I love browsing used bookstores - you never know when you will find a hidden gem you didn’t know you needed. Brenda loves to browse thrift stores and can do so for hours, but a typical thrift store book section for me is at best a 5-minute exercise.
When researching Austin, we knew it had lots of thrift stores, what we didn’t know is it has the mother lode of bookstores. We only found that out when we parked our car2go at the Goodwill on North Lamar and I noticed next door was a big box store called “Half Price Books.” It didn’t look anything special, just your typical suburban big box store with what I expected would be full of the typical publisher’s remainder books.
Backstory: Remainders are books that no longer sell in sufficient volume for a publisher to continue promoting economically. Therefore, the publisher sells whatever inventory they have on-hand to book remainders distributors and book wholesalers at deep discounts who then sell them to the public for as much as 90% off the publisher's suggested retail price. These books may still have a lot of life left and can be very profitable for Internet booksellers and brick and mortar retail stores. If chosen wisely, you can have a nearly inexhaustible supply of near perfect books acquired at bargain basement prices.
Boy was I wrong….
So I headed into Goodwill with Brenda and thought I’d check Half Price Books out once I had done my thrift store browsing. Sure enough after about 15 minutes I said to B, “I’m heading over to the bookstore, see you in about 10 minutes.”
I first checked out the book bins outside and the prices were good and the selection was surprisingly interesting. Once inside, I had to give my head a shake, as the store was Disneyland for any book lover. For those of you who live in Calgary, it is like Fair's Fair Books in Inglewood times 10 - maybe more. And it works a bit like Fair's Fair with people selling them books for cash - there is no store credit option.
Feeling the Love
I wandered in a daze for bit, trying to take it all in. Finally I asked, “Can I take pictures” as this was definitely blog worthy. It took awhile, but I got permission and everyone was very helpful when I asked about books on urban planning, biographies, music and golf.
When I went into the Rare Book section (the size of most used bookstores) I was greeted with “how may I help you” and she really meant it as she tried to find something that might interest me. I couldn’t believe the enthusiasm of the staff, everyone really loved their job.
However, I walked away empty handed, but full of lasting impressions. So much so, when I figured out Austin’s south side the Goodwill and HPB are across the street from each other I said, “We gotta go there before we leave.”
Two days later we were there for door opening. And it was the same thing the staff were welcoming, knowledgeable and attentive. This time I hit the mother lode for my book collection. In the clearance section I found a first edition Ansel Adams biography by Mary Street Alinder. Guess how much? rallod eno (read backwards). But that is not all, it is signed by the author.
I decided to get in touch with HPB marketing, communications and public relations team to find out more about the history. I provided them with a list of questions and within 24 hours Zachary Nash, Community Outreach Specialist Half Price Books North Lamar emailed me back with answers to all of my questions. How impressive is that?
Everyday Tourist: Where is your biggest store?
Zachary: Our largest store by far is the flagship location on Northwest Highway in Dallas. It is 54,000 square feet and is also the location of HPB’s corporate offices.
Everyday Tourist: How big is Austin’s North Lamar store?
Zachary: The North Lamar location is the second largest in the entire company, with about 20,000 square feet of bookstore goodness. It also sport the company’s only Rare Books Room, a special annex that houses rare, collectable, signed, first edition, and out of print books, records, and ephemera.
Also, North Lamar features a sizeable community space where we host various events, including author signings, independent publishing seminars, pet adoptions, figure drawing workshops, and virtually anything else for which our community might find reasonable use.
Everyday Tourist: Where is your smallest store?
Zachary: Our store with the least square footage is a petite shop of 5,600 square feet located in the lovely town of Apple Valley, Minnesota.
Everyday Tourist: What is the most valuable book the North Lamar store has ever sold?
To my memory, the highest priced, most exciting item we sold was a 1659 first edition of A True and Faithful Relation of What Passed for Many Years Between Dr. John Dee and Some Spirits. Dee was a mathematician, alchemist, occult philosopher/sorcerer, and advisor to Queen Elizabeth I.
The tome is a manuscript unearthed from his home and published by Meric Casaubon, whose apparent motives were to criticize and slander Dee. However, the book was a huge success and cemented Dee’s reputation as a legendary mystic.
We wound up selling it about a year ago to the owners of a private museum in England who intend to restore it to its original splendor using the book’s original plates.
