Monday, January 30, 2012

TCR Bookselling Series: Blue Bicycle Books of Charleston, South Carolina

Outside Blue Bicycle Books
The Committee Room continues its bookselling series with a look at Blue Bicycle Books of  Charleston, South Carolina.  Located in fascinating, historic and tourist-filled downtown Charleston, Blue Bicycle Books sells new, used, and rare books on a wide variety of topics and is especially strong in Charleston history, military history, Gullah culture, literary fiction, and the work of novelist Pat Conroy.  Established in 1995 as Boomer's Books, Blue Bicycle has been owned and operated since 2007 by writer and former newspaper reporter Jonathan Sanchez and his wife Lauren Sanchez. Blue Bicycle Books hosts numerous in-store events and is involved in an array of community programs including a young adult book festival, a student poetry program, and a summer writing camp for kids.

Jonathan Sanchez recently took time out of his busy schedule to talk with The Committee Room.

Q: Why did you want to take over Boomer's Books?
A: I had worked here [at Boomer's] for eight or nine years, so I knew it was a very strong business and an opportunity I didn't want to miss out on. One sale to another buyer fell through and then I was fortunate enough to jump in.

Purdy, Blue Bicycle Books' bookstore cat
Q: Why did you rename the store Blue Bicycle Books?
A: We didn't have a lot of street presence as Boomer's, so before we chose the new name and hung up our shingle I started stacking books on the bike I locked to the parking meter, to draw attention. We had a name the store contest, threw out about one-hundred cat-related names, and there you go.

Q: How many people work at Blue Bicycle?
A: Two regular part-time people right now, plus a former employee who fills in when she's in town, and helps teach the writing camp. Plus both my parents sometimes, when they are in town. It's a very small staff. I would love to work in an "independent" (new) book store that has fourteen employees, just to find out what they all do. Seriously, I'm sure they all do something,and maybe we need more people doing those things.

Q: Would you agree that selling used and rare books doesn't have much in common with selling new books?
A: New book stores are much closer to publishing, which means you're selling a lot of stuff that may be extremely popular but will seem so lame before long. Case in point, I worked at a Waldenbooks when Don't Sweat the Small Stuff was out. Why was that book so important in 1997? Do we now want to sweat the small stuff? I don't know. Apparently so, because that book is essentially worthless and forgotten. And it happens to "great" books too. Remember Cold Mountain and White Teeth? Will any one like those in twenty years? I don't know. But, that being said, books are books, and we sell new and used along side each other.

Q: Where do you acquire your stock?
A: We get several calls a day from people who want to sell, trade or donate books. I prefer to go out and buy them at book sales and estates, but then I would never have any golf books, because I'm not going to go the trouble to pull out golf books when I'm shopping in, like, Florida.

Blue Bicycle Books
Q: What factors determine the value of a used book?
A: Well, if it's just a reader's copy, like paperback fiction, that's half of cover. However, new book prices have been strangely frozen since about 1997. Pat Conroy's Beach Music that came out in 1995 was a whopping fifty-cents less than Freedom by Jonathan Franzen which appeared in 2010. So we feel like half can be a bit too low sometimes. For things we don't have to research and compare, it ranges from $10 - $50, usually just how nice it is, who wrote it, how many people want it.  This is another advantage used bookstores have over new bookstores, where everything is the same price. You're going to pay a little more for Kerouac than you are for Philip Roth. If it's a rare book we usually compare prices online and make a judgment call based on condition. Sometimes we're lower, sometimes we're higher.

Q: What authors and subjects are most popular with your customers?
A: Murakami, Hemingway, Kerouac, Virginia Woolf, military history, poetry, eastern religion, anything strange and particular (CB slang dictionary, how to be a ninja books), Charleston books, contemporary nonfiction, architecture, hunting and fishing, classics, childrens' picture books (Silverstein, Babar books, Sendak, etc.), YA novels. Things like that. Anything specific, well-written, nice covers, nice bindings.

