American Jeffrey Zamoff has been living in Prague for six years, earning his living as an English teacher and collecting and selling old vinyl records for pleasure. Two years ago, he decided to enlarge his offer with used English books for kids and discovered a hole in the market. His hobby soon turned into a small business, and besides running an internet shop, he has just opened a brick and mortar shop in the city. When I met Jeffrey Zamoff, I asked him how he came up with the idea in the first place:
“There are three things I have collected in my life since I have been old enough to buy stuff with my own money. And that was bicycles, records and kids’ books. I have a masters’ degree in elementary education, so I am a trained teacher and most of my experience is in pre-school education. So with a focus in literacy and a love for kids’ books, I think it was just a matter of time before I did it.
“When I started doing it two and a half years ago, I was really just seeing what was going to happen. I had no idea who was going to buy it, how the big the market was, I really had no idea. But I knew the worst case scenario would be getting stuck with thousands of kids’ books that we could just read.”
How did you actually start the business?
“I bought around two hundred books, mainly Dr Seuss, the real classics, and I brought them along with the records. And at that time I only sold at flea markets. There were markets that my friend helped to start, “pravé bleší trhy” at Náměstí Míru, I.P.Pavlova and Náplavka, so I put out the books as part of what I was selling. And one would sell and another would sell and all of a sudden I realised that I didn’t have any left. So I told myself that that was the test run. Then I bought two thousand and brought them over and they sold pretty well. I started to meet new people and new customers and I thought that maybe there was a chance. And then I bought four thousand. So I did that five times, each time bringing over between a thousand and four thousand books.”
Have you selected all those books yourself? Does it actually involve you going to the United States to select the books?
“It did. Now, it doesn’t. A good friend of mine, who is a part time frelance journalist and a full time mom. She is a great writer and great reader and she is just mad about books. So she buys them, she packs them up and I arrange the shipment and it comes here. But I also go back to the United States when there is an opportunity to do so. Mostly all the books I get are individually selected, which means it is more time consuming but it is also more fun. And I turn down most of what I see.”
What is the most expensive part of your business? Is it the shipping overseas?
“I would say it’s a combination of the transport, because it costs more to bring it from Frankfurt to Prague then it does from a port city in the States to Frankfurt. So that is expensive. And then it’s the time of the person selecting the books. Anybody can buy a lot of books but you are pretty much guaranteed that half of them are not going to be very good.
“I really felt from the very beginning of doing this business that the books have to be affordable, but more than anything people have to know that we chose books that are interesting. Books that really have good content and illustrations, you can picture yourself thirty years later picking the book up and touching the pages and smelling the books. I just love digging for books and discovering them.”
Why do you think Czechs are so keen on buying used English books for kids?
“I think everybody wants to learn English. When I was here twelve years ago it was almost the exception to the rule if I met adults that spoke really good English. And now it has changed. Now it is almost the exception to the rule that people don’t speak decent level of English. And I think English pre-schools are popping up all over the place and families feel that to give their children a better foundation English has to be something that is familiar to them at least. And I think they see the books as one of the ways of giving it to them.”
Do you think it also has to do with the price? Because new English books are much more expensive than Czech books.
“I think I definitely moved to the right country, because Czech people love books. It is pretty common to hear stories how Czechs would wait in line for hours, same as for bananas and oranges, to get the books on the first day. One of the first things I recognized when I came here was that it was so great to get on the tram or bus and see people with their books protected in home covers. So people generally love books here. So that’s one thing.
“The second thing is definitely the price. The publishing of kids’ literature in the United States is so vast that it is impossible to know all the books that have come out in the last thirty years. If you are buying a book that you don’t know, it, then of course the price is important. Why would you spend 300 or 400 crowns on a book you don’t your kid is going to like? So I try to have books as cheap as ten, fifteen, twenty crowns. I don’t have books that go over 150 crowns.
Who are your average customers?
“It started as American, British and Canadian families that have moved here. And now it is more and more teachers, Czechs as well as foreigners, expats who live here. And mostly mothers, which is not a surprise. I even made a Facebook post calling out on fathers to get more involved in buying their kids’ books.”
You are selling your books online, on an e-shop called BrownBoxBooks, but as far as I know, you were also planning to open up a shop in Prague.
“The space is ready. It is called “Vykladni skrin” and it is going to be a space for courses for children and adults in English and Czech. So that will also be the brick and mortar bookshop and that will hopefully open in two weeks, as fast as the carpenters can build the bookshelf.
Where is it going to be?
“It is on Holandská street, in Vršovice. It is my neighbourhood, it is where we live, it is where my wife grew up. And I am excited that I can ride my bike more as opposed to driving to work.”
Would you like to eventually give up teaching English and focus exclusively on selling books?
“I would love to. But I am very conservative. I don’t want to take any leaps of faith. I have been doing it measuredly. I guess every six months there was a 25 percent decrease in teaching and the same increase in books and it has pretty much paid off. I am also going to use the space to teach children, which is something I have wanted to do for a while. But because it didn’t pay well, I was staying with adult teaching. So I am going to so an after-school programme for kids. So the dream is that I can devote my time to book selling and teaching kids and keep my favourite adult students.”
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