The evidence has been pouring in for a decade or more, as big box venues gobbled up mom 'n pops, and then were themselves brought low by the likes of Amazon and online used book markets such as ABE and eBay. Now everybody knows it's a bad idea to open a retail used book store in a small town unless you have a mate with a good job, or are a comfortably retired book-besotted romantic, or unless you have a death wish. Being a retiree with a comfortable pension AND a death wish is probably the optimum situation. But Randi White, owner of the Book Barn in Niantic,Connecticut, apparently never got the message...
It was 1990 or thereabouts and we were spending Spring Vacation at my mother-in-law's in Connecticut. Our two sons, aged 11 and 14, were driving everyone crazy, so I volunteered to get them out of the house. Whew! We drove through eastern Connecticut on an all boy road trip, scouting books at places like John Gambino's, Books & Birds, and Bibliolatree, with stops for arcade games and burgers in between. And candy. LOTS of candy. Finally we got down to the shore, and I took us to this new place in a basement under an antique shop.
Nothing more than a mess of cheap books, but the boys quickly disappeared into the science fiction and gaming section, and I was able to spend an hour or so scouting up several boxes of books. The total bill probably didn't top $75. I liked what I saw, and added this new place to my book scouting route.
Every time I went back the owner, Randi White, was buying books. He never paid much, but he tried to buy everything, which was important to the people streaming through with their boxes and bags full of unwanted stuff. He made sure that his inventory moved by pricing it low – ridiculously low, in my estimation. But it worked for him. Dealers, collectors, and voracious readers with book junkie habits poured through his stock. Saturday mornings there'd be a line at the door before opening.
At some point the antique store upstairs departed. By the mid 1990s Randi owned the whole spread and soon started working on the spacious grounds, installing outbuildings to hold more books.
I stopped shopping there around that time. My business was headed in a different direction, away from general used books. But I kept hearing about Randi. The Book Barn was booming. The yard around the main building had become a sort of theme park full of book huts where kids could play while parents browsed. The prices stayed low and the quality of the stock remained consistent. Randi kept buying and the people kept coming. The Book Barn, conveniently located in a tourist friendly seaside town, became a destination.
Last week I had an appraisal to do at Mystic Seaport and, just for old time's sake, I took the 20 minute drive over to Niantic after I was finished, to look in on my old pal Randi.
It was a sunny May morning and the parking lot was already half full. Randi was busy buying books,
|Randy and Chuck at work|
so I took a walk around the book huts, then went upstairs in the barn to the main desk.
There, T (“My real name is Terry but everyone calls me T.”) was checking out a lady who'd purchased a large bag of books, and explaining to her husband why they don't have a list of all the books they offer for sale.
“It would take a lot of work to catalog all these books,” she told him. “To pay for it we'd have to raise our prices. Same with the Internet. Everybody says, 'Why don't you have these books online?' But to do that, we'd have to charge more for them because of the labor costs. We've asked our customers again and again, and they all say they prefer cheap, uncataloged books that aren't on the Internet.”
The man smiled and nodded, but it was clear he hadn't really understood what T was telling him.
I, on the other hand, was flabbergasted. No inventory, no stock control, and no Internet. This flew directly in the face of everything we think we know about the used book trade.
Finally Randi had a moment and we sat at a picnic table and swapped stories.
He told me he'd started working at a Paperback Booksmith with his buddy Chuck (still part of the Book Barn operation) nearly 30 years ago. They both loved books, and they had their retail bookselling experience to guide them, so they opened their own place, with the master plan of buying cheap and selling cheap – of, above all, keeping the cash flowing. But Randi readily admits he had no idea how successful this idea would prove. He now has four stores, each about 2500 square feet, right in the same town, filled with about half a million books.
“People come all this way,” he says, “They want to see something. The more books the better, If I were starting in this business today, I'd want to be as close to another book store as possible.”
He employs 20-25 people, depending on the season (his book theme park is open all year). At the height of the summer he needs parking lot attendants to manage traffic. He'll sell books to 500 – 600 people daily, and might have as many as 50 people selling him 4000 books that same day. And sometimes they are the same people. He pays by check or with a store credit option. His four locations are open 9 am to 9 pm every day. He reckons he works - “sorta depends on what you call 'work', doesn't it?” - about 80 hours a week. Most of his customers come from at least 50 miles away but, surprisingly, he buys all his books in his home state. “There are a lot of readers in Connecticut,” he says.
I asked him what his secret was, and he just smiled and surveyed his kingdom. “The ability to lift heavy objects... Nobody in their right mind would do this, would they? But here's the good part.” He leaned toward me confidentially. “We get to be in the book business! I still get excited when I see a good $5 book.” Randi White, who still works like a stevedore, and who considers himself blessed to have found a job he loves, owns a home and a substantial commercial property. He pays the salaries of a couple of dozen employees, and has put two kids through college. All on $5 books.
He admits he was lucky to have started at the right time (the age of flourishing used book shops) and the right place (a tourist location with relatively inexpensive real estate). But he still thinks cheap used books are a viable concept. “I'll tell you,” he says triumphantly. “It's the postage that's making it for us. Those online people can't compete. We each have a book for $5, but when you buy it online you have to cough up another three or four bucks to get it delivered. Here, we put it in a bag for you, and you walk out feeling like you've just saved $3.50.”
“And I'll tell you something else. KINDLE DIDN'T WORK. They sold all those machines at first, and now it's going downhill. And you walk into one of those mega book stores and what you you see, right up front? A whole table full of Kindles! They're cutting their own throats. It's crazy. Anyway, no reading machine will ever replace the experience of browsing in a place like this, because here, you never know what you're going to find. You explore a world of books. You make discoveries. You can't do that on a Kindle, and Amazon can't do it for you either.”
This is all well and good. But Randi has another secret, and he'll never reveal it because he doesn't even know he has it.
Aside from his prodigious personal skills and his gargantuan enthusiasm for books, Randi White has absolutely no ego as a bookman. He doesn't mind selling what others would regard as low end crap, and he's happy to work as a lumper in his own operation, routinely lugging 40 pound boxes of books from one end of his compound to the other. He buys and sells to a steady 5:1 markup (quite modest for this sort of operation) and if a book doesn't move, he'll put it on the dollar table. After that it's the recycling bin or the dump. When people come in they expect to see fresh stock, and Randi makes sure that they do. Inevitably, rare books find their way into his operation, and when this happens Randi has a short list of preferred customers and dealers to call, insuring that the rare tome will be moved along, swiftly and efficiently, at a fraction of its fair market value. “If I sell you a book for $5 and you sell it for $500, that's good. I'm happy for you. I've made some money and so have you.”