While it's survival of the fittest—or at least the fastest—for all booksellers when it comes to snatching up remainder books and other items at CIROBE, niche bookstores specializing in specific areas are under even more pressure to identify the books appropriate to their categories and buy what they want as quickly as possible. "Remainders are all about whoever gets there first," says James Fugate, co-owner of L.A.'s Esowon Books, which specializes in African-American titles.
"The trick is to see everybody the first hour of the show," advises Richard DeJonge, sales and marketing director for RG Mitchell, a Canadian religious chain and wholesaler that stocks more than 1,000 titles. "If you plan to go for the last hours of the last day, you might as well not even go." In fact, five years ago, when DeJonge and his team visited CIROBE for the first time, they set a kind of challenge for themselves: "We decided the first book we bought from somebody was going to create enough margin that it would pay for our trip," he says. A collection of four C.S. Lewis quotation books did the trick.
Indeed, particularly against a soft economic backdrop, the presence of remainders in specialized bookstores appears to be growing, or at least holding steady, making competition for bargain books that much more intense. "In terms of volume, bargain books are doing incredibly well," reports Ed Devereux, owner of Unabridged Books in Chicago, a 3,500-square-foot general bookstore with a large gay and lesbian selection. Devereux reports that the bargain section of his store has grown from one small spot to about one-tenth of its total area, and while he doesn't have computerized inventory of bargain books, he keeps track of sales using a more concrete system: "We order sale stickers in batches of 10,000, and we just had to reorder after what seems like only a few months, which means we've gone through 10,000 discounted books."
"Bargain business is growing," agrees RG Mitchell's DeJonge. "There used to be a stigma that bargain books meant damaged or bad-selling books, but stores are starting to realize that bargain books can make or break a year."
"The bargain market is a growth business, and the obvious thing you can point to is the economy," says Jim Tomaszewski, buyer for the Zany Brainy 169-store educational toy and book chain. "If there's an opportunity to pick up a bargain, you do it."
While remaindered books appeal to consumers because their prices are low, it's the favorable profit margin that draws booksellers to discounted products. "The margins are so important," says Becky Anderson, co-owner and children's buyer for Anderson's Bookshop, consisting of three stores and a wholesale warehouse in the Chicago suburbs. "That's why we don't want to take a chance on skids for the stores. It's like a pig in a poke. You end up with 200 copies of something you're not going to be able to get rid of."
Last year, the manager and owner of Chicago's Spanish-Speaking Bookstore, Tomás Bissonnette, purchased 40 copies—a relatively large buy for him—of the Spanish-language version of Men Are from Mars, Women Are from Venus. "I can never figure out why those books are remaindered at all, they're so popular. With bargain books I make my money back within the first couple months, and the rest as it dribbles in is pure profit," he says.
"I'm always looking for the big books of the year before to turn up on remainder lists," says Devereux at Unabridged Books. "The paperbacks come out, and there they are. Last year we got 100 copies of Armistead Maupin's The Night Listener, which has gay content, and they sold immediately." Anderson of Anderson's Bookshop finds remainders of popular titles a no-brainer. "If it's a book that you sell well already and you can get your hands on it remaindered, so much the better."
Discounted books have also proven to be a kind of lifeline for independents, who are seeing their regular sales slip in the face of competition from the chains. "New titles aren't selling the way they used to," reports Esowon's Fugate. "We have a Borders not far from us now, and they sell all of the new titles and frequently have them on sale at 50% or 30% off, so we've moved into remainders." Fugate is a particular fan of academic remainders or anything with an educational component. "Last year at CIROBE we found a Time-Life African history video and sold 500 copies. We also got 75 copies of To Conserve a Legacy, a book on American art at historically black colleges, and we sold out of that," he reports.
As the impact of remainder books as a percentage of overall business is growing, attendance at CIROBE has become de rigueur for specialized booksellers. "It's just become one of those things you do," says Fugate. Time, of course, is of the essence. "If you don't go, these remainders will be gone. I can't wait another month until they send me a list," says Devereux. And the Spanish-Speaking Bookstore's Bissonnette finds the atmosphere at CIROBE welcoming. "It's just such a friendly place in terms of people being there and being helpful, and when you go back for the third or fourth year there are people who say, "Oh, Tomás, here's something you ought to look at.' "
As CIROBE has grown in importance, its selection has improved as well. Several booksellers mentioned that the remainder books now available are of higher quality than in the past. Recalls Deborah Pisciatelli, executive director of the Harpers Ferry Historical Association bookstore, "When we first started carrying remainders, a lot were promotional books. Now we're seeing a lot more university press titles and more scholarly books. I can get really good, well-priced books into the hands of the public." Today remainders constitute about one-quarter of the business at Pisciatelli's store, which focuses on six topics: the physical and historical geography of Harpers Ferry; John Brown's raid; 19th-century transportation; the Civil War; industry as related to the armory at Harpers Ferry; and slavery, abolition and the education of freed blacks in the post—Civil War era.
