I’m Bob Schilling, a 46 year old bibliophile living in Gresham, Oregon; a native of the Northwest, born and raised in Seattle, WA; and a resident of Oregon since 1999. My wife of 22 years, Arlyee (pronounced like “Charlie” without the “Ch”) and I started Schillingslist Select Used Books in the fall of 2004. It’s a supplemental income for us, one that is ever growing, but more importantly, it’s a supplemental passion. Like many of you, I love to traffic in books, love to browse them, love to read them, love to be around them, love to handle them, love to find them and love selling them.
My Pilgrimage into Books
My love of books coincides with a religious conversion that happened to me shortly before my 21st birthday. I’d been a good student through high school, but got lost for a couple of years, dropped out of college, worked a few different jobs and lived for the night life and the weekends. Through the influence chiefly of my father, who was converted later in life, I became a Christian at age 20 and shortly thereafter renewed my education at a three year Bible College. I met my wife during my last year there. We were married a few months after my graduation, and then proceeded to pursue the course of our lives and the raising, eventually, of four children.
I became a book guy in Bible College to the point that when my wife was pregnant with our first son, I seriously pleaded my case to name him, “Book.” I thought it could be a cool name, unique, maybe not too weird. My Booker T. Washington arguments notwithstanding, the good sense of my wife prevailed, and our son Patrick was given a less peculiar name; an event that to this day, makes him forever grateful to his mother! But, to back up again, I had the good fortune of an older Bible teacher who took a liking toward me. In my second year of college, he sponsored me for a trip with a tour group that he was leading to Israel, Jordan, Egypt and Greece. I was there introduced to papyri and incunabula; and through him, to the vast world of books.
Thrift stores, garage sales and used book stores became my frequent haunts during this time, and I was bit by the bug, snagged by the hook, or whatever metaphor best describes that captivation that took hold of me for the bound printed word. Theology was the content of my choice, but the pursuit of volumes in this field led to broader and broader landscapes of subject matter, and also to an appreciation for fine bindings, for beauty, for the antiquarian, for the rare, and even for the odd.
To feed my habit I sold books occasionally to used book stores. I developed relationships with a few booksellers, and though never officially a “scout,” I was frequent enough in my selling transactions that essentially I was one. Some friendships and relationships remain to this day from my early years of selling to dealers.
My personal library over the years has been a revolving one, which helps me as a bookseller, because I’m not a huge collector. I’ve gone through seasons of collecting this or that. We collected nearly all the Landmark history books when my children were growing up, along with similar series like “We Were There” and “Signature Books.” We’ve always had a good collection of classic literature, and all my kids have also enjoyed their way through The Little House on the Prairie books, the Hardy Boys and Nancy Drew (I was a Beverly Cleary and Danny Dunn fan as a boy), The Chronicles of Narnia, The Lord of the Rings trilogy, and all the Harry Potter books. My wife has long been a reader of historical fiction and mysteries. I’ve gravitated to theology, biography and history; and most lately to books on books. As I grow older I tend to hang on to volumes that have peculiar meaning to me based on content, usefulness, reference value, and worthwhile qualities to pass on to my children. Strange as it sounds, though not uncommon, I wouldn’t buy a lot of the books I sell; I’m just not that much of a collector, and I’m kinda’ cheap.
I continued to pursue a theological education through three years part-time and then two years full-time in Seminary. In this pursuit of further education, we sold or gave away most of our belongings and towed a 5′ x 8′ U-Haul trailer behind our station wagon across the country. That small trailer contained all that we owned, and my wife is still glad to remind me that ¾ of it was my collection of books.
We moved to what was a Mecca for Christian books in the United States, Grand Rapids, MI. Numerous Christian publishers and two of the largest used Christian book stores in the country were located there: Kregal’s Used Book Store and Baker Book House (with many lesser known shops that I soon discovered). I was in religio-biblio heaven and proceeded to strain and bust our pocketbook with acquisitions that “I just couldn’t pass up.” In my five years there, I learned a lot about theology and an equal amount about books. It was there that I made acquaintance with Joel Beeke, a local Pastor and book dealer; a bibliophile like few I’ve ever known. He currently is involved in both publishing and the selling of new and used books; and as part of a Seminary under his leadership, has developed one of the world’s largest collections of primary and secondary sources on Puritan theology. www.heritagebooks.org
My Venture into Online Bookselling
It was my father who first mentioned to me in 2003 that his pastor was selling used books online, and maybe it was something that I should look into. It was just the previous year that Stephen Windwalker had released his book, Selling Used Books Online, which I bought and devoured. I culled my personal library and started with a thousand dollars to buy additional inventory. I made many mistakes those first few months, fulfilling that adage that a little knowledge can be a dangerous thing. I did well buying theology, and learned some quick tips to help me with non-fiction, but wasted hundreds of dollars buying “signed” and “first edition” fiction. Fiction is obviously a major collectable field, and many a bookseller’s staple stock, but it wasn’t an area I knew well enough to start with.
Around this same time, late 2003, early 2004, I came across www.bookthink.com. Craig Stark became an unknown mentor. The newsletters, the articles, the links, and the forum were to have a huge impact on my bookselling as I started online. I read as much as I could, trying to add to the select areas of bookselling that I knew relatively well. I downloaded ABE’s free HomeBase database, and started listing my books. I didn’t do my initial upload until January 2, 2005.
