Fred Bass , Strand Bookstore, New York, N.Y.
The Apple Doesn't Fall...
Fred Bass, the president and co-owner (with his daughter, Nancy) of New York's noted Strand Bookstore, jumped into the bargain book field under the sway of a man he knew well. "It was my father, Benjamin Bass, who got me into the business," he explains. "He started the store in 1927, and I began working there when I was 13, after school and on weekends. He was running a used book operation with a little antiquarian. We were on Fourth Avenue, across from a much bigger store named Schulte's, and when he lost his lease 40 years ago, we moved to where we are now, at 12th Street and Broadway."
What Benjamin Bass taught his son from the start was "the excitement of handling books," says Bass, enthusiasm coloring his voice. "It was always a treasure hunt, and it still is a treasure hunt for me. Every book is different. Every collection is different. For my father, and now for me, there's not a dull thing in this business. My father wanted to find as many good books as he could and to get as many copies of good books as he could. One thing that he instilled in me is the knowledge that you can't sell a book if you haven't got it. Also, all the capital went back into the store. If we had a very big day, with $100 in sales, it all went back into the business." Today's receipts far exceed that, with the Strand's deep involvement in used, remaindered and rare books as well as reviewers' copies.
Benjamin Bass's participation in the store never wavered, even after Fred was given management responsibility in the 1950s. "He was working until the end," says Bass. "He was 77. I'm now 76, and the clock is ticking, but it's still exciting for me." —Robert Dahlin
, CIROBE cofounder
Timing Is Everything
As cofounder and co-organizer of CIROBE, manager of Powell's Chicago and president of Powell's Books Wholesale, Brad Jonas gets to keep his eyes on multiple aspects of the remainder industry. Early in his career, he came across two people who especially inspired him. The first, he tells PW, was
Norman Blaustein, "a Russian émigré to the U.S. who started off doing reprints under the name Tudor Press. Then he opened an exciting remainder firm, Landmark Books. He had a real interest in the quality of books. He paid lots of money for remainders and sold them well. I once went around an antiquarian fair in New York City with him and he'd walk by stalls pointing, 'That was my book in 1959. That was mine in 1963.' "
The books on display, Jonas explains, started in the bargain book world. "Blaustein knew that some have intrinsic value. He was interested in individual books, not just how many pages he got for so many dollars, and he found a way to bring books back into the marketplace. He taught me that there are great books around that the market misses. Shrewd buyers can resurrect these at a different time for a greater price. It happens all the time now." Jonas cites as examples the remaindered Braziller edition of Chagall's Windows, with lithographs, which now sells for thousands of dollars, and a first edition of photographer Danny Lyons's TheBikeriders, with its $2.95 remainder sticker, which now sells for as much as $1,200.
The second influential figure, says Jonas, was
John Kelly, who worked with scholarly reprints at Barnes & Noble. "John found new material in other people's backlist and reinvented their books. He'd find a book at a university press that hadn't sold and he'd go back to that press and say, 'I'd like to reproduce this for the bargain book market.' He'd take a paperback edition and sell it in hardcover format and give new life to the book."
But Kelly didn't stop there, Jonas notes: "He'd sometimes go to authors whose rights had reverted to them and ask if he could reprint their books. In some cases the author could sell new titles based on that." Jonas calls Kelly "a real innovator. He created a bargain division at B&N, Marboro Books, where he bought and sold remainders. He got people involved with seeing bargain books for the first time. What I like about both these gentlemen is the fact that what they did was part of a larger package that included retail, wholesale and bargain books. Now it's stack 'em up and move 'em out, which is fine, there's a place for that, but for these men it was not just about product." —Suzanne Mantell
, Black Dog & Leventhal
Harking Back to the Depression
"There was not one person, but two people who affected the entire bargain book industry," says Black Dog & Leventhal president J.P. Leventhal. "One was
Nat Wartels, who was the founder and owner of Crown Publishers and Outlet Book Company. Nat started during the Depression when he bought Outlet, and before long he invented the concept of reprinting books for which the plant costs had already been amortized. He also knew you could acquire books and pay reduced royalties if they had been out of print." Thus began, Leventhal explains, the flourishing of what would become the vast array of promotional books from a variety of publishers.
The other figure Leventhal cites is
Paul Hamlyn, who originated Hamlyn Books in the U.K. "He created new color-illustrated books and was the first to explore manufacturing in Eastern Europe," says Leventhal. "He was also the first to open up manufacturing in China. Paul initiated huge international editions, inventing the packaged book concept as we knew it then. He also went on to develop Octopus Books. He would create books in Europe and then sell them wherever there was a decent market. Crown was probably Hamlin's biggest customer, and I became very close to Paul. Both men defined what the bargain book business was in the '60s, '70s, '80s and '90s. Things have changed. Taste has changed tremendously since then. Today, most companies sell only remainders, and the chains buy rights to books and publish their promotional books themselves."
