The Booksellers Association of the United Kingdom & Ireland Limited

Many BA members sell second hand books as either a part or the whole of their bookselling business. You may already sell second hand books yourself, or perhaps you are thinking about selling second hand books. There are many benefits to selling second hand books: however, as with new books, your love and knowledge of second hand books have to be combined with business acumen if the second hand bookselling part of your business is to succeed.
With this in mind, we have produced a couple of resources designed to help you grow your second hand bookselling business. If you would like to see any other resources added, please contact Kate Gunning

Benefits of Second Hand Bookselling

‘For centuries there has been an expectation that books would be acquired, used and passed on, either in libraries, by sharing, or through trade. There have also been book collectors, building private libraries and curating them for condition and comprehensivity.

‘In both of these cases, the second hand book trade has been essential to a thriving cultural and literary tradition: authors get their inspiration by researching the published history in their field or genre.
‘Second hand bookshops have increasing importance with the decline of the public library. Some of the greatest books in history had a 'long tail' and the second hand trade is crucial to ensuring that remains feasible.’
Chris Edwards from Skoob Books and PsychoBabel Books
‘Second hand bookselling is incredibly rewarding, interesting, surprising - confronting someone's lifetime collection can be fascinating. As part of a mix, second hand books provide another reason to visit, and to spend time and money. After all, book buyers will buy new, old and remaindered, often at the same time. Second hand bookselling is very useful for profit margins - a gross profit of 75 - 80% is achievable.’  
Paul Wallace from David’s Bookshop
‘A key advantage of adding second hand titles to the bookselling mix is a further element of serendipity and surprise to the customers' browsing experience.’ 
Brian Schwartz from Offstage Bookshop and Black Gull Books
Top Tips
We have gathered some top tips on second hand bookselling from various BA members. If you would like to share any others, please contact Kate Gunning

Tips from those selling second hand books as a small to medium part of their business
With thanks to Bookstór, Bookworm, Lindum Books, LST Bookshop and Sheelagh Na Gig.

Sourcing and refreshing stock
  1. Be very clear how many books you will take in from customers i.e. don't have people dropping off several boxes of books if you only want to take in ten or twenty at a time.
  1. Make sure you know what sells: don't be pressured into taking books you know won't turn over (tatty coffee table books, out-of-date guides/reference/textbooks).
  1. Be very firm about which titles you accept. If possible, have your stock alphabetised and categorised so you can tell at a glance whether you have a copy of something already: we only keep one copy of each title, and not too many of the same author. Often customers may say: 'but I bought it here' - the dog could have chewed it in the meantime and they still think you are going to take it for selling! 
  1. Refresh your second hand stock just as often as you would new stock. Returning customers will want to see different titles in the second hand section.
  1. It might be helpful to use a date code inside each book (in pencil): for example, ‘318’ means this book was put out for sale in March 2018. When you do some housekeeping, these dates can help you decide if a book dated April 2014 is ready for a price reduction, or removal, to make way for something fresh.
  1. Depending on your business model, you may want to let people swap second hand books. It's an easy way to refresh your stock and it makes customers feel good. If you have a coffee shop, swappers are likely to have a coffee and snack when they come in to swap.  
  1. If you stock new and second hand books, keep them completely separate to save customer confusion; if you can, give them each their own floor or section of the shop.  That way, customers who only want a new or used book know where to go.
  1. Sort the books into genres. It helps both staff and customers to find books.
  1. Try to put the books that are recent in a prominent place and label the box or shelf: e.g. “Second Hand – Just In”.
  1. We put all our second hand books into clear, strong plastic boxes (15 inch by 23 inch by 6 inch). This makes them very easy to flip through and we find it is more effective than having them on shelves.
  1. To make life easier for you and your customers, have a standard price for second hand books. We do £2 for a paperback and £3 for a hardback.  If a book is more collectable (first edition or signed or rare) and warrants a higher price, write it on the first page with the shop name, so there’s no confusion.  It’s a good idea to confirm a higher priced book with the customer before you put it through the till, just in case they hadn’t noticed…
  1. Some second hand books can look brand new so to avoid confusion at the till, put a small sticker on the front of every second hand book as it comes in.  That way staff on the till know immediately if it’s brand new or not.
  1. You can use the BookFinder website to help price more collectable books.  It collates all the copies of each title/edition that are for sale on the internet so you can see the full range of prices they’re being offered at on one screen.  We only check first editions, signed copies or ones that look special or rare and if it seems to warrant a higher than standard price from the information on BookFinder, we price it towards the lower end of what’s online.  That way we can say the customer won’t find it cheaper that we know of!
Tips from those selling second hand books as a large part of their business
With thanks to David’s Bookshop, Highflight Books, Offstage Books, Skoob Books, The Old Hall Bookshop, The Ironbridge Bookshop and Tim Kendall-Carpenter Books.

