From digital to tangible: Online bookseller opens shop in Idaho Falls

March 7, 2019
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Books on the Renaissance era are seen at The Book Shelf on Monday.

For the first time in more than two years, Idaho Falls has a used bookstore.

The Book Shelf, a locally owned business located at 575 Third St., opened last month.

This is Idaho Falls’ first used bookstore since Book City closed in 2016. Until now, only Barnes and Noble and the Idaho Falls Public Library had large selections of books in Idaho Falls.

The Book Shelf is owned by Michael Barber, an Idaho Falls native. You may have bought books from him in the past without knowing it; he’s been selling used books on Amazon for the last decade. While retailers across the country are leaving brick-and-mortar stores and selling exclusively online, Barber went the opposite direction.

Barber, his wife Amanda Poitevin and the store manager/partial owner Tony Chabis took what used to be a warehouse — where Barber and his father, Alan Barber, began fulfilling online book orders in 2010 — and cleaned it up, bolted down the shelves, bought a cash register and invited underserved Idaho Falls bookworms to buy, sell or trade.

Online to brick and mortar

When Alan Barber stopped working at Book City in the late 2000s he had a collection of used books that presented a potentially lucrative business opportunity. While finding an affordable space to house such a large inventory is difficult, those books, which were kept in his basement, could be sold online without the hassle of operating a storefront.

Barber, who died in 2015, began selling his books on Amazon, which made it easy for small businesses to sell used books for cheap by offering shipping incentives. He named the business Western Scholars Bookshelf.

At the same time, Michael Barber was finishing school at the University of Montana. Upon graduation, in the midst of the Great Recession, job prospects were bleak.

When he couldn’t find a job, Michael Barber moved home to run the online bookstore with his dad.

“I really had no other option so I came home and I started working with him,” Barber said. “Six months into it there was the balance of either try to find a new job or keep doing this. Over time the financial incentive started to actually be there.”

After nine months, Western Scholars Bookshelf was making enough money to move out of the basement.

“More than even the selling of the books, the (process of) building something is what became so attractive about it,” Michael Barber said.

The father and son bought a 2,200-square-foot space on Third Street to store their growing inventory. The storehouse was conveniently located across Freeman Avenue from the post office, where they would spend much of their time shipping orders.

In 2011, Michael Barber took over the business full time. He spent his days scouring the region, looking for books to resell online. He had a circuit that included thrift stores, estate sales and libraries in Idaho, Utah and Montana.

Sun Valley, where his future wife lived at the time, was part of the circuit.

“That’s part of how we started dating,” Poitevin said. “He could come to Sun Valley and justify it because it was business.”

After a decade, Barber had collected a large inventory of books and he owned the Third Street storehouse. Meanwhile selling books on Amazon became more difficult.

Shipping with Amazon, which in recent years has become the world’s largest online retailer, has become “significantly more expensive,” Barber said. And the retail giant has strict demands about quickly fulfilling orders.

“The economic incentives that used to be there for selling online are going away,” he said. “The legitimate hope is to not be on Amazon anymore.”

How can an online bookseller stop selling books online?

They bought a cash register, put price tags on the books — which took Barber, Poitevin and Chabis more than two months to do — and opened up the warehouse.

Also, some decorating needed to be done.

“Every good decision you see in here — all of the ‘Oh, that’s interesting, that looks nice’ — it’s all my wife,” Barber said. “Before she got involved it was a warehouse, basically.”

A bookstore in the modern age

The age of e-commerce has not been good for retailers. Last year, 5,524 major retailers closed stores in the U.S., while just 3,083 opened, according to Coresight Research, a retail data research firm.

Idaho Falls has recently seen Sears, Kmart and Payless ShoeSource shutter.

But bookstores may be an exception.

In the last decade there has been a resurgence for independent bookstores, according to the American Booksellers Association. Book sales at independent bookstores increased about 7.6 percent between 2016 and 2018, the ABA says.

Brick and mortar bookstores fill a different need than internet bookstores.

At The Book Shelf, a shopper is consumed by shelves of books. The shop is not large but it is full. Sections include history, biography, outdoors, children, foreign language, religion, art, business, reference, science fiction, literature, music, crafts, education and a large LDS section.

The books are arranged in a way meant to smoothly carry a casual shopper from topic to topic.

“History flows well into science, which flows well into naturalism, which flows well into philosophy, which flows well into architecture,” Barber said. “They all sort of make sense.”

Walking through the aisles allows a shopper to find something they weren’t looking for. It’s like Amazon’s recommended books feature, except the shelves don’t already know your entire shopping history.

“If you know what you want, you just go to Amazon and type it in, right?” Barber said. “Stores like this are about people who don’t know what they want. Or they’re looking for something but they’re open to other things as well. You may find the one thing you’re looking for but you find four things that you’re not looking for. It’s much more of an experience for people who are just looking for a book.”

The books are affordable. They range in price from $2.99 to $11.99. Most cost between $3 and $7.

“The goal in a used bookstore is someone should pick up a book, look at it and say ‘I can afford that,’” Barber said. “If something catches someone’s eye, they should be able to just buy it and not really have to think too hard about it.”

The Book Shelf offers to buy used books from or trade with customers. Sellers get the trade-in value marked off a future purchase at the store or half of the trade-in value if they want cash.

Barber said he hopes to slowly build a regular clientele. And he can build slowly because he’s in a unique position as a bookseller: the stock of books and storefront that he owns make his business solvent.

“The things you’re worried about when you open a bookstore: I’m in debt for my inventory, I’m in debt for my fixtures,” Barber said. “I own all my inventory, I own all my fixtures. I don’t have any bills.”

Opening The Book Shelf made economic sense, Barber said, but ultimately it’s a family business to share with his wife and future children.

“I built it with my dad,” he said. “I just want to keep it around.”

The Book Shelf is open Monday through Friday from 10 a.m. to 7 p.m. and on Saturday from 10 a.m. to 5 p.m.