The Good Book and Great Sales
Karen Raugust -- 1/10/00
Loome Theological enters a successful new millennium selling books from past millenniums
Loome Theological Booksellers, in North America's first booktown of Stillwater, Minn., is guaranteeing its future in the 21st Century by supplying books from past centuries. Loome's collection is so vast it is able to stock entire college libraries from scratch. With only a handful of walk-in customers a day, two-thirds of its business coming through mail order. But, what a business it is. In the last six years, Loome has provided the bulk of volumes for new university libraries in Austria, Manila and Africa.
Loome Theological is the purveyor of what is thought to be one of the largest collection in the world of books on religion, theology and related topics in all languages. Whether customers seek a common C.S. Lewis or Graham Greene or the more unusual Benedictine Maledictions: Liturgical Cursing in Romanesque France (Cornell Univ.), chances are they can find it among the 250,000 to 275,000 volumes in this second-hand bookshop, housed for two decades in the former Old Swedish Covenant Church.
According to owner Thomas Loome, about 90% of the books at the store's main premises are out of print, with about half of those considered scarce. Loome categorizes about 10% of the volumes as "really rare," stating, "I wouldn't know how to replace them."
Loome got his start in bookselling in the 1960s while working on his doctorate at Germany's University of TÃ¼bingen. His research took him to second-hand bookstores across the U.K. and continental Europe as he sought volumes from the 1880s through 1905. When he found items he felt were undervalued, he picked them up. On his travels he met the well-known Welsh bookseller Richard Booth, who, impressed with Loome's knowledge of out-of-print books and their prices, hired him in 1968 as a part-time cataloguer of pre-1700, non-English-language titles. Five years later, Loome returned to the U.S. to pursue a teaching career, all the while maintaining a by-mail bookselling business with an inventory of roughly 1,000 volumes.
In the late 1970s, Loome abandoned teaching and embarked on a full-time career in bookselling. He heard about the possible availability of a Stillwater church building, which a developer had planned to transform into condos before running into financial difficulties. He purchased it, reroofed it and removed the pews. He and his family relocated from St. Paul. The store remains in the building, now expanded and improved and still featuring the original stained-glass windows and woodwork.
Ten years ago, Loome opened two additional second-hand bookstores on Main Street in downtown Stillwater, a few blocks from Loome Theological's headquarters. Midtown Books is a 20,000-volume store specializing in children's books, cooking, antiques and collectibles, literature and music. Across the street, St. Croix Antiquarian Booksellers, a partnership with Gary Goodman, carries 85,000 volumes in all subject areas. Loome also has a warehouse in town, which is home to Loome Theological's periodical collection as well as new arrivals and overstock.
The presence of more than a half million second-hand books in a town of 14,000 inhabitants led Loome and Goodman to deem Stillwater "North America's First Booktown" in 1994. (Two other second-hand booksellers, T.E. Warch Automotive Books and Ross & Haines Old Books, are located in nearby St. Croix River towns along the Minnesota-Wisconsin border.) Booth, Loome's former mentor, made the official declaration at the annual Stillwater Antiquarian Book Fair that year.
Booth is credited with introducing the world's first booktown, Hay-on-Wye, Wales, in 1961. That village currently boasts 20 stores and one million books. Other cities, in Belgium, Switzerland, the Netherlands, France, South Africa and Malaysia, declared themselves booktowns starting in the 1980s.
No Accidental Customers
Loome estimates that the store averages 10 to 15 customers per day. "There's not ever a day when there aren't some people in," he said, noting that the shop is open every day except Sundays and holidays and that the downtown stores are closed just two or three days a year.
"We don't get accidental customers. This is a point of destination," said Loome, who estimates that about one-third of Loome Theological's walk-in customers have traveled "some distance," with many driving 10 to 15 hours or flying in. Some visitors come to Stillwater for a two- to five-day vacation centered around book-hunting; Loome Theological's staff arranges for accommodations and airport transportation for first-time customers making the trip expressly to visit the shop.
About two-thirds of Loome's business comes through post or e-mail rather than from walk-in customers. Yet, unlike many specialized second-hand booksellers, Loome Theological d s not send out general catalogues. Since it boasts the largest inventory of books in its specialty, it naturally attracts customers seeking titles on religion or related subjects. The shop receives hundreds of requests each day for specific volumes, translating to hundreds of thousands a year, according to Loome. Many of these requests come from Africa, Europe, Asia and Latin America.
"I run kind of an involuntary monopoly," Loome said, noting that when customers ask him where they can look for a volume not available at Loome Theological, he responds, "If I knew, I would have purchased it."
"We're very specialized and unabashedly scholarly," said Loome. A group of 300 to 400 serious scholars receive quarterly catalogues, each of which contains less than 1% of the store's holdings. Recipients who do not make a purchase are taken off the list.
The shop's Academic Periodicals Catalogue includes 579 titles ranging from the American Journal of Philology and Egyptian Religion to Acta sanctae sedis in compendium opportune redacta et illustrata (bound papal texts of Pius IX and Leo XIII dating back to 1865). A recent catalogue includes 30 volumes on Matthew and Thomas Arnold, nearly 60 on hymnology and 72 on post-Tridentine French Spirituality.
Loome guesses that about two-thirds of sales from all three of the Stillwater shops are to private collectors/readers and the remaining one-third go to institutions, including libraries involved in "retrospective buying" to fill in gaps in their collections. One institution purchased all 40 Martin Heidegger titles listed in a recent catalogue within a day of receiving the mailing.
The portion of business attributable to institutions grows when one considers complete new libraries supplied by Loome. "We're putting together an entire college library in Michigan from scratch," he said, referring to Ave Maria College, a brand-new Catholic school in Ann Arbor. In the last six years, Loome has also provided the bulk of volumes for new university libraries in Austria, Manila and Africa.
Sales are essentially steady year round. "We're perfectly content just to stay steady," said Loome.
One sales channel that Loome avoids is the Internet, which has become an important means of distribution for many other used and antiquarian booksellers. Although the Stillwater stores communicate with customers by e-mail and have started to experiment with eBay auctions, Loome Theological is not listed on the major Web-based search services for second-hand books, such as ABE or Bibliofind. "No doubt that cramps us a little bit," said Loome, although he added that his large, specialized collection attracts customers even without the Internet, minimizing the technology's impact on his business.
In fact, Loome Theological's stock is not inventoried on computer and never will be. "It's too late. I'd have to add 10 more staff and it would bankrupt me," Loome said. "The [book] turnover is so great."
Purchasing is also done in person and never online. Four of the Loome complex's seven full-time and seven part-time staff, do all the buying, traveling across North America and Europe to look at collections. They make 80 to 100 buys per month. "If it's the right kind of scholarly library, we'll get the call," said Loome.
"It's rare that people don't bring books [into the shop] every day," Loome told PW, although he noted that just 5% of books purchased come from Minnesota or Wisconsin. "We're extremely selective. We turn down an appalling number of books."
Loome estimates that he moves in the neighborhood of 50,000 to 100,000 volumes per year in all of his stores, but, he says, turnover is not a factor in purchase decisions. "I have, for the past 20 years, been buying books for the 21st century," Loome said, noting that some acquisitions have been sitting in unopened boxes for four or five years. "If the books are right they take care of themselves."
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