A Moving Experience: Abracadabra Bookshop


Before getting into the book business, I taught Colorado & Western American History at a local college. I couldn’t help noticing that every time there was a budget crunch, they laid off faculty members (never administrators!). This did not give one a sense of security, so I decided to be prepared. Using my private collection of about 600 books on the American West, I opened the surprisingly named Western Americana Bookshop in a corner of the Nepenthes Café, a period coffee shop in downtown Denver. It prospered, even though I was only able to spend a few hours a week there.

This was January, 1977, and within a few months, I was offered the stock from the famed Stage House II, Boulder’s best bookshop. This was my first experience moving approximately 10,000 books. Dick Schwartz, the owner of Stage House II, kindly packed all the books for us, and we rented a U-Haul to move them to Denver, where we initially stored them. That was easy. Realizing we could not get 10,000 books into the 180 square foot corner of the coffee shop, we relocated to Court Place, in upper downtown Denver. The space was located above a bowling alley, and was a former city department, conveniently divided into sections with half-walls. These made for great sectional organization of the books into their various subjects, with plenty of room for further purchases. Within a year or so, we had grown to 25,000 books, and the bowling alley building had been purchased by the Hare Krishnas, as sharp an investment group as I have ever known. They closed the alley, and turned off the old boiler, which provided heat. I turned it back on, and they threatened me with a lawsuit. We decided it was time to move again!

It was 1981, in the late Spring—May in fact—when we moved into our own quarters at 3827 West 32nd Avenue, behind a fine old Victorian mansion. The former owners had run an antique shop there for about 30 years, slowly selling off bits of the house. With fear in our hearts, we negotiated an enormous mortgage and bought the whole place. Our second moving experience reflected our growing knowledge of the art of moving books. We rented a stake bed truck, exploited the labor of our 6’4″ son-in-law, and other friends, and parking the truck in the alley, were able to pass the boxes of books out the window, into the sure hands of Blaine Eno, who neatly piled them up. While it took three days to pack the books, it took but one to move them to the new location, and another three days to put them on the shelf. Over the next few weeks, we gradually alphabetized them.

At this new location in Denver we grew to about 40,000 volumes aided by Ms. Kennedy, Bruce Albright and others. We had about 2,200 square feet of space, but space being a vacuum, we managed to fill every possible corner. It was a popular location despite being a little out of the way. I began to develop my thesis that location, location, location, does not apply to the book business. Now it is a well known fact that books breed in the dark, and we did not stop buying, so by 1994 we had outgrown our space, and decided to move again, this time to 32 South Broadway, where we quickly grew to over 80,000 volumes.

One of the things we had learned in our previous moves was to pack our books as alphabetically as possible. I secured hundreds of boxes, all free from the local supermarket, and we hired extra help to pack them, section by section by section. I would assign a person to a particular subject, and with a magic marker they recorded the letters of the alphabet corresponding to the authors within that subject right on the box. Thus one person would pack all the books on Colorado, marking each box “A-C, Colorado”, etc. In the meantime, we built bookcases in our new location on Broadway, so that we could put the appropriate subject right into place as we unloaded. Again, U-Haul provided a now large truck, and with plenty of help, we moved the entire 40,000 volumes from shelf to shelf in three days. We were getting pretty proficient at the moving business.

During the period 1994-1999, we were blessed with the able management of John Snurka, and the skillful sales ability of Ken Chapin and Caren Eno. These were the golden years of Booksearch before the Internet really got going. Thanks to John, who had learned computer skills while serving in the Navy, we were on the leading edge of technology, and listed our stock on Bookquest, the first online database. Dreamy days indeed! Broadway was a very busy main street, and clients flocked in through the doors. Well, at least a dozen a day. People all over the country were calling us to find books, and the transition from bookscouting to internet database searching was in full swing. For a brief two months in 1999 I actually thought I was going to get rich in the book business!

But the internet was a two-headed beast. Soon people were finding their own books, and no longer needed us. Business declined. Seeing the writing on the wall, Ken and John headed for other pastures. We eventually caught on to the reality of what was happening. Shop business was also declining, as more and more people abandoned book shops to buy online. The online business slowly improved, and we made that our main emphasis—adding books to the computer. Dull stuff indeed compared to the joys of discussing the merits of books and their subjects with real, live people. During this period, I did a study of the numbers of book buyers in Denver, and was appalled to learn that they comprised less than 1% of the population. In 2001, we decided to move again, for a variety of reasons. We looked for greener pastures, a change of environment from Denver, and to move closer to family. Thus we headed to the Texas coastal town of Rockport.

