Feb. 10 2010 12:00 AM

Buying used books can be thrifty and fun


Reading used books instead of the hot best-sellers may mean you have to show a little patience, but it will result in big savings. With the price of newly published hardbacks approaching — and sometimes exceeding — $30 and paperbacks at nearly $8 it’s worth changing your reading habits and shopping the used-book stores and sales in Lansing.

On a recent day, for example, a used copy of Pat Conroy’s newest novel “South of Broad” was at Schuler Books in Eastwood Towne Center for $15, half-off the publisher’s price of $29.95. Two weeks ago the same book was tucked away at the Goodwill Emporium on West Saginaw Highway for the low price of $1, and next to it were two autographed Conroy Books for $1 each.

Now you can’t count on always finding something that current or unusual, but that’s part of the fun of looking.

Sally Holliday, manager of the Book Burrow in the Lansing Capitol Area District Library downtown branch, describes the experience as “finding something you didn’t know you wanted.”

Holliday has been involved in selling books for nearly 30 years, the last seven at the Book Burrow. She also did a sevenyear stint at the legendary John King Books in Detroit, which boasts one million used books. (It’s worth the trip.)

She said most books in the Book Burrow sell for 50 cents to $3, except for some specially priced collectibles. Holliday estimates that there are more than 70,000 books in the store, which she believes makes it the largest library/used-bookstore in Michigan.

What makes library stores typically stand out from the re-sale stores is the books are organized by category (fiction, non-fiction, etc.) and are mostly alphabetized, which makes for a pleasant experience. They are also in good shape.

Other library-attached stores run by Friends of the Library organizations include the Delta Township Library, 5130 Davenport Drive. Housed in the basement of the new library building, the store has more than 10,000 books for sale. It’s open six days a week and new books are added daily. The vast majority of books are priced at 50 cents for paperbacks and $1 for hardbacks.

The East Lansing Public Library, 950 Abbott Road, has a smaller bookstore and is open during library hours. East Lansing also has twice-annual sales. The books are more expensive but are in exceedingly good shape.

Dewitt Library, also has an ongoing sale (check the Web site at www.dewittlibrary. com) and Haslett, Okemos, Grand Ledge, Holt, Williamston, and St. Johns libraries also have special sales. Grand Ledge sales are held the third Friday and Saturday of the month at 6 p.m. Friday and 10 a.m. Saturday and the St. John sale is held the first and third Saturday of each month at 9:30 a.m. Check the schedule for all library sales at www.booksalefinder.com/MI.html Both Schuler Books locations quietly began selling used books almost four years ago; now, it has become an important part of their business, says Rhoda Wolff, who manages the Eastwood Towne Center Store.

“I wasn’t that enthused at first, but it’s been great. It’s a way to get people in the store, and it’s green,” she said.

And the sellers and customers who make a daily dash to the used book section to either trade used books for credit or cash seem to love the idea, too. Last Thursday, Becky Huntington, the lead book buyer at the Eastwood store, was busily checking prices of books online and stacking up books 20 high to be shelved. The Eastwood store carries about 10,000 used books and expects to add more to the line-up soon. The Meridian Mall store has a similar number of used books.

Huntington uses her 10 years of buying experience to select and price books. She stresses that not all books brought in by sellers are purchased — only those with a likelihood of selling. On Thursday, a seller brought in Dan Brown’s “The Lost Symbol,” his most recent book, which retails for $29.95. Since it is not out in paperback yet it was priced at $15.

Ray Walsh, the dean of used-book sellers and owner of Curious and Archives book shops, both in East Lansing, has watched the used-book market closely for 40 years. He knows that buying habits and author selections change each year and are often influenced by movies or the news. On the day after J.D. Salinger’s death, he sold all copies of “The Catcher in the Rye.”

“I can’t keep Vonnegut in stock,” Walsh said. But when it comes to an E.M Forster, well, Walsh says people have forgotten him.

He said right now his stores are inundated with sellers, partly due to the economy. In terms of what he’ll buy, Walsh saiys, “We are pickier now than we were.”

Walsh also sells online in a sort of "if you can’t fight ‘em. join ‘em philosophy" of doing business. His two stores list more than 18,000 books online at Amazon, Alibris, Abebooks and eBay. His brick-and-mortar stores have more than 70,000 books combined on the shelves.

He said he has seen better books listed online over time, but he also cautions that it can be a hit-or-miss proposition buying online since the vast majority of listers are amateurs who might not know the difference between a book club edition and a first-edition.

(In case you are interested, Walsh has a first edition of Bram Stoker’s “Dracula” online for $4,000.)

Regardless, Amazon and its hundreds of thousands of sellers have become the defacto price setter and price guide for books over the last few years.

“Over time we’ve seen the price of books go down drastically,” Walsh said. For example, within a week of publication date, the price of new books can drop by two-thirds online.

Partly fueling that pricing model is a small hand-held device called a scanner that allows Amazon dealers, who shell out the several hundred dollars needed to buy them, to get a pretty good idea of the value of a book online right on-the-spot before they buy it used at a sale. Scanners are similar in size to iPhones and hold a database that automatically inputs a book’s ISBN number and shows the value of a used book online.