with Lee Kirk, Gayle Williamson, and Sharon Eisenberg
So as part of this month’s theme of alternate selling venues for online book sellers, I thought it would be interesting to do a piece on selling in antique malls. Over the years I’ve heard many anecdotal accounts of dealers who set up spaces in antique malls, with mixed positive and negative results. I’ve been selling at the Westminster Antique Mall for over a year, taking over my current space as of January 2013.
Selling at an antique mall is pretty simple in concept: the mall owners rent you space in which to set up your stock. The details of the rental agreement vary from mall to mall. Some places charge a flat amount per square foot. Some have varying rates based on the size and location of the space in the mall. Some require the seller to work a certain amount of time as part of the rental agreement, or offer a reduced rate in return for time spent working. Some have lower rent, but take a commission on your sales as part of the agreement. In addition, there may be other terms in the contract: for example, a common element is a percentage that is charged for processing credit card purchases of items from your booth. You should of course read the terms of the rental agreement carefully: look for things like, for example, who will absorb the cost of a bounced check. Because the mall houses a number of different vendors, all of your items should be marked with at least your price and booth/vendor number. You will probably also want to include an inventory or sku number. The sku number can be recorded at the point of sale, and appear on the sales statement you get with your check at the end of each pay period. This assumes the mall is sophisticated enough to have a point of sale system that allows recording of information like this, and the generation of sales statements.
One of the central advantages of the well-run antique mall is that multiple sellers are present offering a wide variety of goods to attract a variety of customers, with full time staff to keep an eye on things and open locked cases, and a central checkout area that handles sales (cash, check and credit, and sometimes layaway) for all the vendors. It has some of the advantages of a brick and mortar store, without a lot of the initial investment and continuing overhead. Also, unlike a brick and mortar store, you aren’t tied to being there or hiring staff.
An antique mall space can complement your online business. Many online sellers won’t list books below a certain minimum value – say $20. Booksellers routinely run into decent sellable books while scouting or in auction box lots that don’t meet this online minimum. Many of us have accumulated box after box of books like this over the years, taking up valuable room. A mall space can be perfect for selling these books. You may also find that select higher priced books will sell quite readily in an antique mall venue, thus saving the online commission fee. And finally, books that might be difficult to sell online – oversize, bulky, heavy – could profitably spend some time at the mall.In theory, a good generalist book seller could have something of interest for all the customers one might expect in an antique mall: the military collector who initially came because of another vendor who has a selection of uniforms and military paraphernalia will also be interested in your military history books; someone who visits the mall looking for objects related to local history will be interested in your books on the same topic. Collectors of glass, ceramic, paperweights, oil lamps, and on and on will be interested in books you have on those topics. And the unfortunate spouse or kid who got dragged along on an antique mall shopping trip will welcome a place to hang out and browse – and buy – books.
Sounds great, huh? Well, not so fast. In preparing for this article, I asked for input from IOBA members regarding their experiences selling in antique malls. Of those who responded, their experiences ranged from guardedly positive to lukewarm to profoundly negative.
What were some of the bad parts of selling in antique malls?
Lee Kirk of The Prints & The Paper had this to say about antique mall selling: “At one time I set up in antique malls – some books, some small antiques, lots of ephemera. My experience was that there was so much theft and destruction (of ephemera) that I didn’t make any money. I’m sure others have had a more positive experience. What was galling is that people did it just to show that they could – if I had a pair of something, they took one. If I had a set of something, they took one piece. Ephemera were swiped and the empty sleeve placed carefully on top of the display so I would be sure to see it. Others just handled things roughly – pulling ephemera out of sleeves and shoving it back in roughly. Even books walked away, so I gave it up.”
Gayle Williamson of Champ & Mabel Collectibles had this experience at one of several different antique malls where she sold books: “The owners at Pieces of the Past were doing some kind of monkey business, either drugs or skimming profits. When they absconded the mall was locked with all the dealers’ merchandise in it. Eventually the building’s owner reopened the mall with the same employees. Unfortunately I don’t think he was that interested in running an antique mall so there were few promotions or advertising, so sales dropped.”
