Located on Main Street in downtown Urbana, Priceless Books has been selling and buying used books for roughly two decades. I sat down with co-owner Bill Thornhill to discuss what he’s learned from owning a small business and why used bookstores are so vital to the community.
» buzz: How’d you get into the used bookstore business?
» Bill Thornhill: We started 20 years ago this month. Originally there were three owners: me, my current partner, Mike Vaillancourt, and his wife, Leslie. We met in graduate school about 12 years before (Priceless Books opened), and we had talked about eventually, maybe, opening up a used bookstore. At that time, we were all living in North Carolina at Chapel Hill. They eventually moved here and I stayed in North Carolina, but gradually began to move west. Finally, they decided Champaign-Urbana was a good place to open a used bookstore. I was living in Columbus, Ohio, so I packed up all my stuff up, came here and we found this location.
» buzz: That’s incredible. Through the years, the market has been rough on bookstores…
» BT: Just last week, I was enumerating on my fingers the bookstores that used to be here. I came up with close to 15 that no longer exist that were in this area 20 years ago.
» buzz: Why do you think used bookstores are important?
» BT: My favorite bookstores have always been used bookstores. Older stuff that is out of print is just not available in any other place. I’ve always been able to go into used bookstores and see titles that I either didn’t know existed, or I knew existed but thought were long gone. It’s exactly what we find here. During this time of year, we buy a lot of stuff because people are moving out of town. We see lots of titles that years ago we probably figured we would never get another copy of.
» buzz: Where do you get most of your used books from?
» BT: It’s a combination of students and faculty members leaving, and people who periodically sell their books just to make room for more stuff. Also, a lot of people sell us books because they want to trade them in for books we have in the store already.
» buzz: Any advice for aspiring small business owners?
» BT: One of the important things we learned right away was not to try to do too much. We decided pretty quickly that we would limit ourselves to a certain number of books in the store and also limit the kinds of material we buy. Otherwise, it would just get unruly and out of hand. It also gives people a pretty good idea when they walk in of what kinds of things they can find. We also try to be as well organized as we can be. As soon as it became available, we used a database to try and keep track of all of our stock. Most everything in the store is in our computer. If someone calls or walks in and asks for a specific author or title, we can look it up and tell within a few seconds if we have it. One other thing too, if you want to open up a business, find a good location. We just got really lucky that we found this location in downtown. We wanted to be in a downtown area and we found a space that was exactly the right size for what we wanted. It’s surrounded by other small businesses, so I think we got really lucky.
» buzz: Do you feel being a part of the Urbana community has affected your business?
» BT: We’ve got great customers. Not only do they buy stuff from us, but they supply us with all of the stock that’s in here. We can attribute the quality of what we have in here to the people who have been coming in, some of them for 20 years.
» buzz: Final question, do you have any summer picks?
» BT: We just got in a book by Dave Eggers, A Hologram for the King.