Even before the recession hit, used-book sales were on the rise. During the past decade, they grew so rapidly that by April 2002 the Authors Guild and the Association of American Publishers attacked Amazon for placing new books at risk. "If your aggressive promotion of used book sales becomes popular among Amazon's customers, this service will cut significantly into sales of new titles, directly harming authors and publishers," they wrote in an open letter to Jeff Bezos. In the intervening years, not just Amazon but brick-and-mortar bookstores that rely on sales through Amazon, eBay, and Alibris to bolster walk-in traffic, have benefited from the growth of used books. "We do more business online, make more money, than in the store," says Dan Moore, co-owner of 27-year-old McIntyre and Moore Booksellers, a used-book store with a scholarly bent in Cambridge, Mass.
That's no surprise to Brian Elliott, CEO of Alibris, which has 15,000 active sellers, including 80 ABA members. "Alibris had a great 2009. We saw double-digit growth and are still seeing growth overall in 2010," says Elliott. To make it easier for booksellers to manage their business across multiple marketplaces like Amazon, eBay, Buy.com, and Half.com, Alibris bought the software provider Monsoon in March. In addition, Alibris continues to partner with retailers like Barnes & Noble, Chapters/Indigo, and Borders to match buyers and sellers.
At Half Price Books, the leading dedicated brick-and-mortar retailer of used books in the country, revenue rose nearly 8%, to $220 million, for the fiscal year ending June 30. Last week the bookseller held a grand reopening for its location in Brookfield, Wis., which has added 20% more shelf space. The company is also in the process of moving its Maplewood, Minn., store into larger space at the end of September and will open a new store in Oklahoma City, Okla., later this month. According to spokesperson Rebekah Gannaway, Half Price will have 113 stores by the first quarter of 2011.
But it's not just big resellers that are benefiting from customers trying to stretch their dollars. Earlier this summer, Left Bank Books in St. Louis rearranged its flagship store in the Central West End to devote more space to used. "With the current economic climate," says manager Anna Rimel, "we noticed our used books were high on the list of what we are selling and decided to expand." Left Bank now devotes most of its downstairs to used, although it continues to shelve new and used gender studies titles together upstairs. As part of the transition, the store has enlarged its used children's section and added more teen fiction as well as picture books. Used fiction, philosophy, cookbooks, and art are doing especially well, says Rimel.
Although online buying and selling of used books has come to dominate the market, the recession has increased the used-book supply in general. "Sometimes," says Left Bank used-book buyer Sean Semones, "it seems really overwhelming. There are so few places to take used books that it seems like we are taking all the used books in St. Louis."
Iliad Bookshop in North Hollywood, Calif. (so named because of its original location next to Odyssey Video), has also been overwhelmed by walk-in customers selling books. "It's insane," says Lisa Morton, Stoker Award–winning author and store manager. "I feel like I've been working on the New York Stock Exchange." For her, one of the biggest challenges is simply keeping up with the buying. "Our business is up all the way around. Just in the last year it's exploded," says Morton. In 2009, Iliad doubled in size to 5,000 sq. ft., and it recently hired a fifth full-time staffer with a sixth to be added soon.
Morton attributes Iliad's uptick in sales to the economy. "People who have been collecting for years are suddenly selling their collections. They're telling us they've had to downsize; they've had to move." As for the store's inventory, Morton says that with the exception of a few pop-ups, it's 99.1% used. And being in L.A., many of the books that sell fastest are driven by movies, like Eat, Pray, Love and The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo.
While Iliad and Left Bank do most of their used-book buying in-store, Powell's Books is one of the few independents to have additional purchasing capability on its Web site (powells.com). The software enables it to make an offer based on the ISBN; Powell's pays for shipping. "It's nice after years of buying locally and selling globally to be able to buy globally," says Jon Guetschow, director of used books, who is bullish about used. "We don't know the limits of what we're able to sell. So far we haven't reached the point where the supply exceeds the demand."
