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Jan 08, 2014  |  Vote 0    0

Old Goat Books thrives using new technology

Waterloo Region Record
By

WATERLOO — For seven years, Michael Loubert worked to complete the online catalogue of 16,000 second-hand volumes that brings business from around the world to his small store in Waterloo.

A few years after opening Old Goat Books in March 2001, Loubert realized he had to get a catalogue of his stock linked to the Advanced Book Exchange — or ABEBooks — one of the world's biggest online marketplaces for books.

When he did not have to attend to customers in his 700-square-foot shop, Loubert sat at his computer creating a digital showcase for his store. For every book, Loubert entered the title, author, publisher, year of publication, where it was published, number of pages, condition, weight and a short description. The weight is included so customers can quickly determine shipping costs.

The online catalogue is changed every time a new book is added to store shelves and every time another is sold. The updated version is uploaded at the end of every business day.

"I have catalogued tens of thousands of books," Loubert says. "It is all kind of a blur to me."

The past year saw two other used-book sellers in Waterloo Region — one in Kitchener and one in Waterloo — close their doors. They were squeezed by narrow-profit margins on the sale of used books and increasing rents.

The catalogue that Loubert painstakingly created and maintained at www.oldgoatbooks.com is great for business, and gets some of the credit for keeping the doors open while others closed.

"It's cheap advertising," Loubert says. "Every day, I have people calling me up or coming into my store — every day — and saying: 'I saw that you have such and such.' "

In addition to that business, book lovers from around the world make online connections through ABEBooks, which amount to 10 or 15 per cent of all sales.

"It's like having an extra few book shelves selling stuff," Loubert says. "And occasionally I sell a nice item on ABE. Last week I sold a $70 book on design, on interior design, to a guy in Macau. I have sold books to people in Thailand, South Africa, all over Europe and North America."

While sorting through a box of books someone brought into the store, Loubert found a jewel: a first edition of poetry by Lucy Maud Montgomery — the famous author of the 1908 classic Anne of Green Gables. Loubert added the volume of poetry to the online catalogue, asking $1,800 for it. A monk in upstate New York called.

"We dickered over the price and he talked me down to $1,300," Loubert says. "That's probably the highest, most expensive one I have sold."

Loubert started in the business working for A Second Look in Kitchener when that used-book store was located on Queen Street South. A friend at the store was leaving and recommended Loubert for the job. Loubert was ready for a change, having spent his twenties delivering junk mail, working in a hockey-stick factory and washing dishes.

After 12 years at A Second Look, he partnered with longtime friend Scott Wicken to open Old Goat Books. The two amicably dissolved their business partnership a few years ago, but remain good friends. Wicken is a well-known singer, songwriters, poet and spoken-word artist.

"Scott was instrumental in getting the store going," Loubert says. "We opened it on a shoestring."

They bought planks from a Mennonite-owned sawmill in Maryhill to build the floor-to-ceiling shelves, and finished their woodwork with hand-rubbed linseed oil. Gooseneck lamps, clamped to braces or the top of stacks, bathe the volumes in a warm gentle light. The quaint little shop oozes character and charm.

While Loubert and Wicken planned the store at a kitchen table, Wicken's partner, Shelly, came up with the name. She said the two men looked like a grizzled pair of old-horned ungulates, so they should call it Old Goat Books.

When Loubert started in the business, used book stores routinely compiled a catalogue that was mailed to regular customers. These days, Loubert maintains a Facebook page for his shop in addition to the online catalogue.

As Loubert slowly walks among the stacks in his shop, it is hard to believe he wants to add another 4,000 volumes to his stock. He points to the shelves above a door packed with paperback fiction.

"This was the mainstay of the used-book trade at one time," Loubert says. "You would fill half your store with this stuff. It didn't matter what condition it was in, people would read this stuff like crazy."

Now Loubert is slowly phasing out popular paperback fiction because a lot of that market moved to e-readers.

Loubert is guided by general rules that evolved from his long experience in the trade. He buys books that are in good shape, and books that have a market. Poetry does surprisingly well, and Charles Bukowski's books fly off the shelves.

He does not stock political biographies or hardcover editions of popular fiction. The demand simply does not last. But science fiction and fantasy have a large, loyal following and are always in demand.

Loubert almost always buys up books by Philip K. Dyck, J.R.R.Tolkien, Ernest Hemingway, F. Scott Fitzgerald, Kurt Vonnegut, Charles Dickens, Rudyard Kipling, Joseph Conrad, Mark Twain, Truman Capote, Henry Miller, Robertson Davies, Margaret Atwood, Margaret Lawrence and Alice Monroe.

The release of a movie based on a classic work of literature or the awarding of major prizes have huge impacts on sales. When Alice Munroe won the Nobel Prize for literature, sales spiked.

"I had a full shelf of Alice Munroe and it all went in two days," Loubert says. "And then I bought more. I bought another half shelf, and it's all gone."

Old Goat Books is located at the corner of King Street North and Young Street. The rent is less expensive than uptown spots, and the location is close to the universities. Post-secondary students are mainstay customers.

"Something else that happened in the last four or five years that I find very encouraging is that I am selling more older edition, hardcover literature to students," Loubert says. "I am getting students who are interested in the book as a cultural artifact as well as something to read."

Loubert works for what he figures is minimum wage.

"I don't own a car. I don't have a computer at home. I cook my own food," Loubert says. "I get to walk into a bookstore everyday and do what I want. I would much rather do that for very little money than work for somebody else on something that I hate with somebody I despise."

tpender@therecord.com

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