A day in the life of an Amazon seller: Finding tons of cheap books to resell for big profits at garage sales
Opening day of garage sale season
Every year, in the less temperate parts of the country, when the weather starts to get warmer, Craigslist will blow up with announcements for garage sales (aka yard sales). Aka, the unofficial “opening day of garage sale season.”
This year, where I live, this kickoff of garage sale season came in late-April. And I was there.
Warning: Most Craigslist posts are lies
My garage sale research always begins on Craigslist.
An unfortunate truth about Craigslist is that every garage sale host exaggerates. What they call a collection of “hundreds” of books is often 50 books when you drive an hour to look at it. “Rummage sales” are often two elderly women with a card table of homemade quilts. And “huge” garage sales are rarely that.
My rule with Craigslist and garage sales is that I won’t cross the street for anything that doesn’t promise, in no ambiguous terms, that it will have a LOT of books. And by “a lot,” I mean specifically promises of tons of books (or other media). Or, promises types of books that are likely to be profitable (“selling my father’s art book collection”). And even with this scrutiny, I still come away with no books about 25% of the time.
When I’m out visiting garage sales, I still give myself room to freestyle and make unscheduled stops. Because you’ll always pass other sales you should pull over and give a look to. Occasionally this will lead to some big book scores.
My garage sale research
My usual garage sale search formula on Craigslist is pretty simple. I go to the “Garage Sales” page and search for “books.”
On this “opening day of garage sale season,” my search pulled up a couple dozen listings for garage sales with books. But only 5 that met my criteria.
Here were the 5 that made it onto my list:
- One stated the sale was hosted by “two professors” who were selling their unwanted books. No quantity specified, but professors are likely to have the most valuable books.
- One promised “tons” of “metaphysical” books – a high-profit category. Books like this are one of the benefits of living in a college town.
- Another promised similar books, using different language: “yoga,” “natural healing,” “meditation” and the like. (This town is such a cliche it’s hilarious).
- One promised “hundreds” of books. This is the kind of specificity I need.
- One was a little more vague, stating “…forced to move. Getting rid of our entire book collection.” A “collection” could mean anything, and this was just barely enough for me to put it on the list.
Garage sale book sourcing rampage
Let the opening day of garage sale season begin…
Garage sale #1 (books to resell: 12)
As much as it pains me to get up before 10am, I was out the door at 6:45am to hit the first sale – the “professors” unloading their unwanted books.
The first thing I noticed was another bookseller standing over the table of books, holding a PDA and barcode scanner. I caught him literally mid-conversation with one of the people holding the sale, saying “Great, I’ll come by Monday and take a look at what you have.” I could only extrapolate from this that he had just arranged to take a look at books that the host didn’t put out for the sale. Talking to garage sale hosts is a favorite tactic of mine. I ask if they have more books inside that they didn’t put out. This has led to some major scores before. I was only 10 minutes late to the sale, and this bookseller had beat me to it.
I took a shot anyway, and ran my “Do you have any more books inside” line by them. One of the “professors” said yes, but that he hadn’t gone through the books yet and wasn’t prepared to sell them . I could now safely assume these books are what was being discussed when I arrived.
Still, the other bookseller had left behind quite a few books to resell among the boxes. I bought 12 books, mostly on Oxford University Press.
Garage sale #2 (books to resell: 15)
This was the first of two sales promising tons of metaphysical books.
I arrived at the sale to a disheveled mess, with two college-aged kids rapidly organizing a garage that clearly had not been prepared for a sale. I saw several disorganized stacks of books on a coffee table, and more on the floor. After quickly scanning them all, I had a stack of 15 books, mostly on yoga. A few of them were selling for $20+, so I was prepared to pay as much as $2 each (very high for garage sale prices). I was more than happy when I asked one of the hosts to name a price for the stack, and she said “How about $4?” Don’t ask me why she named such an arbitrary number.
I gave her the cash and left.
Garage sale #3 (books to resell: 30)
This was the second sale offering books in the “new age” / “metaphysical” category.
I arrived, half expecting the bookseller from the first sale would have already been everywhere one step ahead of me, but it was clear right away this collection was not picked over. There were about 7 boxes of books, and about every third book had value (a very high percentage).
I piled up nearly 30 books on everything from beating cancer through nutrition to something about crystals. I paid 50 cents each, and was in and out in under 10 minutes (a very profitable less-than-10-minutes, I should add).
Garage sale #4 (books to resell: 0)
This was the garage sale I was unsure about, with the Craigslist post stating they were forced to move and were selling their “collection.”
I won’t even go into details, but it was completely unfruitful. There were about 8 outdated computer books, and I didn’t stay for more than 30 seconds.
Garage sale #5 (books to resell: 7)
Lastly, the sale advertising “hundreds” of books.
They weren’t lying about the “hundreds” part. Unfortunately, it was mostly fiction, and mostly old fiction.
I did find 7 books to resell, each of them among the “classics.” I paid the host $7, and went home.
The totals from one day of sourcing books at garage sales
- Books to resell: 64
- Spent: $37
- Total Amazon Sales Price (at time of listing): $880.17
- Average Amazon Sales Rank: 408,567
- Projected Amazon profit: $490
For three hours work, I’ll call l that a pretty good return on my time (and monetary) investment.
And that concludes this field report on the opening day of garage sale season.
John M. says
Thank-you for the great tips and the interesting read.
As always Peter, I enjoyed reading your article!
Can’t wait to try garage sales soon!
Peter Valley says
It’s that time of year!
