In this job, my No. 1 customer is me

Bibliophiles who own secondhand bookstores operate their businesses quite differently than do other entrepreneurs. I have reached this conclusion after 13 years of owning one such establishment.

Most businesspeople view their merchandise as a commodity to be sold as quickly as possible to ensure a healthy cash flow as well as to make room for new merchandise. Not so with bookstore owners such as myself, however.

We see our inventory as a treasure house that must be thoroughly explored before it is sold and thus placed beyond our ken forever. Each book seems to beckon, inviting us to read or at least skim through its pages before allowing it to be sold to a customer.

When I acquire a box of books for the shop, I meticulously sort through it to see which volumes I can immediately consign to shelves and which ones must be added to the pile of books beside my chair. This latter group will eventually make their way to the shelves, but not before they are read by me.

The size of this pile varies according to (a) how many books I acquire that hold some interest for me and (b) the number of customers whose requests for assistance interrupt my reading. On slow days, I manage to get some serious perusal done and often reduce the pile by an entire book.

Still, this stack of books invariably replenishes itself with new arrivals. I've actually had it down to just three volumes on several occasions, only to see it again swell to a teetering tower with the arrival of several boxes of "new" used tomes.

I've sometimes had multiple piles of books surround my shop's rocking chair like miniature ramparts. Customers chuckle upon seeing me hop over this obstacle of my own making so that I can sit down.

An even more bizarre situation, however, results from placing a book on the shelves and then deciding that I want to read it after all. A customer's purchase of such a book leaves me feeling disappointed rather than elated. Would any traditional businessperson concerned only with bottom-line profit mourn a sale?

Like many bibliophiles in my position, I like to think of myself as something of a literary critic simply because I read so much. More times than I care to admit, I've told customers that I did not particularly enjoy the books they were purchasing and suggested they select something else.

So what if there's not much money to be made in running a book shop my way. I bought this place precisely so that I could experience the unadulterated joy of reading on the job.

If I had merely wanted to make good money, I would have purchased a business that involved selling items in which I have no interest whatsoever. A store that sells televisions, for example.

(c) Copyright 1999. The Christian Science Publishing Society

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