Exclusive Interview: Zubal Books in Cleveland has over 3 million books: Touring the family business with co-owner MICHAEL ZUBAL!
One of the world’s great bookstores sits in the Tremont West neighborhood of Cleveland, Ohio.
Zubal Books has over 3,000,000+ books. It’s a solid operation packed to the brim.
If a standard book is around 300 pages long, that’s 900 million pages on average, thus, almost one billion pages are represented here. That is a fantastically staggering stockpile of the printed word. On a clear day you can read forever.
Zubal’s maze-like hallways are lined with books, containing a supply of brainfood even Methuselah or Henry Bemis would find seemingly inexhaustible.
At the center of this book-tsunami are the Zubals, a bookselling family of Ukrainian heritage.
The patriarch, John Zubal, started selling books in 1961 out of the family’s house in Parma, Ohio. In 1973, they moved to their present location, which is a complex of large buildings.
His wife Marilyn and sons Michael and Tom work here, along with his grandchildren. They’re an entrepreneurial family with decades of experience and rare expertise.
This skilled family has been passing down the book trade for generations, helping to enrich the world by supplying books to millions of customers. Yes, they’ve found their niche.
Eldest son, Michael Zubal, is one of the current heads of operations and he’s been kind enough to give me the grand and delightfully disorienting tour where your head is spinning with books by the end, there’s so many.
Aside from being a book hunter with an eagle eye for quality books, one of Michael’s secret weapons is his excellent memory and quick recall for obscure facts and figures and remembering which books are shelved where without having to consult the database.
Zubal’s is a well-oiled machine where everything is shelved by unit number and Michael & family are always on the go, filling up the outbound table with domestic and international orders and zipping around the store.
In 1998, Zubal Books closed to the public. For the past twenty years, they have sold primarily online and by appointment-only.
Touring the Zubal’s Spread with Michael Zubal
“We were just on the West Coast for a week and bought 3,000 books. Then I went to Geneva, Switzerland to hang out with my son. I was surprised to find that Geneva is far more Parisian than Germanic. Also, our perch tastes sweeter here. Anyway, I think the jet lag and time changes have scrambled the circuits in my brain, I’m still re-adjusting.”
“The total square footage of our operation here at Zubal Books is about 360,000-square feet.”
“Our 60,000-square foot four-story main building was built in 1925. It was a Cleveland Public Schools textbook repository, then a Lutheran publishing company for a brief period. There’s a massive freight elevator here and thousands of old wooden pear crates we use as shelving.”
“On top of the main building is a perfectly preserved circa 1954 apartment we call The Penthouse.”
“The Penthouse has great views of the downtown Cleveland skyline and everything in here is from the 1950’s and in spookily immaculate condition (ie: furniture, appliances, grasscloth wallpaper, 3-sided fireplace, snail patterned tiles, etc.). It’s like stepping back in time. Anthony Bourdain visited us in 2007 and this was his favorite room. It would also make a great movie location. Every Friday after Thanksgiving, we play poker up here.”
“In addition to our main building, we have some attached annex buildings. One is from the 1890’s, it was previously attached to an old greenhouse. One of our recent (1978) additions has steel grating floors so you can see three stories below you. Another building features an old speakeasy with an in-wall pocket picnic table that folds out.”
“Then, a few hundred feet down the street, we have the 300,000-square foot old Hostess Twinkie factory, which has cavernous rooms filled with shrink-wrapped pallets of books that need to be processed (ie: priced, catalogued and databased). Hostess closed the factory in 1989 and we acquired it in 1994. It took us five years to hunt down the property owner. Real estate attorneys did title searches. Turned out it was a corporation in St. Louis that owned it. They accepted our first offer without hesitation.”
“Prior to 1973, we had 5,000 books at our home in Parma, Ohio and about 5,000 journals and periodicals in our basement, garage and breezeway. We also had five small storage areas around town in sheds, converted garages, storefronts, etc. We even built a pully lift to transport books to and from the second floor in one warehouse. Finally, in 1973 we consolidated everything into this property and our operations have been here ever since.”
The Focus of Zubal’s
“On average, we sell around 250,000 books per year. We specialize in academic, scholarly, obscure, out-of-print, first editions, sci-fi and technology.”
“We also deal a lot in physics, mathematics, history, art, philosophy, signed books, chemistry, engineering, occult, collectible bindings (Easton Press, Franklin Press, etc.), anthropology, and theology.”