Jordan, would you comment (or have you commented elsewhere?) on what scanning system you use/recommend?
Peter Valley says
This is Peter, the author here. After Amazon changed the recent scanning app display rules, I switched over to FBA Scan.
Good article. I live in a suburban area and climate where yard sales go on year-round, often starting on a Friday morning (or even Thursday), so Friday mornings I often make a loop around the area for a couple of hours just looking for yard sale signs. This is almost always profitable. Saturdays just before noon, I often do the same thing to catch sellers who are done for the day and are starting to think about closing down and ready for a quick sale. I sometimes check Craigslist and other yard sale sites but usually just drive the routes where I know the most yard sales are at (especially in affluent and college areas), as this works well where I live.
The most valuable tactic I have used at yard sales relies on recognizing that the sellers’ primary motivation is different from that of most other book sources….making a profit is often (not always) secondary to getting rid of what is perceived as excess clutter and making room for more stuff. If they have a big box, or more, of books, I will usually look around at what they are selling and say, “Looks like you’re trying to clear up some space.” (Wait for comment or nod of affirmation.) “What kind of price would you take for the whole box of books to take it off your hands?” As most yard salers don’t look forward to having to haul the unsold left-overs back in the garage at the end of the day, and as they recognize that they will probably only sell 3 or 4 books, if that, out of an entire box, they will usually accept your offer and give you a pretty reasonable offer, especially if it is late in the day. Often, the figure they offer is surprisingly low.
I often don’t even bother to scan the box, which could give the seller an inflated sense of the book’s worth, and just rely on my knowledge of what kinds of books are likely to have a good resale value. If I am going to scan, and the books do not have a price on them (which is often the case), I always ask first, “How much for your books?” to lock them into a price. If they see you scanning, they may decide that they have some hidden treasures that they will decide to keep. (In practice, unless they have the infrastructure to sell on Amazon – a seller’s account, understanding of the market, and the willingness to wait a few months for a sale – they are just deluding themselves. That once happened to me with a pair of sisters who told me they had to vacate their home the next day and had literally everything in the house for sale. They noticed me scanning some of their art books. They immediately became interested and asked me to scan the prices for them so they could decide if they wanted to sell them to me, or keep them to sell for themselves on Amazon if they were going to be profitable. I walked, of course, and they probably never sold the books.)
Sometimes, I will make a first offer, but only after pulling a bill out of my pocket (not my wallet, where the presence of other bills may encourage them to ask for more.) “I see some books there I could use, and I can take the whole box so you don’t have to deal with unsold books at the end of the sale. Would you take $10 [or whatever] for the whole box?” The visible presence of cash will often be the added incentive needed to secure a deal. This sometimes works better if you pull a few books out you want first, so they see you are interested in making a deal, then offer to buy the whole lot and ask for a price.
I’ve noticed that if both a husband and wife are present, especially an older married couple, one of the two often has a greater emotional investment in the books and perceive them as more valuable than the other and may ask for a higher price. If the majority of books seem to have come from the female (spirituality, yoga, diet, etc.), I will make the offer to the male. If the books seem to have originated with the male (sports, fishing, cars, etc.) I will make the offer to the female. If in doubt, make the offer to the wife, who is usually more interested in making space in the house than the husband is. These are stereotypes, of course, but they usually work.
When you get a whole box, of course, you will get a lot of deadwood books but that’s not a bad thing. I will often find a few things with a good resale value by scanning that I would have passed over otherwise. I recently bought a whole box of books from a young woman for $5 because I saw some yoga/meditation books that I thought I could resell. Most of the books were about make-up and fashion, and I was surprised that they had a very good sales rate and a very good profit margin – some of the books on how to start a career in the fashion and makeup industries sold in the $50 – $75 range very quickly. Even if the books have FBA sellers at $5 – $7, I may still list them for sale on Amazon, even if the profit margin is low and if they are a lightweight softcover book in very good condition (it’s not worth risking negative feedback on a book in marginal condition, especially if you are only making a couple bucks in profit), as I already own the book now and I’ll take a $1 or $2 profit. I can also use deadwood books as trade-in credit at a used book store and use my accumulated credit to buy more expensive books (modern first editions, highly collectible books, etc,) there that have a very good resale value; or I may donate them to a thrift store and take the tax credit for the donation.
I should probably add that taking a few moments to chat with the yard saler, complimenting them on the things they have for sale, asking how business has been, chatting about any mutual interests you may have based on the stuff they are selling, etc., will go a long way towards making it more likely that they will give you a favorable price. I’ve run a few yardsales, and it’s surprising how many potential buyers are brusque or make comments about the low value of what you are selling (maybe they are failed wannabe pick-up artists who think that “negging” your goods will work like “negging” a girl who is a potential pick up…). After a few hours of that, a friendly customer is far more likely to get a good deal from the seller.
As Peter said, it’s always a good idea to ask if they have any books for sale, if you don’t see any, or to ask if they have any more books for sell. It’s surprising how many sellers don’t see books as likely to sell, but have a box (or more) inside the house or garage that they will be happy to sell to you so they can create space. I recently picked up a whole rubbermaid container of books on hiking, backpacking, ecology, American indian spirituality, etc., with good resale value from a seller who didn’t even bother to put them out.
Here are some free mobile phone apps great for gaarge sales: MediaScanner gives fast dvd and video game prices. And Garage Sale Rover maps craigslist gaarge sales and gives GPS directions.
George L says
Great article, gave me some more food for thought. Maybe, I will beat you at the next one! 😃