Leventhal worked for Wartels at Crown and Outlet—starting out with summer jobs—from 1967 to 1992. (He went on to found the non-bargain book company bearing his name in 1994.) "Nat was extraordinary in that he make it clear that you should always try to get the best book at the best price. He gave you a lot of freedom, in time, although you had to earn it." Wartels also acknowledged, Leventhal adds, that the occasional error in judgment was necessary for a person in business to grow. "Once I bought a bad book, one that didn't sell at all. Nat asked, 'What happened?' I said that I'd made a mistake, and he said, 'Just don't make that one again.' " —Robert Dahlin
, The Main Book Shop, Sarasota, Fla.
Recalling His Best Boss
Fifteen years ago, Scott Profitt, a staff chemist at a marine laboratory, needed a part-time job to help pay off student loans. He started working at a Sarasota bookstore run by Austin Lynn, a former Midwest College sociology professor with an entrepreneurial bent who started University Book Service, which continues to sell remainders to colleges and libraries. Lynn had also opened a retail store in Ohio where he had his wholesale operation. "He said he came down to Florida to retire," says Profitt, "but he opened another bookstore where he worked seven days a week, and that's where I met him: here behind the counter at this bookshop."
Austin eventually offered to sell Profitt the business, with no money down. Profitt jumped at the chance to change careers; he has owned the Main Book Shop for 11 years. Austin, he tells PW, was the best boss he ever had. "He never raised his voice and if you made a mistake, he would have a line like, 'As long as you keep making new mistakes, it's okay.' He was very witty and intellectual, and he was also quite a character. He liked to hold forth on any subject; he never watched TV and read continuously. I got tired listening to him because he constantly had a new idea—he never turned off!"
Austin, who passed away about five years ago, also had a particular "claim to fame" in the remainder business, says Profitt. In the old days, he explains, remainders were typically placed haphazardly on tables as $1, $2 or $3 books. "Austin was the first to realize that that wasn't an effective way to sell a book and actually organized them by subjects. Now that may be apocryphal, but I have no reason to believe it was." —Hilary S. Kayle
, Book Country
Understanding the Marketplace
"A person who had a great influence on my life was
Peter Tello," says Book Country sales manager Steve Cerqua. "He was the founder of Book Country back in the late '80s and was its owner for many years. I joined in October 1995, and Peter passed away in November 2002."
Cerqua says that one of Tello's key strengths "was his understanding of the marketplace and the importance of securing product. He knew how to structure a deal and to build good relationships both on the buy side and the sell side. He put his customers first, above everything else, because he knew that if you make your customers money, they'll be happy and they'll be back. We were never interested in making deals just so that we could make money. We've always been motivated toward helping the customer."
Over the years, Cerqua has watched the ever-changing face of what products were available at any given time. "That's the business," he says. "It's as if you're spilling water on the ground and trying to predict where it wants to go. We don't have one particular type of product. We deal with the book industry, with Internet companies, with flea markets. Peter was always flexible. We didn't always see eye to eye, but we respected each other."
Summing up Tello's drive, Cerqua says, "The thing that really floated his boat was that he liked sniffing out deals and then doing a little arm-wrestling to get a great price." —Robert Dahlin
, Sales Rep
Three Major Influences
Rich Fisher has been in the remainder business for 40 years, starting when he was 17; he's currently an independent rep for Daedalus Books and Texas Bookman. When asked about a person in the book business who influenced him the most, he replies, "In which generation?"
The person who got him interested in the business was
Harry Kutick, owner of Womrath's, a bookstore in Hackensack, N.J. "For his time, he was very good," says Fisher. "He was an excellent book man and a good merchant. He was enthusiastic about being able to offer full-price books at a bargain price. That part of it is exactly the same as it is today."
Fisher also has high praise for
Faith Brunson, a venerable department-store buyer at Rich's in Atlanta. "She was probably the best of them. What made her special? I'd answer that question about anybody on the retail side of the business in the same way, whether it was in 1966 or today. It will be the same 10 or 15 years from now. It's a combination of a comprehension of what a book is and what it's for; a knowledge of books and authors; an understanding of what constitutes a good book and what constitutes a good value—that's where the price comes into it—plus a high level of merchandising skill."
Another person who figured large in Fisher's life was
Larry Alexander, who he met in the early '70s at a start-up remainder company, A&W. "Larry was somebody who thought in large terms," Fisher recalls. "He was very aggressive about the sale books and very sharp on price, much more than most people in the West were back then. He merchandised well and, for the day, he bought well. Larry was one of the last of the high rollers in the '60s and '70s." Fisher notes that Alexander's expertise was from a marketing and sales manager standpoint. "I still pay attention to much of what I learned from him back then: organizing the territory; keeping track of what's going on with a particular customer; and deciding where time needs to be spent. Larry was very good at that and, personally, he had a very strong impact on me." —Hilary S. Kayle
, American Book Country
Boredom as a Motivator
Dean Winegardner credits boredom—and the late
Dan Mendenhall of Giant Book Warehouse—with his decision to leave his first career and get into the bargain book industry 16 years ago. "I was very bored with the banking business," says Winegardner, founder—and now president and CEO—of American Book Company. "It was very corporate, very political, and I didn't like that. I saw what Dan was doing and it really intrigued me."
