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How to sell books for $1 million each
Moon’s Rare Books makes $5 million a year from only a dozen customers.
Reid Moon generates $5 million a year in revenue from only a dozen customers—selling books.
“My top tier clients have acquisition budgets of hundreds of thousands of dollars a year,” he says of his company Moon’s Rare Books. “I have two clients with acquisition budgets in the seven figures annually. I have one client who spent $2 million in two weeks—and that’s just recently.”
Moon is something of an enigma in the rare book world—an admittedly tight circle who know just where to find the rarest books—and it is to him that folks like Colliers Chairman Brandon Fugal turn to curate their most prized collections.
“Reid Moon brings a wealth of knowledge and insight to the market driving historical artifacts, especially rare books and manuscripts,” Fugal told me. “My favorite acquisitions from Reid include my 1611 King James Bible and 1685 Shakespeare Folio with medieval binding intact.”
When I was writing an article about Brandon Fugal a while back, he gave me a tour of his private collection where I got to flip through that bible and Shakespeare folio. That’s also when I got to hold his first-edition copy of Charles Dickens’ A Christmas Carol.
“Where do you think he got that?” Moon said. “From me!”
It all started because Moon’s family owned a small bookstore in Dallas, Texas. After college, Moon decided he wanted to take over even though his Dad warned him it would never be a moneymaker. The shop had three to five customers per day—if that—with very low transaction amounts. But the bookstore was connected to an insurance agency so Moon worked in insurance and stepped over to the book side when a new customer came in. He estimates his insurance gig paid double what the bookstore did.
Occasionally people would ask for books that were out of print and Moon would track them down. This being the mid-1980s there was no scouring the internet for titles—the entire industry was propped up on connections with other sellers and knowing who had what in their collections. His searches uncovered more than just the titles he was looking for, and he started a “used” section of the bookstore that soon became its most coveted feature.
“I'm buying books for $1 and selling them for $5 or $10—that's how it started,” Moon told me, “then I started buying $20 books, then after a year $30 books, then $100 books. After 20 years, it's books that are tens of thousands of dollars.”
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The tipping point came in 2005. He was facing a massive dip in new book sales but a corresponding gain in used and rare book sales. Pretty soon his used book sales were outpacing new book sales. And anyway, Amazon was starting to dominate the online book market and there was no use competing. Moon left new books behind and sold his Dallas store to his manager.
He opened a rare book store in LA after that, but as he started to become one of the more well-known and trusted book brokers in the world, religious organizations sought him out to hunt down important church documents, especially The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints. “In the book world, it’s well known that early Mormon books are highly sought after. More than any other segment,” he says.
It’s not just books—artifacts, items owned by important figures, photographs—one Mormon photograph could be worth tens of thousands of dollars. Because these items are so highly valued by the Church, they have only gone up in value. Moon says a first-edition copy of the Book of Mormon went for $100 in 1960, $1,000 in 1970, $3,000 in 1980, $5,000 in 1990, then jumped to $75,000 in 2000. Today they go for $150,000 to $200,000.
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But there’s one copy he’ll never sell: Church founder Joseph Smith’s personal copy. “The Mormon Church does not have a copy. They know I have it, but they know it’s not for sale. It’s worth several million dollars.”
Because he found himself in Utah two to four times a month brokering old Church documents, he moved the store to Utah in 2015. “There are way more collectors for rare books here,” he says, and not because of the religious community. “There's an inordinate amount of people who have disposable income and they love to collect history.”
Business really boomed after that. In the past decade, he started going after books in the millions of dollars—and sometimes that meant getting a private investor involved to fund the transaction. “There are private investors that say, ‘I'll buy the book, I'll split the upside if you sell it or I’ll keep the book if you don’t.”
He doesn’t need to do that anymore, Moon can afford the books he wants to buy. In Dallas and LA, he was doing about a million in annual revenue. He’s doing five times that in Utah.
“I'm quite sure we're number one in the world in sales per square foot and sales per employee,” he tells me. “The average used bookstore does $250,000 in sales a year. I think your average Barnes & Noble does $2 to $3 million. Just putting things into perspective.”
Of the $5 million Moon’s Rare Books makes in annual revenue, Moon says 95% comes from high net-worth individuals spending anywhere from $100,000 to the multi-millions for a book. Books that sell for about $100,000 are his bread and butter. It’s a good investment for the buyer—Moon says rare books outperform the stock market.
“If you focus on buying the best books, they outperform any index,” he says. “The two books I sold to Brandon [Fugal] last year have already gone up 50%. That’s 50% in one year!”
Despite the large revenue, he spends most of his earnings buying new books and donates the bulk of his profits to charity. “The business is run where it doesn't generate a lot of profit because if there's profit we debit,” he says. “I pay myself about $100,000 a year.”
Half of the time Moon buys his books from people who don’t know what they have, and sometimes he’ll get a haul when someone with an important book collection passes away. But auctions are an important source for more famous documents. In either case, that he is able to turn around and sell these books for much more money is because he knows the book’s history and why it’s important. He is able to spin the story.
