For decades, Mark Mouser gave authors a second shot at greatness

Even if the word “remainder” doesn’t mean anything to you, you likely have spent time browsing remaindered books. You can find remainders in most large bookstores—they’re the new-looking books that sell for used-book prices, often stacked on tables near the front door. They’re basically the second-run movie theaters of the publishing world—outdated overstock sold for dirt-cheap to distributors a year or more after the title first went on sale.

Remainders — also called bargain books — are big business for bookstores. Because they’re so cheap (often a quarter of cover price, sometimes even lower) customers buy them by the armload, often in conjunction with a new book or two. And behind the scenes, it’s a competitive world; the books are in limited supply, available in large lots at random times. Many large bookstores have buyers specifically devoted to the buying and maintenance of their remainder section.

Mark Mouser has worked at University Book Store since 1980, and he’s worked as a bookseller — with stints in Moscow, Idaho and Factoria and Bellingham — since 1975. Though he’s served in many roles at UBS, including trade book manager, he’s spent many years buying and managing the remainder section. University Book Store has been selling remainders for almost ninety years. “It’s kind of in our DNA,” Mouser says. Under his guidance, University Book Store has developed one of the largest and fastest-moving independent bookstore remainder sections in the country, rivaling giants like Powell’s and New York City’s Strand.

That’s why they give the remainders a place of pride. When you walk the store, the first section you see is Mouser’s domain: seas of tables full of high-quality books (literary fiction, art books, current events) at prices that seem too good to be true. No trip to UBS is complete without two passes through their bargain tables — one long browsing expedition in the beginning and then a quicker recon survey at the end, to make sure you didn’t miss anything.

I talked with Mouser last Thursday, the day before his retirement from UBS. He admitted to “feeling weird” about being at the end of his lifelong bookselling career. “I love what I do there and I love the store and so it’s going to be different,” he said, but “it’s time and I’ve got a lot of things I’ve got to get done and want to do.” His days ahead are filled with Spanish classes and gardening and road trips and reading. He also admits that, given current events, “I’ll probably spend more time being politically active than I imagined I would in retirement.”

What does Mouser think customers like about remainders? “They work as a surprise element,” he said. “There’s an unexpected nature to the bargain tables. You never know what’s going to be on them.” That’s what attracted him to the business. “I know that over the years a lot of our customers have built incredible libraries out of the bargain books they’ve bought off of those tables. I think that’s cool.”

Mouser ordered remainders for University Book Store by scouring websites for remainder wholesalers, placing orders seven days a week. Some of the sites update their stock at a regular time every day, while others update sporadically. Bookstores are fiercely competitive in ordering from those sites, with the most desirable books disappearing almost as soon as they’re posted. He also made twice-early trips out to remainder warehouses to personally dig up forgotten surprises.

While thousands of customers appreciate the fruits Mouser’s hard work, he understood exactly what I meant when I described him as the boogeyman of authors. Many authors perceive the remainder table as a symbol of their failure, a reminder that every last copy of their books did not sell to adoring customers.

Some author egos are pretty fragile. “There’ve been times when we’ve hidden certain remainders when we have a certain author’s event,” Mouser said. He told me that authors have confronted him, asking why their publisher would allow their books to be put out on the bargain tables. “I always like to remind them that they are in extremely good company,” Mouser said. “If you shop the store you know that every author — living, dead, male, female — they pretty much all end up on that table.”

But not every writer is so fragile. Mouser recalled an incident when author Robert Michael Pyle came into the store and saw his book about logging in southwest Washington, Wintergreen: Rambles in a Ravaged Land on the bargain tables.

“I was called down to the floor because the author said he wanted to talk to the remainder buyer. I came down thinking, ‘uh-oh.’” But instead, Pyle greeted Mouser with a big smile. “Bob wanted to thank me for giving his book a second life.”

It’s easy to tell that Mouser was moved by Pyle’s kindness. “I think that was the most wonderful way to look at it,” he said. “Those books could’ve sat in a warehouse for years. They could’ve been pulped. They weren’t on anyone’s radar. But here they were in the front of the store, right in people’s faces. That’s how authors should look at it.”