When Marshall Smith, cofounder of CIROBE (Chicago International Remainder and Overstock Book Exposition) and owner of Key West Island Bookstore, talks about surprise bargain and remainder book success stories, he sounds a little like Indiana Jones. Smith says, "The hidden treasure that worked out beyond your wildest dreams is one of the things that keeps us going. It's just the nature of the bargain book business. Everybody's got a story."
Smith's own "favorite story of the moment" concerns a book found at Powell's Books Wholesale in Chicago, where his CIROBE cofounder Brad Jonas is president. "There's some innate degree of competition," Smith notes, and the prize in this instance was even sweeter because it was discovered a few years back, at the end of October, just after CIROBE. Most wholesalers' supplies are depleted at that time, Smith explains, because "the entire remainder world has already trooped through there and books have been picked over by a couple hundred dealers." It was under these less-than-promising conditions that Smith found a photo biography of Steve McQueen that his sixth sense told him was valuable. He snatched it up for, by his memory, "no more than $3," and the following day sold it online to a customer in Japan for $175. "I listed it at 9:00 at night, and the next morning it was done," Smith recalls happily.
Books with local appeal can often prove surprisingly popular. Denny Magers, owner of Magers & Quinn Bookstore in Minneapolis, describes his store's neighborhood as "the uptown area of Minneapolis, near the Lakes area, a sort of trendy neighborhood for shopping and theater and restaurants, including a well-known restaurant called Lucia's." Chef/owner Lucia Watson co-authored a cookbook titled Savoring the Seasons of the Northern Heartland,published by Knopf in hardcover in 1994. The title went out of print, then was reprinted in paperback by the University of Minnesota Press in 2004, but in the interim, Magers found that remainder company Daedalus Books had 247 copies of the out-of-print hardcover. "I said, 'I'll take 'em!'" Magers recalls of the fortuitous discovery. "It wouldn't have meant much if you were in Wichita, Kansas, but we're right near Lucia's, and it's a very popular and very good restaurant." The store sold through the books quickly, and the restaurant continues to thrive. (In fact, Magers had enjoyed lunch there on the day he was interviewed for this article.)
When a local hero makes good and becomes a national name, the value of such investments can multiply quickly. Brad Jonas of CIROBE recalls, "My local state representative was this guy with a funny name who published a paperback with Kodansha called Dreams from My Father.I bought 4,000 copies of the book very cheap in November 1999, and was selling them in the store for $5 to people in the area who knew who he was." Copies of the book by that local hero became much sought after in 2004, when its author, Barack Obama, delivered the keynote address at the Democratic National Convention in Boston. "After the address," says Jonas, "I saw the book for sale on the Internet for $300, but we were already sold out. We'd overnighted all our copies to places like CNN."
On the other side of the political spectrum, in 2002, Bargain Books owner Henry VanderGoot acquired an inventory of between 4,000 and 5,000 copies of Ronald Reagan: An American Hero, a coffee-table book published by DK in 2001. The books were selling apace, but not at an extraordinary rate, until 2004: "I was on the floor at BEA," recalls VanderGoot, "and I showed the title to a buyer for Ollie's Bargain Outlet, a deep discount chain in Pennsylvania. He offered me a price that wasn't what I had wanted to get for the book, and I said, 'I'm going to pass on that.' Two or three hours later the same day, when I hadn't been off the floor, he came back and said, 'Well, Henry, I will pay your price.' I said, 'Good, you finally saw the light!' We shook hands on the deal, and a half hour later somebody came up to me and said, 'Did you hear Ronald Reagan died?' "
Jeff Press, president of World Publications, reports that during O.J. Simpson's trial, the 99¢ Only discount chain acquired a large number of copies of a Simpson biography from his company. Then, says Press, "a few weeks later, the chain's owner, Dave Gold, came up to our showroom personally to thank us for all the free publicity. There had been photos of displays of the book in his stores in People, Newsweek, Timeand other magazines with captions about how Simpson's fortunes were so low that he was now being sold at a bargain price. Gold told us he couldn't have bought that kind of publicity."
Another grateful customer, says Press, was Steve Riggio, CEO and vice-chairman of Barnes & Noble. Press convinced the chain to pick up 20,000 copies of Madonna's outré 1992 title, Sex, at a discounted price. The catch? The books were in French, but Press guessed the language of love would be no barrier. Sure enough, says Press, "They were sold out the next week. Nobody cared whether it was French or not French. I was walking down Fifth Avenue a week after the book was in their stores, and somebody grabbed me from behind. I was ready to swing around and hit the attacker with my briefcase—I thought I was being jumped—but I turned around and it was Steve Riggio, thanking me for selling him that book!"
Unabridged Books in Chicago had good luck with a more low-profile art book: Audrey Niffenegger's The Three Incestuous Sisters(Abrams, 2005), the illustrated follow-up to the author's mega-bestselling 2003 novel for MacAdam/Cage, The Time Traveler's Wife."We got 50 copies and sold them for $6.98, and it was a huge hit because she's a famous author," says owner Ed Devereux. Unabridged has seen good results with low-priced art books in general, he observes, recently by selling 100 or so copies of the 2002 title Thomas Eakins: The Absolute Male(Universe) at a steep discount. "It's good to wow customers with books that are incredibly cheap," he says. "If you get a $40 art book for $6.98, you'll remember even more that Unabridged has great remainders."
Book Sales produces its own promotional publishing titles, including the Chartwell Value series of large-format (12"× 16 1/2") illustrated books. The first title in the series, Ballparks: A Panoramic History, debuted in August 2005, and together with the February 2006 title The Universe: Images from the Hubble Telescopehas already sold more than 250,000 copies. "We were expecting the series to do well, but we didn't think we'd see these numbers," admits Daniel Rich, special sales. President and CEO Mel Shapiro credits a simple formula with the success of the series, which continues to grow: "It's a beautiful book at a low price. That's what our business is."