An Inside Look at Austin’s Biggest Used Bookstore
Half Price Books, N. Lamar: “We tend more toward the unusual.”
By Wayne Alan Brenner,
7:00AM, Thu. Oct. 19, 2017
Elsewhere in the Chronicle, we told you a little bit about the rare books room in the back of Half Price Books at 5555 North Lamar, and about its connection to the alchemist John Dee. But that – as the saying goes – that ain't the half of it.
That other article was based on an interview with Half Price store manager Drew Miller and rare-books-room wrangler Merrit Spencer, and it was written to size for our print edition, to fit into our array of editorial offerings for the issue.
Thus do we attempt to pique your interest, while simultaneously saluting the popular company (a national chain with more than 120 stores, now, though it started up in Dallas) on its 45th anniversary.
But of course that rare books room is surrounded by the biggest Half Price store in town … so you know there’s a helluva lot more ground to cover than just what pertains to the venue’s unique inner sanctum.
What it’s like to work at Half Price, for instance? What are some of the challenges faced by staff and management? What makes the 5555 location different from other Half Price stores? Will it all go away tomorrow, because internets?
And so, to answer those questions and others, we present this extended transcript of our recent
Austin Chronicle: Drew, how did you get started working for Half Price Books?
Drew Miller: I started in College Station, Texas. I graduated from college and was looking for a job, and I had some coffee-shop experience, stuff like that that they liked, so they hired me there. I actually started at the same day and same time as my wife did, which was kind of funny. Although we didn’t talk for, like, a year and a half, because we didn’t know each other.
Merrit Spencer: Y’all didn’t talk for a year and a half?
Drew Miller: Well, I was already married at the time.
Drew Miller: Anyway, that’s what got me started at Half Price. And I just had good timing, and they kept promoting me in College Station, and so I stayed with the company and eventually moved here to Austin.
Austin Chronicle: What brought you to Austin?
Drew Miller: The job, for one. I always liked the city, and I had relatives here, so I’d visit them and always enjoyed it. And so when the position came open – and this store, in my humble opinion, is one of the most amazing stores in the company – so as soon as it came open, my boss in College Station encouraged me to apply, and I did, and got it.
Austin Chronicle: And, Merrit, how'd you get into this business?
Merrit Spencer: I was working at the Dog & Duck Pub, it was 1999, and I was tired of cooking. And I had friends who were working at Half Price, and I heard that there was an opening, so I went and applied. That was like 18 years ago! I started at the store on Guadalupe, and then we moved up to North Lamar.
[Note: That rare-books-room article fits right in here.]
Austin Chronicle: Drew, what’s a typical day like for you? You climb outta bed, and you’re either still kind of tired or you’re wide awake, but you eventually get to the store and – how does it go from there?
Drew Miller: It’s such a wide variety, it’s hard to say. We do have a fairly large staff here, it’s like 45 people, so most of my day is working with the staff. Talking to them, trying to solve whatever problems people have, trying to smooth anything that goes a little bit off the rails. And just making sure that, whether they’re working there or shopping there, that people are having the best experience they can have. But there are days that, well, the more challenging things do get kicked up to me, and one of the things that’s a major issue in Austin – it isn’t really the city’s fault – is mental-health funding. And because the Austin State Hospital is right down the street, we end up with some individuals in the store who have mental issues. And that causes a lot of disruption, actually. It depends on the person, but sometimes they’ll come in and just start screaming, sometimes just wander around talking to themselves, sometimes other stuff happens. And so me and my assistant managers, especially, will end up trying to deal with that, and trying to stay calm ourselves as they’re doing whatever they’re doing, and calm them down and get them out.
Merrit Spencer: Sometimes you don’t know if you need to call an ambulance for the person, or if you’re in danger. But we’re caring people: We don’t wanna put somebody out, but we don’t wanna take abuse, either. It’s a tough situation.
Drew Miller: There’s a lot of people we kind of walk the line with. We’re like, “We want you to have a cool place to be” – literally, a cooler place to be, out of the heat – “and we want you to grab a book and read it, if you’re so inclined.” But sometimes we just watch them in the hope that they don’t cross the line. And the line will get flirted with a bit and eventually they’ll go over it, and we’ll be like, “We’re sorry, but I’m gonna have to ask you to leave or we’ll have to call the police,” and try to handle it as delicately as we can. Some days it feels like it’s all that – in the worst case. In the best case, I’m working with employees, talking about what’s great, what needs to be better, making plans for improvements. I love the logistical end of the job, working out the details of it all.
Austin Chronicle: Were you in charge when this location opened?
Drew Miller: I’ve been there since 2012.
