About six years ago, Amber Skiles quit her job in health care administration — and she hasn’t worked a day since.
That’s according to Skiles. She has, however, started perhaps one of the more unique businesses in West Michigan. Skiles runs The House of Elements and A House of Books, 3151 Broadway Ave. SW, both of which utilize thousands of books that otherwise would end up in a landfill.
“Eight years ago, if you told me I’d be selling books for a living, I’d say you were crazy,” said Skiles, who originally went to school looking for a fine arts degree before switching to marketing.
But while working in health care administration, her sister started making farmhouse furniture and selling it. Soon, Skiles was helping accessorize the booth, finding vintage vases and books to fill it out. The books, as it turned out, began selling like crazy.
Surprised, Skiles decided to put some effort into the side gig and offered a few of the books on Etsy.
“It was strictly the books, those were the best sellers and best margins because they were so easy to find with people getting rid of books,” Skiles said. “It started in my basement, then filled into the garage and I was doing it as I was working full time.
“Eventually, it came to the point it would replace my income and be sustainable. I took the leap and started full time working out of my house and now in the warehouse.”
The business was strictly online, with Skiles never really working to develop a local following. The majority of The House of Elements’ customers are in California, Texas and New York, with boxes of books shipped to interior designers and, some, direct to customers. That sector accounts for about 90% of the overall business.
But there was some spillover, Skiles said. Early in the business, she would buy books at estate or library sales. Now, they come in by semi-truck on pallets.
“We never knew what was coming in. We’d buy a huge quantity, and we’d have to sort them,” she said. “We were coming across some not in good enough condition to sell for home décor, maybe because of water damage, missing cover or the spine was broken. Then there were more valuable books. “We research every book that comes in to make sure we’re not destroying something valuable.”
With up to 12 pallets full of books, it can take up to six months to sort through them. Signed and first edition books pop up regularly. That’s when she created A House of Books, to sell those valuable books — the most valuable she found is a signed Hellen Keller book — and then selling others for paper crafting, junk journaling and scrapbooking.
While The House of Elements did not initially attract much local attention, Skiles pushed A House of Books out in the community, starting an event at Georgetown Township Library. Eventually, crafters wanted to come in, so Skiles made a small retail storefront at the business that is open Thursday and Friday. The customers can come in, shop the entire warehouse and learn paper crafting.
The whole concept of Skiles’ business can be a bit confusing. Why would there be thousands of books at any given time in this 5,000-square-foot Grandville warehouse? Many people have bookshelves full of books they’ve read. But perhaps more now have bookshelves or stacks of books specifically curated to look nice. “Even if you look back to the 1950s decorating magazines, it was there,” Skiles said of decorative books.
“It’s not a huge saturated market, maybe 10 or so big players in the decorative book industry. We have to combat the question, ‘Why would you have books on the shelves you don’t read?’ a little bit.
“And then we do hear from people mad about us selling pieces of books for crafting as well. They don’t understand it was half- destroyed already.”
Skiles said it’s not her goal to sell destroyed books. But the other alternative is to send them to a landfill, where 320 million books already head annually, according to the National Wildlife Federation.
Many of the books used in The House of Elements are modern books that were either over printed or left-over stock from bookstores. (New books often are covered in fabric of some sort, while vintage books are left as is for home décor.)
Skiles said there is a commitment to keep as close to zero waste as possible, and that’s one reason A House of Books was created, to utilize all the books and materials not used in The House of Elements.
“Libraries are giving books away,” Skiles said. “This gives us a great opportunity to educate on the situation of waste and it’s better that we’re giving them a new life.”