Wednesday 29 October 2014

Selling the unexpected

Last year I wrote about finding reading-matter gold down the cellar of the library among uncategorised books. There, where the books were in stacks ordered by the day the came in, rather than by any aspect of the content, I'd regularly find something interesting.  The folks at QI reckon that you can find interesting in everything but it is hard work to abstract the gems from the dross. They are in the midst of the Lth series of their funny-smart telly-prog. Sometimes, though, you can get overwhelmed with choice as when we went with The Boy to The Bookbarn near Radstock in Somerset. There are, I dunno, 100,000 books, a quarter million books, in their warehouse and when we went there with five of us in the car - we came out with 4 books amongst us. There's a section where fiction is stacked alphabetically by author: there being 200 linear feet of Bs, I couldn't be bothered to beetle through them all to bag a cheap Bill Bryson.  With a quarter-million new books published every year in Britain you can't read them all and most of us get the list filtered through the book pages of our favorite Sunday newspaper. Accordingly we all get to read the same things as our friends and everyone gets cosy with their embedded certainties and life gets more boring as it gets more comfortable.

It was, therefore, delightful to read an article in Fortune magazine about a family that have bucked the trend in the book-selling world and have made a modest fortune selling books pile-'em high and sell-'em cheap.  In 1972 Pat Anderson and Ken Gjemere leased 2000 sq.ft of dilapidated ex-laundromat in Dallas and set out to buy and sell books.  They bought anything printed that came in through the doors that wasn't yesterday's newspaper and sold it on.  They reckoned that the crowd could decide what was marketable better than they could and it turned out to be a business model that worked.  Fifty years on, Half Price Books has a turn-over of $240 million through 120 outlets. The founders are dead now but Pat's daughter Sharon Anderson Wright is the CEO and still running the business on lines that are strangely Victorian in the ethics and economics. They don't borrow money to start a new venture, so their start-up costs are modest. And they've never had an exit-strategy because that would mean selling out to St. Mammon and leaving half their employees on the cutting room floor.  I liked the story of how SAW, when she was read-all teenager was given the task of sorting the books in the back room of the family store.  My Dau.I volunteered to sit in a sea of books doing the same thing at the Oxfam store in the town where she lives in England for similar reasons.  But I'll leave the last word to Ms Wright:
"There are still a lot of people who like to browse bookstores and be surprised by what they find."
Amen, sister.

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