Home-based online book business working for Wathens

ORIGINALLY WRITTEN CYNTHIA MARTENS
Does 7,000 books in one home in Hillsboro sound like a lot of reading material?

Not to Adam and Rachel Wathen, who own Wathern Booksellers and want to eventually increase their inventory of used and out-of-print books to 40,000.

“Our inventory is very limited, Adam said. “We have about 5,000 books listed online, which isn’t very many in the scope of the millions of books that are out there.”

The additional 2,000 books are stored in their garage until they can be catalogued.

Adam, 28, and Rachel, 26, live in their ranch-style home with son Max, 21/2, and share space with all their books-neatly stacked in an upstairs office, the garage and two rooms of a finished basement.

Their Internet business-selling used and out-of-print books from their inventory-is a part-time job, which began in March 2001.

At that time, Adam was working as a reference librarian at Creighton University in Omaha, Neb.

“We just had a baby, Adam was working a second job at a grocery store, and we were trying to find a way to make a second income so I could stay home,” Rachel said.

“We really tried to rack our brains for something, and Adam came upon this, and it’s been his passion ever since-it’s exciting.”

Wanting to raise Max in Hillsboro where Rachel has family, Adam accepted a job as a cataloger for Tabor College Library in August, and the three settled into their three-bedroom home.

“I’m a technical-services librarian, and I also teach one class of English composition at Tabor as adjunct faculty,” Adam said.

The entrepreneur light bulb lit up while Adam was “jobbing” in Omaha.

“Jobbing is where you go out any time you run across some cheap books and take them to local book stores and sell them,” he said.

“And I had plenty of books of my own, and I thought, ‘Why am I holding on to these?’

“One of the people we sold books to told us that they did one-third of their book business online, and it was a good market-so that encouraged us.”

Now an official business, Wathen Booksellers has its own tax identification number, and the couple sells through three Web sites.

They can be located at www.abebooks.com/home/wathenbooks.

“It’s the easiest way to find our books,” Adam said.

Two other Web sites, www.alibris.com and www.amazon.com, also list Wathen books, but they are “just chance encounters,” he said.

“What we do is we go around to various places-to library sales, auctions and garage sales-and buy books in bulk,” Adam said.

Adam uses a database provided by Abebooks and enters pertinent data about the books-the condition, author, title and publication information.

“And then we use that database to upload our books onto the database on the Internet,” he said.

The Internet is their main source of part-time revenue because the couple said they are not set up to sell out of their home.

“Our shelves are not ‘browsable,'” Rachel said. “They’re not organized by subject or author-each book has our own inventory number.”

But the couple will search for a book they don’t have-for a finder’s fee.

For those people who don’t have a computer or are not familiar or comfortable searching the Internet, Adam and Rachel will typically charge $3 to do a search and find a book.

Originally selling four books a week online, the couple now sells 80 to 100 books in that same amount of time.

They work about 20 hours a week, which includes buying trips, entering information in the database, cleaning, packing and shipping the books.

Packing and shipping supplies include bubble wrap, tape and padded envelopes-all purchased online.

They will ship U.S. fourth-class book rate or U.S. priority mail and charge accordingly.

Rachel usually makes daily trips to the local post office, but her 15 minutes at the counter means people are waiting behind her. The couple said in the future, they hope to buy a business postage machine to eliminate holding up postal lines.

To stock their inventory, they visit the Et Cetera Shop in Hillsboro or visit libraries, auctions, garage sales, or thrift stores in towns such as Newton, Hutchinson, Lawrence and El Dorado.

“Goodwill is a good source,” Adam said.

“We’ll go to Goodwill and buy a box full of books, put them online, and somebody from Germany will say, ‘I’ve been looking for this book for 20 years,” he said.

“We’re getting better at picking and choosing the ones that have a market.”

On their Abebooks Web site, the couple lists their business overview as follows: “Home-based business in Hillsboro, Kansas. Librarian-owner that knows the value of a good read! Lovers of knowledge of all kinds and friends to readers.”

They back it up with a description of the type of books in their inventory, which includes academic, rare and collectible, philosophy, hard-to-find, reference, history, religious, out-of-print and fiction.

“We sell almost anything,” Adam said, and that includes paperbacks and hard-bound books.

Although their best sellers are religious out-of-print books, they’ve recently found a market for fiction.

“We weren’t dealing with fiction until we started with Amazon, and then our fiction went through the roof,” he said.

And how does the cost of books online compare with major franchise bookstores?

“It’s less,” Adam said. “If you go to B. Dalton and pay $15, you can go online and find it for $8 or $9 and pay shipping but no tax.

“But we don’t go out and buy new books. If we have a new book, it’s accidental. Sometimes you find very recent copies in good shape, and they turn around quickly.”

The couple said their business does not compete with Tabor Bookstore or area bookstores because they’re dealing in a different market.

“The Tabor Bookstore isn’t really purchasing books that people are buying for fun reading,” Adam said. “And we’re just buying whatever we can find used.”

Although the Wathens may have one or two textbooks, Rachel said rarely would they be competing with the college bookstore.

“And we’re not competing with the local bookstore, because we’re not really selling to people around here.”

Adam added, “We’ve never sold a book in Hillsboro-the closest place is in Andover.”

But because they’re online, they reach people further away than Andover-much further.

“We have sold in 25 different countries and in all 50 states,” Rachel said. “We’ve sold a lot to Japan, and we sell to people in Germany, Switzerland and Israel.”

Their online price range varies as widely as the distance between Hillsboro and Israel.

“We’ve sold a book for $1.01 because Alibris won’t list our books for under $1.01,” Adam said. “If books are going for under $1, we don’t usually list them.

“The most we sold a book for was an encyclopedia set for $500. We sold it to a library.”

To keep on top of what’s selling, the couple said they rely on what Rachel knows about popular-culture books and what Adam specializes in, which is academic and religious books.

“We’re also just learning from experience,” Rachel said.

And experience tells them what’s currently “hot” in the online market.

“There are certain books-‘The Adkins Diet’ and ‘A Prayer for Owen Meany’-seem to sell the day after we get them,” Adam said.

“Of course, ‘A Prayer for Owen Meany’ is only selling for $1.70, but it’s a hot book.”

Those prices don’t dampen the spirit of a couple who sees their new business growing and reaching people all over the world, they said.

“We’re excited about getting these books to people who are interested in them,” Rachel said. “It’s kind of a thrill.”

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