Monday, May 10, 2010

Do Used Bookstores Hurt Writers? An Interview with Josh Spencer

I had the pleasure of visiting The Last Bookstore, a new used bookstore in downtown L.A. Not only did TLB carry a bunch of titles I rarely see in other bookstores, but it also hosted a local poetry reading that included the sale of dozens of self-published chapbooks. The owner of TLB is the young and very low-key Josh Spencer, and he was kind enough to answer a few questions for The Literary Lab.

LL: Tell us about yourself and about The Last Bookstore. (For example, how and when did you decide you wanted to open up your own bookstore? Do you only carry used books? Do you carry small press books or self-published books?)

JS: Well, I've sold books online for over a decade. For a few years I've had the crazy idea of opening an actual physical storefront to buy and sell used books as well, as an addition to my online business. Late in 2009, a space in my neighborhood opened up and I jumped on it. The landlord gave us only 10 days to open up, so my dad flew out from Hawaii and hand-built all our shelves in just 3 days! We worked ourselves to the bone getting everything set up and books on the shelves in time for the landlord's requested opening date, which coincided with the monthly Art Walk we have in downtown LA which draws over 10,000 people.

We generally only carry used books, but I'd say 75% of our inventory is in like new condition. We've carried a couple of new self-published titles and poetry chapbooks by local downtown LA writers, but for now used books are our focus. We also buy and sell used DVDs and CDs, and we carry over 100 new magazines on art, architecture, design, music, fashion, and the like.

The latter is sort of an experiment to see if we can sell any, and so far it's looking like we may drop the new magazines in favor of more used books.

LL: You've made your space available to help other writers. Can you tell us about some of these events?

JS: I actually leave all our events up to Billy Mark, a poet and musician and our events coordinator. He could tell you better than I could. I'm a bit "event-shy" myself because I don't like crowds and small talk. But I know we just had a book release by local poet Chiwan Choi which had a packed house, and he also runs a Poetry Chapbook reading and discussion every 3rd Sunday from 3-5 pm. A few weeks ago we had a reading by Jim Marquez, literary editor of Citizen LA and self-publisher of several books. Every Thursday except for the 2nd Thursday of the month, we have Literally Funny -- live readings of comedy pieces. It's pretty popular. On May 23rd, we're having an "Essays on Downtown LA" night with members of Los Angeles' downtown 3-on-3 basketball league. I think those are guys that live in the homeless shelters, so that should be pretty interesting. Then we also have live music nights and some other events. We're pretty open to hosting any community event that we like and that brings in book-buyers!

LL: Are there other ways in which you're helping writers?

JS: Hmm, not that I can think of. We love writers, obviously, and some of our events are geared to them, but as a used bookstore we're mainly focused on serving readers and collectors of books in their habit.

LL: What can we as writers do to help support bookstores?

JS: Keep writing books that people actually want and need to read!

LL: Among writers, the sale of used books is often discouraged because the writers rarely benefit financially from the sale of their books in used condition. Do you feel like you're hurting writers in any way?

JS: Really? I'm a writer and a ton of my friends are writers, and I've never heard that sentiment towards used books. That's interesting. But I feel like a single used bookstore hurts current writers about as much as a bee sting. The advantage of a used bookstore versus a new bookstore is VARIETY. We don't sell 100 copies each of a few dozen titles like most new bookstores; we sell one or two copies of 10,000 different titles by different authors dead and alive. I can't think of a single title we've had and sold more than a dozen copies of, and our best-sellers are usually by dead authors anyway. So it doesn't really affect current writers in any real way that I can see. Besides, most new titles don't trickle into used bookstores until 6 months to a year after they're out and by that time they've usually already had the majority of their sales, with the exception being sleepers and self-published titles.

A lot of people who shop in our store wouldn't be able to afford many new books, or they prefer older books, or they like used books because they can get 3 for the price of 1 new book. But then there are really rabid readers who are going to buy what they want to read when they want to read it, whether it's new or used. They have a hunger for books like vampires do for blood! Although the act of buying books lacks much in the way of sex and violence, unfortunately.

Ultimately I think the more people who are reading in a community or society, the better that is for writers. Whether people are buying used or new, or borrowing from a friend or the library, all efforts that feed the enjoyment of the written word are beneficial.


