Operating a used book store is a lot like owning a recycling
center-not too glamourous until you take a look at the owner’s
This is an ideal “absentee-owner” type of business, or a small
investment type business for someone to start while holding down
a regular, full time job. The type of person “best-suited” to
running a successful used book store, is a man or woman who loves
to read, has collected books over the years and enjoys
associating with people of similar interests.
Start-up risks average high, with the average time period needed
to become firmly established, about 3 years. After that “becoming
established” stage however, you should be able to enjoy ownership
of a business without extreme market fluctuations, plus an income
close to $50,000 per year or more.
Ideally, a used book store will need a market population of at
least 50,000 persons to support it. Try to locate your store in a
“high traffic” area, as near as possible to a college or
university campus. Something to bear in mind is the shopping
habits of the average used book buyer: First, he is a browser. He
notices your shop, drops in and begins looking around to see what
kind of books you have available. If he spots something that
really interests him, he’ll probably buy then and there. If not,
and provided you’ve made him feel comfortable this first time in
your store, he’ll be back-dropping in to browse whenever he’s in
Shopping Malls are an excellent locations for book stores.
Locations near other, or “new” books stores are also very good-
if the buyer doesn’t find what he wants in the “other” book
stores, he’ll check your store. Grocery store shopping centers
are generally poor locations for book stores of any kind.
It’s important that there be a lot of casual strollers in your
location area, and that you encourage these people to drop in,
and browse around.
If you want the entire front of your store to be a show
window…take pains to arrange your window display in an
uncluttered manner, showing the kinds of books you
have…However, a window display is not really necessary…more
important is a window for the passers-by to see into your
store…At any rate, if you do go with a window display, keep it
low-never more than 36 inches high leaving a lot of room for the
people passing to see in youe store, and notice the people
browsing thru your books. We know of one successful operator who
had members of his family, relatives and friends, purposely
“browsing” thru his store, just to project that kind of image for
Once you have your store location selected, paint the entire
interior in a dark, warm color, such as mahogany. Install a
lighter shade of indoor/outdoor carpet throughout. The lighting
should be indirect, and somewhat subdued to give the store a warm
Locate your checkout counter parallel to one of the side
walls…You don’t want it blocking or guarding the easy entry or
exit from your store. You want your customers to feel comfortable
just visiting your store. in other words, do everything you can
to encourage the browser,because it’s proven time and time gain
that the browsers are the book buyers. Allow the people to come
and do generally as they please;to pick up thumb thru the books
that interest them; to read them and “fall in love” with them.
These will be your real book buyers.
Your book shelves should run along each side wall, and across the
back of the store. Don’t build them more than six feet high.
Partition these shelves into sections about four feet wide, and
at the top of each section, place a sign
indicating the general subject matter of the books to be found
in that section.
Paper the walls of your store, from the top of your book shelves
to the ceiling with posters–colorful and descriptive travel
posters, broadway show billboards, concert posters and full color
dust jackets from books that are perennially popular.
The next thing is to build or buy half shelves, tables and
revolving racks for other or more books. The half shelves–about
4 feet wide by 4 feet high and similar to book cases in your
home–should be located at right angles to your wall shelves, and
in the rear of your store. The tables should be about 3 feet wide
by 4 feet long, and about 30 inches high. These also should be
located at right angles to your wall shelves, but closer to the
front of your store. A revolving wire rack, to hold currently
popular or specially featured books, and located at the front of
your store, will be a special extra merchandising effort that’ll
really pay off in sales of your books.
In locating your half shelves and tables down the middle of your
store, stagger them–one 3 feet from the wall shelves, the next
one 6 feet out, then 4 feet and so on. This will allow people to
be “seen” in your store; cut down on the appearance of a formal
or military layout, and project a more casual atmosphere for
browsing and this is precisely what you want. This kind of
arrangement will cost you some space, but it will be worth it
with increased traffic.
Another merchandising idea that works very well is a couple of
revolving wire racks on wheels…These you push outside and
position near the entrance to your store. You can feature popular
paperbacks, and a few oversize hard cover books with bright,
flashy colors in these racks.
Your store hours should match those of your neigbors…In fact,
you cold “jump off to a quick start,” by opening a half hour
earlier than your neighbors. Use his opening half hour to take
care of paperwork, and get yourself organized for the day. When
the early shoppers see you’re open early, they’ll begin coming
into your store to “browse and kill time” while they wait for the
other stores to open.
If you cannot be there to “open the store,” then hire part time
help. The best arrangement is house wives or college students in
4 hour shifts at the minimum wage.