Sharon Eisenberg of CE Ranch Books related this challenging situation: “The first antique mall I was in was a branch of a well-known west coast auction house. It had quite a staff and 30,000 square feet of space. There were always at least 3 people working the floor. After a few years, the company pulled out of Montana and that mall was taken over by a different company. The second company tried to run the mall with one person and occasionally two. After a couple of years, the company owner passed away suddenly and after a few months we were all told to move out (April 2012). I had 32 bookcases and 90 boxes of books there in about 450 sq ft. Moving was no fun.”
Tim Doyle of Bayside Books of Maryland notes another problem: “I moved into a larger space at the mall in January 2013, and getting the space up and running ate up a lot of my time in the first few months – to the detriment of my online business. Now the space is established, it still requires regular maintenance and investment of time – but not nearly to the same level as at first.”
What are some of the benefits of selling in an antique mall?
Gayle Williamson: “The best part was learning about selling and slowly learning to run my own business…. One advantage to having a mall space was when people asked if they could pick up a book, I could leave it at the mall with a note of who was to pick it up. I work from home and am not equipped to have people coming to my home to purchase books.”
Sharon Eisenberg: “After about 6 years of selling part-time online, I decided that I needed to become better known in the Great Falls area which is the largest city near here – 60 miles from where I live. I already knew some of the auctioneers and the one company that did estate sales, but I really didn’t know any of the antique dealers. After 6 years of selling in three different antique malls, I finally know a lot of the dealers. This leads to referrals and calls when there are large quantities of books at an estate sale, etc. Other advantages – you call sell other things besides books-like the family stamp collection that needs a new home, postcards, old local newspapers, maps, photos, scrapbooks, photo albums, toys, framed art, and anything else you can fit into your space.”
Tim Doyle: “I’m the only book seller out of more than 165 dealers at the Westminster Antique Mall. So I have found that I get a lot of referrals as a result of my mall space. These are from people looking to sell books, who have picked up one of my business cards at the space or who have talked to the mall owners who gave them my information. Of course, many of these leads don’t pan out – the books are of no real interest, or the owner has unrealistic expectations and wants more than I can pay and still make a reasonable profit. But there have been worthwhile calls that I would never have gotten otherwise.”
What kinds of books have sold best for you in an antique mall setting?
Sharon Eisenberg: “Top sellers for CE Ranch Books in antique malls – local history including county histories, Custer and Lewis and Clark, local authors especially signed first editions, Nancy Drew books, local yearbooks, bird books, Irish and Celtic books, cookbooks (especially older ones and those produced by local groups), military history, Western art. I also like to sell ephemera and what does well for me – road maps from the 30s-60s, Montana paper of all kinds – business invoices, checks, old letters, envelopes with Montana cancellations, old basketball and football programs featuring local teams. Most interesting sale this year- a framed Montana territorial map circa 1865 found at a local estate sale.”
Gayle Williamson: “In all the malls, I tried to stock books on local history. The only mall where I exclusively sold books was Pieces of the Past and I had no more than 500 books. At Craft-tique, I sold new and secondhand local history books. At Best of Times, I sold local history books, and books on music, crafts, cats & dogs, humor, and vintage fiction. The best-selling were books on local history and visual books. I found that books like Golden Books, the Time Life series, and vintage children’s books, that might be readily available online, would sell. Worst selling would be fiction.”
Tim Doyle: “Local history, local authors, new and vintage children’s books, mysteries (particularly Agatha Christie), signed local sports books, classic TV/movies books (Little Rascals, Three Stooges, I Dream of Jeannie, Hollywood, film noir, etc), Civil War and other military history. I have also had success selling higher priced books ($30 to $150) in the mall space. I like this strategy particularly for large and/or heavy books and sets that would be a hassle to ship if sold online.”
Gayle Williamson: “I would say the instability of the management and ownership…. Best of Times and Pieces of the Past are now out of business. Both Craft-tique and Memory Lanes have changed to where they are a step above a thrift shop in merchandise and maintenance…. Also since I started selling tchotchkes and then converted to books, I think I was surprised that books even sold in antique malls, since I normally wouldn’t go to an antique mall looking for books. I think that is why vintage, children’s books, and local history sold well since I think those appeal to the antique mall customer.”
