A Novel Idea

After four decades in business, Bookmans sticks to its core content

Bob Oldfather loves books…but he’s not in love with them. That emotional distinction is the reason Bookmans, one of the largest used booksellers in the country, has been in business for 40 years.

Oldfather started the first Bookmans location in Tucson four decades ago after paying $1 to his father for Livingston’s Used Books at Broadway and Tucson Boulevard. At age 25, Oldfather didn’t know anything about books—or retail for that matter—but he promptly changed the name of the store and was officially in the bookselling business.

“The lack of perceived notions of what a bookstore should be served me well,” explains Oldfather, who lives on an orchard farm in Oregon and says his role as CEO is now more philosophical than tactical. “It’s allowed me to make decisions dispassionately.”

Today, Bookmans has 250 employees, operates in six locations throughout Arizona—including Tucson, Phoenix, Mesa and Flagstaff—and is exploring opportunities for store expansion in other states. Oldfather attributes Bookmans longevity to hiring people smarter than himself and an ability to objectively step away from his product line.

While Bookmans has weathered typical growing pains, the nature of the used book industry has made it possible to recover from shifts in the market, according to Oldfather.

“The used model allows us to be a little more flexible than other businesses,” he says.

Like many other brick-and-mortar establishments, Bookmans also has adapted to evolving technology and its effect on flattening access to good and services.”

Oldfather says the changes in the book industry, and in retail in general, have been radical.

“The disruption of the internet means things like books and music are available at a larger level,” he explains. “Amazon, eBay and the like aren’t going away. We like shiny, 3-D objects. But we also like to be around humans. Look at coffee shops. They are packed, with everyone using their laptops.”

Oldfather has capitalized on both factors, creating an environment at Bookmans that caters to the basic human need for social interaction while riding the trends of the moment—all while being customer-centric.

“If customers love Harlequin romances, we’re not here to change their minds,” he says.

Over the years, Bookmans has bought, sold and traded books, music, video games and CDs, as well as musical instruments and sports equipment as part of its entertainment exchange. An online component and store features like Wi-Fi, electric vehicle charging stations, being pet friendly and even a café in one location also have helped enhance the used bookstore experience.

“Change is constant. Most of the things we’ve tried have worked out. We still sell video game cartridges. Things grow organically. We were an Atari computer dealer for a while, too,” says Oldfather. “All businesses have to remain relevant and spend time understanding where they are going.”

While he thinks Bookmans has been a great engine for experiments, what works best for the company is being what it’s always been.

“We’re doubling down on being a bookstore,” says Oldfather, a commitment that includes selling off all of the company’s sports inventory by the end of 2016.

“We’re sticking close to our roots. We’re proud to be a bookseller. A bookstore has a certain energy and cultural significance, a place to find others with similar interests and discover things you didn’t even know you were looking for. And a community that has a bookstore is a better community.”

Story by Sally J. Clasen
Photography by Mark Lipczynski

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