particularly honest about being in business, too. He describes the downside of rapid success and how the sudden growth of his business to $10,000 per week in 1980 nearly bankrupted him—the cost of hiring lots of new employees, renting warehouse space, investing in desks and equipment, and acquiring enough new inventory to keep the sales going ate up all the cash and then some.

One series of columns addressed the desire of collectors to enter the business of selling comics. Mr. Rozanski offers seven questions every potential dealer should ask. Change comics to books, and the list works for bookselling, too.

About the motivations for entering the business, he writes, "If your answer is that you want to sell comics for a living because you have have a passion for comics, I'm unimpressed. Alcoholics have a passion for liquor, but that's certainly not a good reason for them to be operating a liquor store. In fact, I've seen a large number of comics stores fail because the owners were so wrapped up in their love of comics, that they forgot that they were running a business."

Here are the seven key questions. They aren't the usual ones people ask when starting a business, which is why they are so illuminating:

1) Do I have the ability to self-motivate myself?

2) Am I willing to forego all other activities in my life to be a comics dealer?

3) Can I make it my foremost goal to serve other comics fans?

4) Do I have the ability to ignore my own personal tastes?

5) Do I have the desire and intellectual curiosity to endlessly educate myself about new areas of collecting?

6) Do I have the mental toughness that will enable me to persevere, even when the odds seem hopelessly stacked against me?

7) Do I communicate well with others?

Read the first part of Mr. Rozanski's advice here. Don't forget to hit the "Next" link at the bottom of the page for the continuation of his comments.


I’m going to wedge my body in the doorway

December 24th, 2007  |  by  |  published in Bookselling

Bibliophile Bullpen posted this video from Loomis Antiquarian Books in Stillwater, Minnesota, which is closing at the end of the month. It joins Book Baron (Los Angeles), Bogey Books (Davis, Calif), and Blue Dragon Books (Ashland, Ore.) in closing near the end of the year. There are probably more stores that I haven't heard about. As readers of this blog know, my wife (the author Amy Stewart) and I, with our friends, Jack and Peggy, bought Eureka Books as it was about to close. Here's Amy's take on it, as published recently in one of our local papers:

Last week, I called my brother in LA and told him that my husband Scott and I were buying an antiquarian bookstore. He considered our occupations–magazine editor, author, and now bookstore owner–and said, “Wow. Books, magazines–you guys are really getting into a growth industry up there.”

“Yes, we believe the printed page is the wave of the future,” I said, “and we’re investing in it heavily.”

Yikes. As I write this, I have been the part-owner of Eureka Books for less than 24 hours. It’s a grand, glorious old place, crammed to the ceiling with odd and offbeat treasures like Victorian marriage manuals, yellowed sheaves of sheet music, and even a Zane Grey novel bound in flamboyant marbled papers. A few days ago, a book scout came through looking for inventory to sell to dealers, and he pulled out what may be the first novel about Alcoholics Anonymous. The term ‘alcoholism’ was so new, back in the 1940s when the novel was published, that it had to be defined on the dust-jacket flap. The scout paid four bucks for it and may sell it for twenty to a dealer who specializes in AA books. The dealer might sell it to a collector for $120. Every book finds its home eventually. So it goes in the rare book trade.

I don’t know a damn thing about rare books—I like my paperbacks cheap and tattered—but I know that I plan to fight long and hard against the alleged demise of the book. Let the National Endowment for the Arts make dire predictions about the decline in reading. Let Sony, Apple, and Amazon roll out one handheld e-book device after another. I’m having none of it. I love the smell of an old book, I love the heft of a hardcover, and I love getting to know a person by browsing their bookshelves. Surely I’m not the only one. Antiquarian bookstores all over the country are closing their doors, but by God, I’m going to wedge my body in the doorway of this one and keep it open.

Scott, who founded a magazine about rare books, is in charge of figuring out a strategy for making a nineteenth century-style bookstore viable in the twenty-first century. He’s been a book dealer before and he’s in touch with the movers and shakers in the antiquarian book world. Most of them are well past retirement age and their kids aren’t interested in old books. They give him fatherly advice and drop hints about where a few good private collections might be had for a decent price. Several of them have told him that he’s crazy for buying a bookstore in this digital age, but they say it fondly, the way your dad might tell you that you’re crazy for restoring an old Mustang or taking your rock band on the road. It’s crazy, but in a good way.

As for me, I hope to pull a shift in the store once in a while so I can live out my romantic writer/bookstore-owner fantasies. Just yesterday, I was browsing the shelves when I came across a whole section of books on a bit of obscure botanical history that I’ve been interested in lately. I started to pull the books off the shelf to see if I could afford them, and then I thought, “Wait a minute. I’ve already bought them. I totally own all these books.”

That’s a dangerous thought. On second thought, maybe I shouldn’t be allowed to work in the store. I never could stand to part with a good book.

(reprinted from the North Coast Journal, December 12, 2007 issue)


Michael Sharpe, Bookseller

November 7th, 2007  |  by  |  published in Bookselling

Here’s an article on Michael Sharpe, the collector who hired away several of Heritage Book Shop’s employees when that Los Angeles landmark closed recently. To quote, in part:

In just 20 years, Sharpe has amassed works of science, philosophy, medicine, exploration, religion, literature and mathematics, all classified as being in superb condition and worth about $25 million.

Together, they record the growth of Western civilization through everything from a Dead Sea Scroll fragment to “Gone With the Wind.”

But now Sharpe is ready to go from book collector to bookseller.

Michael Sharpe Rare & Antiquarian Books has just opened in a historic Craftsman house at 569 S. Marengo Ave., with a catalogued inventory worth around $8 million, about 20 percent of it from the personal collection kept at his Pasadena home.

“It was a little bit of a wrench,” Sharpe said of shipping some of his private library off to the store.

“I decided to keep history and science over literature,” he said. “I love them all, but it can take six to eight years to build up an inventory.


Bookstore Barbers II

October 26th, 2007  |  by  |  published in Bookselling

Brian Cassidy, who after a number of years selling online bought the Cannery Row Old Book Co. (located inside the Cannery Row Antique Mall) and renamed the shop Brian Cassidy, Bookseller, points out that Ruben Martinez, founder of Libreria Martinez in SoCal, used to be a barber and keeps his old chair in the store as a reminder. A couple of years ago, he won a MacArthur Genius grant.
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