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Antique Books

So You Want to Be a Bookseller?

Vic Zoschak Jr.
Tavistock Books

As both an ABAA and IOBA member, bookshop owner and bookseller of 21 years standing, I am occasionally approached by a book lover, book collector, and/or bibliophilic aficionado who has the romantic notion of turning his or her avocation into a vocation, and wishes to discuss with me the practicality of starting their own book business. The operative word in this last sentence is “business.” My dictionary defines this word as “the practice of making one’s living by engaging in commerce.” And therein lies the rub… “making one’s living.” In following dialogue, we’ll examine what that means, and what that takes, in the profession of Antiquarian Bookselling which, for the purposes of this essay, may be taken to mean the selling of ‘collectible’ books, that is, those books that are viewed, by the buyer, more as an artifact than a conveyor of text.

First, and foremost, we’ll begin by borrowing from Stephen Covey’s 7 Habits of Highly Effective People: BEGIN WITH THE END IN MIND1. Booksellers come in all shapes and forms. What kind will you be? An open shop? Home or office-based? Internet only? Bookfair exhibitor? An amalgamation?

Once this decision is made, then the concomitant business plan issues flow from the choice made. For example, is an open shop your heart’s desire? Then such aspects as affordable rent, location, necessary traffic patterns, etc. will all need to be considered before the “Open” sign hangs on the door.

And each of these seller manifestations comes with inherent challenges and benefits; for example, the open shop has the benefit of attracting walk-in business, as well as greater opportunity to purchase books from the local populace who are aware of your presence. The downside, of course, is the necessity of paying that monthly rent, the electric, liability insurance, etc. All of which, perhaps, brings us back to the definition of “making a living.”

Do you need to do so? Perhaps you just won the largest state lottery in history, have quit your day job, and just seek a genteel profession to occupy your day. If this is the case, you’re in a position where you can turn a large fortune into a small fortune without the undue worry of wondering from whence next month’s rent payment will appear. However, if you’re in the position of needing this business of yours to pay all your monthly bills, you should, prior to embarking on this career, enumerate what you know, and expect, those bills to be.

With what you need to gross in mind, know, in terms of retail merchandising, used and antiquarian books have some of the highest margins found anywhere. That is, buy for a $1, and sell for $10… $15… or more. Sometimes a lot more. HOWEVER, and this a big HOWEVER, you should realize that inventory turnover, on average, is not measured in days, nor weeks, not even months, but often YEARS. As an example, on Tuesday December 15th, 2009, I sold a book I catalogued July 20th, 1993. It wasn’t an expensive book, only $18, but it took over 16 years to sell. Sobering thought isn’t it?

So, one solid piece of advice—cash flow is critical to any business’ success… don’t ignore it.

And the inventory turnover issue gives rise to a couple “Rules of Thumb” for the business:

  • Many old-timers in the trade find it easier to sell an expensive book (say three, four, five, or even six figures in price) than a cheap book (one or two figures in price).

  • You need a critical mass of inventory, e.g., if you only have 300 two-figure books, with an average turnover rate likely measured in months to years, your net profit per month will probably not make you a living as a full-time bookseller.

Inherent in the two Rules of Thumb are a few considerations. How does one know book “Y” retails at three, four, or five figures? This question gives rise to what I consider the first of two key success factors for the Antiquarian Bookseller: knowledge. The World Wide Web has provided for unprecedented access to information and MISinformation. Do not forget the old adage: Garbage In, Garbage Out. You have book “Y” in front of you, and you’re checking market listings on in which you find Bookseller A saying one thing about edition; Bookseller B saying another. Furthermore, Bookseller A is asking one price; Bookseller B is asking a vastly different price. Who is correct, and which copy more accurately reflects the actual market for the book? I’ve found, more often than not, it’s the blind leading the blind in terms of correctly identifying edition, etc. And finally, realize a listing on AbeBooks is for an unsold book; in other words, it is not a sale data point in the same fashion as an actual auction record.

Which gives rise to a corollary to this success factor: don’t be stingy when it comes to investing in the tools of your trade, and by that I mean reference books and/or subscription services such as American Book Prices Current2 (ABPC) or Americana Exchange3. For example, I specialize in Dickensiana and in terms of reference books, I have one full bookcase of Dickens-related references (80 books), which in turn is but one bookcase of 30 or so filled with reference books of all sorts. I may not need a given one for years, but when I do, it generally pays for itself many times over.

Back to knowledge… this same knowledge consideration applies in buying stock—how do you know how much to pay for the book that no one currently offers on AbeBooks4? In many cases, that’s exactly the kind of book one wishes to buy for there may be a buyer waiting in the wings for that particular title to come to market. But what’s a fair price to pay?

