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Interview with AbeBooks’ ‘Heritage’ seller Zubal-Books


The Zubal bookselling family – from left to right: Thomas, John, Marilyn & Michael

To celebrate AbeBooks.com’s 20th anniversary in June, we are profiling one of our ‘Heritage’ sellers, Zubal-Books from Cleveland, Ohio. Any bookseller who joined our marketplace in 1996 is classified as a Heritage seller.

Michael Zubal, son of the founder John Zubal, was kind enough to answer our questions about a bookselling business that was created in the year that John F. Kennedy became the 35th president of the United States. This family business specializes in providing books to libraries, researchers, collectors, and avid readers, and has steadily expanded over the decades, adding warehouse after warehouse to contain their ever-growing inventory. They even acquired a bakery facility in the 1990s as another venue for storing books and journals.

John and his wife Marilyn had four children – Vicky, Michael, Jean, and Tom – and they have all worked in the business from an early age with Michael, Jean and Tom still on board today. The company was quick to adopt computing technology in the 1980s and swiftly moved online in the early 1990s, and joined AbeBooks on December 7, 1996. Let’s hear Michael’s story.

Q&A With Michael Zubal

AbeBooks: Zubal is a family business. When and how did it start?

Michael Zubal: “Established in 1961 by John T. Zubal, who at that time was an inveterate book collector and historian. Space at home was running out and he had to do something with all those books.”

AbeBooks: Do your mother and father, John and Marilyn, still play a part in the business?

One of the Zubal buildings

Michael Zubal: “Yes. They arrive every day at 8:00 a.m. and go home at 4:30. Most Saturdays you can find them at the office. I, on the other hand, prefer to be on the third or fourth tee at 9:00 on a Saturday morning.”

AbeBooks: When did you become a bookseller and join the business? Were you tempted to do something else?

Michael Zubal: “Possibly flaunting child labor laws, Thomas and I began working with our parents around the ages of nine or 10 and went full time after college. Aside from being part-time jazz and rock musicians, we’ve worked only in the book business our entire adult lives.”

AbeBooks: You joined AbeBooks in 1996, our first year of operation – what do you remember about those early days of online bookselling?

Michael Zubal: “The sudden realization that the Internet was revolutionizing how books were marketed.”

AbeBooks: Can you remember the first book you sold on AbeBooks?

Michael Zubal: “That’s asking a lot.”

AbeBooks: Describe your storage building (are you still in a former bakery) and tell us about the size of your business (such as number of employees).

Michael Zubal: “Our facility consists of a half dozen congruent buildings that total around 400,000 square feet, including the repurposed Hostess Twinkie bakery. Some of the pipes still contain the stuff that when whipped makes the Twinkie filling. Yummy! The oldest structure on the premises was built in the 1890s and the most recent one in 1984. Supporting the six family members are nine additional employees, many of whom have been with us for more than 10 years.”

AbeBooks: “What are your specialties and who are your target customers?”

Michael Zubal: “We specialize in scholarship and scarcity in all fields. The majority of our clients are involved in advanced and intensive post-doctoral research. Some of our most popular subjects are math, physics, philosophy, anthropology and occult, as well as collectible first editions.”

AbeBooks: What do you love most about selling books?

Michael Zubal: “Satisfying our customers by supplying them with the books they need and want.”

AbeBooks: What is the most prized item in your inventory? Why?

Michael Zubal: “1776 Greenwich, Connecticut, edition of Common Sense by Thomas Paine. It connects us directly to the Founding Fathers of the USA.”

AbeBooks: What’s the one book you covet most? Why?

Michael Zubal: “A first printing of The Wonderful Wizard of Oz. As close to ‘new’ condition as one could ever hope to find. Apparently, it was purchased in 1900 and stuck in a sock drawer for decades.”

Like any good bookseller, there are cats in the Zubal buildings

AbeBooks: How and where do you source books?

Michael Zubal: “Since we’ve been in the business for over 55 years we’ve amassed a huge network of scholars and collectors. When the time comes for them to divest themselves, they know that they can trust us to purchase their books. Very often we end up buying back books that we previously sold to them.”

AbeBooks: What’s the oddest thing you’ve found inside a book?

Michael Zubal: “Ladies’ stockings and other kinds of ‘unmentionables.’”

AbeBooks: What’s your most memorable moment as a bookseller?

Michael Zubal: “Finding in an otherwise unremarkable book a check drawn on the bank account of Thomas Jefferson and signed by him on its face.”

AbeBooks: And of course, what’s your favorite book?

Michael: Moby Dick or The Great Gatsby

Tom: Be Here Now by Ram Dass

John: Tarzan of the Apes or Atlas Shrugged

Marilyn: Don Quixote

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