Monday, December 05, 2005


So, you want to open a used bookshop, you say?

Here's my short list of the best books to read if you've ever wondered what being a bookseller is really like, or if you've ever dreamed of having your own bookshop, as most booklovers eventually do:

The Adventures of a Treasure Hunter by Charles P. Everitt. Little, Brown, 1952. Hands-down, my favorite bookseller memoir of all time. Rollicking, joyful, it makes me want to have been his apprentice. A brief foreword states that he died just after finishing the manuscript. "...rare-bookselling is almost the last remaining trade with the charm of leisure." (p.118)

Trafficking in Old Books by Anthony Marshall. Lost Domain, 1998. Droll collection of articles on keeping his used bookshop (in Australia). He's published a second volume that I have yet to track down, which I hear is equally good. "The best pencils (like the best chocolates) are soft and dark. A 2B is good, a 4B is better, but the 6B is the queen of book-pricing pencils.... A pox on HB pencils and the booksellers who use them!" (p.22)

The Side Door: Twenty-Six Years in My Book Room by Dora Hood. Ryerson, 1958. Great memoir of a dealer in rare Canadiana (this is more interesting than it sounds at first...). "Do not expect from me advice on how to become a book collector. The libraries are full of books on this very subject. I have dipped into many of them and remain convinced that you cannot make a true book-collector out of a person who has to be told how to go about it." (p.184)

The Seven Stairs: An Adventure of the Heart by Stuart Brent. Reprinted by Simon & Schuster, 1989. He sold new books and jazz records at his shop in Chicago. "Is it possible that a human being may be altered or set free through the written word? Are books important? Is it important to be a bookseller?" (p.54)

Sunwise Turn: A Human Comedy of Bookselling by Madge Jenison. Dutton, 1923. Long on dreams and short on practicality, but wonderful nonetheless. "There is a special and curious situation in the book trade different from that which exists in any other undertaking where buying and selling are carried on. It does not support the people who do it." (p.6)

Dukedom Large Enough: Reminiscences of a Rare Book Dealer 1929-1956 by David A. Randall. Random House, 1969. Gossipy, rich, the New York City rare book world during its true golden age. "...I have found very few graduates of library schools who were competent rare bookmen or who could pull their weight with a good bookstore clerk." (p.13)

Complete Guide to Starting a Used Bookstore: Old Books Into Gold by Dale L. Gilbert. Upstart, 1991. Nuts and bolts. How to build good shelving, stock your shop, deal with customers, and the like. "Just on the off chance you neglected to earn a Ph.D. in literature or library sciences, don't worry about it. So did I, along with just about everybody else who's successful in this business." (p.15)

Of course there are many others. I'll list more of my favorites if anyone tells me that they've actually read any of the above.

Hello again! I did read Gilbert's Complete Guide to Starting a Used Bookstore, although I haven't managed to find (or find time to read!) the other's yet. Do you have any other suggestions for "nuts and bolts" books like Gilbert's?
I don't know of any others like Gilbert's. "The Seven Stairs" is a memoir, but the early chapters really capture what it's like to be a dealer starting from scratch (poor, no/few customers, where oh where to get good stock). Good stuff!
Nice list of books, Sarah -- I'll try to track down and read one or two of them. I just finished Gilbert's "Complete Guide..." and found it interesting (if in need of a good editor) but woefully outdated, of course. The internet has changed the bookselling landscape so much I wonder if half of Gilbert's assertions still hold Can one still make a decent living following his advice? Do you own a "brick-and-mortar" used shop, Sarah? And if so, how is business? (I haven't read all of your posts yet, so apologies if these questions are discussed elsewhere.) And the Antiquarian Bookman, a resource Gilbert alludes to many times in his book, is no longer a going concern, either in print or on the web.

In any case, I wish to open an antiquarian bookshop but plan to do so online, first -- the bricks-and-mortar would follow in a few years depending upon the success of the online effort. Do you have any advice in this regard?

-- Mark Drury
Hi Mark - thanks for your comment. Gilbert's book is good for nuts and bolts issues, like building shelving, signage, hiring help, but he obviously doesn't address internet issues, as you say, it's a bit dated. But still, there's good stuff to be gleaned from him, and there aren't other books quite like his, that deal with the practical stuff. "Rebel Bookseller" is good, too, and new, but deals with new bookstores, I think, not used shops. I started selling books in an antiques mall (a group shop in which you rent a booth, and the owners of the place sell your stuff for you, you don't have to be there), then eBay, now Amazon for certain books, and I've had my own open shop for five years now. I rent my retail space, but it's not much because I'm in Bangor, Maine, on a second floor. Key to success: keep your overhead low, build up your inventory slowly, stay out of debt, buy good books, love what you do! Let me know how it goes...
I am just finding your blog and love it. I have read all of these books and agree they are great. Would love to see more added to the list. Adventures of Treasure Hunter is my favorite along with the Rosenbach biography by Wolf.
Hello and thanks for commenting - I'm so glad you've read all these... a few months back (I'm writing this in January of 2007 now) I spent a week writing up favorite books lists, one of which was books about books. These are listed, along with many others, in one of the posts in mid-August (2006). Sorry I don't have the exact date, but take a look at the August archive and you should find it quickly. Thanks for reading.
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