Caite Stevens of Vivarte Books


It all began with eBay in 1999. At the time, I was a single girl working full-time as a sales assistant for a national brokerage firm. Id been earning extra money by cutting my teeth on eBay, selling all the knick-knacks in my Maryland apartment that I decided would be better converted to cash. I slowly learned to master the art of eBay by selling perfume, jewelry, LPs, comic books, Halloween costumes, my old cell phones, a Pee-wee Herman kite, and inflatable Star Wars props.

Not long after my apartment was stripped of saleable product, my art dealer parents announced they were moving to Florida. This meant I would inherit all the stuff they didnt want to move with them. Alongside the groceries, funny hats, and kitchen gadgets transferred to my possession were boxes and boxes of books. Old school books, foreign titles, literature, novels, and, of course, art auction catalogs, along with a few monographs penned by my mother. I quickly listed and sold most of the regular books on Half.com, but didnt know what to do with the auction catalogs and monographs. So I gave them a shot on eBay, and discovered that there was a market for these obscure, heavily researched, single-printing publications.

After enjoying a flurry of sales from my newly listed books, I jumped right into bookselling, adding to my inventory exponentially by scouring local book sales and internet auctions in search of any non-fiction book I could find. I spent nearly every weekend driving from book sale to book sale with my eBay friend Roselle, at times traveling two to three hours for a single sale. Sleeping in on the weekends was not an optionin order to arrive an hour before a sale started (a requirement if you dont want to stand in line behind the forty people who got there before you), we routinely woke up before dawn on Saturday and Sunday mornings.

Book sales were always tense. In the minutes before a sale was officially scheduled to begin at local schools, libraries, and churches, our anxiety level rose to an unbearable pitch, culminating in a mad dash against all the other dealers as we raced toward the best corner of the sale once the doors opened. Being the first one to grab the most interesting box of used books was a triumph only a fellow book-saler can appreciate.

After a heart-pounding and sweaty 30-45 minutes at each sale, I left with boxes and boxes of books, careful to never buy more than my car could hold. Sometimes that meant having a passenger in the front seat in the form of three boxes of books stacked on top of each othernot the safest way to drive, but certainly the most exciting. Bag Day was always my favorite. They would let you pile as many books as you could into a single bag or box for a small sum, say $5 or so. Id make Roselle drive her truck on Bag Day. At the time, I lived on the top floor of a three-story apartment complex with no elevator. Although Id reserve that entire afternoon and most of the rest of the weekend for listing books, it sometimes took a week or two before I was physically able to remove the last box from my car.

Sales were ripe. I was selling general non-fiction books on a daily basis on both Half.com and Amazon.com. Every few weeks Id list a handful of art books on eBay to bring in a big chunk of money. I had no monthly listing fees to cover, only commissions on books sold. Even selling a seventy-five cent book was profitable for me, since I tracked profits in terms of lots from each book sale. Once Id made my money back on a given lot, the rest was gravy. I was doing so well that I was able to partially finance my wedding with the money that was coming in.

Vivarte Books officially came into existence in May 2003. I took my eBay User ID vivarte and turned it into an official taxpaying business in the state of Maryland. By this time, my inventory of books had grown to about 5,000 titles.

It wasnt long before the non-essential furniture was moved out of our loft and replaced with towering bookshelves. And it wasnt long after the bookshelves arrived that stacks of books began to appear on the floor because the shelves couldnt handle any more titles! Although my husband enjoyed the extra money that was coming in, it drove him nuts to navigate the obstacle course of books that had become our loft just to check his email.

I quickly discovered that buying every used non-fiction book I found wasnt the best business plan I could have developed. More than half of the books I was lugging home were worthless for my business and were subsequently donated to my local library.

And then the bottom fell out. The announcement of Half.coms impending demise during the spring of 2004 marked a major turning point in my business. Coincidentally, sales had begun lagging in the months leading up to Halfs announcement. My sales on Half and Amazon dropped by 90% and they stayed put for months. The shelf space in my apartment was completely diminished. It seemed my only alternative was to list on sites that would charge me anywhere from $15-$50 each month just for the privilege of listing a single book, and this was in addition to commissions on each sale. To make matters worse, I had no inventory software to comply with these sites, as I had never needed any. The prospect of entering all the data from my 5,000 books into inventory software seemed a daunting and never-ending task. I knew it was time to make some changes.

I had to streamline my business if I was going to turn it around. So I spent about two months physically examining each title in my collection, donating every book that I felt wasnt worth my time. Then I surveyed what was left. Nearly every art book Id acquired remained on the shelves. I knew that my most profitable books were those that were art-related, even though they made up a small portion of my overall inventory. They were the most costly to obtain, the hardest to find, and the most labor-intensive to list, but they offered the best return on the dollar by far and were the most interesting to work with. So the decision was made. The focus of Vivarte Books would now be on art and art-related subjects.

Selling art publications isnt as easy as dealing with your run-of-the-mill Grisham novel. Most of the publications I sell have no ISBN. And when it comes to researching titles and artists, its not unusual to find that the only current documented copy is in my hands, which makes pricing difficult, albeit exciting. Finding an obscure foreign artist makes for fascinating reading if the publication isnt in the artists native tongue. This has made language translation an important tool in my business. A lot of my customers dont know of the existence of the publications theyre buying before making a purchase from me, which can make marketing each title a challenge. Its not always apparent why or if an art publication is important, or what the focus was of a given exhibition. But I enjoy doing the research and picking out the relevant information, and have found a worldwide audience.

Its taken me years of practice to figure out which art books to leave behind at a book sale. The majority of books in the Art section at book sales have no value. The information in them is either outdated, too basic, or too well-dispersed.

Although I still sell odds and ends on eBay and a small selection of general non-fiction books on assorted bookselling sites, the crux of my business has become centered on art, and I couldnt be happier about it. I sell on eBay, Half, Amazon, Alibris, Biblio, and IOBAbooks.com.

A native of the DC area, I now live in a house in Olney, Maryland, with my husband and newborn daughter, and still work full-time in finance. My inventory fits neatly into five tall bookshelves that line the walls of my office. There is a clear path to the computer, and my husband doesnt have to step over a single book to check his email.

My mother has long contended that the first word I ever spoke was book, and that I was reading out of Newsweek when I was four. As a kid, Id come home from the library with as many books as I could carry. I read Gone with the Wind when I was ten. During my teen years, we had a constantly changing array of paintings hanging on our walls. Mom would sell what was hanging over the piano and replace it with a new acquisition. There is no better industry or market niche for me to be in.

I love the business Ive created, and I intend to nurture it for as long as possible. Vivarte Books functions for me not merely a source of income, but as a source of education, pride, and absolute enjoyment. It combines my love of art and reading with my love of computers, the internet, and the entrepreneurial spirit.

Caite Stevens operates Vivarte Books and can be contacted at http://caitestevens.com/

The Standard: The Journal of the Independent Online Booksellers Association

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