Resale bookshops try to keep personal touch

Nialle Sylvan, owner of the Haunted Bookshop, puts a protective sleeve over a book jacket. (Liz Martin/The Gazette)
Nialle Sylvan, owner of the Haunted Bookshop, puts a protective sleeve over a book jacket. (Liz Martin/The Gazette)

In a world where e-books seem to grab all the media attention, local resale bookshops say buying and selling used books is still a viable business model.

Nialle Sylvan, owner of the Haunted Bookshop in Iowa City since 2004, said she has seen changes in the industry since its opening in 1978. But she keeps store’s business approach very community focused and “green” minded.

“We buy our inventory from local people, keeping money in the local economy, and we promote reuse,” she said. “It’s very green and very local to buy used books.”

There’s also the benefit of having a large selection of titles to shop from. The store has about 40,000 books in stock.

And while they track their inventory with a database, Sylvan said just asking an employee for something you are looking for is the way to go.

“While we have methods of inventory tracking, my peers know our inventory without relying on a database,” agreed Will Ingles, owner of the Book Shop, another resale shop in Iowa City.

“It’s like making a shopping list that you forget to take to the store with you. The simple fact that you made the list is enough to help you remember what you need.

“We handle these books, repair them and get them ready to sell. It would be rare to be asked if we have a title and not know if it was one of the 45,000 books on display in the store.”


Ingles, who has been in the book buying and selling business since 1963, said he buys anywhere from a few hundred to several thousand books a week.

“We are noted for being fair and generous when buying books,” he said. “But I am not buying at the volumes I was five years ago. So often what we are presented with we already hold.”

Sylvan has seen similar trends in recent years.

“I’ve noticed that since 2008, families are increasingly pinched for cash,” she said. “So I lowered some prices on children’s books to keep them within family budget range.

“When the world is in trouble, it’s even more important to make sure kids have access to good books.”

Children’s books are one of the specialties at the Haunted Bookshop. Sylvan said it also has a substantial Iowa collection as well as mystery paperbacks, theological encyclopedias, books about how to write and a lot of small-press poetry.

“If we believe it has value to our community and is, as a physical object, in excellent condition, we shelter it here until we find it a good home,” she said.

In all, the store buys some 30,000 books annually.

At the Book Shop, Ingles said, they tend to be a generalist in terms of what books they carry.

“We want to meet the needs of anyone coming into our store,” he noted.

That being said, it does carry a lot of science fiction, fantasy and mystery. The Book Shop has some 8,000 titles — one of the largest selections in the Midwest — in its mystery portfolio, for example.


While he’d prefer to sell more books to people walking through the door, Ingles said a majority — roughly 85 to 90 percent — of their sales are now online.

“We won’t list anything for less than $9.95 online,” he said. “There are costs associated with creating that listing.”

Making the books available online has broadened its customer base to every continent.

“Now we are making our books available to seven or eight billion people,” he said.

There is a distinct difference, Ingles noted, between a walk-in customer and those shopping online.

“For online sales, it’s not unusual to get $10 to $150 in sales per transaction,” he explained. “But books hardly sell for more than a few dollars in store.”

The Haunted Bookshop also deals with online sales as well, focusing on academic, out-of-print and rare materials. Sylvan said the store have about 8,000 items cataloged on its website.

But she insists that’s not what her business is about.

“If I just wanted money, I’d deal online. But I don’t want to mail you a dog-chewed former library book in a cheap plastic bag and then fight with you by email about whether you get a refund,” Sylvan said. “I want to fill a local place with beautiful things, space for people, good service, music, laughter.

“Everybody knows bookshops go out of business a lot,” she added. “It’s a high-intensity, low-fiscal-reward industry, constantly changing, and it isn’t really a good choice anymore for families due to increasing economic pressures everywhere.“But it’s also a job that allows me to learn and teach, enjoy neighborly relationships over many years, take my pets to work, and talk about my favorite subject — books — all day.”

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