  1. Used Bookstores, or Used-Book Stores?

  2. I am fascinated by the name of the store. It is clever, catchy and slightly disturbing in a dystopian way.
    I like Josh's take on the question of whether it hurts authors for people to buy used books. Perspective is always a good thing.

  3. Do thrift stores hurt the fashion industry?

    I think that's an equally silly question. I like what Josh said about celebrating the written word. I can even imagine that for writers who publish more than one book, used bookstores could HELP them by continuing to cycle the authors' names and previous titles in the community after the run of new sales has ended.

    Same for thrift stores--When I go into a used clothing store and find garments by a brand or designer that are high quality and have withstood the test of time, I look for that brand when I'm shopping for new clothes.

  4. Excellent interview, Davin. I remember you telling me about this, and I'm excited to have this up for everyone to read!

    I've never thought used bookstores hurt writers at all - at least writers who are writing because they love to write. Even if a writer is only writing to make money, they are most likely writing many, many books a year, and when those books end up in used book stores, their name is getting recycled, as Genie says, and that can't hurt them but only get their name into more hands - at least from my perspective.

    When I visit LA, I'd love to visit this bookstore. It sounds lovely, and attending a poetry reading would be fun, as well! You know how I feel about those. ;)

  5. I like used book stores because I can find the earlier titles of a fave author. If I buy her newest book and love it, I can hunt the others down.

    Don't you think the used book store is in the same league as a library. You read them without buying them there. At least in a book store, someone makes money.

  6. I came from A Walk in My shoes. Good to meet you.

    These kinds of bookstores, used or unusual, are great places to discover genuine talent, the indie scene of back flap writers who don't give a fig about being published, but do give a whole fig tree about writing.

    Perhaps these folks can pimp such products to the look-ee-loos who want to discover new stuff. Let's support the arts, wherever they show up.

  7. Thanks, Davin and Josh. I'd been wondering about the impact used book stores have on writers' profits.

  8. Great interview!

    I've often wondered the same thing...and Genie has a great point about thrift stores. The more people read, the more it helps our industry. And as he said, new books aren't trickling into used book stores til several month to a year after release.

    Here in Buffalo, NY, we have quite the thriving poetry/literary scene. There are open mic nights nearly every night of the week at one venue or another! I commend Josh for doing the same and giving writers a place to share their work!

  9. I think used-book stores *do* have an effect on new sales. I know when my son finds a new series he's into (lately Percy Jackson), I comb the used stores first. I manage to get most of the volumes used. And I bet I'm not the only one who does this.

  10. I have two daughters who are avaricious readers, and regularly troll the local library sales and used bookstores for books by their favorite authors. But they also have B&N and Borders frequent buyer cards, and probably buy 20% to 25% new books.

    When they've found a sci-fi or fantasy author that they can't put down, after scarfing up what they can find used, they're wating with their latest frequent buyer discount coupon in hand to grab the new addition to the trilogy as soon as it hits the bookstores, too.

    They also buy new books as birthday and holiday presents for me, their father, and their friends by authors the giftees are known to enjoy reading. Consequently, I don't think their buying used books keeps them from buying new books, but does enable them to own more books by a wider selection of authors overall, and to discover authors new to them at bargain prices.

  11. I've been to that store and like it a lot. It is the one of the few bookstores left in downtown L.A. Obviously, it is a labor of love. Great idea to hear from the folks who actually sell books! Good post, guys!

  12. Any kind of a book store benefits writers. If someone is able to read your novel, they may suggest it to another person (who might buy it retail). Word of mouth is huge in our industry and every little bit helps. Plus, we should be more about the readers anyway. I remember times in my life when I simply couldn't afford new books and was so grateful for the used book stores I could find (they are few and far between, in my experience).

    Anything that fires the 'reading bug' in a person ultimately helps the literary community. Kudos to Josh and best wishes!

  13. Such an interesting topic - I have often wondered about this.

    I love used book stores and the charity book stores that you get all over the UK, they have so much character. And if I discover an author that I love in a used/charity book store, I find that I'm more likely to go and buy their new book NEW when it comes out! So in that respect I think it's great for writers, and they may be getting lots of new readers they might not have got otherwise.

    I also love the history you get with used books - someone's name in the front cover, or a dedication (makes you wonder how it ended up in a used book store). The best I ever picked up was a copy of Franny and Zooey, which was inscribed to the recipient from "your Salinger". There's a story there I think :)

    Great interview and keep up the great work Josh!


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