inStore: Wonder Book
How did Chuck Roberts of Wonder Book go from being the sole employee at his used bookstore to having three locations and a huge warehouse? According to the company website, “since 1980 it has been all about the books. ALL kinds of books…this lack of prejudice has resulted in 25 years of growth and contributed to each and every ‘overnight success.’”
The Wonder Book warehouse in Frederick, MD encompasses 72,000 square feet and by Roberts’ estimation contains over one million books. Between the retail stores in Frederick, Hagerstown, and Gaithersburg and online sales, Wonder Book is a source for people who want everything from bestsellers to rare books on obscure topics. They ship books across the U.S. and to international destinations, including places like Mongolia.
While you may hear plenty of worry about book sales, Roberts says his business is profitable. He wonders if it isn’t a “last man standing” sort of thing since there are fewer physical bookstores and some independent bookstores have seen a boost since Borders closed. Plus, “It’s fun to go to the bookstore and look around and find things.”
As someone who once worked in the stacks, the Wonder Book warehouse reminded me of that part of the library that is usually off limits to the public, with one major exception: the books are not in alphabetical order, nor are they grouped by subject. Data entry workers add the books to the system, and books are added to the rows and rows of shelves in the order in which they are processed, with large books and paperbacks being separated.
They use this system because in addition to meeting individual customer demand, they also sell used books through Amazon, and Amazon wants a high level of accuracy. Roberts says more people books order over the weekend, making Mondays and Tuesdays the busiest days at the warehouse. They also see an uptick in orders before school starts in the fall, during the winter holidays, and again when people return to school after the winter holidays.
Mail-order internet sales are the biggest part of the business. Robert describes the relationship between the stores and the online sales component as “symbiotic.” For a while, the internet sales kept the stores going and now the stores have rebounded. This works out well, because they need the stores to replenish their inventory of used books.
Customers help keep the business going, not just by making purchases, but also by bringing in new inventory. You can sell your books to Wonder Book for cash or store credit.
“Each store has a “buying room” where we buy books from the public,” notes Roberts. “More often, we go out to their car at the curb and make offers.”
In addition to used books, you can also find LPs and rent or buy videos
Wonder Book is open to donating books to organizations that serve the community or using books as incentives for food donation drives (i.e. letting people who bring canned food to a store buy one book and get one free).
This year, Wonder Book offered a book for every student in Frederick County school system as a way of encouraging summer reading, donating close to 20,000 books in total.
What Makes the Store Special
What makes the store special is a commitment to doing as much as possible to find buyers, either here or abroad, for each book they receive. When books do not sell stateside, they are sold to international wholesalers who may sell them for what amounts to pennies to people who may not otherwise be able to get the books they want.
“We don’t destroy any viable book,” says Roberts. “We are very much a green company—damaged books are pulped and recycled.” However, Wonder Book has various initiatives to try to get books a home before they take that step.
They have sold prints from books that were otherwise unsellable and recently started to decoupage books, adhering illustrations from children’s books and old textbooks to make shelf displays.
This part of the business began 15 years ago when there was a need for books to decorate model homes. Since then, the demand has expanded to hotels, sets for movies, plays and TV shows and prisons. Customers who order books in this way can specify how they want their groupings of books to be arranged: by subject, by height, or by color, for example. When I visited the warehouse, there were orders for books relating to water, books with a vintage look (both “upscale” and “distressed”) and hardcover books wrapped in white paper.
While a designer may be chiefly concerned with getting books as decorative objects, Roberts still sees this part of the business as a way to further his mission of getting the most of out of trying to give books as many chances as possible: “Hopefully someone will pick them up and read them.”
When I asked Roberts what he was reading now, he said he is working his way through Patrick O’Brian’s Master and Commander series. In an e-mail he expressed enthusiasm for finding and reading great books:
“The aspect of my job that is the most fun is that I get to go through 1000s of “new” books each week. Each box can be a surprise. The sorters at the warehouse get first crack at books that come through. But it gets to be like working in a candy store…initially you gorge on candy. Still, the not a day goes by that I don’t see books I’ve never seen before. It is still fun and surprising after 32 years.”