Sharon Eisenberg: “I thought that I could sell a lot of books in an antique mall that were not saleable online but that turned out to be only partially true. What isn’t valuable online many times is not saleable in an antique mall. Most of my antique mall stock was purchased specifically for that market. The antique mall buyers are a completely different group of buyers and some of them never shop online. There are regular buyers here who go through the local antique malls almost weekly. Some sell on ebay and some are just collectors looking for treasures.”
Tim Doyle: “The number of calls I get from people wanting to sell me books. I’ve had more calls in the last six months than in the previous ten years. I had hoped for some referrals – that was one of the reasons I wanted to have a physical location in the community. I think it’s a combination of the economy and people wanting a little extra income, and the rise of used book selling on the internet which has given people a tool to judge the value of their books. That they use the tool incorrectly most of the time does complicate things for book dealers.”
Getting Started Finally, Sharon Eisenberg offers the following list of advice for anyone considering selling books at an antique mall:
Some malls are much better run that others. The owner or staff should be interested in what you bring in and we try to bring in new material every week or every other week. They need to know what you have in order to tell customers where to look. The better staff will often call someone based on what we just brought in to alert a possible customer of something they are looking for. If the staff doesn’t care what your inventory is, it is going to much harder to be successful. The malls should be advertising but this varies widely.
Talk to antique dealers that you know to find out where they are doing well and what sells well.
Start small-you can always expand if there is more space available.
Bring in new stock on a regular basis and make your space look interesting. Books displayed on easels always seem to sell faster than books just lined up on a shelf.
Have regular sales. The public loves sales. Find out what the sales schedule is for the mall you are considering.
Have a lighted, locked showcase for more valuable items.
Talk to the mall staff regularly about what buyers are looking for.
Put up some signs. It surprises me that most antique mall spaces are very anonymous. We have a huge banner with our business name and business cards available, as well as a sign that says “We buy books”.
Keep your online and antique mall inventories separate. There is the opportunity to move things back and forth if they don’t sell but you don’t want to get an online order and not have the book because it just sold at the mall.
Pricing for the local market is a challenge. We try not to be too far above the online price for most things. Many antique dealers put very high prices on books and we are trying to be more reasonable with our prices. We don’t want our buyers to buy an expensive book from us only to go home and find that it was a five dollar book on amazon.
You have to expect some shoplifting although a well-run mall should be able to keep that at a minimum.
Get insurance on your inventory if you will have a substantial amount of it in a mall. The mall is not going to cover fire, theft, or water damage. We are using DeWitt and Stern through IOBA.
Read the contract for the mall space and make sure you understand what it says. Rent per square foot, commissions, mall-wide sales schedule, language regarding what can be sold there, etc. will vary from one mall to the next. There may be some options regarding discounts, layaways, etc. Discounts to buyers are very common in the antique mall world but we are becoming less willing to offer discounts as a matter of course. Your ability to honor requests for discounts depends on how you do your pricing. If you are going to get called every day or every week because a buyer wants a discount, you should price accordingly or set your own policy on discounts. Our current policy-10% off if a buyer purchases over $100.00. We also have regular sales as well as a table of items on sale.
Conclusion There are a number of good reasons to sell books at an antique mall. It gives you a venue for those books that aren’t quite good enough to list online, that would be a hassle to ship, or that could sell quckly to a local customer and without an online commission. It gives you a physical presence in the community which can generate leads to buy local collections and estates. In that sense, your mall rent could be seen as money well spent on advertising. And of course, your mall sales should be a source of profit.
But as with online sales, your success in an antique store venue will largely be a function of factors under your control, primarily the time, effort and intelligence you are willing to put into it … and also by what you define as success. Other factors – notably the availability and stability of a well-run mall with an adequate customer base – are beyond your control. And of course, only you can decide if the time and effort is worth the potential benefit.