Keith Finley, Owner of Ocean Beach Books

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Ocean Beach Books: a piece of classical music plays softly from unseen speakers in the small, secondhand bookstore, serenading the customers as they peruse the shelves of used, out-of-print, rare, and antiquarian hardbacks and paperbacks, grouped first according to their genre – classics, poetry, contemporary literature, science, history, and so forth – and then arranged alphabetically according to their author’s last name.

Keith Finley, 40, sitting at the front of the bookstore behind his desk weighed down with newly acquired merchandise, which consists primarily of used books waiting to be shelved appropriately, is the lone man behind it all

At a glance, Finley maintains a neatly trimmed beard, wears eyeglass, and always seems to have a book in his hand. He is a man of few words who is always willing to help his customers and does so in a timely and pleasant manner. He is a man who does not consider himself employed by anyone and is unwilling to disclose his dream to others. He is a man with a sense of humor: when asked if he is easily angered, he sarcastically replies, “Who wants to know!” And lastly, he is a man of defined tastes: he regards The Power and the Glory written by the English novelist, Graham Greene, as his favorite book, and Ran directed by the Japanese filmmaker, Akira Kurosawa, as his favorite movie.

What follows is Keith Finley’s story as founder, owner, and daily operator of Ocean Beach Books:

Just a year after graduating with a bachelor’s degree in English, Finley, with the financial backing of his friends – as he himself was a post-college student without money – decided to take a risk on an economic venture and bought a paperback trade-in bookstore in Ocean Beach in 1987.

After acquiring the commercial property, his idea was sound and simple: to expand on the preexisting structure of the bookstore he now owned; that is, continue running the trade-in system for mass-market paperbacks in addition to buying and selling most other categories of used books, with an emphasis on literary fiction.

As for managing to run the buy-and-sell part of his business in a profitable manner over the years, Finley claims that “having studied literature in college helped with the classics, and probably in evaluating most other books as well.”

After placing strategic advertisements in The Beacon, Yellow Pages, and the local newspaper, and after becoming a member of the San Diego Booksellers Association in 1989 – a trade organization with more than 100 members, each carrying inventories of either new, used, or a combination of the two – Ocean Beach Books adopted its current form of doing business.

Of these, Finley reports that he continues to pay his yearly dues to SDBA and steadily advertise in The Beacon and Yellow Pages, and that “the phonebook still probably brings in the most calls.”

However, nowadays he tends to advertise less frequently in the local newspaper to cut down on costs, and instead, for about the past two years, has focused more on taking advantage of the Internet, where he conducts online sales via his website and provides the option of shipping. All orders usually reach their destination – both domestic as well as international – within a week.

Because of Finley’s dedication to his bookstore, where he can be found on Tuesday through Saturday from 10 a.m. to 5 p.m., as well as his ability to run all facets of his business single-handedly – appraising incoming merchandise, stocking, bookkeeping, general maintenance – he has had very little need to keep regular employees, and in fact has none today.

Still, he does admit that since the day of Ocean Beach Books’ opening there have been times when he has paid a few people to have them available for helping him around the bookstore. One can only assume that these experiences with workers were rather bleak and disappointing because when asked why he does not currently have any employees, Finley asserts that “reliable people are rarely available and available people are rarely reliable.”

Since its startup, Finley says that the only serious slump Ocean Beach Books has gone through was when he moved the location of the bookstore in 1988, about a year after its opening, and, though the move was only one block away from his original site, customers were inevitably disoriented and had difficulty at first with finding him in his new location at 1917 Cable Street.

During this temporary slump, as well as the handful of less severe downward times that he has encountered since then, Finley, who says that his self-esteem, “has a mind of its own,” makes sure to keep his spirits up by either preoccupying himself with increasing his inventory, or simply straightening up the bookstore.

After all, organization is paramount in book selling and does not go unnoticed by those in search of a title or author. In fact, customers have gone so far as to compliment the organization of Finley’s bookstore, saying that it gives them the hope of actually finding the books that they are looking for without any trouble, whereas other used bookstores in the San Diego area, according to one woman, have the tendency to keep their shelves in squalor, and trying to find the title or author that she wanted there often left her frustrated. As a result, she usually ended up going to the larger, national bookstores and paying retail. That is, until she discovered Ocean Beach Books, where she has consistently been able to find the book that she wants in good condition with a markdown of at least fifty percent.

But other than the decreased sales in the year of the move, “business is pretty steady,” says Finley, “and we have a good supply of regular, repeat customers.”

As for this last observation of Finley’s, it is further supported by Barrie Rappaport of Ipsos BookTrends, a unique service that has been compiling information for the past twenty-one years concerning the behavior of consumers with regards to the books that they purchase throughout the United States, and then publishing a monthly newsletter reporting their finds. Rappaport, agreeing with the trends that Finley observes in his own bookstore, says that “in past years our research has shown that independent [booksellers] do have highly loyal customers relative to the industry.”

This loyalty factor undoubtedly plays an important role in the increasing success of smaller, community based bookstores comparable to Ocean Beach Books in an industry that is otherwise considered flat, or even on the verge of slipping into negative growth trends; Ipsos, in their April/May 2003 newsletter, reported a 0.7% rise in overall market share of independent/small chain bookstores from 2001 to 2002, whereas national booksellers like Borders Books & Music and Barnes & Noble are having a tough time just holding their ground.

As for possible sources of competition in the immediate area of Ocean Beach Books: except for the Ocean Beach Public Library just down the street from Finley’s bookstore, there are no other booksellers who also specialize in used literary fiction. But one would think that even though the public library’s function is not to sell books, it would still take its toll on Finley’s business by having a large selection readily available.

However, when asked to give his thoughts on this second, free option presented to every potential book-buying customers, Finley keeps the betterment of society in mind and has nothing but praise to throw their way, “I think [public libraries] are great. I wish ours was bigger, but I hear they do a pretty good job with inter-library loans.”

Inter-library loans is a method practiced in some form or other by all libraries nowadays that, at its most basic level, allows one library to borrow a book from another one without charging any sort of fee so long as they both use the same system, and with thirty-five libraries total in the City of San Diego that use the same system this method makes it virtually possible to obtain any book in a matter of days.

Nevertheless, Ocean Beach Books still manages to succeed into tomorrow. At the conclusion of every fiscal year since 1987 the establishment has proven to be home to a sufficient share of the book-buying market to remain in business, which is perhaps surprising because of its limited size and more specialized selection of books when compared to the concerted efforts of city public libraries; and also, though it is true that Finley prices his books reasonably, the fact that they may not be checked out for three-weeks at a time gratis. Such is his competition, and yet he continues to draw his loyal customer base owing in large part to the efficient manner that he runs and maintains his bookstore, not to mention the ambient classical music.

But, notwithstanding his apparent success in the venture that he undertook right out of college, the lone man Finley – never one to slip into saying more than is necessary – is still a realist when it comes to giving his advice to aspiring entrepreneurs: “Think hard about how nice it is to get a regular paycheck.”

May 16, 2009 12:52 pm

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