Everyday Tourist: What is the strangest request you have received or questions asked? A funny story?
Zachary: We get some colorful characters at our location. Something about bookstores draws in personalities you might not encounter elsewhere in the world. I’ve seen people come here on dates, for meetings, or even just to kill an afternoon.
And we have regulars whose tastes we’ve gotten to know through their years of patronage, so like a good bartender who has your drink ready as soon as you walk in, we can often show off cool new merchandise tailored to their interests we know they’ll appreciate.
A strange request came about when I was recently stationed at our information counter. A woman approached me to ask if we had any books that would help her trap a ghost in a crystal. I wanted to help, because there’s obviously a fascinating story there and my curiosity was definitely piqued. I asked her if she knew what that technique was called, because that information might help me locate something for her.
She smiled and said, “I don’t know what it’s called, I just need to know how to do it.” At this point our employee who runs the Metaphysics section stepped in to help her sort out the request and I didn’t hear any more about it, but I like to think she was able to find a crystal big enough to suit her needs.
It really doesn’t take much effort on our part to keep Austin weird ‘round these parts.
Everyday Tourist: Approximately how many books do you have in inventory at any given time for all of your stores? Records? Comics?
Zachary: Our inventory fluctuates in amount pretty frequently, but it’s usually over 200,000 items. Since we buy the majority of our stock directly from the public, our merchandise changes daily.
I do know that last year HPB donated over a million books to schools, charities, and non-profits, and our inventory did not suffer, so we’ve got plenty of goods to go around.
And I know serious record and comic collectors who shop our stores on the regular because it’s almost guaranteed they’ll find an elusive gem in our stacks. I think one of the best things about our merchandise is that we carry materials that simply do not exist anymore. In addition to the more traditional printed and recorded materials available, we also stock VHS tapes, 8-track and standard cassettes, and laserdiscs.
Some things go out of print almost immediately, and you have virtually no chance of finding them again at other stores. But you can find them at Half Price Books. And we can search our entire chain-wide inventory and ship books from any location, so for instance, if you’re a diehard Golden Girls fan, we can track down Rue McClanahan’s My First Five Husbands…And the Ones Who Got Away for you. I just checked, and as I write this there are at least eleven copies available. Incredible.
Everyday Tourist: What book do you currently have the most copies of?
Zachary: I really don’t know! We have lots of books and the amounts of individual titles fluctuates as they sell. I do know that some current hot sellers are The Girl on the Train, the Martian and To Kill a Mockingbird.
Everyday Tourist: Any other fun fact, figures etc. would be great.
Zachary: Ken Gjemre and Pat Anderson cofounded our company in 1972 in a renovated Laundromat stocked with books from their personal libraries in Dallas, TX.
I’ve heard that Pat was a brilliant woman who used pencils all the way down to nubs, with fully intact erasers because there was never need to correct her work. They have some of her pencils at the corporate offices.
The company is still family-owned, with Pat’s daughter Sharon steering the ship. She goes by her nickname, Boots.
I’ve heard that Michael Jackson once arranged a shopping spree at Austin’s Northwest Highway store sometime in the 1990s, arrived after hours in sunglasses and spent thousands of dollars on art books (rumour, but from a good source).
Oh, and some of our employees are gifted authors. Kate DiCamillo, who wrote Because of Winn-Dixie is a former HPB employee. My coworker Dale Bridges published an excellent collection of short stories called Justice, Inc., which has been a best seller out of our Local Authors consignment section.
Everyday Tourist: How big is HPB’s inventory?
Zachary: Chain wide we have more than 20 million items. We’d estimate at any given time we have about 14,000,000 books, 775,000 comics and 470,000 records, the remainder being cards, dolls and other collector items.
When researching other cities to visit in the USA, I will be sure to check the HPB site to see if they have a store in that city, or if on road trip I will see what HPB are on the way. I am not sure I can call a 20,000 square foot store a hidden gem, but HPB seems like a hidden gem to me.
I am not usually a big fan of chain store, but in the case of HPB I will make an exception. In both of the stores I visited, they seemed more like independent local stores than impersonal, cookie-cutter, big box stores.
I should also give thanks to car2go as without a car I doubt we would have ventured as far out of the City Centre as need to get to Half Price Books. Full Disclosure: car2go gave us free minutes to use while in Austin in return for tweeting about our adventures.