I wandered into a new Waldenbooks store in Colorado Springs in 1982, looking for a low stress temporary job after 6 years in the field artillery. Maybe the (relative) peace and quiet is what drew me in, but I’d always been a booklover, English major in college, and bookstore life immediately seemed a lot more rational than blowing things up with howitzers ever had. I managed the Waldenbooks in the Boone Mall from 1984-1986, and then enrolled in the Appalachian Studies graduate program at Appalachian State University. The store had some personnel turnover in 1986-87, and my wife-to-be Marsha transferred up from a store she managed in Shelby, NC. I was still working part-time at Waldenbooks while in grad school, so I ended up marrying the boss. We thought that between us we had enough experience to open our own store. We had the experience, but not the capital, and The Book Revue closed after two years. We moved to Asheville, NC, worked in other people’s bookstores (Malaprop’s and The Captain’s Bookshelf) while we paid off the small business loans, and moved back to Boone in 1997 to open a used book store, Row by Row Bookshop. Our mail order/internet business grew, and we closed the open shop downtown after 9 years to work from home doing mail order only. Sadly, after a couple of years of solid growth, the tricky economy has meant that we both have had to take town jobs to supplement the bookstore revenue. But we’re still in business, and looking forward to the day when we can re-retire from doing anything but working from home.
2) What is your favorite part of running a bookstore?
That’s an easy one. Buying books. Whether it’s at auctions, estate sales, church sales, library sales, flea markets, you name it, there’s nothing like buying books.
3) What do you like the least?
Seeing people at library sales with bar code scanners hooked up to their cell phones, giving them current amazon.com pricing and sales ranking information. There is certainly nothing immoral about the procedure. But I have been selling books long enough that I remember when the selling of used and rare books was a skilled profession, in which the gaining of knowledge and experience made one better at one’s job. Bibliographies, auction records, and literary reference books were required, and consulted. A true bookseller was in fact a trained professional, learning something new every day. Now all it takes is a bar code scanner and a paid amazon link. The good news is that the isbn system of identifying books by a stock number on a bar code only began about 1970. When faced with a book printed before 1970, scanners are helpless. I don’t hate people with scanners. Really, I don’t. Just don’t ever, ever refer to them as booksellers.
So many people who buy used books buy them by mail (usually through amazon) that it’s rarely cost-effective to have an open store. When we closed our open shop, the walk-in business barely covered the rent, and that was 2 years before the 2008 economic collapse. If your profit is all from mail order and you can do that from home, why have a store, with its overhead and regular hours of operation? The bad economy also caused many people to scramble for alternative forms of income, and more people are selling used books on line than ever before. This has driven prices down on used books, which is good for the customer, but not-so-good for the professional bookseller.
5) What kind of books do you specialize in? Why?
We have always told people that we specialize in any book that we can sell for more than we paid for it. It takes a bigger city than Boone, NC, to support a specialty store, and to have a community base from which to buy specialized new stock to replace that sold. Our experience has been that older non-fiction in almost any field is generally better for us, because non-fiction tends to have smaller initial print runs than fiction, and tends to be re-printed less often. With so many print-on-demand suppliers around now, this is much less true than it was 10-15 years ago. Much of what we buy for re-sale is done intuitively. We have both sold books for 30 years, and have a feel for what we have had success with in the past (or, alternatively, what we have bought in the past and just couldn’t give away). It is certainly an inexact science.
6) What is your view on books as valuable objects and not just repositories of information?
We have always chuckled at people who bought first editions of books “to collect”, but who would never dream of reading that particular copy. We have owned and read books 100, 200, 300, and 400 (once, anyway) years old. If books are handled carefully and read gently, there is no conflict between form and function. I enjoy an attractive leather binding or decorated Victorian-era cloth covers, too. But mostly I prefer the aesthetic of the book as opposed to the screen. Both provide the words. In both repose information. But most computer-provided add-ons to the “reading experience” strike me as simply intrusive. Heaven forbid that I should be provided with the underlinings or annotations of previous readers! I’m left with the choice of an object which touts itself as being just-about-as-good-as an actual book (tarted up with bells and whistles to make it somehow more seductive), or the book itself. Give me the book every time.
7) When did your love of books begin?
I do not remember ever not knowing how to read. My parents were both readers, and I grew up in a house filled with books. Several years ago, my younger brother asked me if I had ever wondered as a child (as he had) when visiting the homes of childhood friends, where they kept their books. The idea of a home without bookcases full of books was inconceivable. He told me that he always figured that they all must, for reasons of their own, keep their books upstairs.
8) How is the workload of running a bookstore divided between you and your wife Marsha?
We spend about the same amount of time in front of a computer screen. She’s much more computer-savvy than I am, so I do mostly data entry and order processing. She does the same, but also all-else computer-related. Marsha works more hours in town than I do, so I do most of the actual wrapping of orders. She’s a little more indispensable than I am, but we both buy books, we both sell books. The store could get along without either one of us, but it’s a whole lot easier with two. Also more fun.
9) Have you ever thought of writing?
Not really. I think that writers must generally have something that they feel compelled to say, and I just don’t have that compulsion. As a reader, I am very grateful for those who do, and I profit by it immensely. My bedside table bears testimony to that.
I started working for the Waldenbooks chain in Colorado 1982, and came back east in late 1983. (My family all live in Virginia.) I managed the Myrtle Beach store in 1984, but I missed living in the mountains. I knew that Boone was a university town as well as High Country, so I requested a transfer to the Boone store should the manager’s job ever come open. It did, in October 1984, and I made the move.
11) Did a specific book or author influence you when you were young?
I was a sucker for thick historical novels from an early age, and read Kenneth Roberts, Alexandre Dumas, Walter Scott and their ilk. I read The Three Musketeers several times. I’m not sure that the romanticized view of the world and its ways did me much good, but I still have a love of history (both fiction and non-fiction), even if I may now view the world with a more jaundiced eye.
12) Where on the internet can we find you?
We are an internet-based mail order-only used bookstore. We do not have an open shop. Our books are simply on shelves in a storage building, organized only by when they were listed for sale. We do not do book searches or sell books on consignment. Please don’t be put off, but these are all things that we are regularly asked. We list and sell through a number of on-line sites, with between 9 and 10 thousand active listings. The best place to either browse our listings, or to see if we may have a particular title, is at rowbyrowbookshop.com. Should anything catch your fancy, you can, of course, place an order there as well. Our e-mail address is email@example.com. Whether it is one of our books or one from elsewhere, keep reading. Give a book to a child. Be visible in your reading. Don’t make them think you must keep your books upstairs. Follow us on Twitter and Facebook.