Q: What defines a "rare" book and are all rare books valuable simply because they are rare?
A: Usually when we say rare we mean rare and desired.  A good example is our first edition, first printing, first state For Whom the Bell Tolls by Hemingway, in the original jacket etc., even that first state jacket, before they added the photographer's credit, I think it had a pretty large print run, but it's still rare because it's so beloved. In other words, the supply isn't THAT limited, but there's a lot of demand too. And keep in mind that a lot of rare books are worthless to most people. We have a $3,000 book in French about palm trees. That one's waiting for a certain buyer and it may wait a long, long time. There needs to be two buyers -- one guy to want it and another (presumed) guy who may want it next, which makes the first guy pay full price, or most of, so he can have it. There's a whole segment of people who feel pressured to buy something because they're afraid it may not available for long. I have no idea how that emotion is engendered in people, but I like to see it in my customers, and not in my wife.

Q: Do you have any formal training in regard to recognizing and handling rare books?
A: I've never taken any formal classes, I don't know that there are any. I worked here for a few years before I bought the store. There's still a lot I don't know. Being young A) you get the benefit of the doubt, and B) you get to make up some of your own rules. We try to be a very user-friendly store and let young people get into collecting, so we don't try and come off as a typical rare book store. No glass cases. If a book is an ex-library book or a book club edition we don't necessarily turn up our noses. The book club edition of Nine Stories by Salinger is still a beautiful book, and it's not something you see every day or every year, even if you look at hundreds of thousands of books a year like I do.

Q: What are some of the "rarest" books Blue Bicycle has sold?
A: A signed The Boo by Pat Conroy. A three volume leather set of Dante, about fourteen inches tall, with contemporary illustrations from the late 1800s. First edition Desolation Angels by Kerouac. Signed Wallace Stegner, signed Midnight in the Garden of Good and Evil, first edition A Moveable Feast by Hemingway. Three volume set of the Excavation of Pompeii, from 1809, with architectural plans and renderings, fold-outs, rebound sometime in the later 1800s in beautiful leather, gilt. Thomas Jefferson owned a copy of that book. That one stung a little.  It was at the time the nicest book that I had ever owned and the entire 50,000 volume collection felt significantly diminished by removing it. Then again the check was nice. We definitely have three or four books which blow all those away sitting on the shelf right now.

Q: What is the bigger part of your overall sales -- new, used or rare?
A: I guess used then new then rare. Depends. I mean, technically any rare book is one that's out of print or worth more than it was when it was in print? So a fifty-cent Edgar Rice Burroughs paperback that we sell for $9.98 is a rare book. Some months over half of our sales are in new books (they are still pricier than used books) and if we do an event, that really tilts the percentage in the new books column.

Q: When and why did Blue Bicycle begin online sales and how important has it become to your business?
A: We started online back in 2000 or so and stopped it when I bought the store. Usually when you say online sales you mean selling on ABE Books, Biblio, Alibris, Amazon, etc., and we don't sell on any of them. When you buy a book on one of those sites, the buyer often starts off with a book in mind and searches for it, whereas people come in to Blue Bicycle Books to shop for books. No one plans to buy a Dandelion Library picture book from the 1970s which has Babar the King on one side and Grimm's Fairy Tales on the reverse. The market online for those is very poor. However we have a book on Geochemical Self-Organization or something, published by Oxford University Press that's very rare, but only someone looking for that book because they needed it for something would pay $700. No one is likely to come across it and say "Oh, I must have this."  So it's very different selling in a store and selling on a computer. We do have about ninety-five books listed on our website which people can browse through. We mostly sell Pat Conroy books on there, tickets to events, the fee for our writing camp, stuff like that. Brad Taylor, our local thriller writer, has a lot of fans all over the country and they buy online from us so they can get signed copies. But it's really just an online catalog, making it slightly easier than just calling us.

