An Ode to Half Price Books
As the Dallas chain celebrates its sapphire anniversary, a personal look at what the secondhand book store means to people.
It’s amazing that Half Price Books is still standing as other bookstore chains struggle. Borders closed its doors in 2011; holiday sales at Barnes and Noble dropped 9 percent over the previous year in 2016. Even Amazon—which started as an online bookstore—has diversified to offer not only eBooks, but devices, groceries, and everything in between. Unlike other businesses, the decreased competition isn’t really an asset for Half Price Books. The Dallas-based secondhand book chain relies on a steady flow of new inventory to sustain itself, and if fewer bookstores are out there, there are also fewer places for people to get titles to buy, finish, and sell to their neighborhood secondhand store. In that way, Half Price Books should be struggling in exactly the same ways that the rest of the industry has been for more than a decade. Maybe more so—things like adult coloring books, which helped buoy sales at chains like Barnes and Noble for a few years, don’t have much in the way of resale value. (Who wants to color somebody else’s pages?)
But instead of shuttering stores and looking for big business partners, Half Price Books is celebrating its forty-fifth anniversary on Thursday. With 122 stores in 17 states, the business ended last year with $260 million in total sales. In 2014, Fortune published an essay from CEO Sharon Anderson Wright about the company’s uncanny ability to weather the storm, noting that in 2013 the store posted a $240 million revenue. It doesn’t seem intuitive from an economical standpoint, but Half Price Books is only growing. And that’s because the chain transcends a business model: the cultural roles that books, bookstores, the secondhand market, and bargain-hunting play in Americans’ lives help explain why it endures.
After 45 years, Half Price is an institution in Texas. Forty-five of those 122 stores are right here, in Dallas-Fort Worth, Houston, Austin, San Antonio, Corpus Christi, College Station, Tyler, and more. Some are brightly-lit retailers that recall big-box stores. Others are small, with walls decorated with beat-up paperback covers and old records lovingly displayed by employees who quit working there years earlier. But no matter the size, the stores beckon not only bargain-hunters, but those who seek the immediate gratification of a physical purchase that a click on Amazon Prime just can’t provide. And it isn’t just the cheap prices that put Half Price in a squarely different league than Barnes and Noble or Borders. Those were lifelines for book-lovers in the suburbs in the days before Amazon, but there was always something corporate and institutional that dulled their charm. That was literally the plot of the fourteenth highest-grossing film of 1998. Half Price, though, by its very nature of its inventory gathering, are stocked with the books that people in the local area like to read. It feels tailored. It feels special.
When I first moved to Austin at 22, I wanted to get paid to be around, and think about, books all day. So when I was hired at the Half Price store on South Lamar it felt like a dream come true, even if I was just working the cash register. I moved on to the buy counter—the people responsible for inspecting and coming up with an offer for traded-in books—and, eventually, to curate the games and humor section. It wasn’t all as fun as I had imagined—a big part of the job involved saran-wrapping random collections of romance novels to stack along the aisles, which my manager insisted on calling “love bundles.” And working the buy counter meant at least one encounter a night with an angry customer who was convinced that their merchandise was worth way more than it was. I understood their frustration. Giving up a collection of books that have been read and loved only to be offered a quarter for the entire box can be a traumatic experience—even if there were crates of those same Stephen King titles sitting uncatalogued in the back of the store.
But mostly, my experience at Half Price was a chance to be surrounded by things I loved. I worked with a staff of co-workers who all shared my dream of spending 40 hours a week in that environment, not to mention bookworm customers who happily toted stacks of used books up to the register. After turns as a temp at the University Co-op and a barista at Starbucks (I don’t even drink coffee), it felt like coming home. I bonded with a co-worker at the buy counter over a VHS collection of episodes of My So-Called Life. We took our paid, hour-long lunches together and stashed the really good finds for each other in the back room. Eventually, reader, I married her, and years later we bought a house a block away from a Half Price Books store on the other side of town.
All of that’s my Half Price Books experience, but it seems that everyone has their own. People my wife and I worked with partnered up and remain that way to this day. When I clear off space on my shelves by taking my old, well-loved books to the buy counter now, I can recognize the move from the staff to set aside the good stuff for their fellow employees. When I mentioned that I was working on this story to fellow Texas Monthly staffers, they volunteered stories of their favorite finds—a signed copy of George Saunders’ Tenth of December that somehow escaped the rare books room and sold for half of the cover price, Attia Hosain’s obscure 1961 novel Sunlight on a Broken Column, copies of bizarre non-fiction books like Letters To E.T. and Diversions for the Sick. If you’re a Half Price Books customer, or former employee, you have your own story.
And that, I believe, is why Half Price Books is celebrating its forty-fifth anniversary as a sustainable business, rather than one that’s anxious that it won’t survive to see fifty. Sure, there are other elements to it—the stores are now in the business of selling brand new copies of current bestsellers direct from publishers at a 20 percent discount; they’ve invested heavily in distributing new copies of vinyl records, which is a growing market for everybody from Best Buy to Urban Outfitters to Amazon; they’ve kept the footprint of individual stores low, ensuring that changes to the market aren’t crippling.
But mostly, in a world where anything we want is a quick search away, Half Price Books feels like a place where discovery is possible—where finding something great happens less often, but in a more satisfying way. It’s a place where you might connect with a fellow shopper or employee over that copy of Karen Olsson’s Waterloo—whether that results in a quick exchange while waiting for the register or, you know, pending nuptials. The real sense of connection at Half Price Books, after all, is straight from its business model: you’re picking up something that someone, finally, put down.