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    Adventures of a rare book dealer (and former small bookshop owner).

Bookstore Etiquette: A 10-Step Guide for Dealers

Written on March 27, 2007

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My previous post has gotten me thinking about the rules and mores which traditionally have guided booksellers visiting other bookseller’s shops. I’m often shocked at how few online-only dealers have relationships with their local and semi-local brick-and-mortars. This is a HUGE mistake. Other dealers are not just a great source of stock, often they’ll call you if they have a book buy they just can’t manage at the moment or are looking for a partner in a large buy, sometimes they might want to split booths at a fair…These are COLLEAGUES and it’s in your interest to know them. I’ve moved a lot and I’ve always made it a point to go around and introduce myself to the local shops – both used, rare, AND new. Why even the local new bookshop? First because they often hear about customers looking to sell books and second, they can be a great source of nicely-sized and gently- used book boxes for shipping. So, some guidelines:

1) Introduce yourself to the owner, identifying yourself as a dealer. Do this first thing. Most bookstore owners can recognize another dealer when they see one anyway – the checking of copyright pages, the thrill of the hunt in their eyes – so don’t bother trying to hide. Some dealers I’ve talked to worry about receiving a hostile response from a shop owner, but I’ve never experienced it. And if I did, it’s useful to know that I’d never want to do business with them again.

2) Proffer a business card. And not one printed off your computer. It doesn’t have to be fancy, but it does need to be professionally printed. If you can’t bother to spring for the $25 to print real business cards, don’t expect me or any other dealer to take you very seriously. More importantly, a business card makes it easier to remember you; I like to jot notes on the dealer (interests, etc.) on the backs of card for future reference.

3) Ask if (don’t presume) the dealer offers a discount (“Do you offer dealer discounts…”) and tell him what your policy is (“I give the usual reciprocal twenty…”). Most dealers will offer 20%, some ten, some none. Respect their decision, though I’ve sometimes let dealers know that I would have bought more with a more “traditional” discount.

4) Make sure there’s someplace I or another dealer can browse your stock. Your website. ABE. A catalog. Whatever. But make sure you can be found. Remember, this is a reciprocal discount; your books need to be able to be shopped for that to be so. But what if you’re a scout and don’t carry (much) stock? That’s fine. Let me know who you’ve done business with. And it might be a good idea to bring in some stuff you’d like to sell. And if you’re just starting out? That’s fine too; just say so. We all began somewhere.

5) Bring checks or cash. If you’re expecting any discount, don’t add to the dealer’s expenses by paying by credit card. Very bad form.

6) Bring your state sales tax information. I carry a small copy of my certificate in my wallet. Unless I know you personally or by reputation, I’m not likely to give you any sort of discount without it. It suggests to me that you are running your business under the table and if you’re not paying taxes like I am, I’m sure not going to help subsidize your business further by giving you a discount.

7) It’s okay to negotiate, but within reason. For higher ticket items (say, over a hundred bucks or so, but use your judgement; this will vary from shop to shop), it’s fine to ask me what my best price is on an item. But don’t do it for every book you might want. That will piss me off very quickly. And if you ask me that for a twenty dollar book, I’m likely to roll my eyes at you. Likewise, don’t make a big stack AND THEN ask for a bigger discount. Very tacky. That said, with most dealers, the more you buy, the more open to negotiation they are likely to be. But it’s probably best to establish a strong working relationship first.

8) Keep your criticisms to yourself. Remember, you’re not just buying stock, you’re (hopefully) creating what will be a long-term and mutually beneficial relationship. Play nice. Chat.

9) If you do nothing else: DO NOT SOLICIT CUSTOMERS IN ANOTHER DEALER’S SHOP OR BOOTH. This is not just bad form, this will get you kicked out of most places and mean the end of any kind of relationship. Best not even to identify yourself as a dealer to anyone other that the owner. Now, if the dealer is talking with a customer about a book and asks “Hey [insert your name], you don’t happen to have anything like that, do you?” then by all means go ahead and answer. But be careful. Last month at the ABAA fair I was in another dealer’s booth. I’d never met him before, so I introduced myself and gave him my card. We started talking when someone else in his booth began asking me about my shop. I gave a quietly non-committal answer, then quickly excused myself. I didn’t want that dealer for even a second to think I was hounding in on his customers. Do the same.

10) And finally, tell the shop owner about your own business. What are your specialties? Where and how do you sell? Do you do bookshows? What’s your background? These details are not just friendly conversation, they help a dealer like me know how I might help you and you help me. Suppose I get a bunch of trade paperback fiction through the door. Not my things for the most part, but if you are running an ISBN/Amazon-driven operation and we have a previous relationship, I may call you to see if you’d be interested. Likewise, if you have a specialty in a particular area and I get a book in I have a questions about that you might be able to answer, it’s nice to know who I might be able to call. This is why it’s important not to view other dealers as your competition; as I said before, we’re colleagues.

The book business is one of relationships, and the world of book dealers is a very small one. Something my friend from the previous post forgot. It may not matter much now, but someday it might. I know I’ll seriously question doing business with them in the future. Stick to these guidelines and you’re unlikely to make the same mistake.

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