A Bookseller’s Tale of Ten Thousand Books

Justin Wood has been selling books professionally, full time in Toronto for about four years. It can be a very tough grind, starting up with limited resources, trying to grow a viable inventory, and selling enough to sustain oneself. Justin was right in the middle of this scenario, when something completely unexpected happened. Here is the story in his own words.

“Last December I was introduced to a man named Jim Roberts. He owned a bookstore called Borderland Books in Toronto probably from the 1970s-1990s. It was tucked away inside a large former warehouse, known as The Coffin Factory, on Niagara Street. Previously a casket factory, the building has been a live-work studio space for painters, film-makers, musicians and artists, and is one of the oldest buildings in Toronto.

Jim was in a unique position: he had these books stored, but needed to finally sell them when he got word that they were tearing down the building come March. I was invited to see his books, not thinking I would buy more than a few things. What I encountered was just an endless sea of boxes. I came over for several weeks as did many other booksellers in Toronto. Eventually Jim knew I was the only candidate to buy it all, partly because I had the energy and also the time to invest in it. Somewhat reluctantly I struck a deal with Jim, realizing the sheer amount of work ahead. At this point I didn’t know how to estimate how many books were in there, maybe 10 thousand? But I quickly realized that books are deceiving in boxes and it was more like 20 thousand.

A day in the warehouse

I spent the next 4 months going through these books. I treated it like a full day of work 3 times a week. I would take the bus down, get there at 9am and leave at about 5pm. Get my dad to help me load his car with about 10 boxes, bring them home and spent the night researching them online hoping I would find some valuable items. Early on in the process I started inviting every bookseller I could to help me chip away at the huge stash of books. I realized that it was impossible for me to do this alone and time was running out. I needed to pick up the pace, sorting and keeping the good books, but what to do with the rest?

I eventually opened up the books to the general public, posting ‘$1 per book’ sales on Kijiji and Craigslist. Toward the end there was still so much left I did an open house for 2 weeks where everything left was free. I had crowds of people waiting in the rain for books. People baked me brownies. I was interviewed by local Facebook groups. Even a family cried on my shoulder, thanking me for free books.

Overall, I found great stuff there including some thousand dollar books, five hundred dollar books, many hundred dollar books and boxes and boxes of nice 20 dollar first editions. I can only imagine what I blew off or left behind.

There are many things I gained from experience taking on this challenge. One being able to unearth these beautiful books literally out of the darkness and out of obscurity so that they can finally be appreciated again. Some of the books didn’t see the light of day for probably 20 years and that was something very spiritual. I felt very connected with the books, like I was saving them.

I fast tracked the ability to interpret books on the spot. You learn every day selling books, but seeing so many books in such a short time made me realize how much stuff is out there that I’ve never seen before and how better aware I am now at recognizing titles and value. Lastly, I would say just my overall ability to the stretch out my tolerance or threshold for work has improved. Things might appear daunting or impossible, but if you have the right attitude and you tackle things systematically you can actually turn the chaos into order.

I think Jim came along at exactly the right time for me. I needed to do something drastic like this to bulk up my inventory. It’s hard to start off in this business selling only expensive books. You need to go through the ringer a bit and sell lots of cheaper books to gain some momentum and supplement your income so you can buy better and better stuff. This can take 5 to 10 years in my opinion.

In terms of where I am now…I would say that the initial 3 months after the warehouse I just needed to reduce the quantity of books to a more manageable size, because the remaining books were crammed into my apartment. Of course I was hoping to find at least a thousand “great” books out of the 20 thousand that were there. “Great” to me is anything that I have confidence WILL sell – it can be a twenty dollar book or a thousand dollar book, as long as I knew it will eventually sell I felt at peace having it in my apartment regardless of how much space it took up.

Fast forward to today. I have a lot of good stuff left and if the opportunity were to present itself I would open a bookstore knowing I have the right amount of great stock to sustain me. That really justifies the effort I put forth.”

Justin sells his books at local antique markets and book fairs. He’ll have his books for sale at two major bookselling events over the next few weeks. He’s appearing at the Toronto Antiquarian Book Fair at the AGO, November 1-3, and at The Old Book and Paper Show at Wychwood Barns on November 10.