The life of books

A used bookseller’s lot is as idiosyncratic as what’s in the store

David Swirnoff thinks used book stores are about finding books you didn’t know you were looking for. For him, that synchronicity is the whole reason to search his stacks at Rag & Bone Books, 2812 W. 43rd St. The experience of being struck spontaneously by something meaningful on the shelves is what he lives for.

His store’s name is taken by a famous poem by William Butler Yeats:

Now that my ladder’s gone,

I must lie down where all the ladders start,

In the foul rag-and-bone shop of the heart.

Unlike Border’s, or Barnes & Noble, what lies on Swirnoff’s shelves is not standardized or predictable. It is a reflection of his own literary taste instead of standard publishing retail because he gets to pick and chose what he sells. He can chose what to buy from the individuals who walk through his door with boxes from garage sales, as well as his own finds at estate, church or school sales.

Swirnoff’s stock is neither the new or improved nor necessarily about emerging issues. What he looks for is the best of what has been published over the past 100 years. Unless it is a rare edition, it is also much less expensive.

His store features enduring fiction, the arts and subjects that play well in his Linden Hills neighborhood such as gardening, interior design, spirituality and Eastern religion. But he also has a collection kitschy paperbacks from the 1930s and 1940s about loose women, guns, alcohol and depravity, which in those days were considered X-rated and were earmarked for servicemen during World War II.

In the past, Rag & Bone has cleared more than $50,000 a year. And while the current recession has reduced their profit, the Linden Hills shop expects to reach that mark again soon.

David Harrison doesn’t have a track record yet; he opened Riverrun Books at 910 W. Lake St. in February with 16,000 books accumulated over 10 years. Harrison specializes in first-edition literature and collectible nonfiction.

"For people collecting literature, a dust jacket means just about everything," he said. "Take a Hemingway first edition from the 1930s and you might be able to buy it for $400. But if it has a dust jacket, it would be worth $8,000. It’s like antiques — you want it to be as close to the original as possible."

Harrison looks for books that are out of the ordinary and out of print that his customers are not going to find anywhere else. Near his front door he has two rare copies of the writings by the late Beatle John Lennon. "A Spaniard in the Works," published in 1965 and "Skywriting by Word of Mouth," published posthumously in 1986. Both sell for $20 sans dust jacket.

Karen Hallinan, owner of Nicollet Book Store, has been at her 4237 Nicollet Ave. S. location for 10 years. She said in the old days, people opening used book stores were usually older people with independent means because one does not make a lot of money selling old books; it’s more the labor of love.

Hers is a very small shop with only about 2,000 tomes. She doesn’t advertise. Her small, loyal following basically comes from the Kingfield neighborhood. The stock is earmarked more for the reader than the collector. "Because of my limited space, my store has to be like the homely girl with the good personality," Hallinan said.

"Most of us can’t afford a first-edition Hemingway, but I do have nice editions of books that people can read. Most of my books cost less than a paperback at Snyders."

The size of her store compels her to be careful about what she buys. She cannot afford to have books sitting on her shelves for two years like some other stores do.

"I encourage people to browse as long as they want, and sometimes they find something they want and sometimes they don’t. You’d think that out of 2,000 books you’d find one that you want to read, but not necessarily."

Harrison and Swirnoff learned the business from working at Half-Priced Books, a chain of used bookstores that do a high volume of business. From their years there they learned what was rare — and not rare –in a broad range of topics.

Traditionally, used book stores pay about 10 percent of the cover price and then mark it up to 50 percent. However, if the seller will accept trade instead of cash they’ll give about 18 percent. Books with a collectible value fetch more.

However, buying specific items is sometimes a crapshoot because it may lie on the shelf for several years before being sold. Asked for the worst purchase he ever made, Swirnoff recalled an employee who went to an older woman’s house and paid $300 for three large boxes filled with "Fate" magazine from the 1960s and 1970s. The publication, which focused on UFOs, hauntings and other strange phenomenon never sold. Swirnoff said they are currently insulating someone’s attic.

Occupational hazards

Books are heavy, and bookstore owners need strong arms and strong backs to survive. "Your back gets sore a lot from lifting boxes of books and bending over to pick them up and shelve them," Harrison said.

His shoulders are still sore from shelving his store of 16,000 volumes and arranging them alphabetically on the shelves, which took him a month and a half.

"It’s a tough business that got a lot tougher after Sept. 11, partly because the economy changed," said Marjie Adler, Swirnoff’s business partner at Rag & Bone. "But Minnesota is a good literary state. People support the arts here and still read."

The advent of the Internet has changed the way people shop for books and has forced used book sellers to change, too. Swirnoff and Harrison keep part of their inventory, mostly their rarer titles, on the Internet. A lot of dealers could not pay their bills without Internet sales.

Swirnoff has his own Web site that currently generates about 30 percent of his business. Harrison’s uses Abebooks.com and Bookfinders.com, used by 20,000 dealers from around the world with over a million books for sale. You go to the Web site, punch in the book title you are looking for and it will list every store that has a copy of it along with its price. Swirnoff said that many storefronts around the country and in Europe have been closing because doing business exclusively on the Internet is more profitable.

Another way used bookstores generate business is by hosting literary events that promote book culture through author appearances, readings and signings. Rag & Bone’s "WOW series — writers on writing," has lined up appearances by such local authors as Angela Shannon, Allyson McGhee, Lorna Landvik, Bill Holm, David Bengtson and Kate DiCamillo.

"Readers love the opportunity to hear from writers and learn about their process, their craft and learn a little bit about them and the creative process," said Adler.

Are books going the way of all flesh?

"No, I don’t think so," Swirnoff said. "I think years ago people tried to scare us all into thinking that everything was going to be electronic and we wouldn’t even have books we could know and touch and feel and read. But that’s not going to happen."