How Louis Collins made the leap from physical bookselling to digital

In the nearly five decades that Louis Collins has been selling books, he’s seen the book business completely transform itself. “I started off cataloguing books, sending out-of-print and hard-to-find books, mostly to institutions” out of his office in San Francisco he tells me. “In those days before the internet there was a magazine called the AB Bookman’s Weekly,” which served as a marketplace of rare and out-of-print books and a central meeting-place for the used bookselling community. Like many other booksellers, at the time, Collins listed all his books in catalogs, which libraries would then order from him.

“The reason I got into the book business was I have a memory,” Collins says. “Somebody would ask me ‘do you have such and such book’ and I’d either know I had it there or I’d say, ‘I saw that over in Berkeley or Oakland yesterday and I can get it for you.'” He served as a network for books, a kind of human Google with a good knowledge of books that were available around the country. People used him as a resource to track down books they’d spent their lives looking for.

Even today, “I have a really physical photographic sense of the books,” Collins says. When an order comes in on his site for a specific title, “I know exactly what it looks like and I go to the shelves and pick it up.” The books in his shop — our October Bookstore of the Month – are arranged by subject, but “not necessarily in alphabetic order.” Collins has adjusted well to the turnover to the internet — which he says hit a tipping point in the year 2000.

Bookselling has changed a lot over the last sixteen years. Some online retailers drive the cost of common used books down through automatic pricing until they’re at rock bottom — it’s not uncommon to see used booksellers drive prices down “from 59 dollars to like a penny,” in a week. How do they make money on books for a penny? “They just do volume and they get a break on the shipping because they send so much out that they get a discount from the post office,” Collins says. “I might have to pay 3 dollars for a book, and they probably pay 90 cents. Then they sell that book for a penny, charge $3.99 shipping and make $2” on the transaction. To cut costs even further, a lot of these booksellers get their stock from those book donation bins you’ll find in grocery store parking lots.

But the shift to computers was a transition he was not unprepared for — Collins believes he was the first bookseller in Seattle to have a website. “I liked the idea of computers,” Colins tells me. “In ‘93 or ‘94, I actually got a computer for the first time” to keep track of stock. As a result, Louis Collins Books is a profitable business, one which he’s training a young bookseller named Bill to take over when Collins decides he’s done with the business. But that moment doesn’t seem to be coming anytime soon. “I’m still excited to go out and make contacts and buy new collections,” Collins says.