Used books still in style at Cassidy’s

San Marcos institution has weathered industry trends


Cassidy’s Books owner Tom McDevitt works at his desk in the shop, located in San Marcos. (Escondido Grapevine photo)

Tom McDevitt sat behind the large front counter at Cassidy’s Books, in the shadow of Fry’s Electronics at a back-of-the-curve, out-of-the-way strip mall considering North County literary options.

“The Book Mart on Grand Avenue in Escondido has been there 40 years,” McDevitt said with the deliberate, studied manner one might expect from a bookseller. “Escondido used to have three or four bookstores. Now, it’s down to one.

“Encinitas has one,” McDevitt paused and continued. “Vista used to have six book stores, now it doesn’t have any. Carlsbad had three or four. As far as I know, they have none …”

As McDevitt’s voce trailed off, it was clear that Cassidy’s Books might not be at the head of the North County used book class, but it doesn’t take long to call the roll.

McDevitt didn’t start out as a bookman. In fact, “Young people might not seem to read a lot,” he said, “but when I was young I didn’t read a lot.” First, he tried telemarketing, then he went into the restaurant business. He managed a Lake Forest coffee shop for many years before end of story.

“The coffee shop was in a shopping center,” McDevitt said. “It was demolished. The guy put up a new, whizz-bang center with a Walmart, but no restaurant.”

This led McDevitt to a new chapter. “I always though t would be interesting” to own and operate a book store, he said. “You get to see everything that comes through and look at the stuff. If you have an interest, you can follow up while you’re working. Mysteries and histories are my areas.”

Flip the page to 1992. The venerable Cassidy’s next to the still-popular Panda Garden at 742 S. Rancho Santa Fe Road was available. McDevitt knew a good deal when he saw it and bought the store. Given the conditions of the Great Recession, he moved in late 2008 to a smaller and clean, well-lighted place, the current 801 Grand Ave. Suite 3 location.

“We were busy as heck, but saw a decrease in the number of customers due to the recession,” McDevitt said. “San Marcos was famous for bazillions of business closings. People lost their jobs, and a lot of them had to move to where the money was. A lot of people retired early.”

Used book biz booming

This tale has the proverbial silver lining, though. Lately — surprise — the used book business has been on the rebound.

As McDevitt noted, “A lot of people are down on devices like Kindle. It was supposed to be cheaper and easier to use, but it wasn’t. Kindle users aren’t all that happy as a group. There’s all those squiggles and electrical stuff. You can’t buy a computer chip and give it to someone.

“Books don’t need batteries,” McDevitt continued. “You never have to plug them in. There always are going to be books.”

A 2016 Pew Research Center survey found that 65 percent of Americans had read a print book in the last year, more than double those who had read an e-book, at 28 percent.

Simple economics represent another factor contributing to the new used book renascence. Generally, inventory can be obtained for 10 cents on the dollar, while used books can sell for 50 cents on the dollar, a very healthy markup.

Some savvy used booksellers are taking advantage of social media and online sales. For example, some sign up for Amazon’s third-party marketplace where they can sell directly to customers online.

Sales at bookstores are doing well in general, although early numbers for 2019 indicate a dip compared with last year. No statistics are kept for used book sales, but the American Booksellers Association’s latest industry statistics for February showed estimated book sales at $626 million compared with $669 million for the month last year, a drop of 6.4 percent. January sales saw a deeper drop of about 10 percent.

Books don’t need batteries. You never have to plug them in. There always are going to be books.

— Tom McDevitt, Cassidy’s Books owner

Bookstores ended 2018 on a high note, however, with increases in sales for October, November and December hovering around 9 percent over 2017, according to figures tracked by the American Booksellers Association.

In an effort to keep independent bookstores at the front of readers’ minds, booksellers and industry leaders took part in the nationwide fifth annual Independent Bookstore Day on Saturday, April 27, which followed World Book Day on Wednesday, April 23.

The savvy McDevitt obtains a lot of books from people who are moving and don’t want to lug around volumes. He also features a paperback trading system whereby customers can swap out books. “A lot of these walk in the door with customers,” he said.

“Usually, I go to houses of people who are moving,” McDevitt said, “and get a whole bunch of books because its too darn expensive to move them or people are sick of them.”

The store stocks 40,000 to 50,000 volumes. As one would surmise, most customers represent older demographics. Perhaps surprisingly, perhaps not, those in the book business are collaborative rather than competitive, according to McDevitt.

“We have different niches,” McDevitt said. “We help each other. I send people to other bookstores if they’re looking for something and they send people to me. It’s not like selling used cars.”

In conclusion, McDevitt was coy about retirement.

“Let’s see how it goes,” he said. “If we can find a person to buy a bookstore, or if a person came in and wanted to buy a bookstore or if my wife and I could find a nice, small place to retire in, maybe we’ll sell and go there.”

That’s a tale for another day. For now, Cassidy’s Books is open 9:30 a.m. to 5:30 p.m. Tuesday to Saturday at 801 Grand Ave. Interested readers can call 760-761-4910 or even email [email protected].

However, as for a website, Facebook or Twitter page, don’t even think about it.

The North Coast Current updated industry statistics for this story, which is published through a sharing agreement with The Escondido Grapevine, an independent news site covering inland North County.

Cassidy’s Books in San Marcos is filled floor to ceiling. “If you have an interest, you can follow up while you’re working,” store owner Tom McDevitt said about running the shop. “Mysteries and histories are my areas.” (Escondido Grapevine photo)

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