The Portland retailer, which also pioneered selling used and new side-by-side, even at its three airport stores, has seen used sales grow consistently. "We think they're a fantastic value," says Guetschow. "The more we put in, the more we sell. I think we stock new books because we can't buy it in used."
In addition, Guetschow has observed a marked increase, roughly 20%, in the number of people asking to be paid in store credit. He attributes the change to cash-strapped customers trying to find a way to replace older books with new. Quoting Erasmus, says Guetschow, "When I get a little money, I buy books, and if any is left I buy food and clothes."
At the Strand Bookstore in New York City, used books have always been a healthy part of the business. Sales have been split 50/50 between new and used (antiquarian, rare, and out-of-print) for a number of years, and both contribute to growth. "Used books have increased and new has increased," says co-owner Fred Bass, who anticipates a 3% rise in total sales this year over sales of $26 million in 2009. In addition, the Strand has seen its online sales, which include both used and new, rise to 25% of revenue through its own Web site (strandbooks.com) and online marketplaces like Amazon and Alibris.
While the Strand continues to stock reviewers' copies, which it sells at half off, lately it has begun carrying more new books. "If we run out, we don't want our customers to go to our competitors," says Bass. One thing he doesn't anticipate lacking anytime soon is quality used books. Like other booksellers, Bass singles out the "tremendous" volume of books being offered as the biggest change in the business in the past year and a half. "We're buying more than ever before," he says. "The rare book department is getting fantastic stuff, and our art department is bursting." Since its purchase of Hacker Art Books several years ago, the Strand has one million art books split between the store and at its 10,000-sq.-ft. warehouse in Brooklyn. Soon customers will be able to get store credit for the first time in the Strand's 80-year history. "Cash has always seemed the most clean-cut and simple method of payment. However, we hope to change that policy in the near future," says Bass.
Some Bumpy Spots
Tony Weller, co-owner of Sam Weller's Bookstore in Salt Lake City, is rethinking everything as he prepares to move the 80-year-old bookstore founded by his grandparents into new quarters with a smaller footprint than the current 37,000 sq. ft. "For years I've held the belief that the presence of my used books helps me sell my new books, and the presence of my new books helps me sell my used," says Weller. He plans to keep a mix of new, used, and rare in the new store and to offer a searchable database of the store's inventory on its upgraded Web site (samwellers.com), which will launch when the store opens.
Unlike many booksellers, he is far less gung ho about the long-term prospects for the used-book market. "We've seen the market shrink over the last 15 years," says Weller, for whom one of the biggest challenges is curbing the appetite of the store's used-book buyers. "The easiest mistake is to buy too much," he says, which is one reason that he asks customers to call first before bringing in their books for sale. "We'd rather disappoint over the phone," he adds.
Although Weller remains committed to used, Peter Aaron, owner of Elliott Bay Book Co. in Seattle, is not sure that they're right for everyone. When the store relocated this summer, he decided to stop selling used entirely. "It had never grown into a significant percentage of our business," says Aaron. "I didn't think we were particularly good at it. It's fine to be seduced by gross profit percentages. Our experience was that it wasn't nearly as profitable as it looked to be."
Certainly the used-book market has undergone tremendous change in large part because of the Internet. As Moore points out, book dealers no longer travel overseas to search out books for resale, and there's a lot of pressure to keep book prices low in part because customers can check more readily online. Penny and 99¢ resellers, who make their money on shipping, also drive down prices. At the same time, increased shipping charges from the U.S. to overseas has discouraged in-store visits from Europeans or Asians who would have to pay $300 in shipping to buy $400 worth of books.
The heady days of the 1970s and early '80s, when used books practically sold themselves throughbrick-and-mortar outlets, are over. In an interview with the Somerville (Mass.) News, Moore's partner, Mike McIntyre, described selling used books then as "a lot like selling drugs." Still, the Internet and the economy are both providing new opportunities for booksellers. As Powell's Guetschow points out, "As long as people want a tangible copy, used books are designed to compete."