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Dealing in the obscure

August 15, 2011
By Elaine Zarzana , Marshall Independent

Renny Johnson of Marshall has a unique line of work. In fact, "rare" is his business. He buys and sells used and antiquarian books, making use of Internet technology and an extensive knowledge of historic texts to reach buyers world-wide.

"I've done really well with the obscure. It's kind of my specialty," Johnson said. "I don't sell the latest New York Time best seller. I rarely sell any fiction from the last 100 years. Ninety-five percent of what I sell is non fiction, and 50 percent of that is prior to 1900."

A few of his books even date back to the early 1600s, he said. Many of the books are histories of the region and of settlement west of the Mississippi as well as Norwegian and German books.

Article Photos

Photo by Elaine Zarzana

Renny Johnson says obscurity is his specialty when it comes to buying and selling books online.

Johnson has been in the business for nearly 10 years. With a lifelong interest in reading, he collected books of his own for years.

"By selling the better items in my own collection, I started getting an idea of what had value," Johnson said.

Johnson has honed his skills in identifying profitable books over the years.

"When I started, I did what a lot of people do. I bought from flea markets, thrift stores, church sales, library sales. As I progressed and could risk more money, I bought more from auctions."

He uses a site called Proxibid which allows him to bid at live auctions around the country.

"Local auctions can be really good, too," he said. "Auction attendees don't tend to place a lot of value on books, so I can pay a fraction of the market value." He then sells the books through websites such as eBay and Amazon.

"I sold a first edition of the 'Wizard of Oz,' probably the most expensive children's book of the 20th century," Johnson said. "I bought a diary of someone who was in the Red Cross in Cuba and saw the USS Maine sunk in Havana Harbor. It was a first-hand account, which is fairly uncommon. I bought it for $50 or $60 and sold it to a museum for close to $600."

But book selling isn't a get-rich-quick trade.

"It's a gigantic learning curve," Johnson said. "Every day, every book is research, more learning about the business."

While most booksellers learn the trade from a mentor with decades of experience, Johnson is mostly self-taught.

"What sets you apart is research," he said. "Doing those extra steps makes the difference between someone who makes a living and someone who struggles."

Johnson said the current economic climate and recent trends have definitely affected the book selling industry.

"Five years ago there were maybe twice as many sellers online as there are today," he said. But since wealthier buyers are not as hard-hit by the economic downturn, Johnson said, "$500 books are easy to sell, $50 books are not. The bottom has fallen out of the market because of Kindles and people reading less in general. But people still see books as a safe investment at the top end of the market."

Johnson's career has been a good fit for him, he said.

"You're your own boss," he said. "You set your own hours."

Johnson said the flexibility of his work has been a benefit to him and his wife, raising their four children. He also enjoys having a career that connects so well with his lifelong passion for reading.

"I think there's nothing more important that parents can do for their kids than encourage them to read - even if it's 15 minutes or half-an-hour a day," he said.



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