Half Price Books, the used-book chain and major wholesaler of remainder books through its Texas Bookman division, launched in 1972 in Dallas with a beguilingly simple premise: sell used books for half their cover price. The initial stock was mostly paperbacks; the source was neighborhood folks selling off their discards. Some 90 stores later, the basic premise remains the same, with the source of books expanded greatly—into the world of remainders, overstock, hurt skids, returns and repackaged goods.

In the beginning we put flyers on car windows saying we would buy their used books," explains Sharon Anderson Wright, CEO of the company and daughter of cofounder Pat Anderson. What Wright remembers most is how unintimidating their buying style was. "We paid cash for everything and never sent people away. We bought all day, every day. Our inventory grew so quickly we needed another location before the year was out."

Walk-in customers interested in cheap books were abundant in those pre-Internet days, and the Half Price stores blossomed into more and more locations. "We had to supplement our inventory because we weren't getting enough used," says Wright. "We started out buying remainders from Outlet, Smithmark and Book Thrift. We then found you could buy more at better prices if you bought everything the publishers were offering."

As chief buyer Dee Mitchell recalls it, it was Anderson's partner Ken Gjemre, inspired by the American Booksellers Convention in Dallas in 1983, who had the idea of expanding their business parameters. "Ken walked into the warehouse and announced we were going to go into wholesale business and exhibit at the convention," says Mitchell. "I said, 'Fine,' and wondered what we were going to sell. I ran to New York and went to Oxford University Press and asked if they had anything for me. They sold me some very good things. That year we sat and waited at the booth for people to buy books from us."

The Texas Bookman, established that year as the wholesale remainder division of Half Price, took its name from an antiquarian bookstore bought out by Half Price. The company's early stock reflected Mitchell's interests. "We were looking at scholarly and art books and museum catalogues, and the business kept growing that way," says Mitchell, who has been chief buyer since the division's beginning. "But we weren't serving Half Price Books very well because the stores were more general than that. What really changed the nature of Texas Bookman was that in 1990 or so I was offered an amazing list of woodworking and home construction books, a take-all deal. We had to run some of it through Texas Bookman and we had success at levels we never dreamed possible. That broke the barrier from scholarly [books]. We'll look at anything now, as long as it's well produced and interesting."

Texas Bookman, Mitchell adds, also reprints books under the name Hackberry Press. "When we get the right thing it's a significant part of sales, but the bulk is bidding on and winning remainders from publishers." About 60% of what Texas Bookman buys feeds into the HPB stores, according to Robert Wilkie, general manager of the division. A TB Web site will launch right after this year's CIROBE and two new stores will be opening in Chicago, joining stores in 13 states. HPB expects to open a total of 12 new stores in greater Chicago by the end of 2007.

What Makes HPB Run?

Wright credits the success of Half Price, a tightly held private corporation, in part to its conservative business practices. "We never expand more quickly than we can afford. We keep a slow, steady pace so we don't have to borrow money from anyone. We have stuck with the original philosophy of buying everything printed or recorded. We have people who really care about the company." The company owns three buildings in Dallas (says Wright, "We aren't being pushed around by rising rents"): the main store, which has 53,000 sq. ft. of selling space, and a 130,000-sq.-ft. warehouse that serves as the central distribution center.

Robert DuBois, retired national accounts rep for Random House Value Publishing (later Outlet Book Company), sums up the HPB experience: "Unlike other used bookstores, the stores are clean, not dusty. They merchandise their books like a trade store. They have special buys, like a special lot of a Grisham book which they'll sell for $2 or $1—phenomenal values because they've bought several thousand of them. They have lots of stores and tremendous buying power. Their cost of goods is very low, their profit margins are very high, they expand within themselves, they grow with their own cash flow. It's just a fabulous organization."

A Veteran Closes the Book
Dee Mitchell, a 32-year veteran of Half Price Books, comes to the final chapter in his buying career at the end of the year, when he officially retires from the privately held company. Lauded for bringing special savvy to the business of bargain books, Mitchell is credited with making the Texas Bookman a significant force in the wholesale book world and propelling a handful of used bookstores into a major chain. "He's helped shape the inventory of all our stores," says company head Sharon Anderson Wright. "He's brilliant and funny. He knows about everything. He will be missed."

Mitchell was just a year out of college in 1974 with what he calls a "worthless" B.F.A. in theater when he started selling books to Half Price for cash. After visiting the Dallas store three times with his books, he asked if there might be a job. "At the time there were just a few stores; I was hired to work at one of them doing anything and everything. A few weeks after I started, I broke $100 in sales in one day. I was so excited I called the owner at home to tell him."

He learned about buying remainders on the job with help from one of his bosses, Ken Gjemre, as well as from those in the business he called on as buyer. "He was such a nice man, everyone went out of their way to help Dee out," says Bob McGee, director of sales at Publications International. Publisher George Braziller recalls the pleasure he had in his meetings with Mitchell, watching him go over the Braziller list and commenting on the art titles. "When we had overstock it was Dee we thought of first," Braziller says.

Philippe Burgan, Taschen sales manager for western states, credits Mitchell with paving the way for Taschen, a European company, to be mainstreamed into American publishing. "Dee saw an opportunity there—since Taschen was not widely distributed, he took it on. That ended as Taschen came to be more widely represented in the U.S. We could say Dee was responsible for that. What struck me about Dee and Half Price was that there were no secrets. They were always straightforward. If he couldn't deal, he would always recommend another venue that would be interested."

"He was the most intelligent buyer I've ever known," says Robert DuBois, retired national accounts rep for Random House Value Publishing (later Outlet Book Company). "You couldn't stump him when it came to the arts, music, literature classical or modern fiction. He always seemed to know who the authors were—the current authors, the classic authors. When I had remainders, I would go to Dee first; he would tell me more about who these authors were than my company ever did."

"What do you say about someone who's just a gentleman?" says Mel Shapiro, president of Book Sales. "We're going to miss him. Everyone who's ever dealt with him is going to miss him."

A sometime writer about art for magazines, newspapers and gallery catalogues, Mitchell plans to use his retirement to more actively pursue writing assignments. "I have ambitions for reading Remembrance of Things Past and the last four Henry James novels," he says. "My shelves are double stacked with books. My closets are converted to bookcases." He's building a new house in Dallas and told his architect he currently has 250 feet of bookcases, double-stacked. "Maybe if I read them all, I wouldn't have so many of them."

—Suzanne Mantell