After 52 years with Book Sales, Mel Shapiro will retire from the company October 28. Shapiro, who as long ago as 2000 was called the sage of the bargain-book business by PW, was recruited to Book Sales in 1964 by his brother-in-law and helped grow the company into one of country’s largest bargain-book publishers—one that sold remainders as well as publishing promotional books.
Many of the companies that were competitors with Book Sales over the years have gone out of business, and Shapiro acknowledged that Book Sales had its own share of struggles. They key to Book Sales’s survival, Shapiro said, was a deal he struck with Quarto Group cofounder Laurence Orbach some 25 years ago.
“We did a lot of business with Quarto,” Shapiro recalled, explaining that he contacted Orbach and told him he had some good and bad news. “I said the good news is I would like you to buy out my brother-in-law. The bad news is I owe you $3 million.” Not too long after that conversation, Quarto took an 80% stake in Book Sales. “It has been a fantastic relationship,” Shapiro said. “It has worked well for everyone.” Orbach agreed that the Book Sales/Quarto connection has been a good one. “It was always a delight to work with Mel,” Orbach said. “We always got along extremely well, and his judgments of people and businesses were generally very insightful.”
As part of Quarto, Book Sales has been able to adapt to the ever-changing market, whether that meant closing a 150,000-sq.-ft. warehouse as the remainder business began to consolidate or putting more emphasis on publishing promotional books. “The remainder market is not what it once was,” Shapiro said. The rise of Amazon and other online retailers and the demise of such bookstore chains as Borders, Crown Books, and Encore Books “has made remainders a tough market,” Shapiro said. Instead, Book Sales has put more resources into its promotional publishing efforts and counts Barnes & Noble, Books-A-Million, and many mass merchants as important customers.
As much as Shapiro, who is now 84, has enjoyed his long run in publishing he has no regrets about leaving. “It’s a different world,” he said. “I used to know the inventory we had in the warehouse and the money we had in the bank in my head,” Shapiro said. “Now everyone is on their computers.” Many of those people on computers are ones that Shapiro has trained over the years. “[Shapiro’s] knowledge of the business and mentoring of many Quarto people over the years is stuff of legend,” said Marcus Leaver, CEO of Quarto. “His legacy is a vibrant business in Book Sales which will continue, run by some of his mentees, and which remains an important part of Quarto after all these years.”
In his last week before officially retiring, Shapiro was planning to head to CIROBE, which is set for October 21–23 in Chicago. Going to CIROBE is a nice way to begin his retirement, Shapiro said. “At the end of day, it has been a fun business. Even with the struggles it has been a great experience.”