Location, low costs, service help used-books stores continue to thrive

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Posted: Saturday, June 29, 2013 12:00 am

With the Internet, e-books and declining book sales, no one has been surprised to see a dwindling number of bricks-and-mortar bookstores.

How, then, do some used booksellers in Omaha and Lincoln remain open for decades and, in the case of Omaha's Jackson Street Booksellers, expand?

The booksellers say it's about having a good location in a state with a relatively low cost of living like Nebraska, buying selectively and providing good customer service. And, yes, the Internet also is playing a role in expanding sales opportunities, finding buyers for specialty items that might not sell locally.

“We're good at what we do, I guess is the bottom line,” said Carl Ashford, co-owner of Jackson Street Booksellers at 1119 Jackson St. The store recently expanded into a neighboring retail bay and will celebrate its 20th anniversary in July.

Lincoln's Bluestem Books and A Novel Idea have been in business for about 30 years and 20 years, respectively.

All used bookstores seem to have one thing in common: regulars, or customers who come in weekly, twice weekly or even more often to check out the new inventory.

“I feel like our customers are our family,” said Bluestem's Jessi Thompson.

The appeal of the business is the serendipity of it, Ashford said. “It's coming in and not knowing exactly what you're looking for, but finding something ... interesting.”

* * *

In the early 1990s, Ashford, who grew up in Omaha, was frequently coming back to his hometown from San Francisco to visit his ailing mother. He and his now-business partner, Amanda Lynch, were buying books for stores in the San Francisco Bay Area.

Friends Scott and Pat Wendt, owners of Bluestem Books, convinced Ashford and Lynch that another used bookstore was something the Old Market needed. The Mercers, who own buildings in the Old Market, also did some convincing, offering Ashford and Lynch the Jackson Street space.

“So we took them up on it in '93,” Ashford said. “We were figuring we'd be here for a few years, and it turned into a better part of a lifetime.”

The location, prime for foot traffic from residents and out-of-towners and relatively affordable, has been one reason Jackson Street Booksellers has remained.

“I came from San Francisco, where pretty much everybody I know in the business has closed because they can't afford to pay the rent. That's true in a lot of the big cities,” he said.

Jackson Street offers a wide range of books, priced from $3 to $1,750 for the signed, limited-edition copy of “Visions of Cody” by Jack Kerouac. The store does not sell romance novels or book club editions.

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“We take current, really popular things if we can find a used copy and sell it for $7.50 instead of $20. That's a great deal for somebody,” Ashford said.

About half of his store's sales are to city visitors, Ashford said. The Berkshire Hathaway Inc. annual meeting and a Midwestern historical conference held each year are the store's best sales weekends.

But, he said, with the Internet, “Our customer base is now literally the whole world, or anybody who has a computer.” He estimated that about 20 percent of the store's sales are online.

Ryan Redman, a book collector and avid reader, has been a customer at Jackson Street Booksellers for about seven or eight years, typically coming once or twice a week, checking for new arrivals.

“It's kind of an obsession after a while,” Redman said.

* * *

Scott and Pat Wendt met in college and opened Bluestem Books full time in 1984 under the O Street viaduct in Lincoln. Now, the store is a family affair, employing the Wendts' daughter-in-law and granddaughters. The couple's dog, Don Diego, has his own business cards.

Bluestem Books survived the Haymarket Arena redevelopment when its former building was purchased and the store had to relocate to 137 S. Ninth St.

The move turned out to be a blessing, said Jessi Thompson, a granddaughter who works at the store. Wendt said: “Book people will find you, even if you're not on a main thoroughfare.”

Wendt said Bluestem tries to focus on nonfiction books — photography, art, quilting, travel books — and those taught in high school literature classes.

“We try to carry books that we think are interesting, that would appeal ... to the interested layman. Academic, but not too academic,” he said.

Granddaughter Kelly Thompson said technology not only has enlarged the customer base, it has brought on the “book scanners,” or people who come to book sales with barcode scanners and interested only in resale value on eBay or Amazon.com.

Adam Liska is part of the Bluestem family. He's been coming to the store for about 15 years, stopping in most Friday afternoons on his bike ride home from work. He has published research through the University of Nebraska-Lincoln, where he teaches, in which he cited books from the store.

A lot of book buying is trial and error, Jessi Thompson said. Some purchases required some convincing of her grandfather, like those for the children's section that has now grown into its own room.

* * *

A Novel Idea has been open in downtown Lincoln for more than 20 years, and owner Cinnamon Dokken says two feline “staff members,” Padric and Eddy, are “easily the most popular.”

“The last two years have been very strong for us,” she said. “Despite the fact that our street was torn up right in front of the store for two months last summer, we still had our strongest year.”

Dokken opened A Novel Idea in a basement on 16th Street in 1991. The space didn't have heat, and rent was $50 per month. “We moved into our current location the year after, I bought out my business partner and we've been going strong ever since.”

A Novel Idea does not accept Reader's Digest condensed books, romance novels, most textbooks or any books with excessive marking, highlighting or odd smells. “We have a standard of quality, but we also try hard not to be snobbily judgmental about what people are reading,” Dokken said.

She said the store has many regulars as well as those she lovingly refers to as its “irregulars,” such as the family who traveled west through Nebraska each summer. “We watched their kids grow up.”

Dokken said the store has a symbiotic relationship with technology. “We use Facebook, email and our website in the ways in which we do to encourage people to have these other unplugged experiences. That's been a lot of fun.”

The Internet also showed that things once considered rare were not so rare, and prices fluctuated, Dokken said.

Dokken said she considers used booksellers to be part of a community. “We want to see each other do well. It's better for the book business as a whole,” she said.

Plus, she said, everybody in the book business does the work because it's something they love.

“(The) joke among Carl, Scott, Pat, Amanda, and I is, 'How do you make a million dollars in the used-book business? You start with $2 million.' ”

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