First off, write out a list of duties you want each clerk to
perform while he’s on shift. In addition to taking care of sales
transactions, you might want him to do some stocking, dusting,
cleaning, sorting and prcing..Regardless, you’ll have fewer
problems and enjoy bigger profits if you formally write these
“shift duties” out, and post them as job requirements, and
explain them when you interview for hired help.
Look for, and try to hire only book lovers who are personable,
outgoing, and have some sort of business aptitude. You the train
these people in all phases of your operation, with the thought in
mind that they will run the store in your absence, and eventually
be your store manager. the best way to find such people is by
talking with your customers, observing which might be willing to
work for you, and which of them might best fulfill your needs.
You’ll need a outside sign for your store- preferably one that
hangs right angles to the flow of traffic in front of your store.
Many successful used book stores utilize hand-carved wooden
signs, while others display painted signs with calligraphic
lettering. By all means, spend the extra hundred dollars or so to
have spotlights installed on your store front, focusing on your
store signs. Backlit plastic signs just don’t create the
comfortable image necessary for the success of a good used book
Newspaper and/ or broadcast advertising will be much more
expensive than it’s worth. Your best bet is to create a
comfortable feeling and open invitation for browsers, price your
stock fairly, concentrate on personal service, and let
word-of-mouth advertising and time do the rest.
Even so, you should run an ad in the yellow pages. perhaps and ad
in the college paper, and from time to time, special sales ads in
your local shopping papers. Inexpensive flyers inviting people in
to exchange books, or to just browse, can be printed at your
local quick print shop and handed out or placed under the
windshields of cars in the larger shopping center parking lots.
Advertising, and special sales during holiday periods such as
Christmas, Mother’s Day and Father’s Day are generally quite
effective in bringing new customers into your store.
Most used book store entrepreneurs use their own book collections
as start-up inventory base. In addition, talk to as many
neighbors, friends and relatives as possible for the donation of
books. Then start making the rounds of all the garage sales and
flea markets. You should have at least 10,000 books in stock when
you open for business- and that’s a lot of books. Search for
books to sell-those you can buy for 25 cents or less–in all
thrift shops, Goodwill stores and Salvation Army outlets. Church
bazaars and estate sales also sometimes provide you with almost
You might place a small ad in your newspaper announcing that
you’re looking for good used books to buy. Generally, you
evaluate a book according to the price you think you can get it
for in your store. Then you subtract two thirds of that total,
and offer that as your ” buying” price. Always separate the books
you feel certain you can sell from those you aren’t sure about.
It’s going to take awhile for you to become proficient as a book
buyer, but with practice and some experience, you’ll quickly
develop the “intuition” you need to realize a profit on every
book you buy. Always flip thru the pages of each individual book,
and be sure of its condition before you quote a price. In many
instances you’ll also find that out of a box of 25 books, you’re
only interested in buying 10…The seller will generally be
wanting to get rid of his books, now…And for a couple of
dollars more than your “bid price” on the 10 books you want,
he’ll let you have all 25 of them..This is like a windfall to you
because you can always use the “unwanted” books as leader items
or extras to generate traffic during two-for-one sales; all books
on a certain table for just a nickel each; or your choice of free
books for everyone coming in to browse on certain days..
You should carry hardcover as well as paperback books. Pay no
more than 25% of new price for a mint condition hardcover book,
and buy only those you are certain can be sold in your store. pay
no more than 10% of the new price for a mint condition used
paperback, and steer clear of the hard-core sexually oriented
Visit the libraries and book stores in your area. Observe what
people are interested in reading and what they’re checking out or
buying. Stock your store with these kinds of books.
below is a listing of the kinds or types of books you should
consider stocking in your used books store:
BUSINESS BOOKS: These should include books on leadership, career
advancement, time management and people management.
HOW-TO BOOKS: These should include all the self-help and
self-improvement manuals you can find–mail order, auto repair,
carpentry, metalwork, home building, gardening, and business
COOK BOOKS: You’ll probably be surprised at how many people buy
books relating to the culinary arts. A well stocked cookbook
section will mean definite profits for you. Forget about books on
dieting, home economics, and etiquette–these just don’t do well
in used book stores.
SPECIAL INTEREST BOOKS: Watch and listen to the people of your
area…Be on the lookout for people into World War, history,
aviation, sports perfection, movies and just plain old book
PAPERBACKS: Women’s romance, science fiction, mysteries, and
historical novels are all good movers–currently enjoying an
upsurge in popularity and sales. These will be the “best movers”
in your inventory, so develop good sources of supply, and price
them for fast sales.
