Standing in the lower lobby of the Hilton Chicago waiting for the doors to open on the 13th annual Chicago International Remainder and Overstock Book Exposition, Asher Brauner advises Homajeet Singh on how to approach the biggest bargain book sale in the world. “It’s sharp elbows time,” he says. “If you get there before someone else, you may get the book. If you wait, you won’t.”

Brauner is a seasoned buyer for Bookshop Santa Cruz in California, but Singh is new to the game, having bought his Monterey store, Bay Books, a month ago. It was Brauner who alerted Singh to the necessity of attending CIROBE, but he didn’t fully brief him about the frenzy of its opening day. Brauner is dressed for action in khakis, a windbreaker, and a baseball cap. In his shirt and tie Singh looks a bit overdressed for an event that begins more like a scrum than a book sale.

“People think of books as dignified, scholarly,” Brauner says. “But book buying in remainders has got all the dignity of the Cabbage Patch craze.”

The two buyers knew exactly where they wanted to start their shopping spree: at the display tables of Taschen America, a publisher specializing in art books. “A $50 art book in original shrink-wrap that you can sell to a customer for $19, or a full-color Monet book–that’s the kind of thing we’re looking for now,” says Brauner. “With Christmas coming, you want to stock up.” (CIROBE always takes place in late October. This year’s exposition ran from October 23 through 26.)

In the distance a bell rings. Brauner turns his cap backward. “That’s my racing look,” he says. The doors open, and he and Singh join the throng of over 1,400 buyers streaming into the hall.

When BookExpo America 2004 and its cavalcade of literary celebrities comes to McCormick Place next June, it will get a lot more media attention than CIROBE, but for many people in the book business, this show is the one that counts.

If Brad Jonas hadn’t came up with the idea for CIROBE 13 years ago, it’s not clear that anyone else would have. Then as now, Jonas was co-owner of the three Powell’s Bookstores in Chicago plus a wholesale book business. Most people would have considered that enough to fill their time, but Jonas had a notion that the remainder market needed to be better organized. “I had always bought remainder books,” he says, “and I had been percolating an idea that the bargain part of the book business needed its own home. And I would say this to different people, and most people sloughed it off as just me yammering.” He attributes a lot of the resistance he encountered to simple snobbery–many people in the book business look down their noses at the bargain sector.

One of the few people who listened to Jonas was his future partner, Marshall Smith, then an Atlanta-based publisher’s representative who supplied remainders to Jonas’s wholesale business. “He talked to me about this thing all the time,” Smith recalls, “and the more I thought about it, the more I thought this could work.”

Jonas was eager to sell Smith on his idea because he needed Smith’s contacts. Having been on the road for decades, selling new books as well as remainders, Smith knew practically everybody in the business. He’d started out in the 70s as a rep for Viking Press, pitching their upcoming releases to bookstores throughout the south. “What you’re selling is a catalog of books that have not even yet been printed,” he says. “A lot of it is fiction which some guy hasn’t even finished making up yet. It’s the goofiest thing, this catalog of all these dreams that don’t exist yet. You’re not going to sell anything unless the books are returnable, and that’s where remainders come from.”

Smith moved from new books to bargain books in the 80s, attracted by the higher profit margin and merchandise that actually existed at the time of sale. The downside of the bargain market is that it’s slower. “It’s just the nature of used-book sellers,” Smith says: “Got a nice book–if it’s worth this, that’s what it’s worth, and I’m gonna leave it sit here at that price until somebody buys it.”

Although Smith calls CIROBE “Brad Jonas’s baby,” Jonas credits Smith with figuring out that late October was the ideal time for the show. “There were a lot of factors to take into consideration,” Jonas says. “We didn’t want to crowd any existing book fairs. We wanted to appeal to the buyers at a time when they had Christmas on their minds, but we couldn’t schedule too close to Christmas because then booksellers get too frantic to leave their stores. We wanted CIROBE to balance out the calendar of the traditional market as smoothly as possible.”

