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."