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Thursday, May 24, 2018
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Why would these two St. Petersburg entrepreneurs want to open a used bookstore in the Internet age?

ST. PETERSBURG —The age of Amazon and online shopping has left a litany of retail casualties in its wake.

Bookstores in particular have been hit hard by online marketplaces where shoppers can virtually find any book they want and have it shipped to their home with just a few clicks of the mouse.

But that doesn't deter Tim Russell and Bobby Hauske, who are about to open a used bookstore in Tyrone Square Mall next month.

"We have to live in Amazon's world," said Russell, a Florida native and businessman. "They're putting their competitors out of business so they can open up their own bookstores now."

Like online bookstore kingpin Amazon, Russell and Hauske are reversing the pattern of most businesses, starting with a thriving online-only business that leads to a brick-and-mortars operation.

The two plan to open 321 Books inside the former Gap store at the mall in St. Petersburg the first week of March. They will stock the shelves they bought from the recently closed Sears department store at Tyrone with 100,000 used books. Hardcover books will sell for $3. Soft covers are $2. Everything else, like CDs, DVDs and audio books, will be priced at $1 each.

Rent isn't cheap and the price point of their product is low. It might sound like a risky business. But Russell and Hauske are confident given the success they've already had selling thousands of used books online.

It started in Hauske's house where he would buy used books at thrift stores and resell them online. When business started picking up about a year ago, Russell got involved. Now the company operates a warehouse space in Clearwater where the 321 Books staff sorts through 15,000 used books a day that arrive by the truck load. They buy used books from thrift stores, flea markets and charity groups who can't sell them at the rapid rate they're dropped off. They also take donations.

"A lot of these places just don't want them taking up space," said Russell. "So they'd rather give them to us than pay the fee to drop them off at the dump."

Most used books sell for $1 or less on Amazon. 321 Books employees sift through the 15,000 books a day, use the Internet to research them, and then hand-select a few popular names or rare titles to sell online. More than a third of those that don't make the cut get shredded. Now they'll have the option of trying to sell them instead at the new bookstore.

"So Catcher In the Rye is a classic. It's $14 to buy brand new at a bookstore. But because it's so popular and there are so many copies out there, it sells for cents on the dollar as a used book online," Russell explained. "That doesn't mean it's not a great book though."

They've found first edition signed copies and heirloom Bibles with signatures inside dating back to the 1800s. But most of the time the 321 Books staff is sifting through old romance novels, out-of-date college textbooks and lots and lots of Chicken Soup For The Soul variations.

Used books were one of the first products to be sold successfully on the internet, said Richard Davies, a spokesman with Abebooks.com, a global online marketplace for book resellers. Abebooks.com was acquired by Amazon in 2008.

"So how do they make money? Usually by acquiring a lot cheaply and selling a lot at a high volume," Davies said. "But there are so many ways to go. Plenty of resellers specialize in rare books or text books or first editions. There are many niches."

Once a year the 321 Books has a book sale. Last year, 321 Books sold 8,000 books in three days. That was enough to inspire them to open the brick and mortar location.

"We're not trying to compete with Haslam's or anybody else," Russell said. "The mall will bring a lot of foot traffic and we have so much supply. We think it's worth it."

The company's staff scan each and every book into software made to catalog each title. So if a customer is looking for a specific book, Russell said the 321 Books store should be able to help them find just about anything.

"We have a love-hate relationship with Amazon," said Russell, who thinks the company is responsible for the demise of many chain bookstores over the years. But he's hopeful that his own bookstore could be as profitable as the online business one day. "It's either this or throw (the books) away."

Contact Justine Griffin at [email protected] or (727) 893-8467. Follow @SunBizGriffin.

321 Books By the Numbers:

• 15,000 books arrive at the company's warehouse every day

• 8,000 books were sold in just three days during the company's last book sale

• 100,000 titles will be available for purchase in the store

• 6,000 books a day were being shredded before the company opened a store

• $3 pricetag for hardcover books

• $2 pricetag for softcover books

• $1 pricetag for kids books, CDs, DVDs and audio books

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