“Where Do You Get All Those Books?”

All used bookstores get this question. There’s no single answer to the question: book sources for our 25,000-volume general-interest store differ those for a “fine and rare” shop with a different pricing structure and clientele, or a “paperback exchange” heavily dependent on quick turnover of paperback romances. Available sources also differ greatly between locations.

Number one among our sources in the Washington, DC area? We get roughly half of those books from people who bring them into our store for store credit (all kinds of books) or in cash (hardcover only). Some suppliers are established customers; others we’ve never seen before and will never see again. We don’t encourage in-store donations (we’re happy to pay cash or credit for books that we want, and we aren’t interested in acquiring heaps of books for the dumpster).

So we need to find around 12,500 books/year, or 1050/month, from sources outside the store. Sources we do not use much include:

a. Other bookstores (too expensive; few low-priced “sleepers” now that everyone does internet research).
b. EBay or other internet sources (too expensive or indifferent quality, too time-consuming).
c. Public estate sales (same issues).
d. Book “scouts”. In the pre-internet era, some people made could make a modest living acting as the middleman between book sources and bookstores. This niche in the used booksellling world has largely disappeared—those who would have been “scouts” can now easily sell—or try to sell–on eBay or Amazon themselves.

We started our store by purchasing the entire inventory of one out-of-state store that closed, and all the paperback inventory from a local one. A few times since then
we’ve made large purchases from other local stores going out of business. But—happily—this is not a common occurrence, and not something one can count on.

More often but still infrequently we are able to acquire large collections through “house calls” on people who have books they are disposing of due to moves, death of relatives, down-sizing or simply de-cluttering the house. We typically buy by the boxload. We generally can’t take all the available books as nearly every collections has a sizeable component of books that are unsaleable for anybody, or that just don’t meet our particular needs. On rare occasion we are offered a large collection of desirable books for free, and then we may take all the books and find new homes for the ones we don’t want.

We also buy some large collections that are offered as “shelf lots” or “box lots” through public auctions, but not every month. Every month we do buy some books at yard sales, garage sales, flea markets, etc. (prices are good, but it’s time-consuming.) We also shop at thrift stores run by Goodwill, The Salvation Army, and a number of independent non-profit thrift stores that benefit hospitals, animal rescue funds, etc. (In our area, for-profit thrift or “junk” stores have largely disappeared due to high rents.)

Our most reliable out-of-store sources for inexpensive, good books of all kinds are non-profit organizations that raise funds through used book sales. Most public libraries now have affiliated Friends of the Library (FOL) volunteer organizations that exist to provide supplementary services and funds. A common activity is the conduct of periodic public book sales and/or a permanent “bookstore” area in the library. The books are mostly public donations, as well as surplus library books (which we shun)! Spring and autumn are the prime times for FOL sales but in our large metropolitan area (D.C.) the month is rare without at least one large sale in the area, and any week there’s usually at least one smaller one. We buy thousands of books a year from FOL sales. It takes a lot of looking, but we find some amazing books along with the more common titles that are our basic stock.

More sporadic but important sponsors of non-profit book sales that we visit are churches, schools, and diverse organizations such as the American Association of University Women, the Claude Moore Colonial Farm Park, the Lions Club, and Books for International Goodwill (sponsored by a Rotary Club). In the “old days” the biggest annual used book sale in D.C. was sponsored by the Vassar Club of Washington, but that ended. The biggest one now is sponsored every spring by Stone Ridge School of the Sacred Heart in Bethesda, MD.

A common factor among our best sources for books is their reliance on volunteer labor, and book donations from members of the public. Without these volunteers and donors, we could not stay in business—nor, we suspect, could 90% of the sellers of used books on the internet. Thank you!

So now you know where we get “all those books”!

2 thoughts on ““Where Do You Get All Those Books?”

  1. So what’s wrong with ex-library books? They’re usually in bad condition? Some of my favorite memories involve the smell, feel, and contents of decades-old books (ah, there was one Xenophon…!) in the cool, quiet stacks of my university library, and I love owning them.

    1. Absolutely, ex-library books are still worth owning! We all have some in our home libraries.

      However, they are also generally books that have gone through many, many hands, and are not in as good a condition as we look for. Collectors will usually pass them up, but if they are a great book that we know someone will love, we will still pick them up for the store. 🙂

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