I got my feet wet selling first on ABE, and then added Alibris, Amazon, Biblio, ChooseBooks, Half, and an eBay store. I also switched to www.theartofbooks.com for my listing database, as it allowed me to list on multiple sites and manage sales efficiently. I also purchased a scanner for my cell phone and subscribed to www.scoutpal.com, a very helpful service allowing you to retrieve online prices for books while scouting. I realize that many are critical of cell phone/PDA scanners and programs, and I also realize that many have looked to them as get-rich-quick devices, misusing them and frankly giving them a bad name. But the bookseller with a passion for books and an ever-learning commitment will gain definite benefits from such technology. Nobody knows it all, nor can they; and internet pricing information in the field opens many other areas and titles that you otherwise would pass by. A larger benefit, early on, can be the savings in not buying books that are either glutted online or have very little resale value. Earlier this year I employed www.chrislands.com to build my website.
I’m a small player in this big world of online booksellers, with much to learn in a venerable trade. I may never be a full-time bookseller; but I’ll always be engaged in it at some level. It’s hard not to be who you really are. And for me, with other stewardships, bookselling as a part-time venture is probably the way that I’ll best maintain my love for it. As a supplemental avocation for me, it’s an activity that I daily look forward to. And that’s one of the other gems about this endeavor, isn’t it? You can dive in as deep as you want, swim as far as you care to, dabble in the shallow end, forge your way through the deep waters, or change your course midstream.
I enjoy nearly every aspect of bookselling. It’s something my wife and I can do together. She helps with some listing and shipping, and we enjoy estate sales and a little travel here and there. It’s been a pleasure to be the conduit between a number of folks and the books they’ve been looking for. I enjoy the fraternity of fellow booksellers; a mixed lot, very diverse personalities and specialties, but by and large a very good group of people who have a passion for the benefits of reading and the joy of collecting. It’s a knowledgeable group, both booksellers and book buyers, and it has led to many interesting conversations. There’s never a lack of things to learn, and the world-wideness of it with the internet is astounding. The hunt, the treasure seeking, the finds, the surprises, and a few frustrations thrown in to make it real-life; all add up to a thrilling adventure for me.
I have made the conscious choice to have fun in the hard work of this business. How cool is that? If FOL sales are becoming a pain, or if estate sales in the city are getting too competitive, then I’ll pursue those less and hit other venues more. But, I’ll never write off any of the venues. It’s an evolving thing. Hit or miss. Same with certain thrift stores. Some I swing by with more regularity than others, for good reasons, but you never know what might show up at any given venue at any given time. Of course, having the books come to you is far better, and some advertising and the frequent distribution of business cards are my means to that end.
I’ve also made the conscientious commitment to try to run every part of this business with integrity and excellence. I’m very careful in the grading of my inventory, and sell few books that are in less than Very Good condition. Every dust jacket in my inventory is in a new archival Brodart protector. Every book is wrapped in tissue, bubble-wrap and an appropriate box and padding or double-criss-crossed b-flute for safe shipment. Every domestic customer is given their Delivery Confirmation number, and all orders are unconditionally returnable within ten days (or longer if the selling venue so dictates). I don’t try to make any money on shipping; I simply try to cover my costs. I gladly provide trade discounts to fellow booksellers. I write a personal note of thanks on all my packing slips.
I specialize in Theology—particularly that branch springing from the Reformation, the Puritans and modern Evangelicalism. As with most areas of bookselling, there are a plethora of books in this niche that are nearly worthless in the second-hand market. I routinely sort through boxes of volumes and endless yards of shelving with 80-90% of the books, and up, not worth my time. But then there’s that other 1-20%, and those other exceptional sales; those mother-lodes where 80-90% is on the other end of the spectrum. My best buys, like many other dealers, have been entire libraries. Estates have been the source of some of my most valuable finds. And a few sources are bread and butter for me week in and week out. I’ve written a couple of articles regarding this specialty that can be found at Bookthink.com; and I authored two issues in their Gold Edition on reselling conservative Evangelical theology that Craig and I aptly entitled, “The God Edition, Part I and Part II.”
Outside my specialty I sell mainly non-fiction; but have some very worthwhile Modern Firsts, some Easton, Franklin and other fine press works, and a fair amount of poetry and children’s books. My secondary specialty is Americana. American history I find very interesting and selective niches have peculiar interest for me both as a bookseller and a small collector, especially Northwest Americana. And an area that I do actually collect in is the narrow category of Indian Captivity narratives. Judaism, Islam, politics, reference, the arts and sports all play other prominent roles in my inventory.
Another bookselling venture that I’ve helped revive in the metropolis that I live near (Portland, OR), is an annual book fair. As a member of our local booksellers association (PAUBA: Portland Area Used Booksellers Association) and its book fair committee, we held our first “Rose City Used Book Fair” last May and have tentatively scheduled our second one for a weekend in April, 2008. We’re a modest book fair with a wide range of books in subject matter and price. We advertise ourselves as “an unpretentious book fair.” We drew antiquarian dealers, some of whom regularly exhibit at the Seattle Used Book Fair each fall, specialty dealers and many other general used booksellers. We were able last year tokeep the costs for the participating dealers to under $100 per space (most spaces were $80 for an 8′ x 8′); and charged a $2 admission fee to the general public (or $1 and a can of food for our local food bank). The book fair was a great success, exceeding everybody’s expectations. The booksellers all made money, PAUBA more than broke even, and some contagion was started for future, annual book fairs. I would encourage any local bookseller’s associations to consider this as a future project.
That’s me, and us. We’re glad to be a part of IOBA, and glad to be of any help to fellow booksellers, and fellow book buyers.
Bob and Arlyee Schilling operate Schillingslist out of Gresham, OR
IOBA Standard, Fall Edition 2007, Volume 8, No. 4.