Anderson of Anderson's Bookshop considers promotional titles chaff. "I'm always looking for great trade books," she says. "I don't want promotional remainders. That's the stuff you've got to weed through." At other times of the year, however, she's more willing to purchase assortments. Anderson's three stores hold tent sales in July, and while the stores' business is split just about halfway between children's and adult titles, she's found that it's the children's books that sell well at value prices. Remainders have grown to comprise approximately 5% of her children's book business.
Niche booksellers report a variety of strategies for negotiating CIROBE, ranging from simply walking the aisles to a more calculated approach to locating books on their subjects at general-interest vendors. John Lobsinger is category manager for Flying J, which has 162 travel centers along interstates. The centers include gas stations, RV and 18-wheeler service stations, showers, laundry rooms, game rooms and stores that offer videos, DVDs, CDs, cassette tapes and books. "There are a few major vendors like Second Generation Media that we hit first, and that saturates us," he explains. "Then we hit the smaller people." In books, Lobsinger is seeking "male-oriented stuff like science fiction and westerns," and when it comes to music, he tries to buy in bulk. "Consumers want value packs of six cassettes or more, because that way they get 20 hours of listening time," he says.
Tomaszewski, the Zany Brainy buyer, comes to CIROBE with serious intentions, but he doesn't stay long. "We'll probably be in and out in a day. It's not a spend-the-night show for me," he says. "On a major title I buy up to 5,000 copies, but there are a lot of dealers that don't have more than 200. I don't buy mixed. I look for key single title buys, often higher ticket purchases. We have had success in the past with higher price point reference books, so I'll be looking for opportunities there. I try to see as many lists as I can in advance and get a list in my mind of what looks key."
The Spanish-Speaking Bookstore's Bissonnette sends an advance person. "One of my workers goes the first day and scouts the place out, asking vendors whether they have anything in Spanish, so I don't have to go through that bit and can simply negotiate," he says. RG Mitchell's DeJonge attends with a list of religious publishers, with his most reliable vendor being Thomas Nelson. When it comes to sniffing out religious titles at general-interest vendors, he claims they do the work for him: "I just give them my card, and they say, 'The one book we have for you is this one.' "
For others, the thrill of surprise is the whole point. "I love the working atmosphere of CIROBE," says Pisciatelli. "It's like a treasure hunt." Because of the store's field of specialization, she favors vendors of serious fare, such as Daedalus. "I've also done really well with the American Book Company. Last year from them I got some of the approximately 200 volumes of Official Records of the War of the Rebellion and was able to retail them for $9.95 when normally they're $40 each," she recalls. Devereux of Unabridged agrees that it's the unexpected that makes CIROBE special: "I hit the booths of our regular vendors like Daedalus and Kudzu, and then I just browse the floor. There are always fun surprises. Two years ago Time Warner had David Sedaris's Holidays on Ice remaindered—that was very exciting."
Like most booksellers, RG Mitchell's DeJonge does not go in search of specific titles, but there are certain names that immediately attract his attention. " Last year we bought 2,000 copies of a Max Lucado book from Thomas Nelson and sold them all in one day."
Connie Breen is senior buyer for Tuesday Morning, a chain of 505 stores that sell closeout merchandise, mainly home décor and gift items, and remaindered books at 50%—80% off of retail prices. "I'm looking for children's books, cookbooks, gardening books and gift-type books," she says. "I meet a lot of vendors before the show starts, and then I walk the show to see what titles I might have missed."
Once these booksellers get their booty home, what do they do to promote bargain books? A year-round marked display of low-priced items is the norm, with some stores stepping up their value-priced selections during the holiday season. "We have a bargain table year-round," says Bissonnette of the Spanish-Speaking Bookstore. "Some of it is Christmas stuff that stays somewhere else until Christmastime and is put out then." Devereux of the Unabridged Bookstore reports, "We have the same amount of space devoted to them all year long and they sell strongly all year long."
When most retailers speak of the high season they are referring to December, but some of these focused booksellers identify other high-traffic periods with special needs. General bookstores would be hard-pressed to predict those needs, let alone fulfill them, but these specialists know their clientele. The Harpers Ferry Historical Association's Pisciatelli points out that 2002 will see the 140th anniversary of the Battle of Antietam, expected to bring more than 15,000 history buffs to the area to participate in a large-scale reenactment. "We're getting ready," she says. "We plan to put the books we've marked down out on a table and feature them, because reenactors really like bargains."
Clearly, they're not the only ones.