Remainders are exactly what their name implies–books that didn’t move at the retail price–but there are different sorts of remainders. Books returned to the publisher from bookstores are called “hurts.” In most cases these books are in perfect condition, but the label distinguishes them from books that never left the warehouse. Hurts typically sell for less than the other class of remainder.

Because the publishing industry is now so narrowly focused on blockbusters, there are more hurts today than ever. It’s not that the rate of returns has changed–Smith says it’s been about 15 or 20 percent for as long as he can remember–but initial print runs have grown enormously. “When I first became a rep working for Viking Press, for our big books we’d print 20,000 copies. If you could honestly say you’d do 100,000 copies, you were looking at a monster book.” Today publishers routinely print runs of a million or more, and the shelf life of a book is getting shorter all the time. “The publishers are so determined to make hay while the sun shines and the hype is fresh, but there’s always the next big thing coming up behind the present one, so these books can go out and come back as soon as six or eight weeks later. It’s like a perfected system for creating hurts.”

Publishers market their surpluses in a variety of ways. Some remainders are sold in small mixed batches called assortments. Some buyers contract for the delivery of whole shipping containers full of a single title. When a publisher sells discounted remainders directly to bookstores in whatever quantity the buyer desires, it’s called a “white sale.” Sometimes publishers issue a “bid list” of books and auction off large quantities of given titles at deeper discounts. Bid lists favor big buyers, while white sales are more accessible to the little guys. CIROBE’s white sales are one of its primary attractions.

The remainder market in its current robust form is a by-product of a 1979 Supreme Court ruling, Thor Power Tool Company v. Commissioner of Internal Revenue. The case concerned an accounting loophole through which companies deducted the depreciation of warehoused inventories from their taxable revenues. The problem from the IRS’s point of view was that no one was actually abiding by the reduced values they declared. In fact, businesses frequently sold off “depreciated” stock at prices equal to or greater than its original retail value. Publishers liked this trick as much as any other business. “I remember you’d see an old price on a remainder,” Jonas says. “It would say $10, but somebody would put a sticker on it that would say $12 or $14.”

The Thor decision forced companies to sell old inventory at its declared value or face prosecution. An attempt to win special exemption for the publishing industry went nowhere. At around the same time, the warehouses in northern New Jersey where many publishers had traditionally aged their surplus stock started getting expensive. That’s how the modern remainders market was born.

But there’s more to bargain books than just remainders. About a quarter of the market consists of “promotional books,” which differ from “trade” books in that they’re expressly meant to sell cheaply. Some promotional books are reprints from the public domain (e.g., three Willa Cather novels in a single volume) or a publisher’s backlist (three Sue Grafton novels in a single volume). High-quality art and photography books are frequently reissued in cheaper, promotional editions. And many books are promotional from birth: Murder Most Merry, 100 Years of American Baseball, Vintage Cocktails, and numberless works about fly-fishing, knitting, football, and kittens.

“That business was owned by the Brits for a long time,” Smith says, “but in the 70s a lot of guys here started doing it too.”

The first CIROBE, held in a ballroom at the Congress Hotel in 1990, attracted about 400 people. Most of the buyers worked for small independents, although Borders and Barnes and Noble were also represented. This year’s crowd includes buyers from 48 states and 32 countries. The exposition’s success has inspired imitators. Paul Small, a representative for the American Book Company, goes to all the bargain book shows: the Spring Book Show in Atlanta, Onboard in Nashville, Ciana in London. “CIROBE is the best in the world,” he says. “Nothing comes close.”

One of the things that sets CIROBE apart from more mainstream publishing events, continues Small, is that it’s all business. “Generally book shows are not writing shows any longer,” he says, meaning that they’re not places where buyers actually place orders. “There’s author appearances, there’s hype, you’ll get producers of TV shows trying to book authors, that kind of thing. This show has been from day one a pure writing show. Everyone who comes is here to write business.”

Marshall Smith concurs. “Without question,” he says, “this is now the biggest three days of everybody’s business year in bargain books. It’s a big fuckin’ deal.”

Art accompanying story in printed newspaper (not available in this archive): photos/Joeff Davis.