The colors are warm, the building old but recently renovated. It’s a bookstore but not what you think of when you think of bookstores you’ve seen. This is the new old, where specialist used and rare booksellers acquire, catalogue and then post for sale on line all the while gauging price appropriateness. Customers though the door are rare but orders are steady because Mullens has made themselves specialists in a niche: books on the Fine and Decorative Art, Photography and Architecture in America.
The company, a 20 year old enterprise located in Columbia along the banks of the Susquehanna in pastoral Lancaster County Pennsylvania, sets comfortably in an Amish area better known for Whoopie Pies and horse-drawn carriages than scholarly tomes. Here you think traditional book selling will be the approach but in fact their books are sequestered in careful order on the second floor in relative luxury with climate control and double-insulated ceilings. Setting on what seems like a mile of shelving, the books are accessible only to vetted individuals for this inventory is digitized for quick retrieval and one wrong move (in this case an erroneous placement on the shelves) can send a book into hiding for months if not years. Entrance to this secure storage, according to Kevin is as guarded as the entrance to the heralded Vault of Grateful Dead Masters described in Nick Paumgarten’s recent article in the New Yorker (November 26, 2012).
I have seen this before. Three or four years ago I visited Willis Monie Books in Cooperstown, NY and saw first hand their inventory of tens of thousands of books behind locked doors to keep them in letter perfect order. This is what Kevin is also doing. It’s the separation of material from the occasional walk-in visitor so to ensure every book is always precisely in its place.
There was once a time when walk-in traffic was the lifeblood of bookshops but as the Internet has taken hold, the new generation of collectors and casual acquirers has learned to price check. That has meant, for a bookseller to sell, their pricing has to be consistently competitive. And that competitiveness requires efficiency. Sealed rooms and controlled inventory are logical elements in this new formula.
For Kevin, the new space in the freshly renovated building is the marriage of two themes – a specialization within old, rare and collectible books, electronic efficiency and internet reach. "The rules are simple; be complete, competitive and quick. From these requirements his current business model has emerged. He describes his printed inventory of fine and decorative arts, photography and architecture as “the broadest and deepest in the land.”