Gabe and Melanie’s Story: The Book-Cataloging, Animal-Rescuing, Debt-Free Duo

Meet Gabe and Melanie, a book-selling couple who lives with their two kids in Sand Lake, Michigan.

What’s it like in your household?

Melanie: We’ve lived in our old farmhouse in a rural community since 1994. Right now, our two college-aged kids live with us because they’re going to school remotely. One goes to the University of Michigan and the other goes to Michigan State University. They’ve paid for most of their college tuition through grants and scholarships.

We’ve been vegetarian – and now vegan – for 25 years and we’ve always taken in and re-homed animals in need like cats, dogs, chickens, pigs, and goats.

How has COVID-19 impacted your family?

Melanie: My company downsized in February right before the COVID-19 pandemic hit. I worked for a large international company that was looking to cut costs. I worked with the company on and off since 1993. Then I took a decade off to take care of my parents and build our bookstore business. Now is the worst time to be looking for a job, and it’s hard to know what’s even safe to do during a time like this. We used my income to pay the bills.

Gabe: I’ve been a bookseller as my primary occupation since 2007, though since COVID I’ve been working part-time as a cleaner at a hospital to help make up for lost income.

How’d you start your business?

Gabe: We used to sell books at shows and through catalogs, but in 2007 we decided to open a physical store. We ran that for 10 years and it was enjoyable, but like a lot of other businesses, you’re working 80 hours a week and we weren’t making enough money to hire employees. We sold the physical business in 2017 and went online. Now we sell our books on sites like Biblio and Amazon. Those sales have increased a little since people are buying books from their home, but it’s nowhere near the sales we’d make in a regular year. We specialize in a variety of unusual and rare material that we sell primarily to university special collections libraries. But since COVID, many libraries have put a freeze on spending which has really impacted our sales.

Melanie: This grew out of Gabe’s obsession with books. No matter what he was into, he had to have all the books about that topic. Our business is named Bay Leaf Books, and we sell general stock and rare books online and through catalogs.

In a typical year, what kinds of books do you sell?

Gabe: While we sell general stock on our website, we often come across unusual items and it’s nice to find the right home for them. We’ve sold material as varied as an antique family photo album detailing a trip to Niagara Falls to an early punk zine from the late-1970s. Both went to institutions that specialize in those areas. In the past couple of weeks, we have sold a book on experimental art that was bound in metal and a University of Michigan scrapbook from the 1920s. Some of these items sell for as little as $20, while some have sold for as much as $20,000, including a large collection of American bookplates that included the ex libris of George Washington.

What does budgeting look like?

Melanie: I’ve been pinching pennies since I was laid off. I tallied up the price of all our favorite recipes and know how much it costs each week. After couponing and stocking up whenever there’s a sale, I’d say we spend less than $100 a week on groceries. When I see something’s on sale, I’ll stock up on it. I can do meal planning since I’m not working right now. I downloaded Ibotta and Fetch Rewards, which help you earn cash back for grocery shopping. We’ve also saved a little money by not going out as much and eating out.

I’ve been using apps like Swagbucks and Clickwork to work from home. Since May, I’ve earned about $1,000.

Gabe: It’s a lot of small things we’re not spending money on anymore that helps us save. For example, I don’t go out and get coffee and instead drink instant coffee at home. The lockdown has actually been enjoyable for us since we’re homebodies. We’ve got a buffer of land around us which has been nice, and we don’t mind staying home.  Aside from my books, we live a minimalist lifestyle.

Tell me more about your minimalist lifestyle.

Melanie: For me, the zero-waste lifestyle was a natural progression. My dad had early onset Parkinson’s and by the time he was 50, he was retired. My mom saved every penny and we grew up pretty frugal. As Gabe and I got older, we became more conscious about what we buy. We use cloth napkins that I bought at a garage sale, and most of our appliances are “gently used.” We’ve probably saved thousands of dollars over the years just by buying things second-hand. I’ve also been the book scout for Gabe and I’ve developed an eye for what might be valuable. The adage “reuse, repair, recycle” is not only good for the environment, it’s great for the pocket-book.

What would you like to do when things are better?

Gabe: I’d like to go out and visit my mom in Arizona when it’s safer, but other than that I don’t feel like I’m missing out on much.

Melanie: I don’t feel limited right now. Like I said, we’re homebodies. We have a trail right in our backyard and I’ve been able to see bald eagles, coyotes, and deer.

Are you two saving for anything in particular?

Melanie: It’d be nice to retire someday. With all the disruptions we’ve had in our lives (like leaving work to help my parents in 2008), our number one goal now is to save enough money so we have funds when we’re old.

Gabe: During COVID, I’d say we’re saving for general survival (laughs).

What would you say is your biggest expense right now?

Melanie: Definitely the animals. Many of the animals we haven’t been able to re-home have health problems, so that’s a big expense. Gabe has really outfitted our house to accommodate all the animals we have. He recently built cat shelves that are like a cat condo and an outdoor catio.

Gabe: The veterinary bills, vaccinations, and food really add up.

Tell me about your biggest financial achievement.

Melanie: We’re not in debt, we don’t have a mortgage or car payment, and we have a good start on retirement savings. We don’t owe anybody anything.

Gabe: We always tried to live within our means and pay off what we owe. If we need a car, we’ll buy a good quality used car that we can pay cash for. No loans!

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