He learned that the hard way. Early on, he sold a 1534 Latin bible on eBay for $1,000. The next day, the buyer put it back on the market with an elaborate story about the history of the book and why this translation was particularly rare. “He made me want to buy it back,” Moon says. “He sold it for $5,000 because of the story, and that was one of the many lessons I've learned. People like to own a piece of history.”
Moon has bought and sold books for so long that he now has extensive knowledge of every rare book in the world and whose collection it lives in. “If I don't have it, I know who has it or who to ask. I know every major bookstore in the world.”
And it’s not like books of that caliber can be sold on the internet. “The internet didn't replace contacts and making connections. It helps, but really it's those contacts that I began developing 30+ years ago.
For this reason, Moon says his business model isn’t very replicable. “I’ve had people say, ‘Oh, I can do what you do.’ They get a book but nobody will buy it from him because it's a big ticket book and they have no confidence in the person. People buy books because they trust me because I'm not selling books out of the back of a station wagon.”
I visited Moon’s Rare Books this year—I have never seen so many rare and beautiful things. I couldn’t help but wonder if he ever laments selling them. Are there some he just can’t part with, I asked? Moon admits he needs to sell books to buy books, he also assured me that he is a collector before he is a seller. His personal vault is filled with some of the most treasured books in world history—books he will never sell.
“There are some books you're just not going to see again—like there's not another one for sale in the world,” he says. “I have a signed, first-edition copy of The Hobbit and a signed first-edition copy of Lord of the Rings, which no bookstore in the world has. I know of one bookstore in the world right now that has a signed Hobbit but they don't have a signed Lord of the Rings. We have both.”
His vaults are fireproof—they are bolted to the ground and are so heavy no forklift could lift them. That didn’t stop two people from trying to raid his collection—both are in prison now. Not that they could have done anything with the books if they got their hands on them.
“These items are so well known—it's like stealing a stolen Picasso,” Moon says. “There's a national network if something is stolen. You announce it and then all the book dealers in the world know this is a stolen item. Unless someone just wants to hold on to it, the chances of being able to turn around and sell it are next to impossible.”
To make sure the collection lives on, Moon is currently mentoring two individuals who will assume the collection and the business when he’s gone.
“It's gotten to a point where my collection of personal books is quite substantial. If somebody had unlimited funds—more than $100 million, say—you could not duplicate the inventory we have right now. You could not duplicate it because for many of these items, there's only one copy in existence—and we have it.”
Rather than keep those precious volumes locked away in his vault, Moon wanted to find a way to share them with a wider audience. That’s why he started inviting small groups in for private tours. For $250 groups of up to 25 people can sit in his back library and get up close and personal with some of their favorite books. He gives all of the earnings to charity.
I got to join a tech startup that had requested a private tour for their founding team. Moon asked them to name anything they were interested in and promised he could find them a relevant book within one degree of separation. One of the team members, an avid outdoorsman, asked if he had anything related to Antarctic exploration. Moon pulled out the copy of Anna Karenina that the explorer Ernest Shackleton read on the Endurance while his ship was trapped in antarctic ice for 10 months.
Moon talks about these books as if he’s telling a story. “Let’s go back in time to 1776 New England,” he told us. “Only about three of you are backing up George Washington, three of you are loyal to King George, and three of you are on the fence. Then someone came along whose writing was so compelling he got you off the fence and changed the course of human history. His name is Thomas Paine.”
He pulls out an original copy of Common Sense and I am immediately tearing up.
Moon gives hundreds of private tours a year, but he still wanted to share his collection with a wider audience. That’s why he started a TikTok account. As @moonsrarebooks, he now gives intimate tours of his favorite books to nearly 2 million followers. That’s how I found him—I was shocked when I discovered his store was only 45 minutes away from my house. Now his TikTok fans pilgrimage to his bookstore.
It’s worth the pilgrimage. After the tour was over, I got my own private one. He asked if there was anything specific I wanted to see and I wondered if he had any serial fiction before it was turned into a book. He did!!! My eyes watered as he pulled out the newspaper clippings of The Count of Monte Cristo as it was originally published—he had sewn each page into a book.
While I was there, I also got to see (and hold!) first-edition copies of my favorite book Les Miserables—in both the first French and first English editions. Picking up on my obsession with revolution-era French literature, Moon also showed me a 14-edition bible owned by King Louis the 15th and a personal prayer book that belonged to Marie Antoinette. I even tried my hand at making my own TikTok about my pilgrimage.
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What once started as a small bookshop has since turned into a lifelong hobby for Reid Moon, and a collection of some of our world’s greatest treasures.
“My parents are still with us, they’re in their 80s,” Moon tells me. “It still blows them away that people will spend big numbers on books.”
Thank you for indulging my love of books. Thanks for reading,
PS. This post is part of my publishing series. I’ll be back to talking about the economy next week!