Let me start by saying that when it comes to business, my brother is a genius. Lawrence is ten years younger than me, and the proud owner of Best and Fastest Books, a company specializing in selling used and out of print books on the internet. He founded Best and Fastest Books while attending Rutgers University in pursuit of a Master’s Degree in Education and History.
His book obsession started when he came across a Craig’s List ad announcing a 50,000 volume library of books for sale. Most sane people would have passed on the logistical nightmare of acquiring a dead man’s library–not my brother. Instead of seeing hardship, he saw a business opportunity. Though most of the books were out of print technical and scientific treatises with little value to the reading public, Lawrence’s gut told him there was a market.
He convinced my dad to lend him a few thousand dollars, rented a U-Haul and spent a whole week carrying loads of back-breaking heavy boxes from the family’s estate to his run-down dorm room. He piled the boxes floor to ceiling and when they didn’t fit he convinced the landlord to let him use the basement, which was partially occupied with squatters and crack addicts. I don’t know if any of you have ever laid eyes on a pile of 50,000 books–let’s just say, it’s a lot. Lawrence was sleeping on top of boxes, some of which he had to move to my parents’ house.
As early as high school Lawrence had made small fortunes on Ebay reselling fragrances, computer chips and junk he found in estate sales. He had traveled to the bowels of the Bronx and Chinatown looking for bargains. Get rich quick schemes and Lawrence were perfect together. At one point he bought thousands of Playstation memory chips only to realize that there was no profit margin, and still he made it work. He was a tad overconfident when it came to e-commerce, figuring books couldn’t be much different. Wrong.
It took a few days for Lawrence to realize the nightmare he had created for himself. He didn’t know the first thing about selling books, how to find collectors or even where to begin. Staring at the thousands of boxes, he was completely overwhelmed. Add to that torrential rains and a flooded basement that ruined a rare and valuable collection of astronomy books and you’re talking nervous breakdown. I got a call from him one morning and he sounded really down. “Hey sis, I got a problem, think I can come over for a bit?”
When he came over we sat and talked about the books. He felt like he was in over his head and had wasted my dad’s hard-earned investment. Within weeks the boxes of books had begun to grow green, hairy mold in the damp basement of the house he was living in. In short, Lawrence was stuck.
He was about to graduate with a Master’s Degree and needed to look for a job, a prospect that was adding to his stress. The student teaching jobs he had landed as part of his program had left a sour taste in his mouth. All of a sudden he wasn’t sure he wanted to teach, in spite of having spent the last six years preparing for the classroom. Once he graduated, he would have to move out of New Brunswick and find a new place to stash the boxes or pay a garbage removal company an exorbitant amount of money to dispose of them. Books are, after all, very heavy.[aesop_gallery id=”376″]
My brother felt like he had let our parents down. Mom and dad had worked so hard to help pay for a prestigious school and he didn’t want to become a teacher. Further, the thousands of dollars my dad had given him for the books was rotting away in a moldy basement. He had managed to sell some books on Amazon and Ebay, but the process was too slow and the prices too low to break even. As he sat in my kitchen, worry lines creasing his handsome face, I realized my brother was ready to quit.
Up until recently, I’ve been the type of person to favor creative pursuits and personal edification over entrepreneurship. I’ve never seen myself as an “owner” and subsequently have spent the last fifteen years working for someone else. I’ve taken great pride in my work as a designer and am now highly regarded in my chosen field as an expert, but I digress.
In that moment when I looked at my brother, I realized that he didn’t need common sense. Common sense tells us to go to school, get a job, get married, have kids and retire. Common sense has transformed us into automatons on rails. I didn’t want that for my brother any more than I wanted that for myself. What if I had taken a risk as he had when I graduated college, I asked myself. Where would I be now?
What my brother needed was a push, not some humdrum speech about responsibility. It was in that moment that I told my brother to follow his heart. If he didn’t want to work as a teacher, he shouldn’t force it. Working for someone else wasn’t all that satisfying. I had been doing it for years and what did I have to show for it? Yes, I had earned money. Yes, I had traveled the world. Yes, I had continued to do my art on the side, but I didn’t have anything that was really mine. I had never pushed my freelance design business and taken the risk of doing it on my own because deep down, it wasn’t what I was meant to be doing. I found my purpose a few years later (as you all know) when I began to write.
I told my brother the books weren’t going to be easy. They were going to prove to be a pain in the ass, but the bright side was that if he made it work, he would be the owner of his own business. He wouldn’t have anyone breathing down his neck when he was late for work, or bitching and moaning about the way he chose to spend his waking hours. He would be in control of his own destiny. I’ve always been a very motivational speaker and by the time I was done, my brother left feeling like he could breathe a little easier.
In a couple of months Lawrence graduated and spent the summer worrying about finding a job. The books were still looming over him like a dark shadow. As fate would have it, no potential employers knocked. As September rolled around Lawrence knew he had to make a decision. His deadline for moving the books out of the New Brunswick apartment could not be further delayed.
The next step involved more risk. He rented a warehouse in our home town and spent another week moving books. Using Craig’s List he purchased hundreds of discounted shelves from a local factory. In a couple of weeks he had set up shop with a couple of computers and had begun listing books on Amazon. The investment wouldn’t pay off until Christmas, but lo and behold he was able to pay his rent and some of the money back to my dad. Best and Fastest Books was up and running on wobbly legs. Me, I couldn’t be more proud. I was beaming. With hard work and dedication, my brother had made his dream possible.
He learned about the book business while selling penny books plus the cost of shipping on Amazon. The orders trickled in at first, but every month there were more. It wasn’t long before he had to hire someone to help with the orders and the organization that the warehouse required on a daily basis. Within months, my dad quit his job to help Lawrence cope with the growing business. 50,000 books turned into 100,000 and so on. Weekends found Lawrence scavenging estate sales and talking to book dealers. More and more sales followed more and more shipments. Lawrence hustled to pick up any and all free books from anyone and everyone who didn’t want them. It paid off.
Today Best and Fastest Books employs my father, my mother, my brother and three other people. The warehouse is no longer large enough to house all the books and will need to be expanded this year. I always compare my brother to Johnny Depp’s character in the movie The Ninth Gate. You should see him! He’s come across Medieval bibles, first editions of King Kong, Santeria tomes so frightening that potential customers hang up on him and original Picasso prints that have paid for his Caribbean vacations. He’s living the life!
When I set foot in the warehouse I lose myself. I am truly a lover of books–especially old ones with frayed pages and years of history. Lawrence keeps a special box of memories where he puts all the old bookmarks and photos he finds hidden inside the books. His warehouse is like a time capsule with rows and rows of the world’s literary highs and lows. It’s truly a beautiful place filled with vibrant energy. Maybe only an outsider that doesn’t deal with the daily hassles of the business can see it this way, but deep down I know my brother is passionate about what he does. He loves being surrounded by all those books. It’s pure magic.
Lawrence was right in taking that risk. My brother is a huge inspiration for me. He has always been incredibly supportive of my creative pursuits, but never more so, than with my writing. There is nothing wrong with working for someone else, but I’ve reached the point in my life where I desire something else. The day is approaching when it will be my turn to leap. Making a living from books is as much my brother’s dream as it is mine. The time has come when I am fully prepared to make that dream a reality.
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