Behind the Bookcases: How We Stay in Business

By Josh Niesse Monday, Aug 24, 2015

We love running a real, live, brick and mortar bookstore. We love being surrounded by books and book-lovers. We love looking for that elusive book you need that has no title or author, but only "a blue cover." We love setting up new displays, recommending our favorite books, and stocking the shelves with unusual titles. We love providing a space for creative, cultural, and intellectual events in the town we love. Here's how we do it, with hard work, sweat, and all of the internet.

While working the counter at Underground Books, we frequently hear some variation on the following: “I can’t believe you’re still here,” or “How do you guys make money?” or “You must be rich to keep a used bookstore open.” We get these comments frequently enough that we thought it might be worth sharing a little about our business model. It’s nice to be understood, and maybe some of our patrons would like understanding a little bit about the evolving nature of the used book trade. Much has been written about the death (and recent resurgence) of bookstores in general (new, independent, or big-box chain stores) but for our purposes, we are only talking about the used & antiquarian side of things.'Mom' and 'Pop' box with the 'Super dooper Mega Stores'

Put simply, the old idea of a small mom & pop used bookstore that sells only to the public that enters into their shop is indeed a dying breed. There are still some holdouts— old timers that own their building outright, or bookstores with heavy tourist traffic – but the regular old small town used bookstore, that survives off of only in-store sales is an increasingly rare bird. The well documented trends of book buyers turning to e-books and Amazon are largely to blame, as well as difficult economic times.

Yet some of us remain. An increasingly popular model for used bookstores is to simultaneously sell books in their shop as well as online. Some used bookstores have a “blended” inventory, meaning books on the shelves in their public store are also listed online. This is good for low-traffic stores where it is easier to keep up with inventory. Underground Books started out this way. We would list books online, but they would be for sale on the shelves in the shop as well. We would get a sale through an online venue like Amazon and would go find the book and pack it up to ship. As we grew, this became increasingly complicated. Customers would buy books at the counter, and we would not get them “unlisted” from the internet, and chaos ensued. Because we were getting more foot-traffic than we expected when we opened, browsing customers would also put books back in different locations, so sometimes we could not find a book to fulfill an online order we had received.  This led us to separating our in-store/retail and online inventory. Eventually, we kept all books listed online in the back of the store, away from the rest. About a year ago, we outgrew the back room, and now have an entirely separate office/warehouse, staffed full time just like the store.

If you browse the books at our website , these are the books that you will find at our warehouse. They are often 003books of interest primarily to collectors. Antique or out-of-print books. We recently sold a book for $75 on South Asian Farm Economics published in the 1950’s. That book would have NEVER sold on the shelves of our shop, but somewhere some scholar wanted that hard-to-find book. Earlier this year, we sold an original love letter hand-written by Jack London for $900. Currently we have a rare pre-publication edition of Kurt Vonnegut’s very first book. Or these late 18th century books on horse racing.

Without these rare, antique, out-of-print, and collectible books that we’re selling in the “background” of the more public bookstore operation, Underground Books would not be a profitable endeavor. In some ways, having an open storefront becomes about getting books as much as selling them. Having a nice open shop lends you a certain credibility—we are overwhelmed with people wanting to sell us their books. There are online booksellers everywhere – you’ve probably seen them at Goodwill scanning books on their phones—but having the shop gives us a huge competitive advantage over these lone book scouts. We are invited to buy huge personal collections of books at private estates, not to mention the flood of books that people bring right in the door. We are currently processing in the ballpark of 1,000 books every week. A certain percentage of these get listed online, some go to the shelves of the open shop, some get set aside for our periodic $1 sales, and some get donated to charity. Antique damaged books we recycle into crafts like our vintage book journals which we now carry not only in the shop but online at our Etsy store.

Fortunately for us, we also happen to love running an open shop.  We’ve fostered a real sense of community at the shop through nearly 5 years of special events and beloved regulars, and people constantly tell us how grateful they are to have the store in Carrollton. We get loved up a lot, so that “social payoff” doesn’t hurt. It’s nice to be appreciated.

For those wanting an even deeper understanding of our business, check out the following list of websites that we either maintain stocked with online inventory or use for social media marketing:

ABE Store

Biblio Store

Amazon Store

Etsy Store

The Underground Books Blog

Facebook Page

Twitter Page

Pinterest Page

Instagram Page

Tumblr Page

Maintaining all of this requires herculean effort. People in the shop also often say “Oh, it must be so nice to sit around and read books all day.” We wish! We work constantly, usually 7 days a week, often 10-12 hours a day. Fortunately we LOVE our work, but it’s a serious career commitment. Megan and I read and study constantly to continue to educate ourselves about rare and collectible books, trends in the book trade, types of bookbindings, etc.

A growing part of our business involves exhibiting at rare book fairs and antique shows. We have a busy fall calendar of events we are excited about this year, and we’ll share more about that in our next post.