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How to sell old books: 28 bookshop secrets

Updated on November 22, 2012

How I turned my hobby into a non-profit business

How I got a book shop: I run my old book shop on $220 a week. I am a volunteer and so is everyone in the shop. I pay rent $200 for a corner in a bigger shop, and $20 costs, in cleaning materials.

My bookish mission: As a weekend hobby I travelled from old book shop to old book shop, by bus. A real book-nut. My search for the perfect book - in one shop alone - could take hours. Pure bliss.

When young I shopped in new book shops: With age and wisdom. I discovered old bookshops. Op Shops; St Vinnies, Salvation Army, Red Cross. Corners in the back of the op-shop piled with boxes of books. To me, treasure. Pure gold.

My frenzy to collect, to hoard: My heart sought the treasure, the golden city, where Smaug the dragon lounged, with breath of fire atop a mountain of books. The thrill of new ideas, the rummage for brain-food in the forest of the city. My obsession grew. I bought a trundler, to haul my treasure home.

Themes for my obsession: One year I collected Bibles, ancient Penguins and Pelicans, and Very Small Books with Leather Covers. The next year, old war time PANs. The year after that, Book Club editions with pre-photography illustrated covers.

Now you have a Kindle, what to do with the shelves full of books?

First came the book. Then radio. Then TV, Then the Internet. Then the mobile phone. Then the Ipod. Then Kindle.
First came the book. Then radio. Then TV, Then the Internet. Then the mobile phone. Then the Ipod. Then Kindle.

As I rummaged, I began to sort.

See me in the Op Shop, sorting books so I could find the Perfect Book. I sorted books by author, by size, but type. Some erudite-passers-by suggest I apply the Dewey System. The light dawned. The job of the sorter ranked almost as high - in endomorphines - as the Search For the Perfect Book.

My next step: I went to the sorting room-door: Like most Op Shops a processing centre - a maelstrom, a volcano of left-overs. Ten tonnes or more a day of clothes, books, shoes, pictures, crockery, clown suits, life-time collections of 1940's jewellery, hats of all sizes and descriptions, plastic toys, record-players, records, CDs, DVDs, radios, TV sets, chairs, tables, rugs, paintings of stags on mountains, snow globes of Alaska, and whole wardrobes of the gentry, down to hand made shoes from Lobbs of London; and two tonnes a day of donated books. Sorted by a bunch of hard-faced women with the sure knowledge that this job formed the job of a lifetime. The determination to keep the job, at all costs shone from them, with a gleam, like fresh-waxed supermarket apples.


"I would like to volunteer, to sort books".

A split-second of silence followed. A tsunami of micro-expressions rippled across the face of the Op Shop manager.

I start my career as a volunteer book-sorter

And so it began. Saturday and Sunday found me at the door waiting for the shop to open. Faced with a mountain of books and two more tonnes of books a week, I saw the need for a system. Not the Dewey System, but a system.

I paid attention. A simple system. With unremitted doggedness I sorted books all Saturday and Sunday.

  1. I talked to people. I recognised regular customers. Observed the dealers.
  2. Set up a CD and played music from the CD donations.
  3. Moved the children's books away from the DVD, CD and VHS section; a DVD section dominated by smelly men; smelly young men, smelly young men, smelly old men. Unwashed men. Men with large back packs and sport bags.

I saw the theft of CDs DVDs formed a normal practice by this group. Some ran a mini-business and sold DVDs in the markets. Others perhaps had no other relationship other than that with a pizza and a DVD. No smelly women haunted the DVD zone. It took four months of presence and attention to change this culture. A new type of customer came and stayed in the fresher air; families, book lovers.

Soon a social centre developed; people came to rummage, stayed to talk to each other, danced to the music, and began to tell me their life-stories and troubles. I applied listening skills.

I learned an old-book shop forms a social space.

I learned an old-book shop forms a social space. It sells - trades - more than books. A 'social contract'; It trades the benefit of the better-self. And a sense of community. For example, one old lady told me the shop was the only place in her week where anyone spoke to her.

