John Wyatt spends his days surrounded by thousands of books in the organized chaos of his second-hand bookshop, Book Bazaar.
The Book Bazaar is an Ottawa landmark. Started in 1974 by Beryl McLeod, the shop on the corner of Bank and Frank streets is filled with wall-to-wall bookshelves carrying everything from used best sellers to rare books.
“It’s changed a lot over time,” said Wyatt, “we get readers, and we get collectors. You get a real cross-section. You can sell a six dollar book or a $600 book in the same day. The $600 book is obviously a collectible and a six dollar book is just a reading, hobby book.”
Born in Montreal, Wyatt attended Queen’s University in Kingston. He worked as a lawyer for almost 30 years, settling in Ottawa in 1971. Wyatt made the switch from law to second-hand books in 1994, taking over the then 20 year old Book Bazaar.
“I’ve been involved with books since I was eight,” said Wyatt, “reading them, collecting them. I’ve been involved in the business for a long time.”
His interest in different kinds of books is reflected in the eclectic mix found on the Bazaar’s shelves, including an extensive sheet music collection.
“You’re either a reader or a writer generally, because if you’re a writer you’ve got to spend all your time writing, and as a reader I’ve spent most of my time reading and collecting,” said Wyatt.
Wyatt picks up his books from a range of places.
“University sales, church sales, all over the place. I do what’s called book calls, where I go to people’s houses to buy their books. Often it’s because they’re moving, or downsizing or it’s an estate. People come into the store also, quite often. On a typical Saturday I’ll get eight to 10 people coming in and trying to sell me books.”
With so many sources for his books, Wyatt has a refined selection process.
“I know what I can use. They’ll come in with three boxes and I might only take six books, cause I know which six I need. It’s 50 years of experience,” said Wyatt, “and knowing what people are asking for. I know what’s in demand and what’s not, so I know what we can sell and what we can’t sell.”
Wyatt has used the Internet since 1998 to sell his books to an international audience. He now has an online database with over 50,000 books.
As an early adopter of the Internet the Book Bazaar has seen changes in competition over the years, says Wyatt. “When we first went on the Internet in 1998 there weren’t many other sellers on, so we were averaging about 2,000 orders a year.” The number of online orders has gone down since then, but the value of books sold online has increased.
The Book Bazaar’s clientele is international, Wyatt says. “There’s not a country I haven’t probably shipped a book to. It’s absolutely international. There are 200 million people on the Internet. If you’re sitting in Turkey and you want a book, and you go online and there’s the book in Ottawa you go ahead and order it.”
A current client in Japan has ordered a 1965 edition of Songs of the Newfoundland Outports, a three-volume edition by Kenneth Peacock.
Many international clients are not just collectors, said Wyatt, “Libraries buy from us quite a lot too.” Many Libraries turn to the Book Bazaar to complete collections and diversify their inventory.
In a business driven by collectors, prices for rare books or first editions can be steep.
“I don’t sell them, but some of the most expensive books range from a $50,000 to $250,000,” said Wyatt. “It’s an interesting business, and there’s serious collectors.”
Looking at some of the thick, older volumes in the store, it’s not all that hard to believe.
As for the highest price Wyatt’s ever sold a book for, he simply laughs, “It’s a lot.”