Sellers & Newel Second-Hand Books, which opened at 672 College St. in the fall of 2011, has its roots in an act of necessity—business partners Peter Sellers and David Newel found themselves running out of room for their spiraling personal collections. Now, they’re all up for sale at the store, including everything from a vintage police-officer’s training manual on Jiu-Jitsu to a first paperback edition of On the Road.
How they got started: ”I had two storage lockers full of books, plus others, and David was looking to sell some of his books to me and I had nowhere left to put them,” says Sellers. “David had worked for the better part of 20 years in the second-hand book business and I was driving down to his place one day and the thought came to me: Let’s open a book store. That was July 2011; we took this space in the middle of that October and we opened mid-November.”
Had Sellers ever thought about opening a bookstore before making such a spur-of-the-moment decision? “There was a lot of buying and selling going on, and I did have a notion of selling stuff online and started to do that,” says Sellers. “But, just all of a sudden, I thought, ‘Nah, this is what I really want to do.’”
How they found the right location: It took the pair a few initial attempts before they settled on the store’s current home. “We had a lot of serious fun finding locations—we tried on a lot places that really weren’t going to work,” says Newel. “This is a great neighbourhood. We had some overall geographic parameters and this fit in there.”
Although the search had been focused on Queen West at the beginning, Sellers and Newel are quite pleased to find themselves on the western end of College, which of late has seen a small influx of retailers, including Of a Kind and June Records. “We had probably originally been thinking a little further south, more like Queen, but this worked out great,” says Sellers. “There’s certainly lots going on. The June Records guys are great, they’ve got a great shop—we have a lot of people coming in here clutching their recently purchased vinyl, usually asking for our music section, which is something that we’re going to be expanding.”
What makes it to the sales floor: Dealing with a relatively small amount of retail space when compared to their ever-growing volumes of stock means that the duo have to apply a ruthless filter when determining what goes on display. For Sellers, that’s all part of the fun.
“One of the enjoyable parts of the process was going through all that stuff and picking what was going to go on the floor,” he says. “Again, it’s a small space, so we have to make sure that what we have here is all of a certain quality. Some of it’s gut, and then there’s things that we’ve learned over time. We’ve got a fashion section. We had a bunch of fashion books in the basement and then, one Saturday, two guys came in one right after the other and said, ‘Do you have any fashion books?’ So we took them down to the basement, said, ‘Here they are,’ and they both said, ‘These are great—you should have them upstairs!’”
But basing their decisions solely on what customer requests doesn’t always pan out the way they expected. “There’s a difference between people who ask for books and people who ask and buy,” says Newel. “We created a very impressive cookbook section because people asked; no one bought a thing.”
That said, there are some certainties. “If it’s about drugs and we put it in the window, it goes like that,” says Sellers.
There are also many books to be found appealing to more niche interests that reflect the owners’ sensibilities. “We have some amazing arctic-exploration books and we have some outstanding vintage martial-arts books—these are areas that we just kind of fell into,” says Sellers. “I’ve always had an interest in polar exploration, so when we had an opportunity to get some of that, I pursued it. And I’m a martial artist, so when this other stuff came up, I grabbed it as well. It’s really been interesting seeing how that has sold and discovering what was out there.”
The unofficial store policy—if you don’t see it, ask: ”The very first book we sold when we opened was a history of the National Football League to a guy who still comes back, and we’re constantly finding books about the NFL for him,” says Sellers. “Usually, he takes them, sometimes he doesn’t. And that’s something else that we do: We’ll find books for people. Frequently, we’ll fill special orders within 24 hours using the network that we have and the material we’ve got in storage that we know we can access quickly,” says Sellers. “If you don’t see it, ask. Because frequently, we’ve got it; we just don’t have room to put it out. And if we don’t have it today, we’ll have it tomorrow—it’ll be here when we open tomorrow morning.”
How they keep the price on point: “Our price range is $1 to $2,000—so it’s pretty broad,” says Sellers, “We are not an expensive bookstore, but we do have some expensive books—we have some really lovely items and we have some very scarce books. And there are people who, I think, are a little put off by some of the prices we have that maybe they’re not expecting. We’re not a paperback exchange. We treat our books really well—if they’re hardcover books in dust jackets, we clean the jackets. We put acetate protectors on them and we do a lot of things that people in the street-level used-book business don’t do. We treat books well here.”
While the shop certainly appeals to serious collectors, Sellers and Newel try to maintain the feel of a neighbourhood bookshop. “We are interesting and affordable,” says Newel. “As we sometimes put it, small ‘a’ antiquarian—it’s not leather sets from ceiling to floor, but we’ve got things here you’re not going to find anywhere else in Toronto. Or anywhere.”
As collectors themselves, the duo finds it sometimes can be hard to part with certain books, and this feeling can influence their pricing policy from time-to-time. “It’s less difficult with time,” says Sellers, “but, definitely, there are things in here that, if they don’t sell, we’re not going to be heartbroken and they’re priced accordingly.”
But, more often then not, Sellers and Newel find a sense of joy in seeing personal favourites move on to new homes. “One of the great things about this trade is you really do have an attachment to and an affection for what you’re selling,” says Newel. “There isn’t a day that goes by that someone will come up to buy something and you say, ‘That should have sold the first week we were open.’ And you congratulate them on buying the book.”