We were, in part, motivated by the large numbers of Texas book buyers that we had accumulated as a result of our Booksearch. People came from all over to Rockport to vacation, and we thought that this might be a way to find new customers, and grow the book business. We had, by now, around 80,000 volumes. Following the experience of our previous move, we hired eight extra people, armed them with magic markers, and assigned each a subject. We quickly ran out of boxes, and for the first time, purchased 1.5 cubic foot boxes, the perfect size for moving. There are people who sell second-hand boxes, and I bought 1,100 at 50 cents a piece, much below what you would pay for new boxes—and they were just as good. All I had to do was call and say I needed a couple of hundred more boxes, and a little van would show up within the hour and unload them. I also called a broker who provided us with a driver and a 60 foot tractor trailer for $1,250 for the trip to Texas. Despite the fact that he came down and looked at the books and thought they would all fit in one trailer, it turned out that, after loading it, we were 50% over the weight limit. Though 80,000 books will fit in one trailer, you need two. My wallet grew thinner.

The transfer of the excess weight was done by the truckers and the broker’s staff at their location. Big mistake. Though the loss was not large, a few of these boxes must have fallen off the proverbial truck! However, on the bright side, we had them down in Rockport three days later, and on the shelf in three days more. Alphabetizing was fairly easy due to the letters and subjects being on each box. And again, I had arranged for some of the shelves to be built ahead of time, at our new location at 601 East Market Street. We could look out our front door, and there, barely 500 yards away (and slightly downhill) were the waters of Aransas Bay! Ah, Paradise.

We found the people exceptionally friendly, and other Texas book dealers were helpful and generous in their sharing of clients and expertise. We were pleasantly surprised at the amount of business that came in the door. Texans are serious about their books, and especially about the history of their state. We even contemplated whether or not this could be a booktown, like Hay-on-Wye. But Texas had a dark side—taxes. In 2004 we were notified of their intention to tax out-of-print books annually as inventory. Now a book dealer may keep stock for years, and paying inventory tax year after year on the same item will kill you. Also, their real estate taxes are astronomical. There was no interest on the part of Texas politicians to correct this error, even though we engaged in a minor campaign to encourage them to do so. Politicians don’t read books, apparently.

We stayed in Rockport for three years. We enjoyed the Third Coast, and especially the people. But we were being taxed to death. So, after a nation-wide examination of taxes, and who had the least, we decided to move back to Denver. There are other states with low taxes, like Mississippi and New Mexico, but Colorado is pretty good. Armed with the experience of our previous moves, I had saved the boxes, accumulated more, lined up two tractor trailers, and put an ad in the paper for people to pack books. I expected four to five. This was, after all, a town of only 15,000 people. But 50 people showed up, and I kept 40 of them. More magic markers were needed. A training class in book packing and the need to pack alphabetically was held. And three hours later, every book was packed and ready to go! The first trailer was there, and it took only four hours to load. We did the same with the second trailer. Clearly, I have missed my calling! Lock, stock and 80,000+ volumes were on the road and so were we. It took less than two days for the trucks to make the 1,200 mile journey, and we were ready for them when they arrived. I called ahead to the day labor people in Denver, and ordered eight people to unload, which was accomplished in six hours, total, both trailers. I selected four of the brightest to shelve, and one worked for me for two weeks making sure that every shelf was in alphabetical order.

The books arrived in good order, because of careful packing. I pack as many as possible flat, with larger books standing on edge to fill out the box. Well, most of the time. There was very little damage. This year we purchased in excess of 15,000 volumes, and are now around 100,000. We have plenty of space at our new location. I think we do. Surely we must. If anyone is interested in around 1,800 1.5 cubic foot boxes, don’t hesitate to get in touch.

We are now comfortably established in a business condo about 150 yards from I-70 at Quebec in Denver, at 7030 East 46th Avenue Drive, Unit E. On a clear day, we take in the majesty of the Rocky Mountains, from Pike’s Peak to Long’s Peak. Our business is now mostly on the internet. I am not getting rich in the book business, but I keep hoping. Or not. It isn’t, and never has been, about money. Being around books all day, and occasionally enjoying a good talk with a customer on some aspect of the book world, is not all bad. In fact, it is still terrific fun. I look forward to getting into the shop every day. It sure beats working for a living.

Please feel free to contact me for further information.

Alan Culpin operates the Abracadabra Bookshop in Denver, CO, and can be contacted at http://www.abrabks.com.

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