“Our biggest customer segments are academia, scholars, post doc students, PhD researchers, think tanks, universities, and finnicky collectors.”
“Acquisitions librarians working on collection development at universities also contact us.”
“In terms of buying books, we frequently get calls from academics approaching retirement and estates will call us before holding public sales.”
“What I personally really enjoy handling and researching are Modern Literature books from 1920’s-1960’s. Prohibition Era to the Hippies.”
“The concentrations I specialize in are math and physics. I’m constantly boning up on bibliographies, histories and genealogies of modern physics. We deal with a lot of physicists and mathematicians.”
“My father is a trained historian. He almost became a PhD, but he didn’t want to be in academia, he wanted to sell books full-time. He instilled pride in us on efficiency and discretion doing deals.”
“We also have a store of around 2,500 books inside the main building that people can visit. It’s a random assortment of clean, mostly modern books spanning a range of different topics.”
“For various reasons, I haven’t had a Book Scout for over six years. We had a regular Book Scout for twenty years prior to that. One day we sat down and analyzed the results. We were ultimately disappointed at his pricing scheme. It was not justifying our continued relationship with him. Smart guy though, great eye, he does the rounds.”
Michael on the Book Business
“The book business, like every business, has peaks and valleys. The labor involved is tough. Books are usually on the second floor of houses. The hauling and processing can be very time-consuming. I’ll see a load of books someone inherited, and they just want the books to find a good home. Sometimes there’s so much stuff that no money is exchanged because the values are moderate to low and they just want someone to haul the books away.”
“Right now, we have about 300,000 books listed online. Our main platforms are Amazon, AbeBooks, the Zubal website, then all the other websites we list on. We do hourly updates on all the site so that sold books are removed as quickly as possible.”
“Back in 1998, Dick Weatherford’s company Interloc (which later became Alibris) approached us. We started listing on Interloc, selling 1-2 books per day. Then AbeBooks followed, then shortly thereafter, Amazon.”
“When we became an Amazon lister, I would talk almost daily with Tiffany Linnes at Amazon. She worked directly for Jeff Bezos, that’s how small they were at the time. Since then, Amazon has acquired AbeBooks and owns it.”
“Prior to 1998, catalogs were our primary source of sales. Once the internet hit, we immediately realized it was a viable medium. We closed our physical store to the public after reviewing our inventory control methods. We found listing by subject matter was irrelevant. We buy and sell internationally, daily, and routing books to their proper location is incredibly time-consuming.”
“How do we choose what to list online? There’s no real method. On occasion, I’ll get a collection on consignment, which jumps to the front. Currently, I’ve been working on Engineering books. We spend a lot of time working with physics, math, engineering books.”
“In terms of collectors, we don’t see completists anymore. Most people these days want specific titles versus wanting everything by a particular author.”
“Occasionally, we sell items via Heritage Auctions in Dallas. We sell maybe a dozen high-end items per year through there. We sold a Batman # 1 (1940) comic book through Heritage. It had no rear cover and still went for $8,500.”
Quick Bio of Michael Zubal
“My father’s grandparents were from a farming village near Lvov, Ukraine, which is now in Poland, thanks to Stalin. They were hard workers who came here to work in the steel mills.”
“I’ve been working with my dad in the book business for as long as I can remember. At six years old, I was working as a kid on Saturday’s. My older sister and I would haul and stock and shelve books for him. We traveled all over to Chicago, Philly, Washington, New York, etc. My dad would do the deals and I’d come along to help move stuff. Being fully immersed in the book world my whole life is kind of an oddity. Because of this, at a very early age, I found I had a more advanced worldview than my contemporaries.”
“I did my first big deal when I was 18 at MOMA in NYC. I was buying books. Then I turned around and sold what I bought to a college. From that moment it was game-on.”
“I was also a state-licensed auctioneer for a little while. The auctions were quite popular, especially in the pre-internet days. We’d have 40-50 bidders in house and the auctions were fun.”
“When I’m not working on books, I’m playing bass in my jazz band, Slap Quartet. My brother Tom is also in the band, he plays guitar. We have another guitarist and a drummer. The name of our band came from dad. He said rock was a short-lived anthropological phenomenon (SLAP). We modified it to Simply Love All People. Been playing since I was 14 years old. We do mainly 50’s-60’s bop. My big influences are Miles, Monk, Coltrane and Mingus. I play a 5-string electric and an acoustic upright bass.”
Most books Zubal’s has ever acquired at once
“The most books we’ve ever acquired at once were 85,000 books from the Museum of the American Indian Library in the Bronx, which was created by Archer Huntington.”
