Recently, I had the opportunity to compare the selling practices of two unique used bookstores. They are technically both “book barns” – a popular selling point for bibliophiles like myself. During a vacation in New York’s Finger Lakes, I spotted an advertisement for an apparently magnificent used bookstore in the area. My wife Amy and I drove out on a sunny morning, and found the place hidden amongst the pleasant farms and charming towns. Inside, I was overjoyed. It practically crawled with books, and a few titles caught my eye right away. I rubbed my hands briskly at the thought of exploring the place.
However, the ad in the local tourist guide claimed that the Book Barn had three barns, so I asked the man working the desk, “What’s in the other barns?” The man, clearly the owner, said, “Parts for nuclear missiles.” I laughed, but he did not follow the joke up with a real answer. He then recommended a Lermontov book to me, pulling it off the shelf. It was in awful shape, water-damaged, a thin paperback, for $5.00. I raised my eyebrows. This book must really be great if it cost that much.
However, I soon found that this high price was not an anomaly, or rather it was, since it was one of the lowest-priced volumes in the entire store. Paperbacks for $8.50, $10.00, $15.00. The selection was great, perhaps better than any used bookstore I had seen, because the merchandise obviously didn’t move. I would have gladly bought a dozen books here, all of which were ones I wanted copies of, but not for those prices at that quality.
My wife Amy and I conferred in one of the twisting back aisles. She suggested that the owner was some sort of anti-capitalist, who wouldn’t participate in the Sam Walton model of better product for lower price, and instead thought of his bookstore is a museum. “He doesn’t want to please the customer, but only his own taste,” she said. So, he didn’t want to sell the books, but why stock thirty paperback copies of Fathers and Sons by Turgenev or For Whom the Bell Tolls by Hemingway? Why keep all of them?
I continued to browse. A tiny paperback Henry Miller, full of highlighting, for $6.50. A paperback version of Jack Kerouac’s Letters with the front cover literally ripped in half, for $10.00. These were not rare books or first editions. A first American hardback edition of W.H. Hudson’s Green Mansions was only $5.00 more than the Modern Library hardcover, of which they had five copies, an edition I have seen at every used bookstore I’ve been to, worth nothing but priced at $30.00. At last, I walked out in disgust.
Amy bought John Hawkes’ The Lime Twig, a New Directions paperback originally priced for $1.75, priced by this Scrooge for $4.00, the absolute cheapest price I saw in the whole place. Handwritten text notes glyphed the pages, an ugly stamp showed clearly on the side, and a faded, water damaged cover completed the story. Has this ruined book appreciated in value since it was published in the sixties? I would gladly have spent $100 or $200 on all the books mentioned above and more at this well-stocked Book Barn, if only I could have gotten my money’s worth. But instead I spent nothing, infuriated at this treasure trove run by a madman.
When my anger passed, I realized that he was probably not a madman, but a book collector (although sometimes these are interchangeable). I thought back to other “used” book stores I had patronized over the last few decades, and the ones that had fallen into the trap of over-pricing the books were inevitably those run by antique dealers or collectors. Loving collectible books myself, I empathized with their feelings, but not their business sense. They were pricing these books what they were “worth” – either on the market, or worse, to them. Or even more disastrously, they were confusing their business selling antique and collectible books to other fans and collectors with the business of selling used books to the public.
The opposite of this misguided model is the eponymously titled Book Barn in Niantic, Connecticut. It is technically five barns, not one, and has recently opened up two satellite stores “downtown” to help alleviate its enormous stock. The books there are always a reasonable price, and no doubt that is why they sell so many. A paperback goes for $1.00 or $2.00. With a few exceptions even nice hardbacks run $4.00-$8.00. And because the Book Barn in Niantic sells so many books, they have cats to pet, goats to feed, and free coffee and doughnuts for all. Children play on a jungle gym while their parents relax by a fish pond. Bibliophiles discuss books with the helpful employees. Local authors are supported by a special shelf in the main barn. In short, this has become a place of fellowship amongst those who love books.
I returned to the Niantic Book Barn last weekend, reveling in the community atmosphere, talking about books with the staff, and buying a dozen books, just because they were so cheap. These included Raymond Chandler’s Farewell My Lovely, Henry Beston’s The Outermost House, and a hilarious little reprint of a guide to the ladies of the night in Edinburgh, Scotland. All were volumes I might have passed by had they been priced “at value.” I thought of all the used bookstores I had known that had failed, and the many complaints I heard over the years about why. “People don’t read anymore,” was the most common. I looked around at the flocks of people flying to Niantic to buy books, and shook my head. That wasn’t it at all.