Back in 1987, Winegardner was working at First Union Bank in Panama City, Fla., and Mendenhall happened to occupy the office next door. They became acquainted and Mendenhall ended up selling Winegardner a shipment of 3,000 Bibles for $5 apiece. Winegardner sold the Bibles for at least $10 each, getting his first taste of the business's profit potential.
Eventually Winegardner quit his job and went to work for Mendenhall, opening stores for him in Florida and Ohio. Several months later, he met the second person who would be key to his career in the bargain book business, Paul Cowell of National Book Warehouse. Cowell hired Winegardner and sent him to Knoxville, Tenn., to run the company's temporary stores business.
That job was the break that enabled Winegardner to learn about the retail side of the business—knowledge he later put to use when he went out on his own in 1990, starting Publishers' Warehouse, which grew to 73 stores. Looking back, Winegardner recalls that Cowell's influence was less about teaching specific skills and imparting knowledge than it was about the intangibles. "He was kind of a Pied Piper. I think he inspired me," Winegardner notes. "He has a charisma, it's hard to put your finger on it, he's just a very likable, very positive person.
"It's really difficult to single out just two influences on my book business success," Winegardner adds. "In addition to Dan and Paul, I certainly owe a large vote of thanks to, among many others,
Debbie Smith, presently of Bargain Books,
Mel Shapiro of Book Sales and
John Hultink of Book Depot." —Karen Holt
, Half Price Books
Using the Try-it Approach
"Ken Gjemre and Pat Anderson started Half Price Books in 1972 as a second-hand bookstore," says executive v-p Dee Mitchell. (The setting: a converted laundromat in Dallas.) "I joined in 1974 and, within four years, we were being visited by sales reps selling us remainders and promotionals. Ken then said we should have our own wholesale division selling remainders and, in 1982, he launched Texas Bookman. He said that since we were starting this business, I had to go out and buy some stuff."
The training Mitchell received was based on what he had learned by being in the back room and watching books come in. "Ken took the New York trips to visit showrooms, but he announced that I should come with him on the next one. First, though, he sent me to San Francisco on another buying trip. We looked for books that we weren't getting second-hand. We bought art books, cookbooks, children's books without the crayon markings inside. Our niche was also a bit more scholarly."
After that first trip, Gjemre sent Mitchell off on his own, although some suppliers had a few doubts. "I found out that when I was in New York, a wholesaler called Ken to tell him I'd signed a $20,000 purchase order, and was that okay?"
Mitchell knew his books and "you kind of pick things up as you go along," he says. Gjemre encouraged that. "He was a character," Mitchell adds. "You had a lot of freedom. He always said that if you didn't make mistakes, you were not buying right. You were being too cautious. Well, I've proved to be a brilliant buyer." He laughs, thinking about his own share of mistakes. "With Ken, it was always, 'You were crazy if you didn't try something.' So we still use the try-it approach." —Robert Dahlin
, Roy P. Jensen, Inc.
Worked for Free
Roy Jensen says the late
Norman Blaustein gave him his start in the bargain book business—though rather reluctantly. Harlem Book Company was looking for a production person. Jensen applied but got turned down, so he offered to work for free for two weeks to prove what he could do. "It was better than walking out the door without the job," says Jensen, who later went on to found the Roy P. Jensen Inc. remainder book company.
Those two weeks turned into 18 years (with Jensen getting paid), during which time Jensen learned the business from the inside. Jensen sees Blaustein not only as a key influence in his career, but as a pioneer in the industry: "His stature in the business was that he sort of established this whole thing and most everything that was done subsequently related to him."
Another crucial person in his career was a colleague,
Arthur Bartley, who asked Jensen to go into business with him, forming Publishers Overstock Unlimited. With that, Jensen made the crucial transition from employee to entrepreneur. The partnership lasted more than six years, after which, in 1992, Jensen went out on his own.
Jensen credits one other member of the industry for helping him succeed—bargain book icon
Mel Shapiro, founder and president of Book Sales. Back in the mid-1980s, when Bartley and Jensen were considering forming Publishers Overstock, Shapiro was already a well-respected figure in the business. As Jensen contemplated the risks of becoming an entrepreneur in a fast-changing business, he sought Shapiro's counsel. "I had a talk with him and he advised me that I could make it in this business and make a good living"—advice Jensen says he's never regretted following. —Karen Holt