Sixth-Chamber: Inside a Used Bookstore

By Colleen Good

The Mac Weekly spoke with James Williams, the sole founder and owner of Sixth Chamber Used Books. Sixth Chamber Used Books is an independent used bookstore at 1332 Grand Ave.TMW: What inspired you to found the bookstore?

JW: Well, it had been my long-time dream to start my own bookstore-I worked in a lot of other bookstores. Figured I’d create the sort of used bookstore that had the feel that a new bookstore has. . Seems like a long time ago now.

TMW: Who are your typical customers?

JW: We’re really, really fortunate in that we have a good range of customers. Our kid books do great, and all the way to nice older customers too.

TMW: Generally, are the books that come in good books, or do you have to turn people away?

JW: We get a lot of great books here. But we’re very picky. You have to go through the books, look for any damage-water damage, writing, the spine, stuff like that, and then there’s lots of categories of books that don’t do too well for us. There’s one category of book that we have now that we have to turn all kinds of great customers away, but there’s a new Federal law that we’re not allowed to sell books for kids that were printed before 1985. So lots of great books out there, but these sorts of things can not be sold anymore, so we have to turn all of those away.

TMW: Why can’t they be sold?

JW: There’s a minimal amount of lead in the printer’s ink that they use. So if you swallowed the pages, you would get some lead poisoning. Never been a case. It’s a reactive problem with all of the Chinese milk poisoning, stuff like that.

TMW: What genres of books are your strongest?

JW: Our strongest areas are kids’ areas. We measure the success of all of our sections by linear foot, and see how they do. And every year in January we come out with a report to see how all of the sections fared. And out of the top ten sections, six or seven of those are kids’ sections. So they just do tremendously well for us.

TMW: What made you decide to do a used bookstore instead of a new one?

JW: When we opened, there were five bookstores on Grand Avenue. And the more the merrier! It sort of has an antiques quality to it. If people are interested in books, they will come into a community and say “Wow! There’s a bunch of bookstores there,” and they hit them all. And you don’t have that kind of title duplication problem that you do with new bookstores.

TMW: So what does the name Sixth-Chamber Used Books signify?

JW: It’s very obscure reference to a William Blake poem about the origin of books in his own mythological sense. It doesn’t have anything to do with Satan or anything like that. I think we might scare some people away-“sixth-chamber” has a kind of macabre sound to it. But it’s a very nice poem by William Blake.

TMW: What portion of your sales would you say is in the physical store versus online?

JW: It’s much more in the physical store now. In the old days, we were a very early adopter of selling things online, so back in 2001, we were selling maybe 50% of our sales online. Now it’s about 20%.

TMW: Why do you think it changed so much?

JW: I believe it’s because everybody else went online too. And so now, you go onto any of the consortium sites of used books, and you look up any fairly obscure title, and you’ll see fifty copies of it, you know. Now it’s just so many people-a lot of booksellers are selling online. There’s just a lot of stuff out there.

TMW: What book would you recommend for a busy college student?

JW: I would recommend reading poetry or short stories. Because you want to be able to finish something, you know? And you don’t want to have the temptation of getting a cracking good novel, and thinking “Oh, I should be reading my econ text.but I’d rather be reading this book!”

TMW: And what are some of your favorites?

JW: Well, there are so many great short stories writers these days. like Jhumpa Lahiri, an Indian-American author. She wrote a collection called “Interpreter of Maladies,” and another called “Unaccustomed Earth”-some great collections of short stories. Raymond Carver is a great short stories writer. And Andre Dubus. And then in the poetry area, similarly Raymond Carver-I like his poetry-Wallace Stevens, and William Blake, of course.

TMW: What would you say is the biggest difference between having your own bookstore versus being in charge of a big box store?

JW: Well, it’s great to be independent. I’ve always been sort of independent-minded.

The nice thing about an independent bookstore is always knowing where you are when you’re in business for yourself. I’ve been laid off from five different places in my life, and almost universally there was always this “Oh yeah, don’t worry about it. Everything’s fine. There’s no credence to all those rumors that are going around. Oh, everyone in the conference room, sorry your job is moved to Orlando if you still want it.” It’s nice to know where you are; it’s nice to feel important, you know. You have to come in whether you’re sick or not. It’s great to be able to have a vital quality, as opposed to being another cog in a whacking great machine.

TMW: Have you had to change how you present yourselves online or physically due to all of the increased power online booksellers have?

JW: Now, we just have gotten to the point where we can’t rely on online sales like we used to. And I’m glad we didn’t fall into that trap. A lot of booksellers-especially used bookstores-found that online sales were so profound that a lot of people thought they could close their shops, and just sell online, and then travel around Europe buying books and sell them online in the US. But it never went that way. Suddenly the sales dried up, and now they’re important, but not nearly as important as they used to be.

TMW: How helpful do you think the Sixth-Chamber Facebook page is? I know most businesses have one. But what does it actually do for you?

JW: I don’t know. We haven’t really ascertained much. We started it just a couple of months ago, and we have it linked to Twitter. It’s good to keep up with modern technology. I’m hoping it’s a way to energize customers and be able to get people to come in on weekends. We have a lot of sales just for our Facebook fans.

We occasionally mail out coupons for our mailing list, and it’s a very expensive process. It’s hundreds and hundreds and hundreds of dollars just to send out a coupon. It’d be nice to be able to get people through Facebook instead.

TMW: And what do people do with the pre-1985 children’s books now?

JW: If they are collectible you still can sell them. The law is written obscurely to say something to the effect of: if its price is commensurate with collectability, and it won’t be in the financial range or interest of under twelve-year-olds, then you can carry it. I don’t think you can put it in a kids’ section, but you can put it in the nostalgia section or something like that.

But the sad thing is that it does effect the kinds of books we would like to sell. We don’t sell fun books for hundreds and hundreds of dollars, but it’s great to sell books like Dr. Seuss books from the 70s. These aren’t valuable books. You sell them for two, two dollars and fifty cents. And some of my favorite authors for kids books is a guy named Bill Peet who’s an environmental writer from the 70s, and he did these great environmental books for kids that featured animals forced out of their homes by development and stuff like that. And these are all from the 70s, and none of them are valuable. But you just can’t carry these things. They’re now unavailable.

Luckily the Library Association has said they’re not going to abide by this law, unless they’re specifically mentioned. So they’ve gone against Congress’s wishes. But they can afford to do that, whereas if we were to get hit by a fine like that. there’s never been a known case of exposure, so it’s a sad law. I think that kids are suffering for it.
Luckily the libraries are still carrying them. But if they remove them, then there will be less books out there for kids, and that’s just a sad thing.

A lot of the great books that had a really great message or really well-written text, that was a little more of a focus then than it is now. Now you just get these spectacular artists that go ahead and create these beautiful books-but there’s very little text, or sometimes no text at all, just pictures. And talking about the literacy of children, and the vocabulary of kids, and all of these things that will be affected by this. This seems to me to be more of a danger than any kind of lead exposure.

TMW: Have you noticed any customers who used to come in with their parents who are now still coming in?

JW: We had a kid who worked here for a while who eventually went off to college. But he started shopping here when he was five years old, and he worked here when he was eighteen, so that was kind of cool. And we’ve definitely had kids grow up, and lost some of our customers. bittersweet things that happen when you’ve run a store for a while. We get very close to our customers.