Management takes notice: Sales doubled, trebled and quadrupled. Sales by this time rose to ten percent of the op shop's $30,000-plus turnover. State-wide it sold the most books of all other op shops in the group. State management began to take interest. Pompous male experts arrived. With super market experience. They knew best. They imposed gleaming deep white shelves made to house row of cans and bleach. They set a huge immovable book shelf tower-thing in the middle of the space. Sales fell. Books sat hidden at the back of deep shelves. People could not chat over the shelves. Time to start my own bookshop.

You will need a trolley to handle the load of donations of old books when you open your book shop

Donation volume beyond belief to op shops

The volume of books, CDs magazines and stuff was unimaginable. On Saturdays, cars, trucks and trolley loads of books would arrive, in crates, cardboard boxes or knotted up in bedsheets. The volume so huge the managers would refuse to take donations they considered un-sellable; National Geographics, encyclopeadias, very dusty books.

Time to start my own book shop

So I opened up a room in my house. It had a door to the outside. I put all my shelves and all my books in that room. I put signs in the street - crude ones on old planks. I called it the "Hard to Find Book Shop". But people found me.

Pop-up shops: The Council told me I did not have a licence, so I looked for a shop. I looked for empty shops - empty for some time - and offered $200 a week. I moved four times from shop to shop and finally settled where I am now.

The 27 secrets

The basic secrets:

  1. Helpful friendly manner, while leaving folk privacy to browse
  2. a book-loving manager, in the shop, among the books;
  3. low rent in "pop-up" shops;
  4. seek a place near a supermarket, with an outdoor parking area;
  5. take donations only - do not buy books:
  6. clean donated books; vacumn books if needed. (Some come after 60 years in a garage). I use small hepa-filter Dyson with a blind-cleaner brush.
  7. clean books before they go on the shelf; (books from a smokers' house come with a covering of grease).Others come with coffee-cup rings and evidence of lunch attached. Paperbacks I clean with white cotton gloves, a little dish of water and sandal wood soap. To make the books smell nice.
  8. remove old price labels from the front (I leave the labels on the back) stanley knife or scraper. Eucalyptus oil can help.
  9. do not swap books. Too complicated;
  10. use volunteers to clean and sort give volunteers 50% off the price;
  11. do not refuse any book donation. Accept everything; ( this compete with the op shops for service);
  12. process and price all donations, same day;
  13. If six boxes come in, give six boxes away, or recycle six boxes;
  14. accept that while it may look like a book shop, you really run a community recycling center.
  15. talk with people, open up conversations and then listen;
  16. reward people who donate books, with appreciation and profuse thanks:
  17. seek very cheap pop-up rent, (as you will not make a lot of money);
  18. do not use storage, (It will grow into a mountain);
  19. do let someone else get a bargain; price low, for turnover;
  20. set price low so dealers and internet re-sellers can make money;
  21. price big books lower than small books. Big books use too much shelf space;
  22. have regular sales: "Buy one get one free". Not "50pc off." You need to sell volume;
  23. you and only you choose what goes in the FREE boxes;
  24. don't give away top quality books (as you compete with yourself);
  25. mark FREE books with a chalk mark across the page ends;
  26. make cards and pictures from unsold books;
  27. treat volunteers well. You really really need them;
  28. get or use one or more large paper recycling bins from your council.


  1. get a good trolley; one you can use flat or upright, as you will need it to take boxes of "free" boxes to local shops and community centres;
  2. stackable plastic storage boxes with lids, medium size;
  3. shelves. But don't worry, you will find donations of shelves will come;
  4. "A" frame signs, partially black-paint chalk board;
  5. big sticks of chalk;
  6. white cotton gloves;
  7. stanley knife. Use this to take of the covers of unsalable hardbacks. Use the old covers as re-usuable chalkboard signs for the shop.
  8. write inspirational 'live-guidance "messages on your chalk board. From all faiths; Muslim, Christian, Buddhist etc. Donations will include sources for these; Day Books and Dictionaries of Quotatations.


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    • claudiafox profile imageAUTHOR


      6 years ago from Sydney, Australia

      Thanks. Try it yourself; just put up a sign, "book, CD, DVD donations welcome"... and see what happens! The service this kind of shop provides is helping folks "let go" of treasured books, to pass on to others, who will value them.

    • Eiddwen profile image


      6 years ago from Wales

      What an interesting and inspiring hub. I vote up and share. Eddy.


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