Madison Antiquarian Books
The following is edited and updated from an article that appeared in the Memphis Business Journal, July 5, 1999.
Dealer in Rare Tomes Selling Entirely Online
He may never have published a book himself, but that hasn't stopped John Stephens from finding a way to earn a living from the written word.
Retired from the title business, Stephens has found a way to transform his love of a good, rare book into a career. Oddly enough, most of this success came once he closed down his low-tech Madison Avenue Books storefront in Memphis and reopened his operation as a high-tech venture on the Internet.
"We sell about twice the amount of books we sold through the store front," says Stephens, who adds that one of his main concerns these days is that his small business is generating too much business.
Stephens traces his career as a book dealer back to his hobby as a Civil War buff.
"I was involved in the Civil War era as a student," recalls Stephens. "I enjoyed studying it and finding old books about it."
He started hanging out at book stores, used book sales, rare book shows and Civil War conventions in pursuit of his pastime as something of an amateur Civil War historian. He began amassing a decent sized collection of rare Civil War-related books and memorabilia. Gradually Stephens moved into the realm of buying, trading and selling this material with others interested in the Civil War.
"This lead from the collecting of books to the retail selling of books," he says. "I specialized in the Civil War for a long time and then I started diversifying."
For the first couple of years, Stephens conducted most of the book business at book shows and through a catalog of the inventory. One day, he looked around and found himself literally surrounded by books. "I had accumulated so many books that I either had to put them in storage or open up a book store, so I opened up a book store," he notes, adding that he took early retirement after spending many years in the title business.
In 1995, Stephens launched Madison Avenue Books at 1862 Madison in Midtown, near Madison and McLean. The small business fared well enough through the traditional means, which was having customers wander in and browse the book shelves.
However, in 1997, Stephens decided to see what kind of business could be garnered by booking some of the inventory on the Internet. He says while he was more or less computer illiterate at the time, he bought a computer and then got on the Internet." Recalls Stephens. "I believe that we got in on the ground floor--probably the first independent book dealers in Memphis to do it."
Madison Avenue Books, like many other independent, rare and first edition book dealers, connected its Website with American Book Exchange on the Internet. Stephens says it wasn't long before his Website averaged 100-150 hits each day. As more book sales started taking place over the Internet, Stephens began considering becoming a strictly online book dealer. In early 1998 Stephens closed the Madison Avenue Books store.
In December 1998, after several months of deliberation, Stephens signed an agreement with barnesandnoble.com that allows Barnes & Noble's online customers to search Madison Avenue Books' inventory when hunting for a particular rare or first edition book. As a supporter of independent book stores, Stephens says he was wary of the threat posed to such small business operators by giant book store chains such as Barnes & Noble. However, the offer Barnes & Noble made was generous and Stephens sees e-commerce as simply the way more business will be conducted in the future. In addition to the American Book Exchange and Barnes and Noble, he now has books listed online with Alibiris, Amazon, Borders, and The Book Cellar.
He says he averages 12-15 book sales a day from the Internet. When he had the bookstore, he averaged five or six sales a day. When he is not selling books, Stephens spends a good part of his time finding rare books to replace the inventory he has sold.
Today, Madison Avenue Books has over 18,000 titles online. Stephens expects to stabilize his stock of books at around 20,000. The books are currently stored in a third garage at his home and that facility is overflowing. He would like to open up the house for a "by-appointment-only" business in addition to the Internet sales, however, crowded conditions prevent that.
Of course, finding new rare books is one of the most difficult and most pleasurable aspects of his career, says Stephens. With the competition for that rare book becoming more fierce every day, Stephens enjoys those occasions when he uncovers a valuable gem of a book among the junk.
"You are always out for the hunt in this business," he says. "Sometime you can find some unreal stuff. You might pick up something for one dollar that can be sold for $1,000."
Some of his best sources for uncovering a rare book are estate sales and charity book sales, he says.
Examples of his best finds include a rare first edition of a Eudora Welty book which she had signed. Another is a book by James Earl Ray that he bought for $1. The book has Ray's signature in it as well as Ray's brother's autograph. That is on the market for $500. Stephens also bought a book by former President Gerald Ford for $1 that had a long paragraph hand-written by Ford inside the book. He sold that one for $750. He currently has a first edition of Gone With The Wind that he is offering for $1,000.
Stephens has also been known to "camp out" all night for special book signings. During Summer 2004, Stephens and his wife drove to Washington and slept in the streets of D.C. to get President Clinton's My Life autographed.
In recent months, Stephens has gone back to his first love which is Civil War era books and memorabilia. His recent acquisitions include several rare Civil War titles such as Mosby and His Men: A Record of the Adventures of that Renowned Patrician Ranger, John S. Mosby. In addition to rare Civil War books, he has updated his inventory to include a Civil War Confederate Shell Jacket, a Civil War Period Albumen, and a host of other Civil War images. These can be seen on the Civil War pages of this website.
In October, 2004, Madison Avenue Books launched its new website. In the future, Stephens would like to use this site solely as the Internet vehicle for his online business.
In September, 2005, Madison Avenue Books became Madison Antiquarian Books. The new name more accurately reflects the nature of the used bookstore.
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