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October 03, 2009

New Venues For Used Books

Donald Pittenger writes:

Dear Blowhards --

I'm seeing used books in places I never saw them before.

When I was young, Seattle had a large used-book store (Shorey Book Store) in the downtown area. I only visited it once, and since then it seems to have migrated a time or two to ever-cheaper real estate. There are other stores specializing in used books, but I don't shop in them.

You see, one of my quirks is preferring new things to used. I prefer to buy cars new, clothes new and books new. I'm not a purist, mind you: I bought three used cars and a smattering of books long out of print and unlikely to be republished. And I do patronize stores that offer a mix of new, remaindered and used books -- Powell's Books in Portland, Oregon, for instance.

Nevertheless, when book browsing and shopping, I go to certain stores with the expectation that the books I see will be new and perhaps remaindered. An example is the University Book Store by the University of Washington. Yes, the textbook area in the basement has both new and used textbooks, but that's accepted textbook sales practice. Recently I've been seeing used books creeping into the trade books sections. They can be spotted because they have little yellow circles or dots attached near the base of their spines and their price labels are yellow rather than white. I feel that those books don't belong there.

Even more startling to me was the appearance of what are labeled "gently used art books" on a table in the Barnes and Noble store in nearby University Village. I remember B&N being a breed of cut-rate bookstore back in the 1960s and early 70s with outlets on lower Fifth Avenue in New York and downtown Boston. The chain went on to other things -- until now.

I'm not sure what to make of it. Used books can have whatever markup the seller thinks he can get away with, so I assume they can be pretty profitable if they sell well. Is this business tactic why I'm starting to see them pop up in unlikely places? Are there related reasons? The depressed economy? Competition from Amazon? Or is something else happening in the book industry?

I'll be happy to get clued in.



posted by Donald at October 3, 2009


That's quite curious. For some years now used bookstores have been closing all over the country (along with independent new bookstores). Partly it's online competition, partly it seems to be the decline of book reading in favor of DVDs, computer games, etc.

It's not hard to see how they could show up in a university book store that already buys used textbooks. But for Barnes & Noble, well, buying used books for retail sale is not a simple task that can be safely given to any random bookstore clerk. (I have a hobby of buying and selling used books, and know how picky buyers at used bookstores can be.) It might just be one-off thing for them: maybe they somehow acquired a lot of good-condition used books and decided to see how they sold.

In any case, why not inquire at the store about selling them some similar used art books? You'll likely find out if it's going to be an ongoing thing, because I've never heard of a used book retailer that didn't do at least some buying from customers.

Posted by: PapayaSF on October 4, 2009 2:16 AM

I'm sure it has much to do with the availability (Amazon, Powell) of used books online.

I suppose you wouldn't be caught dead at a library 50-cent paperback/$1.00 hardover booksale either, huh? I was able to store up on hundreds of the classics that way and have enough reading for the times I can no longer hover my arthritic fingers over the Amazon buttons. But I do still have a 20 plus book wish list there.

Posted by: susan on October 4, 2009 8:53 AM

I suspect that this is copied from Amazon's decision to list the used books on the same page as the new books. It's a slow-motion disaster for the book industry, but in the short term it's good news for consumers (at least until the publishers fold :-)).

Generally the margins for used books are much higher than for new books, so the bookstores aren't hurting if you buy the used, and if your used-stock is mostly front-list books, it's pretty likely you won't have to deal with inventory issues.

Also, the practice captures customers who wouldn't dream of going into an old dusty used book store, but are pleased to unexpectedly save a few bucks.

Posted by: Tom West on October 4, 2009 12:55 PM

Generally the margins for used books are much higher than for new books

True, but unsold new books can be returned to the distributor or publisher for credit.

Posted by: PapayaSF on October 4, 2009 9:11 PM

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