Most of the world’s used and rare bookstores are gone. Although there are brave entrepreneurs opening new old bookstores, most bookstores you see today are survivors. If you have a bookstore anywhere around you, consider it an endangered species. Introduce your friends and relatives and children to it. They will at least know it exists, and if the worst happens in the future, they will have the memory of having experienced it.
I have to remind myself occasionally that what we do is not just a job. It is a kind of duty, a responsibility to the authors, printers, publishers, designers and binders that came before.
And a responsibility to the “books.” If people like us don’t strive to find new homes for fine old books, their fate, too often, is oblivion.
We call it #BookRescue.
I have written several stories that feature or touch upon my first book mentor, Carl Sickles. His wife, Eleanor, rented a room or small office in the back of the Shady Grove Shopping Center in 1975 and called it Book Mark of Gaithersburg. She was a book lover and, I suppose, wanted to have something to occupy herself when the last of her three children had left home. Carl retired from the Veteran’s Administration not long after and joined her. He liked to build things and be a merchant. The one room became two and then three…and now it is much the way he left it—12± rambling rooms of various sizes and dimensions.
There are a couple Carl anecdotes I want to insert before they get lost. I hope I’ll be able to come up with more full stories about him. We shall see.
But first let’s go to May 2019. I had difficulty getting strong managers and experienced book people at our Gaithersburg Wonder Book (née Book Alcove, née Book Mark) for a number of years—pretty much ever since we bought it just as it was about to be liquidated in 2008. I’m not so sure why. We’ve tried and tried.
There are so many moving parts to Wonder Book and Books By the Foot. Fully 90% of our business takes place in our 130,000 square foot warehouse in Frederick, Maryland. That means our 3 brick and mortar stores combined bring in only 10% of our sales. The Frederick store is our flagship location. Hagerstown is large and bright and a strong second. The Gaithersburg store, tucked behind and below a fairly nondescript strip shopping center called The Shady Grove Shopping. There’s a 7-11 out front, so you can’t miss it! LOL…
Our Gaithersburg store’s sales run a distant third. Its layout is very quirky. It grew “organically” as Carl added room after room, closet after closet and erected bookcases in each room—usually making layout plans off the top of his head. The configuration in that old bookstore is very quirky. I think that is part of its charm. It is also maybe part of its confusion to booklovers.
Please come visit and get lost somewhere in time for an hour or so. It is a very unique store. It is also a “throwback” to old-school used bookselling. The DC region used to have dozens of stores that were very similar in their originality. I think your visit will be unforgettable.
Another issue for the staff there is the near constant stream of people dropping by to sell us their books and movies and music. I don’t believe anyone else in the region buys “everything”—books, DVDs, CDs, LPs—brought to them. We’ve found that when people have decided to part with books and have gone to the trouble to pack and load them into their car, their strongest desire is to have them all “gone.”
So the staff there spends a great deal of time every day—7 days a week—363 days a year—lifting boxes of books from customers’ cars and carrying them to one of the two vans we have parked there every day. Sometimes people bring only one box, sometimes fifty. Some days we have over 30 people bring us book lots of varying sizes and quality. In hot weather, cold weather, rain (within reason), we buy ALL the books from whoever drives up.
Sometime last spring things reached a tipping point. I was very disappointed in the store—MY store. When I visit, I always reach out to customers and ask if I can help them. I do it to set an example, but I also enjoy it. My bookselling roots are in customer service—face to face. I began to find when I took customers to a category it could be filled with things that don’t belong there.
I have mantra I’ve repeated over and over—almost since the beginning—”If you mis-stock a book, you are hiding it. Burying it! Not only that, but the mis-stocked book is taking up a space where another book does belong—forever! (Or at least until it is culled because it hasn’t sold for a very long period of time.)
The store had so much old bad stock as well. It was crying for refreshment.
And some of the categories made no sense in today’s market. They were “dead zones.” Often they were tucked back in corners of the rear most rooms. Perfect areas for uncaring folks to dump books they didn’t know what to do with.
I decided I needed to get involved—personally—even though the store’s sales are only a tiny percentage of what the company does as a whole.
An employee there told me:
“You should pay attention to your store.”
I was a bit shamed by that.
I began driving down a couple times a week—doing the van swaps myself. I’d bring a van with supplies and fresh stock…and culling tubs. Culling tubs are large plastic tubs we often get from customers bringing us their books. (We recycle/repurpose EVERYTHING here.) They make it easy to remove old dated stock and duplicates and if possible redirect them to Books By the Foot, overseas markets for pennies a piece or—if there is no alternative—to recycle them as pulp paper.
