Bookstore was a wonderful idea for entrepreneur

Wonder Book and Video, just off U.S. 40 in Frederick, recently celebrated its 20th anniversary. The book and video store sells used and new items. Owner Chuck Roberts stands in one of the many aisles of books and says that he will probably be in business until they stop making books.

Wonder Book and Video is a bit of a paradox. It is a used-book lover's paradise, housed in a very modern strip shopping center.

And its latest venture is a growing online business where books on obscure topics are sold via the Internet and shipped all over the world.

Wonder Book celebrated its 20th anniversary in September. The store has gone from one 1,800 square-foot retail space next to the old High's Store and the Frederick Motor Co. to three much larger stores and a warehouse on Grove Road.

Chuck Roberts, 46, opened the store in 1980 with a $1,500 investment and a love for old books. "I've always liked books, and I fell in love with this business after a summer job in a used book store," he said. He had finished college and taken a few graduate courses, and was hunting for a job that would indulge his interests.

That job wasn't all romance and reading, however. "For the first store, I built the shelves, cut and stained the wood myself," he said. "I didn't have a clue as to what I was doing, which was probably a good thing."

What he was doing was starting a business that would give Frederick some name recognition. "This store is, as far as I know, the largest store of its kind in the mid-Atlantic area," he said. "Frederick can boast having something pretty unique. We have people come in here from some pretty long distances away."

He advertises regularly in the Washington media, which has paid off.

The concept behind Wonder Book is inexpensive books, most of which are used. Paperbacks are usually sold for half the cover price, while hardcover books are sold for half price or less.

The store's half-million books are arranged by category, stacked in battered, wooden floor-to-ceiling bookshelves. The book stacks sometimes spill over to the floor. The selection is a book-lover's paradise. It ranges from brand-new publishers' overstocks to musty old leather- or cloth-bound books that smell like grandma's attic.

There's a new volume of poetry by W.H. Auden and some old versions of classics by Austen and Faulkner. There is a big supply for those excited by the smell and feel of new volumes. For those who love that old, bookish odor, however, and the feel of thick, old paper, there's a large selection to stimulate the senses.

"Our bread and butter is paperback books," Mr. Roberts said. But this is the place to come to find unusual cookbooks, biographies, literary criticism, volumes of poetry, anthologies of short story, books on nature, science and travel, and children's books.

Children's classics dominate one whole section of shelves. Hardy Boys, Nancy Drew and the Bobbsey Twins are flanked by Robin Kane, Ruth Fielding, Tom Fairfield and the Rover Boys. There are shelves full of romances, Westerns, science fiction and fantasy.

Then there are obscure textbooks and books used by home-schooled students. "We try to look for areas that the larger bookstores don't serve as adequately, where they can't squash us with what marketing and millions of dollars of advertising can do," Mr. Roberts said.

Some of the books that don't sell, but the staff feel might sell for a lower price, go to a clearance store in Prospect Plaza. There is a smaller full-service store in Hagerstown, also. Between the three stores, Mr. Roberts estimates are 1 million books.

He estimates he employs between 60 and 70 people in the three stores and the warehouse. Some of the part-timers are students who would rather work in a bookstore than in fast food. Many start while in high school and return to work during breaks throughout their college years.

The store also features videos for rent and sale, attracting another whole set of customers. There are lots of first-run videos, along with titles from the '80s and '90s, but there are classics and foreign films as well. Audio books are rented and sold, and those do well, he said. "With Frederick such a commuting town, that's a popular item," he said.

Comic books and used CDs attract still other customers.

Nearly all of the merchandise comes from customers who want to get rid of the books, videos and CDs they've collected but do not want to keep. A bag of books might net the customer 50 cents or a few dollars. Some collections might bring $25 to $100, depending upon the condition and the value of the books, or more if a rare book is involved.

"People seem to be happy with whatever they get," he said. The store asks only that the merchandise be in good condition, but some of the items end up in the Dumpster out back.

"If we can't sell them, Goodwill doesn't want them," he said. Church rummage sales may donate their leftovers to the store. Some are worth keeping but some are not, he said. The store donates books to local jails. There are books that can't even be given away, books like "The Bridges of Madison County," which was a huge best-seller in the early '90s. Many of those copies, however, are collecting dust and people want to get rid of them.

"You have to make some tough decisions, as romantic as I am about old books," Mr. Roberts said.

He has found a place for many of the old books that come into the store, a place where they don't need to die. More than 100,000 old books are stored in the Grove Road warehouse and cataloged for Internet buyers. Many of these books are specialty books -- books that might have a very limited audience, but could have just the right buyer waiting in cyberspace.

"The odds of someone coming in here looking for a 19th-century book on billiards are pretty slim, but you put in on the Internet with the way things can be sorted and searched, you could sell it," he said.

The Internet venture began two years ago and has really expanded in the past year. The books are stored in the warehouse, categorized by number only. Not by subject, not by author. Mainly, they're shelved in the order they come in. That's why the staff must take great care not to let the books get out of order. When an order comes in for a book on the Internet, a staff person uses the book's number to locate it on the metal shelves in the warehouse.

"The minimum price on the Internet is $10," he said. That's because of the shipping costs and extra labor involved. Besides giving the store another alternative to sell books, it helps to make room for more salable books in the store.

Many of the Internet buyers are book collectors, some are hobbyists, some are collectors of other memorabilia and some are other book stores. Small, independent book dealers buy some of the books, while Amazon.com and Barnes & Noble are major customers. These retailers feature a used and rare book service.

"I had some good advice for this venture," Mr. Roberts said about his Internet timing. "You have to say this about the Internet. You can find that book you lost, gave away or that got stolen. These are things that meant something at one time."

Some of the books address an out-of-date pop culture. The "Mr. Ed TV Book" is one example. Another is called "Contemporary Russian Satire." Some of the books simply target the obscure, including "The Retirement of Revolutionaries in China," a book on the history of slide rules, and a pamphlet on the Staten Island Rapid Transit's timetable. There's also a book on aviation history.

There are early autographed copies by Willa Cather and Helen Keller, a critical study of Kate Chopin, an early novel by James Clavell, some obscure novels that didn't quite reach the classic stage but were critical successes, including "Hatchet in the Sky" by Margaret Cooper Gay and "Cold River" by Donald Pfarrer. There is also a complete set of Childcraft encyclopedias.

About 10 percent of the 100,000 books in the warehouse will sell in a year. That's a little lower than the turnover in the stores. "It makes sense, because a lot of this stuff has little cost involved," Mr. Roberts said. "These would have just sat on the shelves in Frederick."

The business still has potential to grow, and he can envision the day when the warehouse will be full and he will be seeking yet more room.

"It's always been my dream to have an airplane hangar full of books," Mr. Roberts said. "The airplane hangar hasn't materialized yet, but it may happen."

(1) comment

Unhappy Cutomer

I purchased a book from them online and they sent me the wrong book. I called and spoke with Kelly who was very rude. Later I was able to speak to Stacey who was polite and admitted that yes the wrong book had been shipped. However, she refused to issue a refund or accept the return. Pathetic that a business knows they made a mistake and STILL refuses to rectify it! DON'T buy from their online store. Very unorganized--they don't know what they have and what they're sending you and don't care if it's wrong! Unbelievable! If you can go in person, fine, but don't order from their warehouse! They're listed on several sites so BUYER BEWARE! Stacy told me to RECYCLE the book if I didn't want it! Real book lovers there! "Just throw it away". What would the owner Chuck Roberts or his brother Clark Kline say!?

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