Merrit Spencer: And we moved to the North Lamar location in mid-2005.
Austin Chronicle: And who got to choose all those great antiques that are on top of some of the shelves? Those old typewriters and fans and things?
Merrit Spencer: That was Sheri Tornatore, from South Congress Books. She has such a knack for that sort of thing.
Drew Miller: I know Monica Schultz also assisted with some of that. I don’t know how much, but she was the district manager of Austin for a long time – and is now the regional manager in Texas. And she’s always had a big hand in the stores.
Merrit Spencer: And Sheri and Monica are real good friends.
Austin Chronicle: And what’s a typical day like for you, Merrit?
Merrit Spencer: Well, I’m just a regular bookseller, and we do different things throughout the day – with a certain amount of time we spend buying, a certain amount of time that we spend on our sections. The rare books section is just me and another woman, so it’s a lot of work. There’s a lot of training people, pricing the books, displaying them, posting them online to see them there.
Drew Miller: We’re selectively listing books on HalfPriceBooks.com. That’s still in development, our online-sales initiative there is new, but we’ve been selling online through third-party vendors for a while.
Merrit Spencer: Yeah, we’ve sold through Abe Books for a couple of years.
Drew Miller: And that was a pretty small portion of our business over all.
Austin Chronicle: And yet, in an environment that’s increasingly digitized, with the internet being as pervasive as it is – so many people making their money through the net, these days – even though y’all are just starting up in that area, Half Price Books as a whole has been doing really well, right?
Drew Miller: I’ve got to say, we have a very good business model. That’s one of the things that impressed me, working there early on. I guess the amount of control each individual location has, determining their profit and balancing – the company always tries to balance selling-literature-at-as-low-a-cost-as-possible with treating-employees-well. We’ve always had a decent amount of control over how we do that, which is one of the reasons I like managing the store. And it’s one of the top-profit stores in the company.
Merrit Spencer: And we all have different markets, too. Like, when we were down on Guad, we could not give away romance novels. And then we moved just a mile up the street, and they sell great. And Cedar Park and Round Rock, they’re great with stuff like that. But, up there, the more scholarly stuff just sits there.
Drew Miller: We tend to sell the scholarly, the unusual, and literary fiction and poetry, at our store – we sell the absolute crap out of it, all the time. It’s a kind of funny dichotomy. Because other stores like, yeah, Cedar Park and Round Rock, they do fiction really well, too – but more of the bestseller lists, things like that. They tend more toward the usual, we tend more toward the unusual.
Austin Chronicle: And how has the internet affected business?
Drew Miller: Besides listing all of our inventory online – which is probably the biggest way, because there’s a certain degree of inventory verification and scanning we have to be really rigorous with, so it’s increased labor to some degree – but it pays for itself with the internet sales we get. But, in terms of effect on sales at the store? It’s only negatively affected the disposable reading experience – and that’s mass-market paperbacks. Because, more and more, now-a-days, publishers are defaulting to smaller publishing runs with mass-market paperbacks, they’re favoring e-books instead – where the cost is generally much lower with a higher return. So we see fewer paperbacks and we sell fewer paperbacks. It’s still one of our biggest item types, but it’s really the only thing that’s been affected.
Austin Chronicle: Well, that’s encouraging.
Drew Miller: Yeah, there was this whole environment of fear in bookstores in 2008 to 2010. Not about “How are e-readers going to destroy us?” but about “How fast are e-readers going to destroy us?” But it really didn’t affect anything but paperbacks. And, in fact, we sell e-readers now – which is kind of a funny position to be in.
Austin Chronicle: I tend to use them as a sort of culling device. I mean, when I read a book onscreen, if it’s not just meh, if it’s something I really like, I’ll want to get a good physical copy of it.
Drew Miller: Turns out a lot of other people do that, too.
Austin Chronicle: And for the rare books? Now anybody can check the internet and see what you’ve got here.
Merrit Spencer: Yeah, and we have an incredible variety that you just can’t find anywhere else.
Drew Miller: And we’ve got something else that you can’t get on the internet. We’re pretty unique among Half Price locations, because us and the Dallas flagship store – they’re Store No. 1 – we both have a large community area. And, at our store, we have someone specific who runs events for that, and he’ll put together events for authors to promote and sell their books, whether they want to do it on their own or sell books on consignment with us, and so we have a decent section devoted to books by local authors. In fact, being a bookstore, we have some writers on staff – and a couple of the bestselling books we have in the store were written by people who work for us. We also have big-name authors coming through, too, every now and then. And sometimes we have a trivia night, and we had a cosplay-and-sketch event, where people would show up in costume and there’d be artists there to sketch them. We prefer to have interesting things going on whenever we can.