There is no accredited degree program in Antiquarian Bookselling, so the challenge lies in gaining the requisite knowledge, both for buying and selling. As a momentary digression, I can personally attest that it is this ‘gaining knowledge’ that is, for me, one very compelling aspect of the trade; I learn something new every day. Every day. However, one can accelerate the accretion rate—handle books, by going to fairs, bookstores, etc. Read books about books. Attend the Colorado Seminar5. Attend Rare Book School6. Join professional organizations, such as the Independent Online Booksellers Association (IOBA)7 and/or the Antiquarian Booksellers’ Association of America (ABAA)8. As an Antiquarian Bookseller, your success will, in large part, be a function of your knowledge about the books that become your stock in trade.

And how does one price that book of which you have the only copy currently on the market? I’ve written elsewhere on this topic, providing a methodology that leads one to penciling a realistic price on the flyleaf. For my essay on same, point your browser to:

Hand-in-hand with knowing what to buy comes the wherewithal to be able to buy it. If you have an open shop, and in walks an inscribed first edition of Mitchell’s GONE WITH THE WIND, a beautiful copy in dust jacket… well, suffice it to say, this is a book you DO want to buy. Sometimes, however, such a transaction requires more cash than is presently in the till. Solution: Line of Credit. Use it judiciously, but having such a business tool can pay dividends in the long run. Explore the options with your bank.

Finally, in aggregate, what one pays for books is known as Cost of Goods Sold (COGS) which, at the end of the year, most in the trade will say should total no more than 33% of a firm’s gross revenue. In other words, on average, when you plan to sell a book for $100 dollars, your cash investment in that book should be no more than $33. Again, this a Rule of Thumb, which should be modified as necessary vis-à-vis the circumstances at hand, like that copy of Gone With The Wind mentioned in the preceding paragraph.

Let’s return to the subject of knowledge; if knowledge of books is the first of two success factors in Antiquarian Bookselling, what is the second? Well, again, it’s knowledge, but in this case, of customers. Network. Find people of like minds about books. There has been more than one occasion I’ve been able to sell my copy of a book, when others, offering the same work, have not, simply because I knew a likely customer. Through networking, one can meet and establish professional relationships that will enhance one’s business. And, if you’re lucky, those professional relationships will often, I’ve found, turn into true friendships as well.

At this juncture, it may be worthwhile to mention one way of “getting one’s feet wet” in the trade and by that I mean Apprenticeship, and/or working for an established Antiquarian Bookseller. There are a goodly number of instances in the trade where one employee has spent a few years learning the ropes, and then going out on his or her own. As I write this I can, for example, think of one ABAA Past-President who began in such a manner. If your personal circumstances allow, it is a proven method of establishing oneself in the business.

And the longer you work in the trade of antiquarian books, you’ll find one resource in constant short supply: time. Talk to any antiquarian bookseller, and almost to a person, their “backlog” of books to be catalogued and processed is substantial. Mine is 20 boxes, and those uncatalogued books pose a cost to my business, for they are, for all practical purposes, not available to sell. I lack the time to devote to them. And time is a resource, once expended, that cannot be regained.

With this in mind, take to heart the Pareto Principle, which tells us that 80% of our sales comes from 20% of our customers. Use your time available to focus your energies on those customers, and those books, which will provide the bulk of your income. Furthermore, I recommend you guard against those that would make use of your time without remuneration; for if you earn your living primarily from employment of your time and your expertise, which is what we do in antiquarian bookselling, you deserve to be compensated by those who would benefit from your counsel.

Finally, I’ll ask about your personality make-up. Are you the sort that can be facing the rent due, five days hence, with less than half of that in the bank account, without overly stressing on the uncertainty?9 If you have employees, will you be able to cover payroll every two weeks? Bookselling is an uncertain business, with past sales no guarantee of future sales. One can influence such, but cannot guarantee it. Consequently, not everyone is cut out for such responsibility and uncertainty. Before embarking on such a profession, be honest with yourself, if in fact, this is the sole manner in which you must “make your living.” You owe it to yourself, as well as your family.

And that’s it really… a nutshell guide to “Success (or Not) in Antiquarian Bookselling.” I recognize this commentary has been brief, and lacks specifics on, say, insurance companies to call for shop insurance. Rather it has been, by design, a Concorde ride over the landscape of the Antiquarian Book Trade. Despite its brevity, I nevertheless hope I have provided you with some ideas, even direction, before you begin your journey. I’ll close with this thought… every journey begins with the first step. Ready to make yours?


1 I recommend all people in business, who need to “make a living,” read the entire book, which, in the interim, is summarized here:

2 Auction records. I use their on-line version, which I access via my computer or my iPhone.

3 A multi-faceted service, which includes historical auction records and bookseller catalogue entries, such as from Goodspeed. In terms of auction records, there is some overlap with ABPC, but in my opinion, not of sufficient degree to say this service duplicates ABPC.

4 Again, if copies are offered on AbeBooks, that means there’s no immediate buyer for that particular copy.

9 I remember one occasion, not too long after opening the shop, rent was due five days hence and I admit I began to fret, for I didn’t have it… the day prior, in walked a couple who bought a set of Dickens’ Works, for four figures. To paraphrase Mr. Micawber, “Something did turn up.”

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