A retrospective and obituary, after two sellers discover my #1 secret book source.
(Apologies for the delay between posts. Big things in the works. All will be revealed soon….)
It happened. I mean, it always happens, but I never thought it would happen to this place. My #1 most profitable book source for over three years was discovered.
Details in a moment. But first, some background…
In 2010, my mom took me to what she described as a “quirky, oddball” store, way out in the country. (I’m going to be frustratingly vague throughout this article, so forgive me now. Or just stop reading). It didn’t sound like anything that would be a book source, and I went along for “family time,” not sourcing. Here is a rundown of the store:
- 100% second hand items.
- The size of a standard big box retail store.
- Deep in the country (45 minutes from the nearest city).
- Not a thrift store.
And what I found when I got there:
- Thousands of used books.
- Hundreds of used DVDs.
Can you guess what I did when I saw this spectacle? Well you’re wrong. I didn’t get excited. I didn’t salivate. In fact, I didn’t even pull out my scanner. I just walked away.
I noticed at a glance that over 80% of the books were a flat $5. I took one look, then turned around and walked away.
Most of you are probably thinking you would do the same.
And that would make you just as stupid as I was.
Fast forward one year
I had forgotten about this store as soon as I’d left. Then I went back a year later. Again, with my mom. And I was so bored while she shopped, that I started scanning books for the same reason I scan books off the shelf in the dentist’s office lobby – out of pure need for distraction, nothing more. And at first, it was even more boring than looking at the used women’s scarves which were 50 feet away.
One, about half the books had their barcodes covered by price stickers. It seems like 10% of sources do this, and it’s quite annoying.
Two, remember the prices? $5 a book. There’s rarely profit to be made at this price. Not even worth it.
Then something happened. About 10 books in, I found a small paperback selling for $40. It was a self-published title on poker theory. Interesting.
So I kept scanning. And again, another book. This one was selling for $30. And then another. And another.
When my mom finished shopping, I asked her if she had any grocery shopping to do, and could she please go do it now? I didn’t want to leave.
When I was all done two hours later, I had two baskets of books. The price at checkout was over $250, and my projected profit was just under $1,000.
What I had been wrong about
My oversight and ignorance here was so huge, it’s embarrassing to talk about now. I had fallen victim to the “Cult of the $1 book.” This is the tacit belief among many (probably most) booksellers that they are eternally entitled to pay no more than $1 for a book, ever. People who live in places with higher average prices may have a higher tolerance, but few ever get comfortable over the $2 price point. Beyond that, the belief is that profits vanish.
And they’re usually right. I was usually right. Until I was wrong.
And I became wrong when I found this store, a place where the quality of books was so high, there were tons of books that allowed me to hit 3x profits even when the books were $5. I didn’t think it was possible, until I found this source.
The lesson here is: Don’t ever be intimidated by high prices, if high value comes with it.
In fact, embrace high prices. It almost certainly means your competition won’t touch that source.
Just how awesome this book source was
When I went back, I realized my first scorched earth scanning mission was not a fluke. This place had an absolutely insane percentage of books worth $20+. Trust me, you wouldn’t believe it. And they didn’t even have textbooks.
So I started going back, once a month. And every trip, I was spending $200 to $400, and my projected profits were over $1,000 each trip. An extra $1,000 a month from one source. And it had been under my nose the whole time. Man I felt stupid…
I spent so much time there, I started dating one of the employees
I’m not even kidding.
You know you spend too much time at a source when a female employee passes you over by the men’s shoes, then turns to you and says:
“Weren’t you in here yesterday?”
No, it wasn’t the woman who did the books (she hated me). It was the woman who worked the electronics counter. Pretty soon, we were hanging out regularly.
If you’re wondering, the answer is: Of course I asked her questions I could exploit for profit. A lot of them. I’ll spare you the endless intelligence-mining interrogations I subjected her to, but a few of my questions were:
- Have you noticed other people scanning books? (She hadn’t)
- Did they throw any books away? (Only the most damaged books).
- Were there certain days they put out the books? (She asked the book girl, who said no.)
- Did they sell on Amazon? (Not at all).
Oh, and using her employee discount and / or having her let me in the back for early-bird access to the books? No and no.
At some point, I asked one too many questions, and she looked at me and said-
“Are you just pretending to like me so you can interrogate me about the store?”
Honestly, I would kind of respect someone who went this far to gather intel solely for a competitive advantage. That wasn’t what I was doing. But her suspicion forced me to tone down my questions by at least 50%.
Then the unthinkable happened…
I moved away from this town about a year ago (and stopped seeing the girl awhile before that). But I didn’t move too far, and have made regular trips back. Then, four months ago, disaster struck…
I walked into the store, went straight for the books, and there they were. A male / female team, frantically tearing through the books. With scanners.
My heart sunk. The part of my heart where I store my Amazon deposits.
This couple were absolutely rabid. My cautious and delicate approach had always been to survey they shelves, and only scan books that passed my split-second calculation on the various factors that determine value. This couple scanned everything. They were machines, tearing through the books in a manic trance.
I stood back and took in the reality of my situation: If this couple was as thorough as they appeared, my income may have just taken a $12,000+ a year hit.
And this might not have been an exaggeration. Although I held hope they were from out of town and wouldn’t be back, or would fade away like most booksellers do after a month or two, it was not to be. I returned twice since, and found they were hitting this store regularly. Very regularly.
Extracting lessons from defeat
The obvious lesson here is: Don’t ever get too comfortable. I really never thought this source would get discovered. It was 45 minutes from any city. The books were expensive enough to scare off nearly every seller. And this was a place you would never expect to have books. It was my triple-layered insurance policy. But it didn’t last. Lesson learned.
The next lesson was even more unexpected. I take great pride in my ability to filter out books that aren’t worth scanning in a split second, and honing in on only those books that have a high-likelihood of profit. In a place with thousands and thousands of books, this cuts down my sourcing time from 6 hours to 2. This is big advantage.
Or is it a big disadvantage?
This couple didn’t use my methods. They scanned everything. I mean everything. What was humbling was that, as I watched them, I noticed they found more books than me. More than double. That meant for three years, I had been missing thousands and thousands of dollars (probably over $10,000) worth of books. I don’t know exactly what profit margins they were seeking (possibly less than 3x), but there was no question they were leaving with way more books than I ever did. So while they spent a lot more time than me, the quality of books at this source was so high, they were also making more than me.
I try to ask myself what is good about any “bad” situation. Learning to not get comfortable with my “finely turned book value radar” was a big, important lesson.
Epilogue: It’s not as bad as it sounds…
Remember early on when I said half the books had their barcodes covered with price stickers? This troublesome obstacle has proven to be my savior.
The bookselling couple are far more well-behaved than myself. If they pick up a book with a covered barcode, they put it down and move on. Not me. If a book looks potentially valuable, I drag my thumbnail through the sticker and scan it. It can pay to misbehave.
So, this is where it stands: I can’t exactly declare this a dead source. I still go there, and still make money. It’s sharp decrease from it’s glory days, and I’m only getting the couple’s crumbs. It might be down, but it’s not out.
That may be the parting lesson here: No matter how thorough your competition is, they’re never that thorough. They always have blind spots. Learn to spot them, and you’ll still come out victorious…