Building and maintaining your inventory, while continuing to
rapidly turn that inventory over, can be handled in a number of
different ways. It’s not a good idea for you to exchange two or
three of your customer’s books for one of yours. There’s always a
variance in price, plus you may not want the type of books your
customer is offering to trade.
The most feasible plan seems to be to give the customer a “credit
chit” for each book you buy from him. Simply
have a supply of business cards promoting your store, printed at
your local quick print shop. On the back of the card, have them
print something along these lines:
“The bearer of this card is entitled to _______________ cents
credit on 50% of the listed price of any book at Ye Olden Book
Store/s/ Your Signature.”
Then when someone brings in a couple of books to sell, you pay
him in credit chits, marking in the amount and signing your name
on the card. An easier way might be to have your signature
printed on the cards when you order them–you or your clerk would
simply fill in the credit amount, and emboss the card with a
Usually, you allow 20 to 25 cents for mint condition paperbacks,
and about one quarter of your selling price for hardbacks. Always
make sure the customer understands that regardless of how many
‘credit chits” he has, the credit chits can only pay for half the
purchase price. This of course, is to protect your cash-flow
problems, and your income of “hard money.”
Many used book stores add to their income potential by adding
tape cassette lending libraries. These are a real money makers
with a kind of service tat lends out “books on tape” and special
learning programs where portions of the rental fee applies to the
purchase of the original tape cassette.
A great many used book stores add to their income by running mail
order book selling operations in addition to the retail business.
This is a natural, either for a retail operator wanting to expand
his market or a mail order operator wanting to increase his
TYPICAL USED BOOK STORE START-UP COSTS….
1,000 TO 1,500 SQUARE FOOT STORE
RENT (1st and Last month’s)……….$1,000 to $2,000
UTILITY & PHONE DEPOSITS………….$50 TO 300
INSURANCE (1st Quarter Payment)…….$100 TO 200
LICENSES & PERMITS……………….$50 to 250
INVENTORY……………………….$2,500 to 5,000
SHELVING & REMODELING…………….$2,000 TO 5,000
MISC (Decorating, checkout counter
cash register, supplies……..$1,000 to 1,500
LEGAL & ACCOUNTING……………….$600 TO 1,200
ADVERTISING & SIGNS……………….$1,000 TO 3,500
TOTAL…………………………..$8,250 TO 18,950
OPERATING CAPITAL………………..$5,OOO TO 12,000
Entrepreneur should have enough operating capital in reserve to
not only keep the store operating for the first year, without
counting on anticipated profit, but also enough for unseen
emergencies without having to count upon income from the store to
see him through.
TYPICAL USED BOOK STORE MONTHLY OPERATING COSTS…
PAYROLL………………………..$1,500 to $2,500
OWNER/OPERATOR SALARY……………$1,000 to $2,000
RENT/LEASE……………………..$ 600 to $1,000
ADVERTISING……………………$ 500 to $ 1,000
DEPRECIATION……………………$ 100 to 150
UTILITIES & PHONE……………….$ 150 to 300
PRINTING & STATIONERY…………….$ 100 to 200
SHIPPING COSTS………………….$ 100 to 150
INSURANCE………………………$ 50 to 100
MAINTENANCE…………………….$ 50 to 100
MISCELLANEOUS…………………..& 100 to 150
TOTAL………………………….$4,200 TO 7,650
OPERATING COSTS…………………$4,200 TO 7,650
ANTICIPATED SALES……………….$5,000 TO 8,500
NET PROFIT BEFORE TAXES………….$ 800 TO 850
PRO FORMA ANNUAL INCOME (B/T)…….$9,600 to 3,000
A word of caution: Though you must project an open, COMFORTABLE
invitation to browsers and would-be book buyers, you MUST also
inconspicuously guard against shoplifters and outright thieves.
The best is to place mirrors strategically throughout the store
so you can see your customers from the checkout desk at all
times. Your smaller and more expensive books should be kept up
front SO that you can see them and what your customers are doing
with them, without seeming to be guarding them. There are a
number of theft prevention gadgets and devices available, but
even more important is alert hired help that can keep an eye on
the customers without making them feel they’re being watched.
The risks of starting a used book store are high for the dreamer
unaware that it’s just another retail business and should be
handled as such. Well organized and intelligently-operated used
book stores are very stable, and they provide a very comfortable
income for the owner-operator willing to persist thru the
This can be the kind of business you’ve always dreamed of owning,
but you’ll have to have the patience to let it grow and the
perseverance to see it thru to its ultimate success. With these
thoughts in mind, I say reach for the sky and may the angels of
paradise always be smiling upon you with endless good fortune!