Used book business faces challenges and uncertainty

Endless towers of jagged-stacked books sprout from every corner at Mora’s Books store. Behind the front counter, nearly hidden under the paperback bindings and dusty pages, owner Darren Mora sorts through some of his new purchases.

“If you keep it too organized it might be bad,” Mora said. “Some people want to be so organized that they become crazy and obsessed about anything that moves.”

Mora is a lifelong San José resident who has been affiliated with the English-language used book store since its beginning in 1988. After working for a couple years under the store’s American founder, Mora bought the store in 1991 and has since kept it loaded. His messy sanctuary includes a wealth of classic literature, an archive of National Geographic books, and loads of popular science fiction. And that is just a small fraction.

Co-worker Ed Welsh estimates that Mora possesses about 500,000 books between what he displays in the storefront and what is boxed up in storage. “I could use four times the space, and we’d still have books on the floor,” Welsh said.

But it seems space is fading within the niche landscape of the used bookstore industry in Costa Rica. Numerous ones have popped up and vanished again within recent years. “In the last twenty years, I could give you a list of 50 that have closed,” Mora said. “The used book business – I would not say it’s tough, but it’s not for everybody.” According to Mora, there is no such thing as a steady income in the business because one month could offer a healthy stream of income while the next one results in a drought.

Now the popular 7th Street Books is closing after 18 years of business, falling as the latest victim to the print-killing trend. Co-owner Marc Roegiers said he expects 7th Street to remain open until a target date of late March, citing insufficient revenue as the ultimate reason for closure.

“It’s not a viable business anymore,” Roegiers said. “Amazon has taken its toll. Everything is going digital.” Before the bookstore shuts the doors, it is holding substantial sales for all books, including its well-known collection of natural history.

For Mora’s business, it helps that his income is not tied down with just his store’s proceeds. He is only scheduled at the shop for two days a week and works on the side as a show producer for musicians and as a radio host. And Welsh, who considers himself retired, works another two days on a most modest contract: The ability to be able to read and borrow some of the books.

He has suggested that Mora put up a sign on the exterior that says, “The Oldest Used Bookstore in the World.” After 26 years of business, that potential advertisement might not be too far from the truth. The longhaired Mora, who is very involved in the live music scene of Costa Rica and the annual Festival Rock en el Farolito, credits much of his sustained success to grabbing hold of valuable and cherished memorabilia.

“The used book business is becoming more and more antiquarian,” Mora said. “You have to look for collectibles that have a high price mark.”

In nearby Alajuela there is another used bookstore that has been open for a decade. Goodlight Books was founded by Larry Coulter after he moved from Sonoma County, California. He said that the country did not have enough books for him. So, he bought and shipped 20,000 to himself before he even had a store. Though he had a long run of success, sales dropped drastically in 2011, he said.

After trying to make up the lagging difference between expenditures and revenue from his own pocket, Coulter still owed the Caja Costarricense de Seguro Social a major debt that he couldn’t pay once the government added on a 20 percent interest. A few weeks ago he sold the store to Rosa Carballo, who has since tried to revamp marketing through social media and attract a new demographic.

Ms. Coulter echoed the sentiments of Roegiers that spell trouble for anyone in Costa Rica’s print industry.

“It’s electronic books, and it also is Gringos or North Americans moving back home or moving on to Panamá or other cheaper countries.”

Coulter still helps out at Goodlight, “as a sort of mascot” and said that the store still has 12,000 books, all of which are alphabetized. This organization paints a comic contrast to the overflowing mash of printed words in Mora’s.

A young female customer walked in with her friends and asked Mora if he had anything from poet Charles Bukowski. Almost without looking, Mora slides out a copy of Bukowski’s “Hollywood” from a tall stack on the desk. The girl left without buying and said she was looking for a specific title.

Such is a Monday afternoon in a used bookstore where one can seemingly have more books than any nation’s library yet not have the very one a customer is looking for. In an industry that precariously teeters on an edge like one of these too-high columns of books, the owner says that you can never have enough supply no matter how sporadic the demand.

“I keep everything – I don’t have control over my inventory because its whatever people want.”

By Michael Krumholtz
of the A.M. Costa Rica staff

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