The Difficulties Of The Used Book Store Business

Thinking Of Opening A Used Bookstore? “Don’t Do It!” Advises Bookseller Greg Gibson

Interior of Iliad Bookshop North Hollywood California

Interior of Iliad Bookshop North Hollywood California

Greg Gibson, the owner of the Ten Pound Island Book Company wrote about his nearly 40 year odyssey in the world of second hand books and used book stores in an excellent article called “Don’t Do It!” published here. You don’t have to be interested in collecting or  the book business to enjoy this very well written story.

Many people who love books, daydream about setting up a second hand book shop. Not the paperback emporiums or remainder stores that dot many towns throughout the country, but a real general used book store where when you walk in there is an aroma of old books and the possibility that a customer will find a long sought after treasure.

Running a used book store is a profession that will not make you rich and runs counter-intuitive to the notion that publishing is in a perpetual state of decline and printed books are dying.

Used bookstores that keep regular hours that are open to the public are called open shops. Where there were literally thousands of open shops in the United States twenty years ago,  there are about 1,000 in existence today, victims of a combination of an aging populace; both proprietors and collectors/readers, changing technology and rising rents.

Fewer people have the opportunity to apprentice in a used book store and get the experience necessary to open their own book business. Barely making enough money to survive also discourages many young people from considering books as a career. This is why it is mostly retirees who will entertain the book store notion as a career. The internet has changed the pricing structure for used books and many people who deal in used books do so via mail order through the internet or by eBay without a thorough knowledge of books.

While not completely a warning against going into the book business, the article does describe the lessons Gibson took many years to learn. If you still have dreams of running a used book store, you can get some valuable advice from Gibson before you start on your venture.

8 thoughts on “The Difficulties Of The Used Book Store Business

  1. Nathan Favel

    The writer of this article should check out Mckay’s, which runs three massive book/movie stores in Tennessee. Books are the thing they make the most money off of and they have 100 to 300 customers per hour. Their stores are massive ware-houses remodeled to look like metropolitan libraries. There’s their web address. Here’s an article about how well they’re doing:

    The key seems to be that you have to sell an array of items, not just books, but books still seem to make them a massive, daily profit, which the article alleges is 11,000 transactions a day, if I remembered it right.

  2. Frank

    A friend was able to bring more customers, using a small camera.
    He shot some shelves of well ordered (by authors)and categories, suspense, etc. He displayed them on a website, and I think on facebook, and a small local, almost free adds paper.
    The results were immediate. People saw titles and authors they liked, and he got more customers.
    It didn’t double, but did increase sales.

  3. Mike

    This article does not take into consideration the explosion of online book sales, via Amazon and others, which can supplement retail bookshops. Of course, it is hard, so are most retail businesses. I can guarantee that just from my basement, selling used books via Amazon, I have been earning more than most “solo” used bookstores. Thanks for confirming for me that I should open a used bookstore, and use it to supplement my online sales.

  4. Rob Englert

    I knew it was hard but I thought if you had a store plus an internet
    presence it was doable. Amazon started out selling books. Then they destroyed the business. Go figure.

  5. Zerry Borger

    One thing, I find most whimsical about Used Book Stores is the variety, even if you don’t find the one book you’re looking for you come across a thousand other titles that catch your eyes with their brilliant covers.

    I truly respect people who own independent book stores. It’s a difficult business to keep around, most bookstores that I’ve visited are very quiet and almost empty, in fact a book store I recently visited called “Ducky Waddles” would be closing soon because of the difficulty of running it. The owner was quite disappointed in closing it, I think it’s going to be hard for him to depart with it after investing so much to keep it open.

  6. Jessie Smith

    Yes, it is a hard row to hoe and definitely not a rich person’s career. That’s why you see so many retired folks or people with a primary career doing it. But we do if for the LOVE! We love books, we want others to have books, if we could, we would probably marry books. The best thing I ever saw in a bookstore was a small boy of about 8 years going to the checkout with a book. He was hugging his new book. So I asked

    “Got a new book huh?”

    He answered “Nope, a new BEST FRIEND!”


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