Sourcing and refreshing stock
  1. From the start, make it very clear to people trying to give you books that you will only take what you want: cherry pick, be choosy, be firm, don’t be afraid to say no. It’s tempting to buy a load of books from a regular customer 'as a favour' but you will end up wasting money and being lumbered with dead stock.
  1. Many people who want to sell their books tend to over value them or try to sell you things which are worthless. Be truthful and explain that you’re unlikely to sell much of it and take what you want: if you think something is of value, buy it but don’t break the bank.
  1. If you want to ensure you keep it on a business footing, you may want to always pay for the books, even if it’s just 40p per paperback.
  1. Depending on your business model, you may want to avoid taking donations and offering to dispose of unwanted books: your bins are likely to be full within the day.
  1. Ask people who want to sell you books to make an appointment to see you, rather than just dropping in, as it can take quite a bit of research to look up prices on books that might or might not be valuable.
  1. The gross profit is particularly good if you’re buying from house visits: you make an offer for the books you want and are often asked to clear the rest for no extra cost. Most of our best stock comes from bulk buying of collections when someone clears a house. The turnover is very quick: our large trolley outside funds one staff member.
  1. It’s useful to have a separate place away from the shop to sort through the bulk loads.
  1. Listen to customers’ requests and comments. Try your best to stock what customers are looking for: local authors may sell particularly well.
  1. Play around with the mix of subject matter: over time you will get a feel for what works in your area.  When you do get known for a robust, constantly changing second hand stock, with an added area of special interest, you have a powerful and natural marketing tool.

  1. It's advisable to display second hand books separately so as not to devalue the new stock. Judicious mixing of more collectable books does work however.
  1. Be creative: use attractive window displays to bring people into your shop.
  1. Do your research. If you want to be good at selling books you need to know your books and the history of publishers and authors. You’re not going to be able to know it all, but it pays to know small little bits of information. However, don’t push your knowledge on people. Choose your customers: the ones who want to talk will welcome your knowledge and you end up learning many new facts from customers. But remember that some people just want to look around and browse!
  1. List your more valuable books on the internet: this adds a useful extra income stream and also encourages customers to visit the shop. We use AbeBooks and list new titles every day. You can make good money here and constantly adding to your listings means that book lovers will keep coming back to check on new stock. We always charge less in the shop than online.
  1. If possible, develop a specialist area: local history, family history, aviation, Irish interest, collectable children's books, British history, etc and share your passion! Firstly, it helps you stand out from the crowd. In time word of your specialisation (it needn't be more than a bay or half dozen shelves) will get round and serve as a draw to interested parties. Secondly, it gives a focus to your buyer of second hand stock.
  1. Proactively involve your community: hold an event in your shop, start a festival, etc.


If you have further queries about the practicalities of selling second hand books, the following BA members have kindly agreed to share their advice and experience with existing or aspiring second hand booksellers. Feel free to email them directly with any queries. If you would also like to be listed here as an advisor, please contact Kate Gunning
Bill Anderson, Highflight Books
Christine Bridger, The Old Hall Bookshop
Chris Edwards, Skoob Books
Vivienne Mills, Astley Book Farm

Useful Links

The Book Guide website aims to list every secondhand and antiquarian bookshop in the UK and Ireland. If you want to add your shop to the list, select the relevant geographical area and click 'Add a Bookshop'.
The York Antiquarian Book Seminar is an annual training course for anyone interested in becoming or honing their skills as a second hand bookseller.