“It was a collection of Anthropology, Americana, Western, and American Ethnography. They sold it to Cornell University, which only kept 1,000 of the rarest volumes. Then Cornell called us. We ordered three semi-trucks and eight of us went down there. The eight of us loaded the trucks in two days.”
“Two months ago, I went to a house in upstate New York and pulled out 2,000 books myself from the second floor. Couple whiskies later that night, I was fine.”
Selling and Renting Bulk Books
“1,000 books or more is considered bulk. We sell and rent bulk books mostly to movie studios, hotels, interior designers. Sometimes they just want certain color bindings to match the color scheme of a room or they’ll say things like ‘we need twelve-feet of books from the 18th century.’”
“Our books are appearing in the TV show Succession in the upcoming episode where the characters go to Hungary.”
“We even help outfit booksellers who are just starting out in their careers with bulk amounts of books.”
“Also, we pulp poor quality books all the time. Fortunately, there’s a pulping facility three blocks from us.”
The Zubal Vault
“We have an off-site vault of especially rare and favorite books.”
An example of some items from the vault:
– 1st edition Wizard of Oz (1900) $450,000; pristine like-new condition.
– Alice in Wonderland illustrated by Salvador Dali (1969) massive folio where each plate is signed by Dali.
– Boccaccio’s Decameron on vellum. It’s only one of three copies in existence. The binding and even the pages are vellum. The book was created around 1899 and is a modern work of art.
– Common Sense (1776) Thomas Paine. At around $250,000, it’s the most expensive book Zubal’s has listed online.
Final Thoughts for Now
“One thing I absolutely love about the book business is the thrill of the hunt. Never fully knowing what sort of treasures you’re going to discover.”
“As booksellers, we must have a keen eye, know the material and be discerning. You have to know what you’re handling and the quality.”
“My dad is 80. My parents are gonna keep on going at it here. Will I be here when I’m 80? Hard to say.”
“As for customers and visitors, we do encourage people to email us their Want Lists. We will keep these on file and let you know if your book comes in. Also, I’m happy to give tours. They typically run 1 hour and 30 minutes. You need to email us in advance so we can set a day and time.”
“I love the city of Cleveland. We’re currently seeing an explosion of new upscale housing in the city, which for the past 40 years was unheard of. The food scene is surprisingly complex and interesting. The art scene, especially the Cleveland Museum of Art, is fantastic. The people of Cleveland are generally friendly, helpful, laidback and polite.”
“My brother and I have been in the book business for 40 years. After doing something for so long, you should get good at it. We were happily born into the trade. It’s a bonus in life to have a job where you handle the printed word daily.”
2969 West 25th Street
Cleveland, Ohio 44113
Ryan’s Top 3 Things to Experience in Cleveland after visiting Zubal’s
Slyman’s Deli (3106 St. Clair NE) open Monday-Friday 6am-2pm; 216-621-3760; get the corned beef sandwich on rye with swiss, toasted, with 1000 island, mustard, mayo.
West Side Market (1979 W. 25th Street) open daily 7am-4pm; 30,000-square foot market of food vendors built in 1912 with a 130-foot tall clock tower. If you see them, try the cotton candy grapes.
Garfield Memorial @ Lakeview Cemetery (12316 Euclid Avenue) 285-acre rural garden-style cemetery founded in 1869; John D. Rockefeller and Eliot Ness are buried here along with U.S. President James A. Garfield. Check out the Garfield Memorial. Open April-November from 9am-4pm, it’s a 180-foot tall 3-story monument. The coffins of Garfield (who was assassinated in 1881) and his wife are in the lower level.
Edgewater Beach (7600 Cleveland Memorial Shoreway) free, public beach; there’s also a greenspace, fishing pier and concession’s building; 11am-9pm concessions, 3pm-8pm bar; this area is located next to the Edgewater Yacht Club
Cleveland Arcade (401 Euclid Avenue) Monday-Saturday 10am-6pm; this Rockefeller-built indoor shopping mall from 1890 is a classy 5-story arcade
The Loop (2180 W. 11th Street) 7am-9pm daily; two floors of vinyl records and a café on the ground floor
Hingetown Pizza Mural (2817 Detroit Avenue) Mike Sobeck graffiti art located behind the Schaefer Printing Building
Hoopples Bar (1930 Columbus Road) open 2pm-2:30am; two-story bar with an outdoor patio in The Flats; great burgers and live music