Friday, March 23, 2007


Penultimate Post - How to Open Your Own Used Bookshop

Who doesn't ove that word, penultimate - always good to sneak into conversation whenever possible. Two notes, here: first, an article about the possible fate of scholarly used and rare bookshop McIntyre and Moore in Somerville, Massachusetts; second, what to do to open your own used bookshop, should you so desire. Over the life of this blog I've had many people ask me for advice on how to open their own shops, and this is what I told them. This also happens to be one appendix (there are several) for the book I wrote two years ago on what it's like to buy and sell used and rare books, keep a shop, and read deeply, which now anyone who reads this blog also knows all about. But here's the nuts and bolts appendix, which gets into specifics. I hope someone finds it useful:

How to Open Your Own Bookshop, the simplified version, or, What Worked for Me.

How did I get a bookshop? I dreamed about it, I decided to do it, I made a plan, and I executed the steps of the plan. This is my advice to the bibliophile who is convinced that this is the life. Because, you know, dear reader, it is.

– Do you love books deeply, with passion? If not, find something else to do.

– Can you deal with people? More importantly, do you like them? Do you have empathy and sympathy for them? Are you patient? If not, find something else to do.

– Go work at a used bookshop. Consider yourself an old-fashioned indentured servant: low, or even no, pay, but remember that this is a temporary situation at the graduate school of your choice, and the knowledge you’re soaking up is priceless. Ask questions. Volunteer for extra duties. Dust every single shelf in the shop. This will force you to handle books you might never ordinarily pick up. When you’ve finished, do it again.

– If no used bookshop will hire you or take you on as a volunteer, get a job at a new-book store. Same as above, consider this an apprenticeship and remember that while you are a lowly wage-slave you are also learning about books and authors, shop management, and customers. Keep a list of what to do and what not to do when you open your own shop.

– Set a timeline for yourself. Don’t end up managing someone else’s shop if you really want one of your own.

– Start selling books in a few venues: online, and in a consignment shop, at the same time that you still have another job to cover your living expenses.

– Avoid debt. Open your shop when your other income sources support the bulk of your new shop expenses. This is your safety net, because it could take some time for customers to find you. It’s worth it to spend a few years being voluntarily poor. It’s much more fun being poor doing what you most want to do than it is being poor doing what you don’t want to do. Trust me on this.

– It’s great to specialize in the subjects that you are most passionate about, but be sure to also have some good books for everyone. Your indentured servitude will have taught you what the best books are in many fields, the classics, so seek them out and stock them if you possibly can. But put your specialties front and center in your own shop, and be proud of them.

– When buying books for stock, don’t buy junky or moldy books. Condition, condition, condition! Shop library sales to inexpensively build your stock, but leave the junk behind.

– Familiarize yourself with good reference books. When you research and price books, make sure that what you think you have is what you actually have.

– My best piece of book-buying advice: relax and have fun. There are enough books in the world for everyone, and they are everywhere, once you start looking. And when you do start looking, and start paying attention, the books will find you.

– Have a life away from the shop. Get out of town often. Getting away is a joy. Coming back to your own shop after a break is also a joy.

– Pursue all of your passions, all of the time. Don’t let anything languish.

– Keep a tidy shop. Respect your books. They will love you for it. Your customers will too. They will notice, and will be vocal about how good your books are. They will praise you, and buy your books, and return to buy more. If your shop is a mess, they’ll quietly leave, and they might not come back.

– If you get tired of the business, do something else. Don’t become a hostile, grumpy old bookshop owner. Sell your shop to your best, most enthusiastic customer and move on to the next dream.

That's it. How to do it, the short version (which took me nearly a decade to live through and a week of writing to summarize). The long version will be available someday, if my entire book is ever published (wish me luck, I'll need it). If anyone takes the advice above, Davis Square in Somerville would be a fine place to open up shop. If you can afford the rent, that is. Hence my ultimate piece of advice for a future used bookseller: if at all possible, somehow, buy your building. It may be your only hope, and will ensure the future of your business and your ultimate freedom. Last post tomorrow.


I read your blog daily, but rarely comment. I just want you to know that, in part due to your writing, I have opened my own used and rare book business, (online only at this time) have worked for another bookseller at a recent book fair, have found a mentor, am compiling my first print catalogue, and have been having a grand time! Thank you for words of inspiration you probably didn't know you were providing about the bookish life! I wish you all the best!
Oops, Just want to add that your list of books to read about books and bookselling (I think you did this around December) was fantastic and a great resource!
Chris, this is a wonderful thing you are telling me, and it really makes my day. Sometimes I get so upset that book people, who only want to quietly work with books somewhere and generally mind their business, are being slowly squeezed out of this culture. How high can the cost of doing business rise? How about the cost of living? Well, we just have to find a way to do what we want to do in spite of the trend in our culture. It sounds like you are doing just that.

I remember the first time I walked into a real used and rare, antiquarian, bookshop. Instant coup de foudre. I was working at a new-book store then, was very unhappy there, was just beginning to understand used books. I walked into that shop and I fell and fell hard. I thought, "No one ever told me that THIS was an option!" Now here I am, sort of making it myself. It's such a great profession, so rich and real and full of surprises and endlessly interesting to someone with a lively and curious mind. I can't say enough about it. Oh, wait, I just spent a year and a half blogging about it, so maybe I can...

Very best of luck, keep going - sounds like you should think about attending the rare book school in Colorado, next.
Hey,Sarah-great post as always and sorry to see you go but I hope everything works out for the best with you:)
Thanks for reading from the beginning, LT - if I return you'll be the first to know...
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