About six years ago, Amber Skiles quit her health care administration job — and she hasn’t worked a single day since.
This is according to Skiles. However, it has started perhaps one of the most unique businesses in western Michigan. Skiles manages The House of Elements and A House of Books, 3151 Broadway Ave. SW, and both use thousands of books that would otherwise end up in a landfill.
“Eight years ago, if you told me I was going to sell books for a living, I would say you were crazy,” said Skiles, who originally went to school for a fine art degree before switching to marketing.
But while working in the healthcare department, her sister started making and selling farm furniture. Soon, Skiles would help decorate the booth and find vases and antique books to fill it. Books, as it turned out, began to sell like crazy.
Surprised, Skiles decided to put in some effort at the side party and offered some books to Etsy.
“The books were the bestsellers and the best margins because it was so easy to find them with people who are throwing away books,” Skiles said. “I started in my basement, then filled up in the garage and I was doing it as I was working full time.
“Ultimately, it got to the point that it would replace my income and be sustainable. I took the leap and started working full time out of my home and now in the warehouse.”
Working strictly online, Skiles never worked to develop a local following. The majority of The House of Elements’ clients are located in California, Texas, and New York, where book boxes are shipped to interior designers, and some are shipped directly to customers. This sector accounts for about 90% of the total business.
But there were some repercussions, Skiles said. Early on in the business, she would buy books from real estate or bookstore sales. Now, they come by semi-truck on pallets.
“We never knew what was coming,” she said. “We’re going to buy a huge amount, and we’ll have to sort it out.” “We’d come across some not in good enough condition to sell for home decor, perhaps due to water damage, loss of cover, or broken spines. Then there were more valuable books.” “We look at every book that comes in to make sure we don’t destroy something of value.”
With up to 12 boards full of books, it can take up to six months to sort them out. Signed books and the first edition appear regularly. That’s when I set up The House of Books, to sell those valuable books – the most valuable thing I found was a signed Hellen Keller book – and then sell others to paper crafts, junk diary writing, and scrapbooking.
While the House of Elements did not initially attract much local interest, Skiles A House of Books pushed into the community, and started an event at the Georgetown Township Library. Ultimately, the artisans wanted to come in, so Skiles created a small retail storefront at the company that opens Thursday and Friday. Customers can come and shop the whole warehouse and learn paper making.
The whole concept of Skiles’ business can be a little confusing. Why would there ever be thousands of books in this 5,000-square-foot Grandville warehouse? Many people have bookshelves full of books they have read. But there may now be more bookshelves or stacks of books specifically designed to look pretty. “Even if I went back to the decorating magazines of the 1950s, they were there,” Skiles said of decorating books.
“It’s not a huge saturated market, maybe 10 or so big players in the decorative book industry. We have to fight the question, ‘Why do you have books on the shelves that you don’t read?’ a little bit.”
“And then we hear from people who are angry that we sold pieces of books for crafting as well. They don’t understand that half of it has already been destroyed.”
Skiles said it was not her goal to sell destructive books. But the other alternative is to send it to a landfill, where 320 million books already go annually, according to the National Wildlife Federation.
Many of the books used in The House of Elements are recent books that have been printed or leftovers from libraries. (New books are often covered with fabrics of some sort, while old ones are left as is for home décor.)
There is a commitment to keeping as close to zero waste as possible, said Skiles, which is one reason why the House of Books was created, to take advantage of all the unused books and materials in The House of Elements.
“Libraries distribute books,” said Skiles. “This gives us a great opportunity to educate about the state of waste and it is better to give them a new life.”