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11/16/2003

Best resellers

By Pam Mellskog
The Daily Times-Call

LONGMONT — The shaky economy might have many Americans pinching pennies. But instead of folding their reading glasses, more book lovers than ever have turned to dog-eared copies, according to 2002 market research.

Los Angeles-based Ipsos BookTrends reported Americans spent an estimated $533 million on 145 million used books last year. That represents a plump 8 percent of all book sales, according to Kristin Giligin, spokeswoman for the American Booksellers Association in Tarrytown, New York.

The bargain factor is the most straightforward explanation for the groundswell of used books sales nationally. And in states with poor weather, used books seem to sell even better, according to Ed Smith, spokesman for the Antiquarian Booksellers Association of America in Bainbridge Island, Wash.

“You could call it cheap entertainment, but books play a more important role in cold states,” he said. “In California, they play second fiddle to outside attractions.”

But the newest kid on the block in Longmont — Allen Rice, sole owner of Irresistible Books, 661 4th Ave. — cited other reasons for the way his sales and inventory have fattened up since he opened in September 2002. Namely, he said, it is because even adults like to go on treasure hunts.

“When people go to a new bookstore, they know what they want, and they find it. There’s more of an adventure at a used bookstore because people don’t always come in for a specific book. They come in hoping to find the unexpected — surprises,” explained Rice, 55.

The convenience of browsing used books on Internet sites such as Abebooks, Alibris and Amazon has buoyed the niche sales. But readers seeking a tattered cover tend to still prefer thumbing the pages before plunking down cash, according to Ipsos.

Longmont’s used book dealers, all of whom have held steady or grown, agree.

The Used Book Emporium began in 1996 as a boutique with fewer than 1,000 square feet and 4,500 books, according to Debbie Karle, 46, who took over operations with her sister after their mother retired several years ago.

Today, the family has moved into the old Thompson and Traylor hardware store location, 346 Main St. — a perfect spot to house the business, which has burgeoned to a 50,000-book collection packed into 2,500 square feet.

“I don’t know if it’s because of the economy,” Karle said. “But we’ve seen a steady increase since 1996.”

However, the used book business isn’t easy money, according to Jeanne Prosser, who established The Used Book Store in 1977, now located in a maze of three old apartments at 1126 Francis St.

“It’s a good thing I didn’t have a mortgage in the early days,” she said. “It’s a good thing that I didn’t need to drive a fancy car.”

Like the other two used book stores in town, she stays stocked and profitable through a trade-in system that boils down to a two-for-one deal.

Enough shoppers give her two used books to get some credit toward one.

“You couldn’t make any money buying used books,” explained Julie Wechsler, 59, Prosser’s right hand for the past 17 years.

To make sure The Used Books Store doesn’t dance too closely to break even and the perils of red ink beyond, she also charges a dime surcharge on each title.

“On each title, the profit margin is probably higher than new books,” explained Rice. “But the other side is that new bookstores sell their books on a net worth basis and can return what they don’t sell. In the used book business, when you buy a book, you own it, and there’s no guarantee you’ll sell it.”

Given those realities, all three local used booksellers said making good trades was the most critical part of the business.

Making those calls can get quirky, but used books have sold well enough to tempt new booksellers to hybridize their shelves, according to Lisa Knudsen, executive director of the nonprofit Mountains and Plains Booksellers Association in Fort Collins.

“The most significant thing is that there is a possible profit center for independent booksellers that can’t be undermined by the chains,” she said. “You can set your own price, within reason, with used books because there’s no set value.”

During the past six years of her 18-year tenure at the association, which serves approximately 250 independent bookstores in the Western states, Knudsen has noted that trend.

Yet, however environmentally friendly and pocketbook wise, buying used books should remain a spin-off business, she said.

“There aren’t any used books unless they are first purchased as new books,” she continued. “So it’s absolutely critical that there is an audience for both.”

Pam Mellskog can be reached at 303-776-2244, Ext. 224, or by e-mail at pmellskog@times-call.com.