I made it a mission to go through every category in the store. Every bookcase. Every shelf. EVERY book in the store would get a look or a touch by me or someone I trusted to make a decision about it. There are thousands of shelves. All of them needed refreshing.
The store needed to be reinvented. Wonder Book Gaithersburg would go through a renaissance. Wonder Book staffer Tiffany Verbeck covered much of this in her first Wonder Book blog “Gaithersburg Renaissance.”
What I’ll try to do here is give it my personal perspective as well.
But let’s begin with a Carl Sickles’ related anecdote…
I was in the store culling some dead stock in late spring. I was kneeling on the floor. It was in the Nature section. Dusty old folio picture books of trees and rivers and sunsets from the mid 20th century clotted the bottom shelves. Many had been there for years. I used to say: “Nobody looks on the bottom (and top) shelves.” It is still pretty true. Nobody would want these things—at any price. Dated, boring. Not old enough. Not new enough. Who sent these here in the first place? Why haven’t they been thinned out in all this time?
If I’d had a mirror, I could look the culprit in the eye. Big brown sad eyes.
I looked down the aisle and noticed a very big tall older man seated on a wooden stool some distance down the same aisle. He was on one of Carl’s old handmade stools. There were a couple dozen of these throughout the store. He was wearing a kind of flashy all white sweat suit. Long ago I think it would have been called a leisure suit. Suddenly he was on his back. Two legs and two arms stuck straight up in the air.
“Help me up! Help me up!” he hollered his voice was very, very upbeat.
I headed down to help and a staff member rushed up from the front end. We each gave the man a hand, and once standing, he conveyed he was none the worse for wear.
He had essentially rolled backward off one of our old wooden stools. They are only about 12 inches tall. They had been built by Carl decades ago using scraps from his bookshelf building enterprise. I wrote in one of the book stories that Carl was one of the most caring, generous and giving people I’ve ever known.
He took me under his wing and mentored me. I may never have gotten off the ground, “bibliographically speaking”, had it not been for him.
I also mentioned he could squeeze a penny so hard that Abe Lincoln’s eyes could bug out.
The customer bent, and he picked up about a dozen DVDs he had selected.
“Would you like me to hold those for you?” I asked.
Carl had taught me early to free up customers’ hands so they can pick more books.
Also, he was reaching up to put them on a top shelf. We often have customers “hide” their finds on shelves with good intentions to return and buy them. We try to get them to let us hold them behind the sales counter. We will keep them for a month or so and even call a time or two to check to see if they still want them held.
He was reluctant to let them go.
“I’d be glad to put these behind the counter under your name. If you change your mind on any, we can put them back for you.”
“This your store?” he asked.
“Uh, yeah,” I replied a little sheepishly. I’m not one to put myself out there.
“You da man?” he said. “YOU DA MAN!! I love this place!”
“Why, uh, thanks. May I have your name?” I wanted to put his selections up front, and with his name on them, they wouldn’t accidentally get re-shelved.
“Rollo. I’m Rollo!” He took my hand and shook it vigorously. His grip was so strong I had to soften mine to avoid any painful escalation.
We walked up to the counter to put his finds on hold. We always have stacks of our bookmarks there. They have our addresses and hours and website and, currently, a reproduced 19th century engraving for each month. Vintage astrological images match each month’s sign.
“Can I take some of those? I’ll hand them out at the subway station! I love this place!”
The Shady Grove Red Line Metro stop is only a couple miles away.
“Ummm, sure.” Quirky idea. But why not? I handed him a little stack—maybe a couple hundred.
He went back to perusing the DVDs—we have thousands at each store—starting at 95¢.
I went, ummm… “Back to Nature.”
In a little while, I sensed someone looming behind me. It was Rollo. I stood.
“I just wanna say how much I like this place. Keep doin’ it, man.”
Then he gave me a little friendly “chuck” to my shoulder with his fist.
It hurt like hell!
‘That’s gonna leave a mark,’ was my thought.
“Thank you, Rollo.”
“You da man!”
I got to thinking. Those old wooden stools are not up to OSHA standards. As with all businessmen, I constantly worry about being sued.
One misstep and someone’s ankle could get twisted. Or worse.
Carl’s stools would have to go.
I remembered how pleased he was when he came up with the idea of stool building. He could use up so many scraps leftover from bookcase building. And he or his assistant could build them in minutes. Did he sell them for 5 bucks?
I asked the staff to load all the stools into the van.
“You’re not taking our stools are you?” one of them asked.
“They’re too tipsy. We’ll get you new ones. The round metal ones on retractable wheels.”
