The education session “Integrating Used Books into Your Inventory” at Winter Institute 12 served as an introductory lesson for booksellers navigating the process of buying, sourcing, and tracking used book inventory.
The panel, held on Saturday, January 28, was moderated by Shane Gottwals, the founder and owner with his wife, Abbey, of Gottwals Books, which has four locations in Georgia that sell new and used books, and Gottwals Franchising, which has stores open and in development nationwide under the Gottwals and Walls of Books brands.
Session panelists were Jessi Blackstock, retail manager at Magers & Quinn Booksellers in Minneapolis, Minnesota; Harriett Logan, owner of Loganberry Books in Cleveland, Ohio; and Lacy Simons, owner of hello hello books in Rockland, Maine.
Bringing in used and/or rare books can help a store’s bottom line, but it’s a change that brings additional considerations and concerns.
“With used books, the advantage is you don’t have to pay very much for them, but you still need to turn them into cash; you can’t return them,” said Blackstock. Turnover, she added, has been the most important element of Magers & Quinn’s success in selling used books, which are shelved alongside new books in the store. “The more we’re selling and bringing in, the more we’re keeping the inventory fresh and moving, the higher sales will go,” said Blackstock.
For her part, Logan cautioned booksellers not to use the prices found on online sites with third party sellers (for example, Amazon) as a guide for pricing their own rare and used books. In her opinion, pricing should be based on what a bookseller sees as the book’s intrinsic value.
“When you do research on the Internet for a title you have in hand, you will find a price range so extreme that it is completely unhelpful to determining how to price that book,” said Logan. “When you have penny-sellers who have little investment, high turnover, and huge volume, it creates an illusion that the book has no intrinsic value. I will argue that if a book is in good condition and has a readership, it does have intrinsic value and you should honor that.”
For guidance, Logan recommended Bill McBride’s A Pocket Guide to the Identification of First Editions — a compendium of publisher marks — and the Antiquarian Booksellers’ Association of America (ABAA) website, which has a list of very strict guidelines for describing the condition of a book.
Logan’s store sells about 60 percent used books, which she grades using a system based on five categories: new, fine, very good, good, and poor, with the option to add pluses or minuses to further specify the condition of the book. Logan also grades the dust jacket separately from the book itself.
All four booksellers on the panel described why their stores used some form of trade-in credit system for customers who bring in used books. Bookstores vary in their policies for acquisition, but in addition to trading with individuals, stores also buy from other used book dealers, auctions, estate sales, and nonprofit and library book sales.
“With used books, you have the option to do a trade credit-only program or you can do a hybrid of trade and cash,” said Gottwals. “But with rare books, you can’t do a trade credit program and get a bunch of great first edition books in fine condition. You have to get into the cash game.”
For stores just jumping in to the used book market, Simons described what she saw as the plusses of starting out with a credit system and later moving to a cash or trade/cash system, if they choose.
At Magers and Quinn, the store’s buyer will figure out a cash amount for each book brought in; customers can then receive their payout in cash, or they can choose to get 50 percent more than that amount in store credit. Magers & Quinn has even developed its own computer software to track store credits for customers. When a customer brings in a book, the bookseller enters the credit amount into the customer’s profile; customers can check their credit status whenever they come in just by giving their name to the bookseller at the counter.
hello hello books pays out between 30 to 35 percent of the price they will put on the book in the form of trade credit; prices are calculated according to the current market value of the book. Credits can be used for 100 percent of the purchase price of most used books in the store, or 50 percent of the purchase price of a new book. The store’s rules are explained to customers in a brochure detailing hello hello’s trade-in program.
Gottwals said his store, which uses a credit-only trade-in system except when it comes to college textbooks, used to give people $1 for a paperback and $2 for a hardcover, but he noted that it became very difficult to implement a flat price system because of all the subjectivity involved.
In Cleveland, Logan’s store offers customers about a quarter of the price they expect to sell the book for and gives 20 percent more in store credit than they do in cash. The credit is good for one year and can be used on anything in the store.
When it comes to evaluating and accepting or rejecting books that customers bring in, Simons advised bookstore owners and managers to make sure along the way that there is consistency among the staff about what kinds of books the store will take.
“Some seasons it’s hard to find books, so you can’t be as conservative about what you are taking in, and other times you can afford to be pickier. The way our system is set up, people can’t just drop books off and let us deal with it. We actually go over them,” Simons said. “[Customers will] often watch the process as we look at the books and we give them context for why we’re refusing a certain book.”
Selectivity is one way to bring used books into your store without compromising your store’s identity, said Gottwal.
“I know one fear for a lot of booksellers is, Am I losing my identity as a really clean-cut, neat, and pretty bookstore by throwing in a bunch of dusty old paperbacks? You can do this, but be super-selective,” he said.