$4 Bookstore protecting the secret to its success

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Sarah Zwijacz (left) is one of the few employees at the $4 Bookstore, where female staffers refer to themselves as Book Chicks.

$4 Bookstore

Owner: Carissa Camden

2515 Airport Road

Phone: 471-4053

www.4dollarbookstore.com

Carissa Camden has a secret — it’s the secret to her success, and she isn’t telling.

Camden owns the $4 Bookstore, a place that sells paperbacks for $2 and hardback books for $4 — no matter the age of the book, the value of the book or the condition it’s in.

But that’s not the secret.

The secret is where she gets “truckloads full of books” to sell online and at the new bricks-and-mortar store at 2515 Airport Road.

“I can’t tell you that,” she said. “It’s a trade secret. It’s how we make our money — and people pay big for that kind of information.”

Camden should know. At 26, she’s been selling used books online since she was an 18-year-old college dropout looking to start a business.

“And it pays pretty well,” she said. “It’s a job; it’s hard work. It’s not a million-dollar-a-year job. Sometimes I work 60 hours a week, packaging books and answering emails about books.”

Camden and her husband buy the stacks of leftover books by the truckload, and previously they recycled the ones they deemed wouldn’t sell online. Instead of simply throwing them away, she hit upon the idea of the $4 Bookstore.

“We’re a little different,” she said. “Two price points for books. Partly because I’m lazy; partly because it draws in a certain type of treasure hunter — people who love books and want a bargain.”

Camden refers to herself as a “serial entrepreneur” and says she’s hoping to grow this business like she did other ones. Her first business was in sixth grade. She’d buy the popular Beanie Babies at toy stores and resell them at flea markets.

“I remember people were paying $200 for a particular Beanie Baby,” she said. “Now you see them at garage sales all the time.”

Her second business: an ice cream truck in high school, to earn money for college. But college wasn’t really for her, and she turned to online book sales.

“I wasn’t an A+ student, and there wasn’t financial aid,” she said. “Besides, I didn’t want to work for someone else, 9 to 5. I wanted to create my own business.”

Camden says that owning a “real” bookstore — as opposed to one online — comes with its own challenges and rewards. She loves getting to know repeat customers.

“We had a truckload of vintage cookbooks, some of them dating back to the 1800s,” she said. “We had generations of families come in, buying cookbooks that they remembered their grandmother using. It’s just nice to have that connection with people. For a lot of people, they’re more than books — they’re memories.”

At the same time, Camden acknowledges that it’s difficult to operate even a used bookstore in today’s digital environment. Location is a problem as well.

“We’re kind of tucked out of the way,” she said. “But once people find us, they come back. That’s what’s so rewarding — we have so many repeat customers. It makes sense too, if you spend $4 on a book, you’re more willing to take a chance on an unknown author. If it’s bad, you haven’t wasted $28 on a hardback that you hate.”

Camden addresses the location — and the digital age problem — the same way. She’s on Facebook, and she’s learning Twitter. She’s done a few traditional ads, but relies instead on Living Social and Groupon.

“With our profit margins, we can offer big discounts at Living Social and have it work for us,” she said. “Facebook has been great too. We spend about $100 a month on social media advertising, and it pays off in new customers, in returning customers.”

It doesn’t make sense to pass up taking advantage of social media, she said.

“I don’t care how old you are, or what kind of business you have,” Camden said. “It pays to be on Facebook. People spend an average of an hour a day on Facebook, and you have to be in front of them.”

The repeat business, combined with the online book sales, means that $4 Bookstore is looking for a second location. This time, Camden is looking for sites in northern Colorado Springs.

“We’re going to have that site opened in the next six months,” she said. “I’m pretty confident about that.”

To bolster revenue, Camden is trying to break into the local textbook market. Not only will she pay cash for college textbooks, but she re-sells them at the same price as the rest of her books: $4.

“That means some local college students could save $100 on their textbooks,” she said. “We’re really working to break into the market because it’s a lucrative market. The books we don’t sell online are books we can sell here.”

Camden recognizes the challenges of her chosen business. But, she said, she wouldn’t have it any other way.

“You do what you love, what you’re passionate about,” she said. “As cheesy as it sounds, if there’s something you want to do, be a go-getter, and go out and do it.”