Another quick Carl anecdote: When I first started in 1980, one of my coworkers was a high school kid. Brian Bernard. He was tall and lanky. His hair was cut in straight bangs right above his eyebrows. Back then the buying room was in the back of the store. Every box we bought had to be carried past the counter and down long aisles. One day Brian was carrying boxes in. His old style big cowboy belt buckle must have been knocked loose. When he was done carrying the boxes in and he started to work at the counter, he noticed a familiar object. Carl had found his belt buckle and priced it for sale within minutes. Of course, Carl didn’t make him buy it back.
So, all of Carl’s wooden stools came back to the warehouse. They sat in a Gaylord for a couple months.
I didn’t have the heart to trash them. I considered taking them home to use in the wood stove over the winter. I finally sent them to Frederick store to put on the sidewalk for a dollar each. Turn them upside down, and they’re functional as wooden boxes.
I did save a few for my home and office—for sentimental reasons. I’ll be careful. If I fall off one, I can sue myself.
Now back to the Gaithersburg Renaissance…
Through June and July we moved just about every category. Sections that don’t sell well anymore were shrunk. Paperback westerns, series romance… Many of the social studies and health and well-being sections were full of former bestsellers no one cares about anymore.
Here’s a partial list of what we did:
- Medical Reference
- Reference et al.
- Social Studies
- Poetry/Mythology & Folklore
- All the countries
- All the states
- General Fiction Mass Market Paperbacks
- Foreign Languages (These were incorporated with the countries they are associated with. Chinese in China. German in Germany. An innovation and experiment.)
- History and all countries and regions
- Mystery Hardbacks
- General Fiction Hardbacks
- African American Studies
- DVDs & Games
- Children’s/Young Adult
- US States
- Record Room
The children’s section was the first to be revamped. For some reason some popular authors had their own sections—in random areas. Shel Silverstein, for example. His books were segregated on a couple shelves in the middle of children’s non-fiction. Why? I dunno. No one would ever find them there.
I’ll take the blame.
Of course, Shel Silverstein should go in the children’s fiction section alphabetically under “S.” Same with Beatrix Potter under “P” and Harry Potter under “R” (for Rowling, of course.)
Disney and other licensed character books had been stocked randomly by…I’m not sure. If I couldn’t figure out the method to the madness, customers couldn’t either. We grouped licensed character books all together by their corporations rather than spread randomly throughout the now sprawling children’s book sections.
Now, with the ides of August looming next week, the moves and final layout are nearing completion.
I have made a special effort to send that store better and more viable stock—including collectible books.
At first a bit dubious about my frequent sojourns and longer shifts at “WG” (Wonder Book Gaithersburg), the staff thought I was there to make their lives harder. Now they have embraced the improvements.
The next step is to fully reload ALL the sections with good books—books people may actually want to take home.
We have also revamped and put much better signage in our large LP room. Our LP selection is much larger than many record shops’ entire stock.
What can customers expect?
- There’s a LOT of great new stock already.
- Fresh “old and recent” books will fill the shelves throughout the store.
- Better signage in all book sections as well.
- Easier to understand categorization.
- A better mix of relative common but popular titles as well as more obscure and collectible editions.
- User friendly layouts.
Heck! That store has more literature than many used bookstores have in their entire stock.
So a few more visits. A few more times “da Man” needs to go “once more into the breach,” and we will be done with the facelift.
WG has always been a good used bookstore. A lot of kids have “grown up there” since the 1970s. They frequently tell us that and sometimes come in with their own kids.
It is well on its way to being an excellent bookstore.
I can’t continue spending all the hours there that I have this spring and summer. I just don’t have enough hours in the 7 days I usually work for all the books of all sorts that come to the warehouse.
Like this for example. A small hoard of Hebrew, Judaica, German and facsimiles of ancient books. Five pallets of boxes rescued by an auction company from a doctor who was a hoarder on Long Island. I’m sure they auctioned off the best stuff. What they sent me, what I bought was their problems. There are early books in German by Hesse Mann Brecht Buber… There are some leather and a number of stunning vellum binding. Some are beautiful. Some are first editions. I can get by in German even the old “schrift” typography. But Hebrew and Yiddish are indecipherable to me.
What am I gonna do with this stuff?
I went through a couple carts yesterday, and, gee, it was extremely tough biblio-mental exertion. Almost every single book demands a close look outside and in. It makes my brain hurt!
Ay yi yi…
WG…in the near future when I do my spot visits, it will be a place I am proud of…a place all the book loving staff there will be proud of as well.
Carl would be too.