Q: How big a factor is Amazon in the used book world?
A: Amazon is obviously beyond huge in online retail. The problem with Amazon, or the major problem, is they don't collect sales tax, which is evil in a classic fairy tale / King George III kind of way, as mom and pop stores like mine are forced to collect higher and higher taxes from the little people (8.5%, just went up in 2011 and, let's be honest, it never goes down).They sell tons and tons of used books, usually through third party sources, just like the aforementioned sites (they own Alibris, I believe.) One of the problems with them is the way they list books and the poor descriptions of their used books, so you don't always know what you're getting. But it is what it is.

Jonathan Sanchez, owner, Blue Bicycle Books
Q: A book can't become used if it never physically existed in the first place.  Will the use of e-readers, therfore, lead to a diminishing supply of used books?
A: Hmm. There are a lot of books out there. I may not have my numbers exactly right, but I'm pretty sure if you were to take all the books currently in existence on the planet, evenly distribute them into stacks, so that there is one stack for each literate person on the planet, and then place said stack on each person's head, each literate person would be driven five to fifteen feet into the earth by the tremendous force (depending, of course, on the softness of the earth where they live). Maybe in like fifty years, if people start using e-readers heavily, we might see a diminished supply. But people seem loathe to throw out real books, no matter how terrible they are. They just keep coming. It's like Newman said on Seinfeld about the mail -- It never stops.

Q: How much does the downtown Charleston location of your store matter to your business?
A: If we were one block north or south or business would be quite different. A lot of our customers are visitors who like to shop and browse while on vacation. Even if they're not looking for Charleston books, it's a nice relaxing thing to do while on holiday. We get a lot of walk-by traffic.

Q: Blue Bicycle specializes in Charleston history and Gullah culture, among other subjects.  How important are well-defined specialties to a bookstore's success?
A: Well, it's important that we know something about Charleston history and especially Gullah culture, as a lot of our better customers --  espcially in the spring and fall, the kind of well-educated people from Wisconsin or New York or California, empty nesters -- are going to take an interest in rice culture, sweetgrass baskets, or want a more erudite multicultural look at Charleston's past as opposed to the hoopskirts and parasols. But we have two feet tops of Gullah material and 1500 feet of books, so...

Blue Bicycle Books
Q: Blue Bicycle hosts many in-store events, including author readings and signings.  How do you get authors to come to the store?
A: We're very lucky that Charleston is a popular destination and writers like coming to stores that are locally-owned, with an affable and bright staff. I'm talking about the staff, not me. I'm grumpy and dull.

Q: In 2011, Blue Bicycle began the YALLFest, a celebration of young adult books.  Could you tell us something about this?
A: YALLFest, YA for Young Adult, YALL for southern. We had thirty writers come last fall (2011).  Planning it was the hardest thing I've ever done but the help and funding we got was tremendous.  The people who came out for it were so excited.  It's almost eerie how well it came off. We'll likely have twice as many panels and writers next year (2012), with signings and a big "YA Smackdown" game at the end of the day.

Q: Any advice on running used and rare book business?
A: Well, I have to say you have to be pretty good at curating, making a nice selection for your customers. If you just pick up a book that's kind of mediocre and think SOMEbody MIGHT like this, you're going to have a lot of mediocre books. For the most part I try and pick up stuff that I like or that I KNOW someone will like. We're very lucky because Charleston is full of creative people, and so we work to draw a connection between writers, writing and books, be it the third grader who writes poems in our writing camp, a self-published author, or a Pat Conroy / Katie Crouch / Billy Collins.  A bookstore that is centered on writing and writers can be the connection between the immediacy of creative writing and the lastingness of the books those pieces of writing can become.

Here's more --

Best Used Bookstore: Boomer's Books. Charleston City Paper, March 7, 2007.
Meet Jonathan Sanchez. Southern Belle View. April 12, 2011.
Writing the Soul of a City, Chronicling a Living History. Re:discover. 2012.

Blue Bicycle Books
420 King Street  Charleston, SC 29403
(843) 722-2666


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