Half Price Books, the Texas-based bookstore chain, has been around long enough that, as it celebrates its 50th anniversary, it has become entrenched as the country’s third-largest bookstore chain. The company began modestly in a renovated laundromat
in 1972 and has since expanded to 121 stores. Its presence is especially strong in Texas, where it has 41 outlets, but it has expanded to 18 additional states. The two most recent stores to open were in Boise, Idaho, and Nashville.
HPB had initially planned to throw parties at each store to celebrate the anniversary, but with the threat of Covid-19 still present, it opted to give each employee $50 of store credit and another $50 in cash. “We wanted everyone to go out and have some fun with their friends from the store,” said CEO Sharon Anderson Wright. Wright is the daughter of Pat Anderson, who founded the company alongside Ken Gjemre.
“I started working at the store in 1972, when I was 13 years old,” said Wright, who is known to staff as Boots and has run the company for 26 years. Today, she not-so-jokingly refers to herself as the “matriarch of the bookselling world.”
Alongside Wright is Kathy Doyle Thomas, who previously served HPB as chief strategy officer before being named president earlier this year. Thomas has been with the company for 33 years, and, she pointed out, loyalty runs deep there. “We give out watches when employees have served 20 years with the company,” she said. “At last count we have given out 85 watches.”
Half Price Books has survived and thrived by being thrifty and cost conscious. “We don’t overspend on real estate and we don’t take on debt,” Wright said.
The company has also been conservative in adopting new technologies. “We had a long debate about computerization, which we only implemented in 2010,” Thomas said. But the company has seen the utility of online shopping: when HPB’s stores were shut down as a result of the pandemic in 2020 and customers turned online, it prompted management to update HPB’s inventory database to streamline search and shipping. In addition, a new website for the chain will launch sometime this year.
While HPB sells new books, including most popular bestsellers, 70% of its inventory is composed of used stock purchased from local communities. The chain buys some two million used books per month. In addition to books, HPB offers records, DVDs, and book-related sidelines. “When it comes to media, we buy almost anything and everything,” Thomas said.
The result of all this buying is a twofold competitive advantage. The first is that each store is fully engaged with its community, having established a personal relationship with its customers. Secondly, the inventory of each store is constantly changing. “Unlike with other bookstores, the stock in our stores is different each time you come in,” Thomas said. “We are always trying to meet the needs of our customers, and one of the ways we do this is by offering something they cannot find elsewhere or online even.”
What’s more, as its name suggests, Half Price Books strives to make its books and other items as affordable as possible, which is particularly important as inflation ramps up. Books that don’t sell are often donated to charity; HPB donated more than a million titles in 2021.
Another way HPB offers unique products to customers is by sourcing remainders stock from abroad, especially from the U.K. “Customers like to buy something that looks different, even if it is the same book they can get in a U.S. edition,” Wright said. Half Price Books operates a subsidiary firm, Texas Bookman, that specializes in sourcing and selling remainders, and this year launched its own remainder trade show, the Texas Remainder Expo. T*Rex, as the show has been nicknamed, took place May 13–15 at the company’s headquarters in Carrollton, just outside Dallas, in a former classic car showroom complete with Elvis- and Marilyn Monroe–themed rooms.
“With the demise of BookExpo America, we felt there was a need for a show in the spring, so this year we launched it and it came together rather quickly,” Wright said. “Next year, we hope to expand it to include traditional publishers as well.”
Sales have recovered since the drop in the early days of the pandemic, though for the fiscal year ended June 30, revenue was not yet back to prepandemic levels. Looking ahead, both Wright and Thomas agreed that the chain had one priority: ensuring each store remained an appealing destination for customers who might otherwise be attracted to shopping on Amazon.
“For customers, we have to be worth the trip,” Wright said. “It is as simple as that.”
A version of this article appeared in the 08/15/2022 issue of Publishers Weekly under the headline: Half Price Books at 50
Read More: Half Price Books Celebrates its 50th Anniversary