Many people still think of Amazon when they think about buying a book, but for true book lovers, nothing is more exciting than seeing a new bookstore opening around the corner. The smell of new books can be intoxicating, and nothing beats the texture of paper in your hands as you contemplate a purchase. (Old books can be intoxicating too, but the aroma, like a blend of autumn leaves with a dash of cinnamon, is completely different.) Of course, a sure-fire way of turning those smiles into frowns of consternation is a bookstore that doesn't yet have any books!

Before You Look for Book Suppliers

Before you begin purchasing books, it's important to determine your market. If you're selling used books, the process for getting inventory is quite different than a store selling new books. However, even within these two types of bookstores, there are niches. A general bookstore may sell fiction and nonfiction books in a variety of genres and subjects, but if you want to sell only first-edition detective mysteries, the choice is yours. Some common niches include:

  • Children's books  
  • Christian books
  • New age books
  • Textbooks  
  • Travel books

Another type of niche is discount books, or remainders. These books are often sold by the pound, and each box contains a variety of different titles that the publisher wants to clear out of their inventory. The majority are usually books that did not sell as well as the publisher hoped, or they may be books that are slightly damaged.

Bookstores can often buy remainders directly from publishers if they pay up front, in addition to going through a wholesaler. When buying discounted books, however, you won't be able to return any books you can't sell.

Getting New Books for Your Store

One of the first things new bookstore owners do is to contact the major publishers to inquire about setting up an account. In most cases, however, new stores can't buy books directly from publishers — at least not the major publishers. The publisher will refer you to a wholesaler or distributor. Publishers require volume, so unless you have a strong track record in sales, publishers will be reluctant to work with you, and if they do, they won't be able to give you the discounts they give to major resellers.

Wholesalers and distributors, on the other hand, usually will be happy to work with you because that is their business model. They take books from the publishers and distribute them through independent bookstores.

Working With Wholesalers

High-volume bookstores and chains generally buy books directly from publishers and get discounts based on their volume. This is often anywhere between 50% and 60% of the book's list price. Wholesalers like Ingram get similar discounts from the publishers because of their volume, and they pass a portion of this discount down to the clients.

The typical discount an independent bookstore will get from Ingram for their books is 40% off list price. In the wholesale book business, this is called the "trade discount." They typically get the books at a 55% discount, and after taking 15% themselves, they pass the remaining discount on to you.

Provided that your application to work with Ingram is approved, you can expect free shipping for orders of 15 books or more. In most cases, books can be returned for a refund on your account if you don't sell them. However, you will usually have to pay for return shipping.

Stocking Up on Used Books

If you plan to sell used books, there are essentially two main methods of getting a good supply of used books for your store: auctions and book sales. For both, it's a good idea to start looking as soon as possible for any events within driving distance of your store. Colleges and schools are renowned for raising money through annual book sales. Alumni and members of the community donate their books to the school, which sells them at extremely modest prices over the course of a day or a few days.

Because you can get hundreds of titles and often for a dollar or two each, driving to another city for a charity book sale with a rented van may be a very good investment. Just get there early and be prepared to see other booksellers there who are also looking for fresh inventory. With auctions, you will have to ensure there will be enough books there to justify the trip. In either case, do your research beforehand.

Once you have a base inventory, consider buying used books from the public. Amazon and eBay would be worthwhile to check on a regular basis. Websites like AbeBooks and ThriftBooks are good for finding books you may be able to resell, particularly if a customer wants a specific title. They can also be good for selling your own stock, provided that you don't mind boxing and shipping them yourself.